“A biography of eloquence and breadth . . . No single volume about Nixon’s long and interesting life could be so comprehensive.”—Chicago Tribune
One of Time’s Top 10 Nonfiction Books of the Year
In this revelatory biography, Evan Thomas delivers a radical, unique portrait of America’s thirty-seventh president, Richard Nixon, a contradictory figure who was both determinedly optimistic and tragically flawed. One of the principal architects of the modern Republican Party and its “silent majority” of disaffected whites and conservative ex-Dixiecrats, Nixon was also deemed a liberal in some quarters for his efforts to desegregate Southern schools, create the Environmental Protection Agency, and end the draft.
The son of devout Quakers, Richard Nixon (not unlike his rival John F. Kennedy) grew up in the shadow of an older, favored brother and thrived on conflict and opposition. Through high school and college, in the navy and in politics, Nixon was constantly leading crusades and fighting off enemies real and imagined. He possessed the plainspoken eloquence to reduce American television audiences to tears with his career-saving “Checkers” speech; meanwhile, Nixon’s darker half hatched schemes designed to take down his political foes, earning him the notorious nickname “Tricky Dick.” Drawing on a wide range of historical accounts, Thomas’s biography reveals the contradictions of a leader whose vision and foresight led him to achieve détente with the Soviet Union and reestablish relations with communist China, but whose underhanded political tactics tainted his reputation long before the Watergate scandal.
A deeply insightful character study as well as a brilliant political biography, Being Nixon offers a surprising look at a man capable of great bravery and extraordinary deviousness—a balanced portrait of a president too often reduced to caricature.
Praise for Being Nixon
“Terrifically engaging . . . a fair, insightful and highly entertaining portrait.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Thomas has a fine eye for the telling quote and the funny vignette, and his style is eminently readable.”—The New York Times Book Review
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Lives of Great Men Remind Us
In May of 1929, the Latin Club of Whittier High School celebrated Virgil’s two thousandth birthday with a banquet and a production of the story of Aeneas and Dido from the Aeneid. The students wore togas and ate with their hands; the dry California hills passed for ancient Rome. Richard Nixon, the top student in the club, played Aeneas, Trojan hero and founder of Rome, and a girl named Ola Florence Welch played Dido, queen of Carthage.
Virgil’s Aeneid imagines the ill-fated romance of Aeneas and Dido. Dido is under the sway of Juno, who stands for domesticity and marital fidelity. Aeneas is ruled by Venus, goddess of passionate, sexual love. Dido beds Aeneas and regards herself as married. Aeneas, rather coldly, abandons Dido to fulfill his greater destiny. (“To Italy I must go. There is the fatherland I must love.”) Bereft, Dido throws herself on a funeral pyre, the gods’ reckoning for her hapless devotion.
It is doubtful that Nixon, age sixteen, was pondering the complexity of human nature and the vagaries of passion and commitment as he took the stage in the Whittier High gym. He had other worries. His feet hurt. It had taken both Latin teachers several minutes to tug the size-9 silver boots over Nixon’s size-11 feet. “The hour on stage in them was agony beyond belief and almost beyond endurance,” Nixon recalled.
Worse, Nixon was supposed to take Dido in his arms, on stage, in public. He had never kissed a girl before, or even close—Whittier was an upright Quaker town and Nixon was bashful. When Aeneas in his toga and too-small boots awkwardly reached out to embrace Dido, the student audience, heretofore bored, erupted in catcalls, hoots, and derisive laughter. Cheeks burning, the leading couple had to stop until the clamor died down.
Nixon later described the performance as “an unbelievably horrendous experience.” As the curtain fell to polite applause, the desperate-to-please high school junior volunteered to play the piano to entertain the disgruntled audience. “I’ll do anything to make the party a success,” he told one of the Latin teachers. He was humiliated, however, and he lost his temper when one of the teachers criticized his clumsy performance.
Such a painful experience might have ended the thespian ambitions of any high school student (and Nixon did take away a lifelong aversion to wearing boots). But Nixon went on to act in several plays in college, with growing assurance and emotional range. Indeed, in 1952, when Nixon publicly wept after clearing his name from calumny with the so-called Checkers Speech, his old acting coach, Albert Upton, exclaimed, “That’s my boy! That’s my actor!”
Nixon’s dramatic debut was a crisis, but for Richard Nixon, crisis was already normal—to be expected; endured; even, as time went on, welcomed. Defeat was what one overcame; rejection was to be reversed, if not avenged.
Two months before the Latin play, Nixon had been the choice of the Whittier High School faculty to become student body president. Nixon was responsible, dutiful, and attentive to his elders. But at the last moment, another boy, a popular athlete named Robert Logue, had entered as a surprise candidate and won the students’ votes. Nixon, who had been nicknamed “Gloomy Gus” by a few of the girls, had to settle for the position of “administrator,” appointed by the faculty. In photos in the Whittier High yearbook, the Cardinal and White, Logue looks like a tanned Adonis, with a confident smile, cleft chin, and swept-back blond hair. In his photo, the dark-haired Nixon looks young and anxious.
One of the girls who had voted for Bob Logue was Ola Florence Welch—Queen Dido. At the time of the election, she had written in her diary, “Oh how I hate Richard Nixon.” She had been mortified by her stage embrace with Nixon. “We never practiced it. When we came to do it, it was very awkward and the kids went to pieces. I just about died,” she recalled.
But when it was over, after briefly lashing out at his carping teacher, Nixon calmed down and grew purposeful. “He never said a word about the play but he insisted that I must come over and meet his folks immediately,” Ola Florence later recounted. Nixon wrote her a letter, apologizing for his “caddish behavior” (getting mad at the teacher) and explaining why, as he put it, he was “so cracked up about you. . . . You are not a boy chaser. You use your brains to good purposes. You never show your anger to anyone. . . .” He did not say anything about her looks, which, judging from photos, were striking, almost sultry.
Ola Florence reconsidered her opinion of Nixon. She decided that the dark-haired, brooding boy was “really quite handsome” and that he was interesting, articulate, and unusual. They began going steady and remained a couple all through college. Indeed, while the romance was rocky, they would come close to marrying.
Aides to President Nixon like to reminisce and joke about Nixon’s oft-expressed dislike for Ivy Leaguers, particularly graduates of Harvard. In his memoir, H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, describes the president exclaiming, “None of them in the Cabinet, do you understand? None of those Harvard bastards!” Alexander Butterfield, a presidential assistant, recalled being summoned to the Oval Office after Nixon had somehow heard that the president of Harvard, Derek Bok, was on the White House premises. “What is that son of a bitch doing here?” Nixon demanded. Butterfield explained that Bok was a member of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, and that Harvard had donated some paintings. “Never again!” cried Nixon. “How did he get in here in the first place?” John Ehrlichman, another top Nixon aide, recalled that “Nixon used to talk about the Eastern Establishment, but a lot of good people came from Harvard and similar places. He took them on, muttering and chirping all the time, about how deplorable it was, but he took them on and confided in them.” Indeed, Theodore White noted that Nixon hired far more Harvard men than all the Harvard men who had been president (the two Adamses, the two Roosevelts, and Kennedy). Nixon chose as his foreign policy adviser a Harvard grad and Harvard professor, Henry Kissinger, and an equally intimidating Harvard professor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as his first domestic policy adviser. This was ironic but actually not surprising. Nixon was smarter, more intellectual, more open to ideas than almost any president who had come before him, including the ones who had gone to Harvard.
At graduation from Whittier High in June 1930, Nixon won the Harvard Club of California’s award for outstanding all-around student, “which will probably irritate many of my friends who did go to Harvard,” Nixon recalled a half-century later. The award entitled Nixon to apply for a tuition scholarship from Harvard (he received a similar offer from Yale). But Nixon had to stay home. It was the Depression, and there was no money for travel or living expenses.
Nixon was not poor, exactly, but his family was cash-strapped. Frank, his blustery, bullying father, was a rolling stone who had worked a number of low-paying jobs, including as a trolley car conductor, factory hand, and oil roustabout. His mother Hannah, born to more genteel circumstances, endured lean times with a kind of tense grace. Frank would loudly denounce his bad luck and all who caused it; Hannah would smile sweetly, if a bit grimly, and keep her resentments bottled up.
Frank had planted some failing lemon groves in the thin soil of Yorba Linda in 1913, the year Nixon was born. The tiny town to the east of Los Angeles smelled sweetly of orange blossoms in the spring, but in the fall, when the Santa Ana—the fierce wind the Indians called “Devil’s Breath”—blew in off the desert, young Nixon could hear rocks bouncing off the side of the little bungalow his father had built. The dust seeped in everywhere. On many nights, Hannah had to serve a dinner of fried mush.
Frank Nixon gave up the citrus groves and started up a gas station and grocery store on the road at the edge of Whittier, a nearby college town nestled amid eucalyptus and palm trees on a steep hillside. In the boom-and-bust of California’s Southland of the 1920s, the gas station prospered. There had been enough money to send Richard’s older brother, Harold, back east to Mount Hermon, a Christian boarding school in Massachusetts.
Harold Nixon was tall, blond, and handsome. The girls “swooned over him,” Richard recalled. Harold was fun-loving and mischievous, outgoing and popular. He was a hellraiser and a cut-up. Richard, as a little boy, was the opposite. He was solemn and fastidious and preferred his own company. His cousin Jessamyn West observed that “he didn’t seem to want to be hugged.” He dressed in starched white shirts, and he carried his shoes in a bag when he went barefoot. He complained to his mother that other boys on the school bus smelled. “He was very fussy, always neat,” his mother Hannah recalled. “He seemed to carry quite a little weight for a boy of his age.”
If there is a lasting impression of Richard Nixon as a boy, it is one of solitariness. Friends and relatives remember him lying by himself in the grass, staring up at the sky, or wandering past the clusters of playing boys, lost in his own thoughts. He was a stickler for order. His uncle recalled that when the Nixon cousins were playing with a football, young Richard, age eight or so, took away the ball and sat by himself on the porch, insisting that he would give it back only when the others played by the rules. The sad-faced boy with the unruly shock of black hair seemed to yearn for order and certainty.
Young Richard was a dreamer. He recalled listening to train whistles in the night, and when, on his thirteenth birthday, his grandmother Almira Milhous gave him a portrait of Lincoln, he hung it over his bed, along with a copy of Longfellow’s Psalm of Life, written out in his grandmother’s hand:
Lives of great men oft remind us
We can make our lives sublime
And departing leave behind us
Footprints in the sands of time.
It was a heavy burden for an impressionable boy. And yet Nixon had a slight subversive streak. As a boy as well as a man, Nixon could be painfully ill at ease, and his jokes sometimes fell flat. He would never be mistaken for a wit. But he did possess a mordant, dry hint of humor, even as a thirteen-year-old. In history class a few weeks after Grandmother Milhous set up Lincoln as a role model with Longfellow’s poem, Nixon penned a parody—not a knee-slapper, but a looser, more puckish try than might be expected from such a solemn, eager-to-please boy:
Now the lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives that sort
And departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the tennis court.
Hardship, familiar to the Nixon household, became tragedy in 1925, the year Richard turned twelve. Arthur, the fourth son, died of a mysterious illness. In his memoirs, Nixon wrote that he cried every day for weeks. Nixon’s mother, Hannah, recalled him just sitting and staring into space, silent and dry-eyed. A couple of years later, Harold, too, became sick. Nixon knew something was wrong as soon as the family picked up the oldest boy up at the train station after his first year in Massachusetts. Harold was coughing and feverish. He had tuberculosis, a dangerous, frequently fatal disease.
Frank Nixon refused to take handouts, so he passed up the county hospital where “lungers,” as TB victims were sometimes called, could get free care, opting instead to pay for an expensive private sanatorium. When the money ran out, Hannah Nixon took her sick eldest son into the dry mountains of Prescott, Arizona, and set up a boarding house for Harold and a couple of other TB patients. Richard and his younger brother Donald were left at home in Whittier to fend with their father. It was a life of constant work, some of it drudgery. From the time he was fifteen or so, Richard arose every morning at four o’clock to drive into the vegetable markets in Los Angeles to buy fresh produce for the family grocery store before heading off to school. In the summer, Nixon joined his mother in Arizona, where he did odd jobs (including as a carnival barker) while his mother changed bedpans and cleaned basins of bloody sputum.
Nixon referred to his mother as a “saint.” She spoke in a gentle voice but refrained from hugging or using expressions of endearment. True to her Quaker faith, she looked to an “inner light” and disliked showy religion. She said her evening prayers in a closet. Nixon feared his father’s temper, but he was more frightened of his mother’s “look.” Hannah had an “iron hand inside her velvet glove,” recalled Nixon’s girlfriend, Ola Florence Welch. Hannah could punish just by her silence.
Nixon followed his mother’s example of trying not to antagonize Frank Nixon. When his father grew belligerent, Richard would hide with a book. Near the Nixon bungalow was an irrigation ditch that was quite dangerous to small children. Hannah’s sister, Elizabeth Milhous Harrison, recalled watching in horror as Frank grabbed his boys out of the irrigation ditch where they had been playing and then threw them back in again, yelling, “If you want water, I’ll give you enough.” Their aunt cried out, “Frank, you’ll kill them, you’ll kill them!”
Hannah’s family disapproved of Frank, who had never graduated from elementary school and was semi-literate. Her sisters warned her not to stoop. The day Hannah and Frank were married, her little sister carved on a cherry tree, “Hannah is a bad girl.” The Milhous family was haughty, recalled Jessamyn West, and held itself above everyone but the other proper Quaker families who lived in Victorian houses on and around Whittier Hill. Nixon may have first felt the sting of snobbery within his own family.
Nixon was caught between his two parents, trying to please both. He sought love from one, then the other; one wonders if he ever really found it from either. “Can you imagine,” asked Henry Kissinger, “what this man would have been like if somebody had loved him?” Kissinger was exaggerating for effect, but Nixon’s insecurities seem so profound that he must, as a child, have lacked for some essential assurance. Self-protection, more than nurturing, seems to have been the order of the day in the Nixon household. Young Richard learned to avoid his father’s temper and his hand. (As small boys, Richard and his brothers were not spanked but “thumped,” rapped on the head.) Richard watched as his mother intercepted customers in the store before Frank could bombard them with his vehemently held political views. If she didn’t get there in time, she sometimes followed the browbeaten customers out the door, trying to soothe them. In his memoirs, Nixon was still abashed by the shouting matches between his father and his brothers that could be heard “all across the neighborhood.” In a rare instance of self-reflection, Nixon wrote, “Perhaps my own aversion to personal confrontations dates back to these early recollections.”