Is he satisfied—quite, now, I wonder? We ought to know. He is one of us—and have I not stood up once, like an evoked ghost, to answer for his eternal constancy? Was I so very wrong after all?- Joseph Conrad, final chapter of Lord Jim
I read Lord Jim for college studies - a class on Conrad - and while I liked Conrad's short stories I ended up not liking the novel. Partly because I saw a little too much of myself in the named character and recoiled.
Not a few years after, I was at my first job after getting my Masters in Library Science working part-time at the reference desk at the Clearwater branch of St. Pete (Junior) College. One day, we received news that Richard Nixon, former President, had passed away.
I immediately thought of Lord Jim while I gathered up some books for an impromptu display in one of the library's corners. Particularly that quote, which I used as an epitaph of sorts on the signage taped over the book display.
It wasn't that I thought of Nixon as a hero, but more of a failed attempt at becoming one (which Lord Jim proved to be). No, not even that really. Nixon as someone self-deluded, talented but troubled perhaps? Nixon as Nietzschian wannabe, self-made man who self-destructs? Nixon as used car salesman? Nixon as American?
There was/is a biography of Nixon exactly titled One Of Us, although I didn't know of that until after I made the book display. But it becomes a common theme about Nixon: that in most respects he was a common American at heart and origin, rising from a humbling background that any other average American could claim. Driven by the same ambitions to achieve success that any other young white man of the day would seek, albeit in politics rather than business or medicine or other path to notice and fame. Not a glamorous figure like a movie star or singer or scion of a wealthy family, someone who has success just by being who they were, but self-made through hard work and personal strife.
But where Nixon could be one of us, he was the part of us that we tend to not talk about. We don't talk about the shady deals we make to keep our businesses going, or the lies we tell ourselves when we ignore a social need to fulfill a personal want. There's that concept, that meme derived from the rivalry (and friendship) that existed between the glamorous John Kennedy and the hard-driven Richard Nixon: that Kennedy is the America we pretend or hope to be - habitually rich, handsome, confident, life handed to him by eager friends - while Nixon is the America we really are - glum, stubborn, outwardly successful but inwardly doubting and defeated, struggling against forces outside of his control...
I shouldn't ramble like this. One of the things I've got to do in this review of Nixon's character is focus on the facts and present the evidence. Which means I've got to start referring to the work James David Barber already did on the guy. And this is important to remember: Nixon is the first one Barber publicly profiled for his Presidential Character studies, which he notes in the introductory paragraphs to Nixon's chapter (p.123). And it's also important to note that Barber not only predicted Nixon's success, but also Nixon's self-destruction...
Barber as always looked first to the childhood and drew evidence from Nixon's upbringing and childhood adventures. From the stern distant father, the loving but burdened mother, the childhood tragedies of ill siblings and Nixon's own near-fatal accidents, this was what he found:
...Out of his childhood Nixon brought a persistent bent toward life as painful, difficult, and - perhaps as significant - uncertain. He learned to work very hard... between the traumatic events there were long stretches in which Richard felt the tension around him and learned to deal with it - especially, when, with Frank (father) at him, the knots might suddenly tighten. Speak softly, diplomatically, carefully, and ambiguously; let sleeping dogs lie; work hard and be prepared. Those were the lessons Nixon's childhood brought home to him... (p.128-9)
Nixon the student was hard-working and intelligent, respected but aloof. His social skills seemed to revolve around the debate societies than anything else. He graduated second in his class at college and third in his class at law school. Nixon attributed it not to skill or being smarter than his more "gifted colleagues" but to his "competitive drive," to his need for maintaining his scholarships, and to the parental expectations of getting a good education (the few times Nixon notes any love from his contentious father was when he came home with good report cards). (p.135-6)
After school, there was looking for work - a trip to New York's law firms proved fruitless, leaving Nixon to take a job back in hometown Whittier - and then looking for income, looking for a wife (courting Pat for 2 years, even staying in "the friend zone" as we'd call it now trying to prove he was a nice guy while she dated other guys), settling into family life. And into this came the Second World War.
Nixon spent the first year working as a government employee for the tire-rationing office where he became disillusioned by the bureaucracy and "empire-building" by political appointees. He switched over to the Navy, becoming a junior lieutenant as a supply officer, not a glamorous job (or a harsh one that combat entailed) but a necessary one and one that fit his overall Quaker, pacifist beliefs.
Barber didn't make a major note of it, but a key moment in Nixon's life was gaining an interest in poker. With little else to do at a naval station out in the Pacific Ocean but drink or play cards, Nixon went for cards (which still went against Quaker tradition against gambling). Above all, Nixon became a pretty good poker player by all accounts, and he fondly recalled years later a particular hand that was a one-in-a-million draw that helped him win a pretty-sized pot.
Above all, Nixon learned to bluff. To present himself holding a hand that was better than it was, and force others to concede. Merged with his debating skills, this made for a dangerous political opponent when the time came and Nixon was asked to run for a Congressional seat in 1946.
At this point Barber establishes Nixon's core traits of rhetorical confrontation - an aggressive campaign style that would become the trademarks of what we would consider "mudslinging" today - and an obsessive need for direct decision-making that left nearly everyone but himself in the dark. Barber defines it as a kind of "crisis" behavior:
...all of these feelings come together in Nixon's "classic crisis." There he relives each time the agony of self-definition, as he decides whether or not a crisis is "his"; the confirmation of suffering, as he wearily drives himself to get ready; the freedom of aggression, as he takes clear action; and the closure of control, as he reasserts self-restriction in the aftermath. There, in a short space of time, Nixon acts out the drama of his life - over and over again... (p.142)
...Nixon won the Presidency in 1968. The main worry of his critics was that he would be too flexible, too unprincipled, not that he would freeze up in a pattern of rigidification. Nixon himself said he intended to anticipate and avoid crises... but his intentional contradicted his character. He needed crisis to feel alive. He would hold and concentrate power in himself... The old Nixon showed through in his fight to get his Supreme Court nominees approved by the Senate - and in his fury when, for the first time in forty years, the President failed in that effort...
...This character could lead the President on to disaster, following in the path of his heroes Wilson and Hoover and his predecessor Johnson. So far his crises had been bounded dramas, each apparently curtained with the end of the last act. The danger was that crisis would be transformed into tragedy - that Nixon would go from a dramatic experiment to a moral commitment, a commitment to follow his private star, to fly off in the face of overwhelming odds. That type of reaction is to be expected when and if Nixon is confronted with a severe threat to his power and sense of virtue... (p.142-3)
Barber wrote that second tidbit just before the Watergate break-in happened. But we'll get to that in a minute.
Barber makes the comparisons here towards previous Presidents like Wilson and Hoover and also Lyndon B. Johnson, all of whom we'd already seen Barber classify as Active-Negative characters. Nixon's confrontational habits - the aggressive campaigning - echoed the habits of Wilson's refusal to compromise or treat with political opposition. The obsession with problem resolution echoed Johnson's obsession with deal-making, albeit with Nixon's zeal for bluffing than for horse-trading. The Uncompromising nature of Hoover - the "I Must" duality that drove Nixon to work hard yet limit himself to his narrow options - that made it all a Zero-Sum game for Nixon when dealing with Congress or the nation or his enemies at large.
What is so confounding about all that is that Nixon's own administration showed points where he could have easily stepped away from such self-inflicted Active-Negative impositions. His domestic agenda for the most part leaned towards a liberalism - defined by his Quaker faith - that most Republicans today would consider socialism. He pursued a foreign policy agenda that outside of the Vietnam War (and Southeast Asia) practiced a kind of pragmatic relationship with allies and enemies alike that allowed for a strident anti-Communist as himself to open relations with Red China, driving a wedge in Sino-Soviet relations that brought the USSR to the negotiation table on their own (even the Vulcans created a meme out of it: "Only Nixon Could Go To China.").
And yet... and yet that self-destructive tendency was there. Pushing Vietnam by escalating the bombing rather than taking a peace deal in 1969 just so he could claim in 1972 he ended the conflict as "Peace With Honor." Secretly bombing Cambodia as part of that war effort and against what was viewed as a Domino Effect with Communism threatening to consume all of Southeast Asia (the secret bombing actually escalated that). Two gigantic flaws - even a war crime considering Cambodia - that marred an otherwise awe-inspiring foreign policy era.
Regarding things back home, Nixon's desire for control as a means of ensuring success in his conflicts led to his administration abusing the bureaucracy of the executive office in a way not seen since the Spoils system under Andrew Jackson (another A-N). Nixon's controlling nature led to a form of inter-office rivalry between his key handlers (which led to inter-office spying and interference not only in the West Wing but across the Departments) and a steady diet of lying to his own people. That all created a trickle-down of sorts, where a pattern of acceptable behavior ("ratfucking") allowed Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign (CRP, actually CReEP) to sabotage the Democratic primaries and drive them to wiretap the Democratic National headquarters situated in the business offices of the Watergate Complex.
On the face of it, the break-ins were minor, BS stuff that shouldn't even have been authorized by anyone in the first place. Getting caught doing it looked bad. But it brought about Nixon's downfall because like Barber predicted, Nixon's desire to confront each setback or quandary as a "crisis" led Nixon to over-react.
It's an unwritten rule of paradoxical human behavior: it's not the crime that kills you, it's the cover-up. Where the original event itself - breaking in and setting up unwarranted wiretaps - would have been easily excused as "a third-rate burglary" that didn't involve Nixon himself, Nixon insisted on both paying "shush money" to the burglars and on obstructing any federal investigation into the break-in. But by stepping on the then-autonomy of the FBI, he angered enough key officials in the Bureau - including one Mark Felt - that the investigations continued, and with each revelation to the public exposed another part of Nixon's power structure that exposed a nest of backstabbing and unethical behavior.
Nixon's desire for conflict and resolution made him jump into the path of the train. A more self-controlled personality would not have been so obviously self-destructive. It was as though Nixon was Lord Jim, fully accepting a fate that didn't have to be his, only because his idealized vision of himself insisted he stand there and take the bullet. Only in Nixon's case, there wasn't any ideal: merely a form of crass cynicism railing against an unjust universe that never loved him.
Just try to remember these few facts: this was a very bitter man whose ambitions compromised his potential, who saw enemies to defeat rather than rivals to deal, who lied even to his closest allies and even himself to an extent never seen before, who knew deep down he could never be loved as a leader so aimed for the next best thing to be feared... and failed miserably, becoming hated in the end.
"He would have been a great man if somebody had loved him," Kissinger once quipped, and while it reflects ruefully on Pat Nixon (clearly she had to have loved Richard) and on Nixon's mother (whom Barber noted did show affection toward a favored child) Kissinger was probably thinking of Machiavelli's question about being loved or feared as a means of gaining respect. Nixon was terrible at being feared: dangerous, yes, but easily mocked and just as easily despised by the people who took him at face value and hated what they saw. If he had ever considered being loved as a means like his rival Kennedy, or his predecessor Eisenhower. If Richard Nixon had learned the skill sets to be loved...
Nixon's legacy still haunts us to this day. The nature of the Republican Party itself - the aggressive campaigning and emphasis on winning elections, the obsession with political control of the bureaucracy, this madness of "crisis government" where every political action causes a disproportionate reaction (a kind of party brinkmanship) - owes more to Nixon than any other Republican figure (not Ike, not Teddy, not even Hoover) today. The modern GOP may publicly worship the likes of Ronald Reagan (who was loved), but they speak, deal, act like Nixon.
I leave you with one more thought: no other President proves as popular when it comes time to pulling bank heists and Halloween trick-or-treating: