In my latest reading of Conrad Black’s Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, what stood out to me was Black’s Monday morning quarterbacking about what people could have done better. In this post, I’ll give four examples of this, then I will comment.
1. In May 1970, National Guardsman opened fire on students at Kent State University, as students were protesting President Richard Nixon’s campaign in Cambodia. Four students were killed and eleven were wounded. Black narrates that the National Guardsmen did this in response to students who “pursued them, pelting them with rocks and returning tear gas canisters” (page 671). Black believes that both the Governor of Ohio and the National Guardsmen acted wrongly in this situation, and that the National Guardsmen could have solved the problem in a manner that did not involve bloodshed. Black states on page 671:
“[The student protesters] were irresponsible and annoying, and the Cambodian activity did not justify the histrionics it attracted even on Kissinger’s staff, much less the campuses of the country. But the governor of Ohio had no right comparing this university student demonstration to Hitler’s SA. And he should have assured that the National Guardsmen had the proper rules of engagement. They should have had rubber or plastic bullets if tear gas wasn’t adequate, and if they went to live ammunition they should have fired in the air, or even right on the ground. Student demonstrators are rarely hard to scatter, and there is no excuse for students to die from gunshot wounds.”
2. There were people within Nixon’s Administration who simply did not get along with each other, and there were some who did not cooperate adequately with President Nixon’s agenda. Henry Kissinger and Secretary of State William Rogers did not get along. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was not doing enough (according to Nixon) to investigate and undermine domestic radical groups, and even right-winger Pat Buchanan urged Nixon to retire Hoover immediately, calling Hoover a “‘reactionary’ who was alienating the young people of the country and whose moral authority was steadily evaporating” (Black’s summary on page 680). On pages 684-685, Black says how he thinks that Nixon could have organized his Administration better, such that it would have been more functional:
“The logical move would have been to move or remove Rogers and give his job either to Rockefeller or Kissinger himself. Either would have ended the friction between the White House and the State Department and enabled the White House to use the resources of the State Department more extensively. Rockefeller could have managed Kissinger, but he was becoming rather a defeatist about Vietnam himself…If Nixon didn’t want to reward Rockefeller, or create a Rockefeller-Kissinger axis right behind his back, he could have found something else for Rogers, who had no particular aptitude for foreign affairs other than a conciliatory personality, and given the job to Kissinger. This was the eventual solution. If Nixon had wanted to make a dramatic move, he would have retired Hoover, replaced him with Mitchell, and Mitchell with Rogers; moved out Laird and replaced him with Shultz, a former marine combat officer in addition to his other attainments; given State to Kissinger with a lecture to desist from some of his more irritating practices; given Finch a serious mandate to turn the new EPA into something important without antagonizing all of American industry; and prepared either Rockefeller or Reagan, depending on which way Nixon wanted to push the party, for the vice presidency in 1972…There were plenty of combinations that would work, and these are just a few of them. Instead, in the unfortunate manner in which things drifted before events forced Nixon to go into isolation, drink with Rebozo, watch inspirational military films, and then take draconian crisis measures bravely, the squabbling of his administration continued.”
3. When President Nixon received the report of Lyndon Johnson’s National Commission on Obscenity and Pornography and saw that it “concluded that pornography did not contribute to crime, delinquency, or deviant behavior” (Black on page 696), Nixon was outraged. He said: “I have evaluated the report and I categorically reject its morally bankrupt conclusions….Pornography can corrupt a society and a civilization….Smut…should be outlawed in every state of the Union.” Black states on page 696 that Nixon’s response was inappropriate:
“He could have attacked the report, which was pretty naive and idealistic, and even insensitive to traditionalists, without ranting about the suppression of questionable or offensive literature, which enabled his opponents to conjure up thought police, intrusions into homes, book burnings, and so forth.”
4. In San Jose, Nixon’s car was hit by bricks and bottles that were thrown by demonstrators. Two days later, Nixon gave a speech in which he said: “Those who carry a PEACE sign in one hand and a bomb or a brick in the other are the super-hypocrites of our time.” Nixon directed that this speech be shown on the networks on the eve before the election (in which Senate and House seats were up for grabs). The Democratic response to the speech was given by Senator Edmund Muskie, who spoke “calmly against fear-mongering from a rocking chair in his house at Kennebunkport, Maine” (page 697). This was a disaster for Nixon. Nixon’s speech did not come across well on account of the “grainy film”, “poor acoustics”, and confrontational message (page 697). Meanwhile, Muskie’s response appeared rather cozy and reasonable. Black says that Nixon would have done better had he shown to the public the news film of the demonstrators’ behavior in San Jose, and then followed that up by “giving the sort of address that Muskie did” (page 697).
Now for my comments. On the one hand, Black’s Monday morning quarterbacking is rather annoying. On the other hand, Black’s Monday morning quarterbacking is interesting. I think that his suggestions are reasonable, and that Nixon probably would have done better to have done the sorts of things that Blacks suggests. Something that I ask authors (in my mind, of course) when I read books is, “So you think he did the wrong thing. Well, what should he have done instead?” Black offers his opinion on what Nixon and others should have done instead, and that’s what makes his book insightful and interesting.