I finished Dr. Eli Chesen’s President Nixon’s Psychiatric Profile: A Psychodynamic-Genetic Interpretation. I have three items.
1. Chesen speculates that Nixon was especially susceptible to pneumonia in the summer of 1973 because he was about to meet with Senator Sam Ervin, who was investigating Watergate and who (according to Chesen) reminded Nixon of his opinionated, authoritarian father, Frank Nixon.
The relationship between Nixon’s later life and his earlier life has been of interest to me, especially as I’ve read Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Education of a Politician and Bruce Mazlish’s In Search of Nixon. Or let me phrase the issue a bit differently by asking a question: Could Nixon ever outgrow the problems that he experienced in his earlier years? According to the picture that Chesen presents, Nixon, even years after his father had died, when Nixon had a family of his own and was in a position of authority in his own right, could still be troubled by his issues with his father. Bruce Mazlish talks about how Nixon in the 1950’s did not care for the prospect of Dwight Eisenhower treating him like a little kid, but, when Nixon was President, he himself could be the father-figure. Nixon was like a father-figure to his son-in-law, David Eisenhower. And, whereas Nixon as Vice-President was the political attack-dog while President Dwight Eisenhower maintained an aura of dignity above the fray, Nixon as President tried to be the fair-minded one above the fray, while his Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, acted as the attack-dog. But did Nixon truly arrive at a state of maturity in his years as President? Somewhere in Nixon: The Education of a Politician, Stephen Ambrose argues in the negative. When Nixon was Vice-President, Eisenhower thought that Nixon was immature and lacked administrative experience, and he contemplated replacing Nixon as Vice-President while giving Nixon a cabinet position so that he could attain administrative experience. This did not happen, for Nixon remained Eisenhower’s Vice-President. But, even as President, Nixon was not that good of an administrator, as far as Ambrose is concerned! One can move into maturer roles while still being dogged by one’s past!
2. Chesen has a chapter about the people with whom Nixon surrounds himself. I was particularly intrigued by Chesen’s discussion of H.R. Haldeman and Billy Graham. H.R. Haldeman was Nixon’s Chief-of-Staff. Haldeman had a flat-top, years after the 1950’s; he (like John Ehrlichman) was a disciplined Christian Scientist who did not drink or smoke, yet he crossed ethical boundaries; and he had a gruff demeanor, which enabled him to do the hard jobs that Nixon didn’t want to do himself. According to Chesen, Haldeman met Nixon’s need for order. But Nixon apparently didn’t go for Haldeman’s proposal to replace Nixon’s long-time secretary, Rose Mary Woods, whom Chesen says was practically part of Nixon’s family!
Chesen essentially portrays Billy Graham as insecure, as authoritarian, and as “grandiose and intoxicated by as well as addicted to power” (page 209). I don’t think that Chesen is saying that Graham runs things in an authoritarian fashion, but rather that Graham likes to get on his high horse and preach to people about how they should live their lives. Chesen seems to base his impressions, at least in part, on Graham’s sermons. What need of Nixon does Graham meet, according to Chesen? Essentially, Graham rubber-stamps Nixon’s political agenda (particularly anti-Communism) with God’s alleged stamp of approval, as well as promotes that agenda.
Chesen may be spot-on when it comes to the Billy Graham of the 1950’s, who dogmatically shouted his political and religious convictions from the pulpit. But, in my opinion, the later Billy Graham came across as humbler, as less right-wing (notwithstanding his support for a ballot measure against marriage equality), as gentler, as more reflective, and as more tolerant. Still, I may read another book that Chesen has written: Religion May Be Hazardous to Your Health.
3. Chesen asks (and this was in 1973) if we have anything to fear from President Nixon, with his psychiatric status as one who is obsessed with order yet has deeply seated aggression? Chesen thinks that Nixon would thrive in solving an international crisis, for that would feed into his grandiosity, but Chesen doubts that Nixon would do as well in personal scandals, such as Watergate. The danger, for Chesen, could come if the crisis were international in scope while also impacting Nixon on a more personal level.
Chesen makes clear that he is not being partisan politically. The back flap of the book says that Chesen voted for Nixon in 1968 and for George McGovern in 1972, presenting Chesen as an independent. Moreover, Chesen, like Mazlish, criticizes the American Psychiatric Association for circulating a questionnaire in which the majority of respondents questioned Republican Barry Goldwater’s mental health. Chesen thinks that the APA was irresponsible and inaccurate, in that case. Chesen’s point, however, is that mental health is relevant to the Presidency. Mazlish makes a similar point. That does not mean that those who seek psychological help are unfit to be President—-as Mazlish notes, going into therapy is actually admirable because it shows courage and a desire to grow. But, for Mazlish and Chesen, knowing how a President ticks is important because that could impact so many people.