For my blog post today about Roger Morris’ Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician, I’ll use as my starting-point something that Morris says on page 56. Essentially, Morris expresses skepticism of Richard Nixon’s claim that he grew up poor:
“…the well-dressed Nixon children, the tractor and car, the hired help, the china closet—-all belied the later, well-publicized images of poverty, and bespoke, for those who knew, both Milhous subsidies and pride. Richard Nixon had not been born or left to the grim impoverishment depicted in his political mythology. The reality seemed very different to others nearby who lived much the same existence, and even in the same larger family. ‘We had our own good small happy life,’ Jessamyn West once said of her comparable childhood in Yorba Linda, separated from the Nixons by the irrigation ditch. Measured against the poor-boy origins Richard seemed to claim later, against genuine poverty in the basin and elsewhere, she concluded, ‘We were the landed gentry.'”
Jessamyn West was one of Richard Nixon’s cousins, and she became an author. Nixon in one of his books that I read (I forget which one) referred to a conversation that he had with her.
Morris may be right that the Nixons were not as poor as many of their neighbors. Some may say that Nixon fabricated the whole story about his childhood poverty for political purposes—-so he could portray himself as someone who understands people’s problems, or so he could glory in his rise from humble roots. But, while Nixon may very well have appealed to his alleged humble roots for political purposes, I don’t think that’s the whole story. Perhaps Nixon looked back and thought that he was poor in his childhood, in comparison to his affluent lifestyle and all of the money that he made as an adult. Moreover, while his immediate family of origin may not have been as poor as others, it also was not rich. It struggled.
What’s interesting is that Morris himself narrates that Richard Nixon’s mother, Hannah, thought that she was poor. Morris quotes a family friend who said that Hannah “seemed sometimes overwhelmed by the poverty.” Morris also quotes Hannah herself as saying: “While we were there, the lemon grove only kept us poor. Many days I had nothing to serve but corn meal. I’d bring it to the table and exclaim, ‘See what we have tonight—-wonderful corn meal!’ And they would gobble it up as if it were the most delectable of dishes.” Morris also narrates that one reason that the Milhous family did not care for Frank Nixon (Hannah’s husband, and Richard’s father) was “Frank Nixon’s failure to do more than scratch a living from the tract” (page 56, the Milhous family provided the Nixons with financial assistance, though). But Morris also quotes the Nixons’ neighbors, who didn’t think that the Nixons were particularly poor. While Morris does appear to have his own opinions and conclusions about this issue, one reason that I am liking his book so far is that he includes different perspectives. Not only on this issue, but also on the question of whether Nixon was introverted as a child, Morris includes different views from eyewitnesses: he quotes Jessamyn West, who says that Nixon was not the sort of child you’d want to hug, but he also quotes someone who related that the young Nixon jumped on her lap and told her he would grow up to hunt wild animals!
On the issue of Nixon’s discussions of his alleged childhood poverty, I’d like to relate to you a story that Stephen Ambrose told in volume 3 of his Nixon trilogy—-a story that I enjoyed but did not get an opportunity to write about. Nixon liked to tell the story about how he wanted a pony when he was a child, but did not get one. On page 586, Ambrose talks about what Hugh Sidey said happened when Nixon tried to tell his pony story to Yugoslavian Communist leader, Marshal Tito:
“Nixon overdid his boyhood experiences to elicit sympathy. He told the story of the pony he wanted but never got so often that reporters turned it into a joke. Hugh Sidey relished the time he watched Marshal Tito and President Nixon in the tiny bedroom of Tito’s boyhood home. Nixon got going on the pony story; Tito cut him off: ‘We had eleven kids who were in this room.'”