I have two items for my blog post today about Richard Nixon’s In the Arena.
1. On page 44, Richard Nixon says: “What separates the men from the boys in politics is that the boys seek office to be somebody and the men seek office to do something.”
A couple of posts ago, I was talking about Richard Nixon’s statement in his book Leaders that a winning candidate is one who truly wants the job, not someone who is reluctant. The reason is that the person who wants the office is the one who will endure the hard road that comes with it—-the criticisms, the invasion of privacy that candidates experience, etc. I wondered if that contrasted with how the Hebrew Bible depicts a number of good leaders: as initially reluctant. Moses and Gideon, for example, were very reluctant to assume a leadership position, but they were chosen by God, and God used them significantly. By contrast, there were people who desperately sought to be leaders, such as Abimelech in the Book of Judges, and they were not exactly the right people to lead Israel, for they were bad people.
I think that what Nixon says on page 44 is an important ingredient to this whole discussion: Why does the leader want to lead? Does he want to lead to help people, or mainly to help himself? The former characterizes good leaders, whereas the latter characterizes, well, not-so-good leaders. I can’t treat this as an absolute. There are well-intentioned people who sincerely want to help people, but they are not effective at getting people to follow them and at doing the political work that is necessary to pass their agenda. Moreover, there are many leaders who accomplish good, and yet they have some self-serving motive: they like the glory that comes with politics. But, in my opinion, a person who is a good leader cares for the people he leads, or at least he tries to make things better.
I think of the movie, Oliver Stone’s Nixon. Stone depicts Nixon as one who was hungry for power, and yet as one who accomplished good. Nixon in the movie tells anti-war protesters that he can ride the beast (meaning the power-system) and hopefully accomplish some good. But Oliver Stone appeared in the movie to have had a New Left perspective. According to David Greenberg in Nixon’s Shadow, the New Left tended to lack faith in the American political system and the likelihood of genuine reform occurring through it. Greenberg cites Oliver Stone’s Nixon as an expression of much of the New Left’s feelings about Richard Nixon. Personally, I thought that Oliver Stone’s depiction of Nixon was much more positive than Greenberg apparently believed, and yet I do see a New Left pessimism in more than one of Stone’s movies. In JFK, President John F. Kennedy tries to end the Vietnam War and the Cold War, and he is then assassinated by a conspiracy of dedicated Cold Warriors, inside and outside of the U.S. government. In Nixon, Nixon accomplishes reforms in terms of the environment, civil rights, and foreign affairs (with detente), and he angers a powerful right-wing cabal. When one of the cabal (played by Larry Hagman, of Dallas fame) tells Nixon to remember who put him into office, Nixon replies that the American people did. The cabal-person responds, “Well, that can be changed,” and another cabal-person then adds, “In a heartbeat.” In these movies, those who try to do good will likely be attacked by the beast, the powerful interests that do not want reform.
2. In documentaries that I have seen about Ronald Reagan’s Presidency during the Cold War, the message that I get is that the Soviets were really baffled by Star Wars (or SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative), President Reagan’s plan to set up a defense system in space that would destroy Soviet missiles. According to this narrative, the Soviets thought that Star Wars was more of a reality than it actually was, that the U.S. was actually making real progress in constructing such a system, for the Americans come up with a lot of interesting things! But, according to Nixon on pages 67-68 of In the Arena, Mikhail Gorbachev told him (meaning Nixon) that the Soviet Union was not against Star Wars “because it feared the huge cost to the economy or because it could not keep up technologically” (Nixon’s narration). After all, Gorbachev told Nixon, the Soviets were making progress on their own SDI program, plus Gorbachev expressed optimism that the Soviets could “evade and overcome any SDI system that the United States might eventually deploy” (Nixon’s words). Rather, Gorbachev said that he was against SDI because he thought that it would exasperate the arms race.
This reminds me of a variety of things. First of all, I think of Lord John Marbury’s argument against Leo McGarry in the West Wing against a missile-defense system: that, if one side constructs a missile-defense system, the other side will only construct a more powerful missile. Second, I recall reading in a right-wing magazine as a child that the Soviets had their own SDI program, called the Red Shield.
Gorbachev may have been bluffing. Nixon himself thought that Gobrachev, whatever he said, still feared the cost to the Soviet economy of keeping up with the United States. Perhaps the Soviets were attempting to construct their own version of Star Wars, but they didn’t make any more progress than we did, and they thought that we were making more progress than we were. Still, I can understand Gorbachev’s arguments against Star Wars. And yet, I wonder: Would a missile-defense system have to lead to an escalation of the arms race? Reagan offered to share the SDI technology with the Soviets. Would that have resulted in mutual peace? Perhaps. Or perhaps Lord Marbury is right: both sides would then try to create more powerful missiles.