I finished David Greenberg’s Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image. In this post, I’d like to comment on Greenberg’s discussion of three books about Richard Nixon. The first two I have read, and the third is one that I am thinking about reading.
1. Well, actually, the first book will be two books: the ones by Monica Crowley about her time working for Nixon during the 1990’s. On pages 299-300, Greenberg states:
“A final challenge to Nixon’s reputation as a wise man came, ironically, from a book that aspired to showcase Nixon’s acumen. In 1996 and 1998, Nixon’s former assistant Monica Crowley published two volumes of her conversations with her own boss as she recollected them. Crowley understood that Americans still craved a glimpse of the ‘real’ Nixon behind his public facades; by reprinting Nixon’s comments to her about Watergate, politics, and world affairs, she hoped to humanize him and to show off his wisdom. But to many readers Nixon’s undifferentiated remarks, from everyday chatter about the 1992 election to freshman-level musings about various political philosophers, came across as embarrassingly banal. Instead of peeking into the mind of a visionary, readers found themselves eavesdropping on an elderly kibitzer. If Crowley had hoped to highlight Nixon’s mastery of geopolitics, the president’s old friend Len Garment thought, her gambit backfired. Her books, he said, showed Nixon ‘at his worst:….craven, pompous, vain, vindictive, and, most unforgivably, silly…'”
I actually thought that Monica’s books about Nixon were pretty good. I wouldn’t say that Nixon particularly impressed me in those books, for he did come across as rather vain and petty. (I did admire him, however, for standing up for his wife after she died and some of the articles about her were negative, for, as Nixon said, Pat didn’t ask to be in public life.) On whether Nixon’s political or philosophical insights were “banal” or “freshman-level,” well, I can’t say: they’re probably better than anything I can come up with, and they don’t seem to me to be any more banal than other things that I have read. To be candid, I have read plenty of good books, but I am rarely blown away by people’s attempts to be profound.
What I liked most about Monica’s books was their description of Nixon the man. One of the saddest parts of her Nixon in Winter was on page 338, when Nixon got into Monica’s car, but he was afraid to go home to see his sick, dying wife and his children who were mourning for her. Monica drove him around for a while, and they saw Nixon’s previous home, “where Mrs. Nixon had enjoyed better health and happier times with her family and death had not loomed as immediately as it now did.” I thought that Monica effectively captured Nixon’s vulnerability in the final years of his life.
2. Greenberg has a chapter about revisionist historians who interpreted President Nixon as a liberal on domestic policy, and, on pages 328-329, he discusses where Stephen Ambrose comes out on that in Ambrose’s Nixon trilogy:
“As it turned out, Ambrose’s three-volume biography didn’t deal with Nixon’s social policies much at all…Hewing to the familiar narrative, Ambrose emphasized Watergate and foreign policy more than domestic affairs. And despite his comments at Hofstra, his judgment of Nixon’s domestic policies echoed the journalists of Nixon’s own day: ‘On the domestic side, Nixon has no claim to greatness,’ Ambrose wrote. ‘…Nixon might have achieved that level of accomplishment in a number of areas, such as welfare reform, or national health insurance for all, or government reorganization, or revenue sharing, but in each case he failed.’
“In the closing paragraphs of his final volume, Ambrose turned sentimental…Ambrose concluded his trilogy with a ringing endorsement of Nixon’s presidency that was informed by the conservatism of the Reagan years. ‘Because Nixon resigned,’ Ambrose wrote of the man he once hated, ‘what the country got was not the Nixon Revolution but the Reagan Revolution. It got massive, unbelievable deficits. It got Iran-contra. It got the savings and loan scandals. It got millions of homeless and gross favoritism for the rich….When Nixon resigned, we lost more than we gained.’…Ambrose seemed disinclined to end his biography on a bitter note and, by appending his fond summary, inched his judgment toward the revisionist camp.”
I thought that Greenberg left out the best passage in volume 3 of Ambrose’s Nixon that reflects some attempt at Nixon revisionism. On pages 596-597, Ambrose states:
“It was Nixon’s advocacy of such programs as student loans and grants and national health insurance for all that most infuriated conservatives like the Buckley brothers. As did the liberals, the conservatives always assigned to Nixon the worst motives; in this case, the conservatives charged that Nixon was trying to pander to the liberals to save his own skin. That hardly seems fair. By the time he was pushing these proposals, in early 1974, Nixon knew that he had no liberal supporters left. He knew his fate rested with the conservatives in Congress. Nevertheless he made the proposals. Would it be too much to suggest that Richard Nixon, who grew up in near-poverty conditions because of the crushing medical expenses his family had to pay and who could attend college only on scholarship, made these proposals because he believed in them?”
That is an excellent question, within a beautiful and a thought-provoking passage. But I thought the same thing as Greenberg as I was reading Ambrose’s revisionistic stance near the end of the Nixon trilogy: it did not fit all that well with the rest of Ambrose’s biography. Ambrose in the first volume of his trilogy does depict Nixon as somewhat progressive on racial issues, but, overall, his trilogy did not strike me as a glowing account of Nixon’s domestic policies, at least in comparison to other things that I have read. I would have been more moved by what Ambrose said near the end had it been more consistent with the rest of the biography.
3. One of the Nixon revisionists was scholar Joan Hoff, who wrote the book Nixon Reconsidered. On page 336, Greenberg states the following:
“But while the list of Nixon’s progressive programs ran to several pages, it still read as a laundry list; Nixon as a person hardly entered the picture. Richard Norton Smith had criticized Nixon Reconsidered because ‘process crowds out personality’ in the book. ‘Instead of biographical context,’ he wrote, ‘…we get eye-glazing accounts of White House policy toward American Indians, and of the turf wars between the Council on Economic Policy and the Commission on International Trade and Investment Policy.’ Smith’s boredom notwithstanding, the book’s problem was not so much its purported tediousness as its sacrifice of context, flavor, and meaning. No president, especially not Nixon, can be adequately measured as the sum total of his policy decisions, and to dwell only on policy is to reduce the president to just that. ‘In pursuing her vision of Nixon without Watergate,’ Smith wrote, ‘Ms. Hoff comes dangerously close to giving us Nixon without Nixon.'”
I have not yet read Nixon Reconsidered, though I have looked through the book and have read bits and pieces of it. I have been reluctant to read it because my impression is similar to that of Richard Norton Smith: that Nixon Reconsidered would be a laundry list of Nixon’s progressive domestic accomplishments. Moreover, I’ve feared that it would be a one-sided laundry list: that Hoff would simply list all the great things that Nixon did, without going into the disadvantages of his policies. That, in my opinion, would be pretty boring. But I’ll still read her book at some point and see what she does.
I will say, though, that her account in her book of meeting Richard Nixon was quite remarkable. She said that she had heard that Nixon was shifty-eyed, but that the Nixon she met looked her straight in the eye. Moreover, from what Greenberg says, Hoff has an interesting story herself: she was part of the New Left when Nixon was President, and she was surprised as a scholar to learn about Nixon’s domestic accomplishments. I hope that her book has some personal dimension to it. Something that I liked about her protege Dean Kotlowski’s book, Nixon’s Civil Rights, was that it was not just a tedious, wonky description of Nixon’s civil rights policies, for it also got into Nixon the man: Nixon’s attitudes about race, Nixon’s relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jackie Robinson, etc. I’m not sure if I felt that I truly knew Nixon after reading that book—-it’s hard for me to read any book about Nixon and to walk away concluding that I truly know him. But I did appreciate the personal dimension in Kotlowski’s book.