For my blog post today on Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990, I’ll discuss something that Stephen Ambrose says on page 488:
“On the subject of [Richard] Nixon, [Henry] Kissinger said, ‘He was very good in foreign policy [but] he was a very odd man….He is a very unpleasant man. He was so nervous…He was an artificial man in the sense that when he met someone he thought it out carefully so that nothing was spontaneous, and that meant he didn’t enjoy people. People sensed that. What I never understood is why he became a politician. He hated to meet new people. Most politicians like crowds. He didn’t.’…[William] Safire reported that at the recent Vladivostok summit, Kissinger had sought to tout [President Gerald] Ford at Nixon’s expense, saying that Nixon ‘would never look [Soviet leader] Brezhnev in the eye.'”
Is Kissinger accurate about all of this? Ambrose in volume 2 of his Nixon trilogy says a couple of times that Kissinger probably was projecting onto Nixon some of his own insecurities. Moreover, on the question of whether or not Nixon liked crowds, I recall reading in Bruce Mazlish’s In Search of Nixon about an incident in which, when Nixon was in a group with a few people, he was rather quiet, but he lit up like a light-bulb when a crowd came to see him! Mazlish attributed that to Nixon’s narcissism. But who among us wouldn’t appreciate the adulation of a crowd?
I can’t say that Kissinger was totally wrong in his description of Nixon, however. From what I have read for My Year (or More) of Nixon, Nixon was shy around new people. He was introverted. He liked to plan. He didn’t particularly care for surprises, in which he would be upstaged or caught off guard.
Ambrose himself talks about the introverted, aloof side of Nixon’s personality, particularly when he depicts Nixon as alone during the Watergate scandal. Technically, Nixon was not alone, for Nixon had his friends such as Bebe Rebozo and his family, as Ambrose narrates. But Nixon was keeping certain things to himself, according to Ambrose. Moreover, Ambrose talks a couple of times about Nixon’s bad jokes, which may indicate a social awkwardness on Nixon’s part.
Did Richard Nixon have Asperger’s Syndrome? Many people with Asperger’s, or who know something about Asperger’s, can look at some of Nixon’s characteristics and see some overlap with Asperger’s. Nixon loved order. He was socially-awkward. He tended to ramble on and on about subjects that interested him. Kissinger said that Nixon did not look Brezhnev in the eye, and there are many with Asperger’s who have difficulty with eye-contact. (I should note, though, that Joan Hoff in Nixon Reconsidered narrated that, when she met Nixon, Nixon looked her straight in the eye.)
But I have my doubts that Nixon had Asperger’s. When I watch YouTube videos of him, or listen to the Nixon tapes that are on YouTube, or read about Nixon’s interactions in books, he strikes me as socially competent—-not dazzling, mind you, but competent. He is able to joke and to come up with quick come-backs. He can even banter a bit.