For my blog post today on Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image, I’ll highlight something that David Greenberg says on pages 71-72. The topic is Richard Nixon’s speech to the White House staff after he resigned from the Presidency, in which Nixon talked about his father, his mother, the importance of not hating people, and perseverance. According to Greenberg, this speech reminded some of Nixon’s critics of his famous Checkers speech in 1952, in which Nixon, under fire for having a fund from businessmen’s donations, portrayed himself as a common man, and talked about receiving as a gift a cocker spaniel, whom his family named Checkers. Many of Nixon’s critics considered the Checkers speech to be maudlin, inauthentic, and manipulative of the public.
“Watergate, of course, represented cultural triumph for the image of Tricky Dick; if the image had been pronounced before Nixon’s presidential crisis, it became indelible thereafter. Yet even at their moment of vindication, liberals still filtered Nixon through their ideological and cultural lenses. When Nixon delivered his farewell address in August 1974 from the White House East Room, in which he dwelled on his parents and his boyhood, many heard only mawkish echoes of Checkers. When Nixon shook hands with the White House staff, they shook their heads that he was pursuing his cynical image making right until the end. James Taylor’s song ‘Line ‘Em Up,’ written some years later, captured these feelings. In rhyming couplets, Taylor recalled how the president, in a false show of sadness, wallowed in self-pity while privately relishing the political opportunity his resignation speech presented. Even as he hit bottom, the cagey Nixon, in Taylor’s telling, looked forward to pressing the flesh one last time with those who had served him in the White House, so that he might publicly display his affinity for ordinary Americans. Meg Greenfield, who had moved from The Reporter to The Washington Post a few years earlier, recalled hearing such sentiments from her liberal friends at the time. ‘Did you hear that performance?’ they asked. ‘Would you believe he’s still trying that stuff?’ Greenfield herself—-the self-professed ‘last unreconstructed Nixon critic on earth’—-had heard the speech on her car radio and sympathized with the president and his ‘unendurable shame.’ But her fellow Nixon-haters, she wrote, couldn’t grasp what she was talking about. ‘Live by the image, die by the image,’ she concluded. ‘They saw Nixon’s speech merely as evidence of further faking….I thought this reaction said something not about Nixon, but about us.’ Greenfield had a point. Even as liberals saddled Nixon with a permanent image as Tricky Dick, they also revealed their distance from the Americans who shared his values.”
I never thought that Nixon’s speech to the White House staff was inauthentic. Rather, I believed that Nixon in that speech was expressing what he truly felt about his father and his mother and their values, as well as the importance of perseverance and the possibility of experiencing joy on the mountain. Did he really mean what he said about the importance of not hating those who hate you? I think so. I’d like to think that this is an example of him learning from his mistakes. But my impression is that it was difficult for him to follow through on that, since resentment was a part of who he was.
Do I dismiss that there was at least some PR motivation to his speech? There could have been, on some level. I vaguely recall reading in the third volume of Stephen Ambrose’s trilogy that Nixon’s wife Pat did not want Nixon’s speech to the White House staff to be shown to the public, whereas Nixon did want that. Maybe he did have his legacy in mind. But that doesn’t necessarily detract from his speech being an authentic expression of his feelings. Perhaps he just wanted to share with the American people that he wasn’t a totally bad guy—-that he was a human being, who learned from his mistakes and was persevering through life. And why should we assume that he wasn’t human? I’m sure that Nixon was a cynical politician who, like a lot of politicians, tried to manipulate the public for his own ends. But I think that he was also one who could value human goodness when he saw it, who could appreciate the things that his parents taught him, and who sought lessons in life.