On page 912 of Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, Conrad Black calls Nixon “This most suspicious, morose, generally joyless of men…” I thought about this characterization as I was reading Don Fulsom’s anti-Nixon book, Nixon’s Darkest Secrets. Fulsom talks about the times that Richard Nixon was drunk. Nixon liked to have drinks with his friend, Bebe Rebozo. According to Fulsom, there were times when a drunk Nixon would awkwardly hit on women. Fulsom refers to Nixon ex-aide John Ehrlichman’s story in Witness to Power about Nixon hitting on an attractive blonde secretary, whom an editor said was reportedly Shelley Scarney, the future Mrs. Pat Buchanan. (UPDATE: According to Anthony Summers, Shelley Buchanan said that she did not recall this incident.) On page 199, Fulsom quotes investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who said that Nixon at a Miami restaurant stopped a nice-looking woman and offered her a White House job. While I have read elsewhere that Nixon was rather Spartan as a Duke Law School student, Fulsom contends that Nixon even in his younger years had a problem with alcohol. Fulsom refers to a schoolmate of Nixon’s at Whittier College, Philip Blew, who told about a time when Nixon got drunk. Blew said: “The affair turned into a spree…and we, in effect, had to pour Dick into bed.”
I can understand why a “suspicious, morose, generally joyless” person would drink. (And this is not to suggest that Black would agree with Fulsom’s contention that Nixon had a problem with alcohol.) Life can get pretty drab. Many would like the sort of life that they see on TV, where romance is often easy, and adventure is commonplace, and they look to alcohol to give them the fun that they want. Moreover, being unhappy due to resentments can influence people to seek some solace in alcohol, as can being afraid on account of the ups and downs of life. Alcohol can also give people confidence that they ordinarily may not have. I remember hearing one recovering alcoholic talk about his observations while people-watching at a local restaurant: guys come in with two left feet, they have a few drinks, and suddenly they’re Fred Astaire! But the recovering alcoholic then went on to ask: Why can’t they be Fred Astaire without alcohol?
I can still identify with much of what I said above, and I’ve not had a drink for six years. (Yesterday marks the sixth year anniversary of when I quit drinking.) But I can also see the other side: that sobriety can lead to a quality of life that alcoholism can inhibit. People who used to spend their time holed up in their rooms drinking become sober and go on to do enjoyable things, such as studying a field of interest, or traveling. People who used to feel lonely find fellowship in a twelve-step group. People who used to deal with their resentments and fears by drinking now deal with these things by talking them out with a sponsor, and also by relying on a higher power. People who could not hold on to a relationship or a job now do both.
The thing is, could such a dream have been realized for somebody like Nixon? Can it be realized for me, for that matter? Nixon did enjoyable things: he traveled, he read. But my impression from reading all of these books about him is that he did not like to share a lot with others. That being the case, did he really have much of a way to deal with his resentments and his fears? Speaking for myself, I am often afraid to share my problems because I fear being criticized. That has happened in the past! I doubt that I will take a drink anytime soon, since life for me is much more predictable and manageable when I do not drink. But I wish that I had more joy inside of me.
I’d like to think that Nixon in his later years found more joy. As I read Monica Crowley’s books about her time working for Nixon during the 1990’s, I noticed that Nixon even then had his pettiness and resentment, and yet he also seemed to have more fun. He enjoyed spending time with his grandchildren. His relationship with his wife, Pat, looked a whole lot better. He liked opening up his lawn to people on Halloween and joking around with the celebrants. Did Nixon find some way to feel happy, without relying so much on alcohol?