I have five items for my blog post today on Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, 1962-1972. We’re in July-December 1967.
1. Richard Nixon liked to say “let me make it perfectly clear”, and variations of that phrase. Nixon said that he needed to be candid in order to dispel his reputation as someone who was devious. On pages 121-122, Ambrose says the following about Nixon’s statements that he would be candid, clear, or precise:
“Some of his oft-used statements preceding a statement included: ‘to be perfectly candid,’ ‘speaking quite frankly,’ ‘putting it bluntly,’ ‘let me be quite precise,’ and ‘let me make it perfectly clear.’ In fact, in most cases, he was about to be the opposite. For example, whenever he promised to be ‘quite precise,’ he would fly off into a generalization; whenever he promised to make things ‘perfectly clear,’ he always left them more opaque than ever.”
That’s funny! And it’s only one of several examples of a funny passage in Ambrose’s book. That’s why Ambrose is such an enjoyable author to read.
Incidentally, other authors I’ve read have commented on Nixon’s statements that he would be clear or candid. Eli Chesen in President Nixon’s Psychiatric Profile says that Nixon used that expression because of his own insecurity. If Nixon were secure, Chesen contends, he would just assume that people would accept his remarks as candid! The thing is, as Nixon said, there were a lot of people who didn’t do that, for they regarded Nixon as rather devious. Then there’s John Bircher Gary Allen’s Richard Nixon: The Man Behind the Mask. Allen says that, whenever Nixon says he would be clear or candid, people should watch out! They’re about to be conned!
2. On page 122, Ambrose talks about Nixon’s extensive knowledge and how that helped him in his campaign:
“He was a masterful political speaker for two good reasons. First, he just knew too much. Talking to big-business men or to intellectuals, he could go on for hours without a single note, reeling off statistics on production, population growth, educational levels, and gross national products for nearly every nation in the world, or speculate on this or that personality in those countries, not on the basis of something he had read but on the basis of personal knowledge. As to American politics, no one, not even the President, knew the players and the game more intimately than Nixon.”
Ambrose’s second reason for Nixon’s effectiveness as a political speaker was that Nixon knew how to speak to the fears and concerns of the white middle class. But I won’t go into that topic right now.
Having read four of Nixon’s books, I have to admit that Nixon comes across as very knowledgeable and intelligent. But, in the course of reading books for my Year (or More) of Nixon, I’ve noticed something else that Ambrose discusses: that Nixon was not always consistent. For example, Nixon during President Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency was saying that the U.S. should escalate the war in Vietnam. But when Johnson did that and sent more American troops, Nixon then said that Johnson was making a mistake, for the U.S. shouldn’t make South Vietnam too dependent on American forces.
I’m all for flexibility, for new situations may call for changes in strategy. Moreover, I don’t think that all charges of flip-flopping within the political arena are particularly fair. Bill Clinton was portrayed as a waffler by Republicans in 1992, but I thought that Clinton was simply expressing alternatives to the typical banal left-right polarity. John Kerry was called a flip-flopper in 2004 for voting for funds for the Iraq War before voting against them, but Kerry explained to my satisfaction why he did that: it was because things were added to the appropriations after he voted for them that he did not like. Mitt Romney’s changes of position, however, turned me off. They seemed to me to be frequent, and they made me wonder if he had any core, or a fairly firm stance about what the United States should so about such-and-such a situation, or even enough knowledge to arrive at such a stance. I can understand why there were people who felt this way about Nixon. And yet, Nixon could do a good job in communicating that he knew stuff.
3. On page 120, Ambrose says the following about Nixon’s views on Ronald Reagan, a conservative Republican who had just become Governor of California:
“When he saw lines like that, or heard Reagan lecture to the university people about their responsibilities, Nixon knew who his chief competitor was, whatever he told the press about Rockefeller or Romney.”
This passage is good because it enhances the drama of Ambrose’s narrative. A serious political player is entering the arena who is of concern to Nixon! Reagan’s talk and action about order on college campuses (which Nixon also talked about) spoke to a lot of people. And Reagan also had a Nixonian talent for saying something without being overly blunt. When Reagan was asked if Johnson deserved blame for the loss of lives in Vietnam, Reagan replied that Johnson wasn’t cold blooded or callous, but that as President Johnson would get credit for a victory, and so Johnson should also take responsibility for the consequences of his war policy. Ambrose says Reagan’s response here was “a Nixon-like reply that the master himself could not have topped” (page 120).
4. Julie Nixon became engaged to David Eisenhower, who was Dwight Eisenhower’s grandson. On page 129, we read: “when Julie told her father, he had so little to say—-he hardly looked up from the legal pad he was writing on—-that she felt let down and went to her mother for consolation. Pat spoke to her husband.” Nixon wrote Julie a note, which was slipped under her door. The note said that probably no father thinks that anyone is good enough for his daughter, that Julie and David were lucky to have found each other, that Fina (the maid from Cuba) said Julie brings life to the home, and that Julie will bring life to her home wherever it might be.
It was a sweet note. I don’t think that Nixon disapproved of David, per se, for he got along well with David. Ambrose says that Nixon and David spent hours talking about politics and baseball! My guess is that Nixon was depressed when Julie came to tell him the news, or he was preoccupied within his own little world.
5. Nixon’s mother Hannah passed on in 1967, which means that she never got to actually see her son become President of the United States. Hannah had read a newspaper columnist say that Nixon was through. On page 128, Ambrose narrates:
“Nixon, at a loss for appropriate words, had said, ‘Mother, don’t give up.’ And the woman who had never known the meaning of the word quit, the mother who had given birth to, nurtured, and helped train one of the most remarkable personalities of her time, the saint (it was a word used to describe her by others long before her son used it) who had wiped up her oldest boy’s tuberculosis spittle (and that of so many others) in a desperate attempt to give Harold Nixon his fair chance, denying herself meanwhile even the smallest luxury or comfort, the wife who had tamed and civilized Frank Nixon, had pulled herself up in bed. She had looked intently into her son’s eyes. For her at least, one may suppose that time no longer existed, that it was not 1965 but 1915, or 1925, or ’35 or ’45 or ’55. Whatever the year, whatever the current crisis, her admonishment to her boy was the same. ‘Richard,’ she had said, ‘don’t you give up. Don’t let anybody tell you you are through.'”
Some may see Ambrose’s narration here as sappy and over-the-top. I think it’s beautiful, and it moved me to tears.