President Nixon’s Psychiatric Profile 1

I started Eli Chesen’s 1973 book, President Nixon’s Psychiatric Profile.  According to this wikipedia article, Dr. Chesen worked with David Frost in developing a strategy for Frost’s interviews of Richard Nixon.

Chesen admits that his psychiatric analysis of Nixon is not based on any personal meetings that he has had with Nixon.  Rather, like Bruce Mazlish in In Search of Nixon, Chesen relies on such sources as biographies, Richard Nixon’s Six Crises, and Nixon’s public appearances.  Interestingly, one way that Chesen justifies his methodology is by appealing to something that Nixon himself said in Six Crises: that, if the Alger Hiss hearings had been televised, there wouldn’t have been all of the controversy about Hiss’ guilt, for people would have looked at Hiss’ mannerisms and would have concluded that Hiss was guilty!

Chesen essentially presents Nixon as someone who is insecure and thus tries to maintain control.  That, according to Chesen, accounts for various features of Nixon’s personality and activities: Nixon’s obsession with detail, his self-discipline and his admiration of those who are self-disciplined, his behavior during Watergate, the way that he says that he wants to make something clear or to be candid (rather than just assuming that people will accept what he’s saying as candid), etc.  What are the roots of Nixon’s insecurity, according to Chesen?  Well, Chesen provides a fictional case-study of a man named Steve Cleansman, who grew up with a father who ran him down, and Cleansman went on to become an insecure perfectionist.  Chesen makes clear that Steve Cleansman is not entirely like Richard Nixon, but rather that the fictional case-study is a way for Chesen to illustrate categories and defense mechanisms that are relevant to Nixon’s life.  And, to be honest, I don’t get the impression from Chesen’s book that Nixon was an insecure perfectionist because his father didn’t think that he was good enough.

Nixon’s parents were relevant, however, as far as Chesen is concerned.  Nixon’s father was an authoritarian and was argumentative, and he would never let his sons develop self-esteem by beating him in an argument.  (According to Mazlish, Nixon responded to this by becoming talented with words.)  Nixon’s mother was religious, and she was also the strong one of the family.  According to Chesen, the strength of Nixon’s mother confused Nixon because men were the ones who were supposed to be strong, and Nixon’s religious upbringing—-coupled with his father’s authoritarianism—-instilled in Nixon a certain authoritarianism.  Nixon, according to Chesen, found a degree of comfort in the authority structure that was around him, and yet Nixon resented it, contributing to the aggressive impulses within him.  According to Chesen, the adult Nixon on some level admires Communism on account of its orderliness as a system, yet he is anti-Communist because he is projecting things onto Communism.

The time that Nixon’s mother was away in Arizona caring for Richard’s brother Harold (who had tuberculosis) also had an impact on Nixon, according to Chesen: at age 12 (and I should note that Mazlish on page 21 of In Search of Nixon seems to say that Nixon was older than 12 when this happened), Nixon was thrust into adulthood, and he had to perform tasks that women did (i.e., washing the dishes).  That, according to Chesen, could have made Nixon ashamed and influenced him to withdraw.  There are other factors that young Nixon experienced that could have contributed to his insecurity: the death of his brother Arthur, an accident in which Nixon fell out of a buggy when he was very young, and illnesses.

Like Mazlish, Chesen discusses Nixon’s grandiosity.  Early in the book, on pages 12-13, Chesen says that the difference between Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon was that Eisenhower regarded himself as part of America, as was evident in Eisenhower’s division of his loyalties between the White House and the golf course; Nixon, by contrast, regards the country as an extension of himself and takes himself way too seriously—-even though Nixon says in Six Crises that he learned from Eisenhower not to take himself too seriously!

I should make a clarification: I doubt that Chesen is saying that events in Nixon’s earlier life caused Nixon to turn out a certain way.  Chesen acknowledges in his story about Steve Cleansman that people who grow up in the same environment can turn out differently.  Perhaps Chesen believes that how people turn out is a combination of both nature and nurture—-of temperament coupled with the experiences that people have.  Just to speculate (and this is my speculation, not Chesen’s), Nixon may have already been a quiet boy who wanted order, but certain events amplified those characteristics.

I’d like to close this post by commenting on Nixon’s religion.  Both Mazlish and Chesen discuss the role of religion in Nixon’s childhood and his adult life, and they appear to regard Nixon as rather conservative religiously.  But, as I talk about here, as I draw from Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Education of a Politician and William Martin’s With God on Our Side, Nixon during and after his young adulthood had quite liberal ideas about religion, indicating that Nixon was not afraid to question his rather fundamentalist upbringing.  That should somehow be factored into any discussion about the role of religion in Nixon’s authoritarianism.  Still, notwithstanding Nixon’s religious liberalism, elements of his religious upbringing may have contributed to his obsession with order: the sociology of his religious upbringing, his mother’s insistence that God had a plan, etc.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I 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. 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.
This entry was posted in Communism, History, Politics, Psychology, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to President Nixon’s Psychiatric Profile 1

  1. Pingback: David Frost | James' Ramblings

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