For my blog post today on Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, 1962-1972, I’ll use as my starting-point something that Ambrose says on page 221. Ambrose is commenting on Nixon’s statement that “the great objective” of his administration will be “to bring the American people together” (Nixon’s words). Ambrose states:
“No one could deny that the American people very badly needed to be brought back together. Less clear was whether Nixon was the man to do it. His campaign had been almost totally bereft of any reaching out to blacks, the counterculture, the doves, or the poor. Instead, he had run a sophisticated campaign to capitalize on the polarization among the nation’s people, its races, and its regions. He made it into an ‘us versus them’ contest, the ‘us’ being the Silent Majority, Middle America, the white, comfortable, patriotic, hawkish ‘forgotten Americans’…He had urged the American people to lower their voices, while he and Agnew raised theirs.”
My post today will be on where Nixon was a divider, and where he was a uniter. Here are some items, based on information in Ambrose’s book.
—-Nixon did not care for the Democratic bureaucrats who remained in the government even after Nixon became President, for Nixon feared that they could sabotage him from within, or that “they’ll just sit back on their well-paid asses and wait for the next election to bring back their old bosses” (Nixon, quoted on page 239). And yet, Nixon appointed as a domestic policy adviser a liberal, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one who had helped to design the Great Society programs under President Lyndon Johnson, only to become a critic of them. And, on page 236, Ambrose says that Nixon offered a number of posts to Democrats and African-American leaders, but they turned him down.
—-Nixon did not care for the press. Dwight Eisenhower as President, by contrast, was not as hostile to the press as Nixon would be, for Eisenhower did not think that a reporter could do a whole lot of harm to the President of the United States. Ambrose tends to agree with Eisenhower on this, for Ambrose contends that the President is the one who sets the agenda by deciding what is news and what events to downplay or make into a crisis. Nixon, by contrast, focused on the media’s power to shape public opinion and create mass awareness, and he thought that he had to fight the media to inform the American people about his views and his programs. So that’s an area in which Nixon was a divider. The thing is, Nixon could have fostered a good relationship with the press by selecting Herb Klein as his press secretary, for Klein “was widely respected by the working press” (Ambrose on page 229). Instead, Ambrose narrates, Nixon chose the young, inexperienced Ron Ziegler to be his press secretary, which Ambrose says was an insult to the media. But Nixon made Klein the director of communications, an act that put “Ziegler and Klein in competition with each other” (page 230).
—-Nixon often liked to set his aides against each other, according to Ambrose. There are two reasons that Ambrose mentions, and I will offer a third reason, as well. The first reason was self-protection. According to Ambrose, Nixon liked the conflict between his aide H.R. Haldeman and his long-time secretary Rose Mary Woods because they could not join forces against him if they were fighting each other (page 228). Ambrose mentions “evidence” that this was so, but I’m not sure what exactly that evidence was. It did surprise me, though, that Nixon would distrust (on some level) his long-time secretary, who was practically a part of his family. I would need to see the evidence to believe Ambrose on this!
Second, Ambrose says that Nixon pit Klein and Ziegler against each other because Nixon could then be his own press secretary. My impression from Ambrose is that Nixon wanted more power and leeway to perform certain functions according to his own desires, without having to consult a middle-man. That’s why Nixon appointed William Rogers, who didn’t know much about foreign affairs, to be his Secretary of State: Nixon wanted the White House, not the State Department, to be where foreign policy decisions would be made. But I have read in different places that Nixon often let his cabinet handle domestic policy, while Nixon focused on his own interest, namely, foreign affairs. In my opinion, all of this is consistent with Nixon’s introversion: Nixon did not like to deal with people that much, and so he either delegated responsibilities that did not particularly interest him (allowing others to deal with people), or he cut out the middle-man so he could act unilaterally (or with one other person, such as Kissinger), without having to explain himself.
Third, I think that Nixon had diverse people as advisers because he wanted to hear different points-of-view (at least sometimes). For example, Nixon had as advisers the liberal Moynihan and the conservative Arthur Burns. Moynihan and Burns disagreed on an idea Nixon had to add to the welfare rolls the working poor and “low-income fathers who stayed with their families” (Ambrose on page 269), an idea that Nixon hoped would correct the welfare system’s discrimination against work and family. Moynihan agreed with this proposal because he thought it would ameliorate the flawed welfare system. Burns, by contrast, was against putting more people on welfare. Nixon got to hear different perspectives. Nixon told Burns that, while he understood Burns’ concern, Burns should offer an alternative if Burns did not like the idea. On page 237, Ambrose says that “Nixon reasoned that Burns’s conservatism would be a useful and creative counter-weight to Moynihan’s liberalism.”
—-Nixon had to be at peace with someone: FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who scared people because he had files about them! Nixon told Hoover that Hoover would be one of the few who would have “direct access” to Nixon “at all times” (Nixon, quoted on page 235). Ambrose narrates humorously that “Hoover nodded; he obviously expected no less” (page 235).
—-Nixon as President got to eat dinner more often with his wife, Pat. And yet, Ambrose notes that Nixon did not dance with Pat at their daughter Julie’s wedding, and that Nixon did not kiss Pat in public, even though he kissed Mamie Eisenhower. That somewhat relates to unity and division: Nixon got to be with Pat more, yet he was alienated from her, on some level (unless Ambrose is reading too much into things!).