In my write-up today on Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Education of a Politician, I’ll use as my starting-point something that Ambrose says on page 564:
“When Eisenhower returned from his visit to Nixon’s bedside, he told Ann Whitman [who was Eisenhower’s secretary] that ‘there was some lack of warmth.’ Whitman recorded in her diary, ‘He has mentioned again, as he has several times, the fact that the Vice-President has very few personal friends.’ Eisenhower confessed to his secretary that he could not understand how a man could live without friends. Whitman wrote that in her opinion the difference between Eisenhower and Nixon ‘is obvious. The President is a man of integrity and sincere in his every action….He radiates this, everybody knows it, everybody trusts and loves him. But the Vice-President sometimes seems like a man who is acting like a nice man rather than being one.'”
The topic of Nixon’s relationships with people occurs often in Ambrose’s book. On the one hand, Nixon was a loner who focused primarily on the tasks that he had to perform. He did not care for small-talk, and (while Ambrose says that there were many women who considered him sexy) he was not particularly interested in women. (Ambrose does not think that Nixon was a homosexual, however, and on page 585 Ambrose dismisses “patently absurd rumors about [Nixon’s] relationship with [Nixon’s friend] Bebe Rebozo.”) In public, Nixon could also appear rather cold to his wife, Pat. Nixon also did not keep in regular contact with people he knew from previous settings (i.e., school, the Navy, etc.). On the other hand, when Nixon was in the Navy, he let his hair down a little bit more and was quite popular with his fellow Navy-men, and Ambrose speculates that this was because Nixon was not obsessing over his own advancement in that setting. Nixon could also engage in horse-play with friends. While Nixon was introverted, he was known as a good listener and as one who showed concern for people. And Nixon was a loving father to his children (when he saw them).
Ambrose contrasts Nixon with Nixon’s opponent in the 1960 Presidential election, John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was easy-going, laughed at himself, made jokes, enjoyed being around his political colleagues, and flirted with women. Nixon took himself quite seriously, was only around his political colleagues because he had to be, and was awkward socially. On the afternoon before their first debate, Kennedy worked on his tan, with the result that he looked good on television. Nixon, by contrast, overworked himself, with the result that he looked rather haggard on TV. Kennedy was from a wealthy background, whereas Nixon was from a family that struggled economically. But Kennedy could form a better connection with a number of working-class people, whereas Nixon’s descriptions of his own economic problems when he was growing up came across as self-pity, even though Nixon was trying to convey to people that he understood their struggles.
One could say that Nixon’s personality lost him the 1960 election, but, as Ambrose notes, Nixon did get almost half of the popular vote! Nixon’s hard work helped him, even though it also exhausted him and led him to make blunders and to appear haggard. Moreover, there was something to be said for Nixon’s intelligence and his ability as a public speaker. Nixon, notwithstanding his social weaknesses, had assets on which he could capitalize, and they served him well over the years.
As someone who struggles socially, I feel that I can learn from both Nixon and Kennedy. From Nixon, I can learn that I have assets on which I can capitalize—-I have written good things, I have given speeches that people have liked, and I can be a good listener. From Kennedy, I can learn about laughing at myself without conveying self-pity, taking time to relax, and the value of enjoying the company of other people.
But back to the quote with which I opened this post: I think that often I, like Nixon, communicate to people that I am merely acting nice. People may detect that they intimidate me, that I’m not particularly comfortable around them, and that my socializing is somewhat of an act. And yet, I believe that, inside of me, there is a concern for and an interest in people. A therapist I once saw pointed out that I enjoyed watching TV shows and becoming interested in the characters, to the point of empathizing with them and liking them, and he said that becoming interested in people is similar to that. Perhaps there is within me at least some capacity to be like Eisenhower: authentic, rather than an actor.