In Search of Nixon 1

I started Bruce Mazlish’s 1972 book, In Search of Nixon: A Psychohistorical Inquiry.  The edition of the book that I have is dated to 1973, which was when the Watergate scandal was occurring.  In my edition, Mazlish has a new introduction that touches on Watergate.

I may have heard of Mazlish’s book when I was an undergraduate.  I was taking a class on American Government, and the professor referred to a book that came out back when Nixon was President.  This book attempted to make a psychological analysis of Nixon.  According to my professor, once the Watergate scandal broke out, people took a second look at this book, and they began to psychologically evaluate other Presidents, as well.  I’m not sure if my professor had Mazlish’s book in mind.  I have another book that I will read after Mazlish, Eli Chesen’s President Nixon’s Psychiatric Profile, which is dated to 1973.  But Chesen refers to Mazlish’s work, so Mazlish may very well have been one of the first to write a book that psychologically analyzed Nixon.

How did Mazlish undertake his task of psychologically analyzing Nixon?  Did he meet with Nixon himself?  As far as I know, Mazlish did not.  Essentially, Mazlish relied on Nixon’s speeches, remarks that Nixon made in public, Nixon’s Six Crises, and biographies of Nixon.  Mazlish defends his method.  Although there were many times when others wrote Nixon’s speeches, and there were other hands that played a role in the composition of Six Crises, Nixon was still involved in the process, advising, supervising, approving, and even composing material himself.  Regarding the biographies that existed at the time, it’s interesting how they contradict each other on certain factual details, such as whether Pat Nixon was older or younger than Richard.  But Mazlish looks at details in the biographies in his attempt to understand what Nixon is like, and why.  In my opinion, Mazlish’s case is rather plausible, even though Mazlish wrote before the release of H.R. Haldeman’s diaries and the great epic biographies of Nixon by such authors as Roger Morris, Stephen Ambrose, and others.

I used to read pieces of Mazlish’s book when I was a student at Harvard Divinity School.  I would take a study break at the Hilles library, and during that time I would read parts of Mazlish’s book, but not the entire thing.  Years later, in 2012, when I was looking for books to read for my Year (or More) of Nixon, I was trying to remember what book I read at Hilles, but I was drawing a blank.  I did a search online, but I could not find what I was seeking.  In the process, I stumbled upon Chesen’s book, but I knew after I got it in the mail that it was not the book that I read at Hilles.  One evening, I looked at the bibliography of Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Education of a Politician.  I saw Mazlish’s book listed, I looked it up on Amazon, and, bingo, that was the book I had read at Hilles!

The reason that I was drawn to Mazlish’s book back when I was at Harvard was that I could identify with features of Nixon’s personality, as Mazlish described them: Nixon’s tendency to be a loner, yet Nixon’s lighting up as a light-bulb whenever a crowd loved him; Nixon’s quietness; the alienation that Nixon felt from certain sophisticated circles; Nixon’s hard work; how Nixon’s mannerisms when speaking looked rather contrived; Nixon’s lack of physical coordination; Nixon’s love for daydreaming; Nixon’s tendency at times to act on ideas that he came up with in solitude, without telling his aides; and Nixon’s lack of dates with women (though he did have more dates than I did).  I was intrigued by how Nixon would drive Pat on her dates with other men.  Nixon just wouldn’t go away!  In reading Mazlish recently, I liked Mazlish’s quote of Gary Wills, who said that Nixon tended to hang around when he was not wanted, with the result that he was a leftover, but one who still could find a job to do within that capacity!  I’d rather be loved, but if I could get a job as a leftover because I just keep showing up, that’s all right with me!

To give you an example of how Mazlish traces elements of Nixon’s personality to events in his life, I’ll refer to a cluster of events that Mazlish talks about.  When Nixon was living at home with his parents during his younger years, two of his brothers died.  One was Arthur, who was expected to be a girl and was somewhat treated like a girl.  The other was Harold, who was the firstborn, and whom Nixon said was his parents’ favorite.  When Harold got tuberculosis, Nixon’s mother Hannah went with Harold to live in Arizona, where the air was drier.  Richard was now away from his mother, and he lived in California with his father.  Nixon heard his father’s outrage over the Teapot Dome scandal within the Harding Administration, and it was at that point that Nixon abandoned his dream to be a railroad engineer who would go to faraway places and see the world; rather, Nixon would be an attorney, one who couldn’t be bought!

How did these elements of Nixon’s life influence the sort of person who Nixon became, according to Mazlish?  When Arthur was sissified, Richard was repulsed by the concept of sissies, according to Mazlish.  When his Mom was away, Nixon saw dependence on people as a weakness.  That’s why Nixon was critical of “bums” (even though his Mom and grandmother fed the tramps who came to their door) and used the word as an epithet for anti-war protesters, whom he believed grew up with things handed to them on a silver platter.  That’s why Nixon admired strength—-which is evident in his marriage to a strong woman (Pat) who pressured him to stand up for himself and sometimes even chewed him out in public, Nixon’s admiration for Communist leaders (as much as he loathed Communism), and his desire that America look strong in the Vietnam War.  According to Mazlish, the death of Nixon’s two brothers may explain why Nixon sees life as a series of crises to be met head on and surmounted, and why Nixon tries to beat death.  And Nixon’s gravitation to his father after his mother went to Arizona explains Nixon’s entrance into public life (which Richard’s Mom did not want for Richard), and also his love for hamburgers and spaghetti, which was a staple when Nixon’s father Frank was raising his sons (other than Harold) on his own.  And yet, there was still within Richard Nixon some of the kid who wanted to be a railroad engineer who would see the world.  That’s Nixon the daydreamer, but also the Nixon who has no home.  Mazlish refers to Theodore White’s statement that, in a sense, Washington D.C. was Nixon’s only home.  Nixon got to the point where he was rather alienated from California, and Nixon long saw the eastern United States as a strange, exotic place that excluded him (though he later worked there as a lawyer).  But Washington, D.C. was his home.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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