I have three items for my blog post today about Joan Hoff’s Nixon Reconsidered.
1. On page 109, Hoff says the following about Nixon’s stance on equal rights for women:
“Nixon told me in 1983 that his family (his wife and two daughters) favored the ERA, but he had come to believe after 1963 that the Equal Pay Act would achieve equality for women—-apparently not realizing that this legislation could never end the pay differential between women and men or the sex-segregated nature of the U.S. labor force. This view may have had validity in 1969 when Nixon came into office, but he argued the point with me as though twenty years had not passed and proved him (and many others, including Democratic women who had supported the Equal Pay Act) wrong. Nonetheless, he correctly asserted that effective application of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act could serve the same purpose for women as passage of the ERA. Nixon admitted to me, however, that as president he had not done as much for women as he would have liked.”
This paragraph exemplifies that Hoff’s intention in Nixon Reconsidered is not to whitewash Nixon’s record on domestic policies, although she does believe that Nixon as President had a number of significant progressive domestic policy accomplishments. Hoff is open about what she considers to be strengths and weaknesses in Nixon’s record. For example, Hoff acknowledges that there were weaknesses in Nixon’s policies regarding women. Hoff also discusses the sexist attitudes of Nixon and some of his staff, as well as Nixon’s tepid support for the Equal Rights Amendment as President. At the same time, Hoff notes accomplishments that Nixon made in terms of fighting gender discrimination, and she also appears to give Nixon the benefit of a doubt, in some cases. On page 104, Hoff says that Nixon questioned the value of recruiting women for government positions, as Nixon expressed doubt that this would get him more female votes. Hoff states: “Rather than being a totally negative comment simply rationalizing the president’s reluctance to appoint women, it could have been, suggested the columnist Tom Wicker, a ‘hard political calculation; or it conceivably was a view somewhat ahead of its time that women generally wanted effective measures against sex discrimination rather than the highly visible ‘token’ jobs in government for a select few.'”
What I liked about the paragraph on page 109 is that it highlighted two aspects of Nixon. On the one hand, Nixon was making the same arguments in 1983 about the Equal Pay Act that he had made back when he was President, even though (according to Hoff) subsequent events had proven him wrong. On the other hand, Nixon acknowledged to Hoff that his record as President on equality for women was inadequate, that he himself was not completely satisfied with his record on this issue. Many of us would like to think that we accomplished something good, and we try to justify our decisions; yet, since none of us is perfect, we can also look back and reflect that we could have done more. Self-justification and regret seem to co-exist in a lot of people! Personally, I find it refreshing when an ex-President looks back at his time in office and shares his regrets: what he wished he accomplished but didn’t, what he did wrong, what he could have done better, etc. It makes the ex-President look more human, which contrasts with how politicians continually try to spin to make themselves look flawless.
2. On pages 149-150, Hoff talks about how Henry Kissinger did not expect for his working relationship with Richard Nixon to last, and yet the two managed to bond over shared characteristics:
“On the surface Nixon and Kissinger—-an American Quaker and a German-American Jew—-appear to have been the odd couple of U.S. foreign policy. Given his long personal and professional association with the Rockefeller family and his blunt criticisms of Nixon, Kissinger apparently did not think he would last even six months in the new Nixon administration. Yet when these two men came together in 1968, they actually shared many viewpoints and had developed similar operational styles. Both relished covert activity and liked making unilateral decisions; both distrusted bureaucracies; both resented any attempt by Congress to interfere with initiatives; and both agreed that the United States could impose order and stability on the world only if the White House controlled policy by appearing conciliatory but acting tough. While neither had headed any complex organization, both thought ‘personalized executive control’ and formal application of procedures would lead to success. Even more coincidental, perhaps, each had a history of failure and rejection, which made them susceptible to devising ways of protecting themselves and their positions of power. Often their concern for protection appeared as obsession with eavesdropping, whether wiretaps or reconnaissance flights. They even eavesdropped on themselves: Nixon by installing an automatic taping system in the White House, Kissinger by having some of his meetings and all of his phone conversations taped or transcribed from notes. In a word, instead of compensating for each other’s weaknesses and enhancing strengths, Nixon and Kissinger shared their worst characteristics.”
Hoff goes into more detail about the relationship between Nixon and Kissinger. It was quite stormy, in areas! Nixon thought at one time that Kissinger needed psychiatric help, and Nixon often tried to hinder Kissinger from taking credit for foreign policy moves. And Kissinger actually was trying to upstage Nixon (according to Hoff), and also badmouthed Nixon to others after the Nixon Presidency. Meanwhile, as Hoff notes, Nixon in his memoirs was quite mellow in talking about Kissinger. Overall, from what I have read in books about (and even by) Nixon, there were intense personality conflicts among Nixon’s staff. I doubt it’s an Administration in which I would have wanted to work, at least in the inner-circle!
Moreover, Hoff notes that prominent Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman thought that Nixon and Kissinger actually did compensate for each other’s weaknesses: that Nixon did well in crisis but poorly when things were going well, whereas Kissinger tended to stress out in crises, while handling the good times rather adeptly rather than botching things up.
Whatever their conflicts, Nixon and Kissinger did have a long-standing relationship in the area of foreign policy, particularly during Nixon’s Presidency. I recall Stephen Ambrose telling the story in his biography of Nixon of when Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited Nixon and Kissinger during a conflict between India and Pakistan, and she noted that Nixon was continually saying, “Isn’t that right, Henry?”
I like stories in which people whom one would not expect to get along actually do end up forming a fairly successful relationship—-whether that be a working or a personal relationship.
3. On pages 163-164, Hoff talks about Nixon’s Secretary of Defense, Mel Laird, who had a reputation as a hawk during his time in the 1960’s as a Congressman, but who as Secretary of Defense was much more moderate. As Secretary of Defense, Hoff says, Laird pushed for the end of the draft, the replacement of American troops in Vietnam with South Vietnamese troops (Vietnamization), and the withdrawal of American troops “faster than the Pentagon thought the South Vietnamese forced could be trained to replace them…” Laird also questioned extending the war into Laos and Cambodia. Hoff says that, “unlike Nixon and Kissinger, Laird was more interested in ending the war in Vietnam than in winning it.” All this, “Despite cartoons depicting Laird’s bald head in the shape of a missile, bomb, or bullet…”
In addition to liking opposites-attract stories, I also enjoy stories in which a person acts differently than people perceive him. I think of the movie, Separate But Equal, which was about a companion case to the Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision banning racial segregation in public schools. In that movie, the side that is challenging segregation is afraid when Earl Warren becomes the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, for it learns that Warren as California Attorney General was a major force behind putting Japanese-Americans into internment camps during World War II. But Warren surprised the anti-segregation side. Not only did Warren come to support desegregation, but he also attempted to persuade the other justices to support it so that the court could make a firm statement.
The way that the movie depicts the situation, Warren’s eyes were opened to the realities of racial discrimination after he had become Chief Justice, and he saw that his African-American driver was sleeping in his car one night because no hotel or motel would accept him. Maybe this is true, and maybe it is not. Still, Warren probably did surprise people when he fought for desegregation.
Why Laird changed his mind, I have no idea. Perhaps he learned more. Maybe he just got to the point where he wanted the war to end, and he didn’t believe that hawkish measures were working. I’ve read Republicans who make fun of how the liberal establishment says that Republican politicians who end up supporting liberal measures have demonstrated “growth” since their time in office. Personally, I think it’s great when people change with new information and exposure to real life—-whether that change be from left to right, or from right to left, or from one of these extremes towards the middle. All sorts of people can move from shallow positions to positions of depth.
Coming back to the issue of regrets, I’d like to quote what Earl Warren said in his 1977 memoirs about his support for Japanese internment camps during World War II (see here): I “since deeply regretted the removal order and my own testimony advocating it, because it was not in keeping with our American concept of freedom and the rights of citizens…Whenever I thought of the innocent little children who were torn from home, school friends, and congenial surroundings, I was conscience-stricken…[i]t was wrong to react so impulsively, without positive evidence of disloyalty…”