I finished Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990. On page 586, Ambrose asks questions about Nixon that a number of people have asked: “What made Richard Nixon what he was? How could a man who had so much talent, brains, ambition, and success feel so insecure, so snubbed, so unrewarded?” Ambrose goes on to say: “It is not insignificant that with all the words expended on him, Nixon himself has provided the most insightful analysis.” Ambrose then quotes Nixon as saying the following:
“What starts the process really are the laughs and snubs and slights you get when you are a kid. Sometimes it’s because you’re poor or Irish or Jewish or ugly or simply that you are skinny. But if you are reasonably intelligent and if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence, personal gut performance, while those who have everything are sitting on their fat butts….[When you get to the top] You find you can’t stop playing the game the way you’ve always played it because it is a part of you and you need it as much as you do an arm or a leg. So you are lean and mean and resourceful and you continue to walk on the edge of the precipice because over the years you have become fascinated by how close to the edge you can walk without losing your balance.”
Hugh Sidey said the following about his own understanding of Nixon’s self-image: “Born clumsy, not very good looking, to parents who were overworked, overburdened, harsh. Confronted by poverty, by a society that was wealthy and did not much care about him. Ridiculed in early life and always. Yet there was a fierce talent beneath all that. He kept everything—-resentment and talent. He understood that his success depended on him developing his mind and at least to some degree getting along in society. But he never abandoned his black impulses to lash out at the world which made him kind of lumpy and uncoordinated and denied him warmth and security.”
Ambrose characterizes Nixon as one with drive—-who kept coming back even after people thought he was through. Was it an angry “I’ll show them” attitude that propelled Nixon’s drive? Perhaps. The thing is, Ambrose argues that there were downsides to the way that Nixon did things. For example, the way that Nixon surprised people with his proposals and ideas after keeping them a secret was not conducive to him building bridges with the Congress (which he scorned) and thereby achieving lasting results. It’s hard to completely stereotype Nixon on this, for he did work with people. As Sidey said, Nixon learned that, his introversion and anger notwithstanding, he had to learn to get along in society. And yet, Nixon alienated many because he struck them as a glory-hog and as one who did things by and for himself, without a great deal of collaboration.
A part of me admires Nixon’s “screw you” approach. I admire it in President Barack Obama! Remember when Obama gave his second inaugural address, displaying a salient commitment to a progressive agenda, and then he went on to send in his nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, even though Hagel was being criticized by prominent Republicans? I loved it! But Obama has been criticized for not collaborating with the Republicans enough, and for not building bridges with the Congress. Maybe that sort of approach does inhibit things from getting done. And yet, I wonder what would have happened had Republicans been included more in the process of health care reform. Would they have killed it?