My blog post today on Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, 1962-1972 will concern Ambrose’s narration on pages 172-174. The topic of this post is the impact of Nixon’s advisers on Nixon, and the question of whether Nixon’s Presidency would have been better had Bob Finch rather than Spiro T. Agnew been Nixon’s Vice-President. The setting is July-August 1968.
On page 172, Ambrose talks about John Mitchell, H.R. Haldeman, and John Ehrlichman, who were key men on Nixon’s staff. These three men were fiercely loyal to Nixon, but they had downsides, according to Ambrose. They had neither run for elective office nor participated in the compromises that are a part of the legislative process, and they cynically tended to ascribe horrible motives to their political enemies. According to Ambrose, there was a disadvantage to Nixon surrounding himself with such vindictive men, namely, that they fed into Nixon’s own vindictiveness:
“From top to bottom, the staff consisted of men who were vindictive. For Nixon, this was highly dangerous, because he was also a vindictive man, with a long memory and a deep capacity to hate. By surrounding himself with vindictive types, Nixon encouraged within himself one of his worst and most self-harmful characteristics.”
But Ambrose speculates about whether things would have been a little better for Nixon had Bob Finch been Nixon’s Vice-President. Nixon liked Agnew back when Nixon was looking for a running mate, for the reasons that I mentioned when I was blogging through Jules Witcover’s Very Strange Bedfellows: Agnew’s confidence, his record as a moderate, and his tough stance on law-and-order. But Nixon actually asked Bob Finch to be his running mate before making the offer to Agnew.
Finch is this man. At the time, he was the Lieutenant Governor of California. Finch was very close to Nixon personally. For that reason, Mitchell was advising Nixon not to pick Finch, saying it would be “nepotism”, which Mitchell was confusing with cronyism. But Nixon asked Finch anyway, saying that Finch had “youth and freshness, and…would have great appeal to the party and to independent voters” (Nixon, as quoted on page 173). But Finch turned Nixon down for a variety of reasons. First, Finch thought that going from being a Lieutenant Governor to being the Vice-President of the United States was too great of a leap. Second, Finch agreed with Mitchell’s concern that people would regard Nixon’s selection of him (meaning Finch) as cronyism. Third, Finch was a rival to Ronald Reagan in California, so Finch thought that Nixon’s selection of Finch would be a turnoff to “Reagan’s people” (Ambrose’s words). And, fourth, Finch was concerned about the possible impact of a national campaign on his own family. Finch’s kids were getting taunted by antiwar students at school. How much worse would a national campaign be for them?
And so Nixon picked Agnew, one who shot-from-the hip and proved to be a polarizing figure. Ambrose asks a question: “What if Finch had said yes?” Ambrose says on pages 172-173:
“Big, sandy-haired, casual and relaxed, good-looking and easy-going, Finch was the opposite of Agnew. Finch’s instinct was to bring people together, not drive them apart. Finch’s method of operation was to study a problem thoroughly before speaking on it, not shoot from the hip. Finch had a broad sense of humor and often laughed at himself. Finch distrusted ideology; he was a pragmatist who sought progress through compromise and negotiation. Finch combined a warm human sympathy with a basic common sense. And the biggest differences of all between Finch and Agnew were these: Finch was sensitive to the feelings of others and not at all vindictive. Aside from these personality differences, there was another important one: Nixon liked and trusted Finch, and would listen to him. Not necessarily respond, but at least listen.”
Would a Vice-President Finch have persuaded Nixon to listen more to his angels rather than his demons? That’s a good question. The wikipedia article on Finch says that Finch in 1970 was Counselor to the President. Yet, the problems in Nixon’s Presidency remained.