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By Rick Perlstein Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2008 Princeton University Press
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Introduction Rick Perlstein
In the fall of 1967 Richard Nixon, reintroducing himself to the public for his second run for the presidency of the United States, published two magazine articles simultaneously. The first ran in the distinguished quarterly Foreign Affairs, the review of the Council of Foreign Relations. "Asia after Viet Nam" was sweeping, scholarly, and high-minded, couched in the chessboard abstractions of strategic studies. The intended audience, in whose language it spoke, was the nation's elite, and liberal-leaning, opinion-makers. It argued for the diplomatic "long view" toward the nation, China, that he had spoken of only in terms of red-baiting demagoguery in the past: "we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations," he wrote. This was the height of foreign policy sophistication, the kind of thing one heard in Ivy League faculty lounges and Brookings Institution seminars. For Nixon, the conclusion was the product of years of quiet travel, study, and reflection that his long stretch in the political wilderness, since losing the California governor's race in 1962, had liberated him to carry out. It bore no relation to the kind of rip-roaring, elite-baiting things he usually said about Communists on the stump in the eleven Republican elections in which he had previouslyparticipated.
Nixon's second article that fall was published in the nation's most widely read monthly, Reader's Digest. The Digest, consumed by around twenty million Americans, was the opposite of Foreign Affairs in every way: jingoistic, sappy, and as likely as not to identify any given liberal-leaning opinion-maker as a self-serving bamboozler. Nixon's article was called "What Has Happened to America?" and its mood was demagogic, angry, and apocalyptic. Its subject was a summer of deadly race riots that had left "the United States blazing in an inferno of urban anarchy." His solution was a law-and-order crackdown. The riots, the article said, showed that American society had become "among the most lawless and violent in the history of the free peoples," a common sentiment among the conservatives of the day. The argument, however, added a signature Nixonian touch. When it came time to affix blame, he downplayed the role of the rioters. Instead, he blamed the same people who were the intended audience for "Asia after Viet Nam": liberal elites. "Our opinion-makers have gone too far in promoting the doctrine that when a law is broken, society, not the criminal, is to blame," he wrote. "Our teachers, preachers, and politicians have gone too far in advocating the idea that each individual should determine what laws are good and what laws are bad."
Two articles, two audiences, two different messages: that's politics. Richard Nixon, however, the twentieth century's quintessential political man, pushed the contradiction yet further. The Foreign Affairs essay concluded with a curious metaphor. "Dealing with Red China is something like trying to cope with the more explosive ghetto elements of our own country," he said. "In each case dialogues have to be opened; in each case aggression has to be restrained while education proceeds; and, not least, in neither case can we afford to let those now self-exiled from society to stay exiled forever. We have to proceed with both an urgency born of necessity and a patience born of realism, moving by calculated steps toward the final goal." Of course, "dialogue" and "education" were the liberal opinion-making elites' prescriptions for what to do about "the most explosive ghetto elements of our country"-not what conservative Republicans would call for. In the service of selling liberals his foreign policy vision, he was willing to ventriloquize their script.
The trope of the "two Nixons" has been a staple of commentary about the man since the 1950s. Pundits tended to understand the problem serially: they would announce that they detected a newfound maturity in the demagogue they had called "Tricky Dick," now making sound, nuanced, and humane contributions to the public debate; then, like clockwork, he would start talking about "anarchy" and blame it all on the liberal elites. And the pundits would announce in rueful tones that the "old Nixon" had returned-and then the cycle ("Is there a 'new Nixon'?") would repeat itself a few years later. The pundits never got it quite right. Richard Nixon was driven by a consistent passion to make sound, nuanced, and humane contributions to public debate. And he also, and at the same time, inhabited a mental world, as his arch-foe Adlai Stevenson would put it, of "slander and scare," of "smash and grab and anything to win." This part of him was driven by an unstinting rage for control, a need to dominate and even humiliate opinion-making elites-whom he also saw as architects not merely of society's moral degradation, but of the political humiliation of Richard Nixon.
A day in the life of Richard Nixon was never either/or when it came to this bifurcated orientation; it was always both/and. He needed elites, and hated them; he hated elites, and wanted to be accepted among them. He could be open-minded and open-hearted, and he could rage for control. It had always been so, even before his political career began, and even until his political career was ended. To many Americans-who also simultaneously revered and resented elites-it was the soul of his political appeal.
Richard Milhous Nixon was born on a winter day in 1913 "in a house," as he put it sonorously in his 1978 memoirs, "my father built." The little plaster-frame cottage-you can still visit it at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California-was across from a new irrigation ditch that promised for the first time to make good on the Chamber of Commerce boast that this desert outpost was a good place to grow citrus. For the children of this cactus-covered town it made for a bit of fun: they could swim in it, or at least wade in it. All except the Nixon boys. When Frank Nixon saw his boys in the canal, he would grab them by the scruff of the neck, haul them out, push them in, taunt them, then throw them in a few more times. One of Richard Nixon's biographers, reflecting upon the image, speculated a kid "might well have felt that his father was trying to drown him like an unwanted puppy."
For most farmers that ditch helped bring a decent crop. Not Frank Nixon, who was filled with the kind of self-destructive abstemiousness that is sometimes labeled pride. "I won't buy fertilizer until I raise enough lemons to pay for it," he said, though in Yorba Linda's "loaf-sugar" soil-it tended to clump-you couldn't grow lemons without fertilizer. Frank and his family went bust. California wasn't supposed to be like this.
Frank Nixon was a tempestuous man who loved to argue, even to the point of driving much-needed custom from the grocery store and gas station he built in a former church. The store did well nonetheless, and for a time the family nestled comfortably within the 1920s middle class. Richard Nixon would ever vacillate between feelings of pride and feelings of shame toward his dirty-necked, lusty spitfire of a father, between apologizing for him and boasting about him, between desperately reaching for success to honor him and desperately reaching for success to repudiate him. Frank Nixon was also his son's mentor in his schoolboy debating career. Dick won often, though his high school coach bemoaned his "ability to kind of slide around an argument instead of meeting it head on."
His mother, Hannah, Nixon famously put it in his farewell address after he resigned the presidency in disgrace, "was a saint." She was a soft-spoken and devout Quaker, but there was one subject upon which she didn't always tell the truth: her second son, Richard. The family's superstar, the one on whom the family hopes had been pinned, was the first son, Harold, who was graceful and loquacious, where Richard was an awkward loner. Harold came down with tuberculosis, and Hannah took him to recuperate in the hot, dry air of Prescott, Arizona. That required setting up a second household, during the Depression, which almost bankrupted the family. Then Nixon's youngest brother died in a freak accident for which Richard seemed to hold himself accountable. When Harold died, Hannah told an interviewer, Richard "sank into a deep, impenetrable silence.... From that time on it seemed that he was trying to be three sons in one, striving even harder than before to make up to his father and me for our loss."
For her part, Hannah Nixon would come to recast Richard in her mind as an impregnable figure of destiny, a bringer of miracles. She would later tell interviewers that Richard had been born the day of an eclipse (he wasn't), and that his ragged and forlorn family had sold land upon which oil was found immediately afterward (they hadn't). This family was a churning stewpot of shame and stubborn pride, haunted by a sense of unearned persecutions, ever convinced they were better than what the world would let them be.
As a schoolboy he hadn't a single close friend, preferring to cloister himself with a book up in the former church's bell tower, hating to ride the school bus because he thought the other children smelled bad. His brilliance and awesome application won him a scholarship to Harvard. But he could afford only to stay home and attend Whittier, a fine little Quaker college unknown anywhere else. There, Nixon came into his own socially, but in a peculiarly Nixonian fashion. One biographer described a cartoon of seniors in the Whittier yearbook "lounging informally, talking and laughing.... Nixon at the very center ... but while the rest are clearly enjoying themselves, Richard stands alone, neatly dressed, completely devoid of emotion-solemnly dominating the group, but not part of it." That image provides a template for understanding his political career.
Finding himself excluded from Whittier College's single social club, the Franklins, this most unfraternal of youth organized the remnant into a fraternity of his own. Franklins were well-rounded, graceful; they moved smoothly, talked slickly. Nixon's new club, the Orthogonians, was for the strivers, the commuter students, those not to the manor born. Forever more, Nixon would gather together those who believed themselves put upon by the sophisticates, setting himself up as both one of them and apart from them-their leader. For instance, he surprised those who spotted him as an up-and-comer by seeking out a berth on the House un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a collection of poltroons widely seen to have permanently humiliated themselves with the Hollywood Ten circus; then he engineered his investiture as its most respected voice. His famous "Checkers" speech of 1952, fighting to preserve his place as General Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice presidential candidate against charges he had an improper campaign fund, rocketed him to a new plateau of popularity because of his success in speaking as an everyman put upon by an aloof and arrogant boss. He misquoted Lincoln: "God must have loved the common people-he made so many of them."
Those who felt themselves condescended to by the sophisticates were everywhere in the majority. They formed an excellent constituency for a political career. In 1969, in one of his most famous speeches, he gave this abstraction a permanent name: the "Silent Majority."
America's liberals saw themselves as the tribunes of the common people, Republicans as enemies of the common people. Liberals had been the ones to write the New Deal social and labor legislation that let ordinary Americans win back a measure of economic security during the Depression. Liberals had led the war against fascism, World War II, a war conservatives opposed. They had been the architects of the postwar consumer economy that built the first mass middle class in world history. But by the 1950s history caught them in a bind: via the boom they helped build, ordinary laborers were comfortable enough to entertain appeals from Republicans styling themselves as tribunes of the common man. The "Checkers" in the Checkers speech referred to Nixon's absurd implication that his persecutors were demanding he return the "little cocker spaniel dog" a supporter had sent his little girls as a gift-a red herring to deflect attention from the very specific financial charges at hand. The idea that a maudlin appeal to sentiment could trump ordinary people's recognition of the "real" economic issues at hand drove his ideological adversaries around the bend.
The ensuing debate over Richard M. Nixon would track the main contours of America's political divisions to this day. "The man who the people of the sovereign state of California believed was actually representing them" was actually "the pet and protege' of a special interest group of rich Southern Californians," one liberal paper editorialized of the Checkers speech. The pundit Walter Lippmann called it "the most demeaning experience my country has ever had to bear." The in-house humorist of Stevensonian liberalism, Mort Sahl, suggested a sequel. Nixon could read the Constitution aloud to his two daughters; Pat, his wife, could sit within camera view, gazing lovingly upon him while knitting an American flag.
But liberals' hatred of him as a phony populist didn't start with Checkers. Under the tutelage of Murray Chotiner, a cutthroat California political operative whose legal specialty was defending bookies, Nixon learned a uniquely nasty campaign style that specialized in turning economic populists out of office with the message that they were actually feckless aristocrats, selling out America to her enemies. For his first campaign, in 1946, he framed his opponent, the well-bred Jerry Voorhis, as a handmaiden of Communists even though Voorhis had proposed a bill outlawing the American Communist Party. In 1950, running for Senate, he called his opponent Helen Gahagan Douglas (a sophisticate married to Hollywood leading man Melvyn Douglas) "pink right down to her underwear"-and sent out 500,000 fliers, printed on pink paper, tying her to "the notorious Communist party-line Congressman from New York" Vito Marcantonio. Upon his victory, the senator-elect attended a chic Georgetown party hosted by columnist Joseph Alsop. W. Averell Harriman, son of a railroad baron and a distinguished ambassador who had traveled to California that campaign season to help Helen Gahagan Douglas, was announced. He spied Nixon, and, turning on his heels, barked: "I will not break bread with that man!"
Nixon had an explanation for the sophisticates' contempt, and it had nothing to do with his campaign style: they hated him for beating Alger Hiss. Hiss had been a legendarily distinguished public servant and protégé of some of the most distinguished men in the Washington Establishment. At a HUAC hearing in 1948, a disheveled and strange Time magazine staffer and Communist apostate named Whittaker Chambers accused Hiss of having been a secret Communist. Hiss demanded time before the committee to clear his name. Well-dressed, well-bred, and well-spoken, Hiss so convincingly voiced his claim that he hadn't known "Whittaker Chambers" that HUAC was prepared to drop the matter. Only Richard Nixon objected. Tipped off by freelance anti-Communist investigators, he had noticed a hole in his testimony: Hiss had never said he hadn't known Chambers. He had just said he hadn't known a man named Whittaker Chambers.
Exhibiting the obsessive work ethic that marked his career, Nixon established a record that rendered the notion that the two had not known each other virtually impossible. And yet Hiss, nailed dead to rights, arrogantly stuck to his story. And maddeningly, his Establishment sponsors kept defending him-insinuating that Chambers was the villain. President Truman called the case a "red herring." Chambers, an apocalyptic man, thought he knew why: Communists in high places were pulling strings behind the scenes. Richard Nixon harbored the more prosaic theory a lifetime of resentments had prepared him for: the Establishment was protecting one of their own.
Excerpted from Richard Nixon by Rick Perlstein
Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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