I have two items for my write-up today on Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Education of a Politician.
1. In Oliver Stone’s 1995 movie Nixon, Richard Nixon’s brother Harold dies of tuberculosis, and Harold’s death allows the Nixon family to have enough money for Richard to go to law school. Richard’s mother, Hannah (played by Mary Steenburgen), tells Richard that law school is Harold’s “gift” to him. Richard incredulously responds, “Did he have to die for me to get it?” Years later on the movie, when Richard Nixon is President, Richard reflects that two deaths paved the way for him to become President: Harold’s, and that of Bobby Kennedy, who could have won the 1968 Presidential election had he not been assassinated.
I don’t know how much of this, if any of it, reflects reality. (UPDATE: On page 72, Ambrose says that “Hannah thought that Dick might have felt guilty about surviving Arthur’s and Harold’s deaths”, and that doesn’t sound to me like she was contributing to his survivor’s guilt.) In my reading of Ambrose, it did seem that Harold’s tuberculosis was holding Richard Nixon back, on some level. Nixon got a scholarship to Harvard, but he did not have enough money to move to Massachusetts and live there, and Ambrose says that one reason was the cost to Nixon’s family of treating Harold’s tuberculosis. Ambrose does say, however, that Harold’s death made Richard Nixon lonelier and even more standoffish, and that Richard could have been less so had Harold lived, since Harold was gregarious. Ambrose says on page 72:
“Harold’s death played an important role in [Richard’s] loneliness, because Harold was his best chance at establishing an open, trusting, honest, loving adult relationship with another human being. Harold could have thrown an arm around him, given him a hug, penetrated his mysteries, told him to stop being such a stuffed shirt, taught him to laugh and see the funny side of life, in general made him loosen up and enjoy himself…But Harold was not healthy enough to do these things for Dick before he died, and no one else could take his place.”
2. On pages 57-58, Ambrose discusses an essay that Nixon wrote in 1933 about his religious beliefs, in which Nixon sought to reconcile the Bible with science. Nixon was raised to regard the Bible as infallible and as literally correct, and his parents warned him “not to be misled by college professors” at Whittier, a Quaker college (page 58). Nixon wrote that he believed in God as the creator, but he did not think that Jesus was God’s son in a physical sense, but rather in the sense that Jesus “reached the highest conception of God…His life was so perfect that he ‘mingled’ his soul with God’s” (Nixon’s words). Nixon had problems with the story that Jesus rose physically from the dead, saying, “I believe we in the modern world will find a real resurrection in the life and teachings of Jesus.”
This coincides with something that I read in William Martin’s book With God on Our Side: that Chuck Colson said that Nixon did not take Jesus’ resurrection literally. Apparently, Nixon carried some of his liberal religious views for quite a long time, from 1933 through his Presidency.
In my reading about Nixon thus far, religion has been an interesting topic in the few times that it has come up. Both Irwin Gellman and Stephen Ambrose tell the story, for example, about how Nixon’s father Frank felt after the death of one of his sons that God was punishing him for keeping his store open on Sundays, and so he closed the store on Sundays and became more religious. I wonder if Richard Nixon rejected that sort of view when he became more of a theological liberal.