I started Daniel Frick’s Reinventing Richard Nixon: A Cultural History of an American Obsession.
My latest reading was about how Richard Nixon’s story about himself reflected rags-to-riches stories in American culture. There was Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, in which Benjamin Franklin goes to a city and is all alone, with only a few loaves of bread to eat, and yet Franklin manages to make a success of himself. There were Horatio Alger novels, which portrayed street urchins who rose to a position of middle-class respectability. And there were Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, which essentially communicated that people could attain success by having the right attitude and by practicing certain strategies.
Nixon depicted himself as one who got ahead through hard work. There was a rugged individualistic tone to Six Crises; for example, Nixon portrayed himself as the main protagonist in the Alger Hiss case, as he chose not to reveal that Father Cronin fed him information about Alger Hiss before Hiss even appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). (Cronin would deny in 1990 that this was the case, after years of saying otherwise, but Frick notes that Cronin even in that particular interview says that he helped Nixon out. I should also note that Anthony Summers, on page 490 of The Arrogance of Power, asks how Cronin was even able to retract his long-standing claim in 1990, for Cronin in January 1991 “was in a home for the aged, deaf, and…unable to hold a cogent conversation.”) Even later, Nixon would portray himself as a lone sage. A 1972 campaign poster showed an apparently solitary Nixon staring outside of a White House window; the thing is, that picture originally had Henry Kissinger standing close to Nixon and speaking to him, but Kissinger got cropped out of that picture in the campaign poster.
Frick acknowledges that there was more nuance in the rags-to-riches motif from which Nixon may have been drawing. Benjamin Franklin and a protagonist in one of the Horatio Alger novels, for instance, needed outside support, for some prominent people helped Franklin out of debt, and the Horatio Alger protagonist advanced after he saved a prominent man’s son from drowning. They didn’t get ahead all by themselves. I would add that Dale Carnegie’s book presumes that people need others, which is why one might want to win friends and influence people. (Carnegie himself, however, says that he’s presenting a way of life of giving to people, not merely a strategy to get ahead.) Frick likens the Nixon narrative to Westerns, in which a lone hero comes forward and saves the day.
The narrative that Nixon rose through hard work came into play at Nixon’s funeral, as Bob Dole said that Nixon got ahead by working longer and harder than anyone else. According to Frick, Dole was depicting America as a land of opportunity, in which anyone could get ahead, and he was tying Nixon with Americanism. But Frick says that some might have deemed even Dole’s comments to be divisive. Nixon arguably started his political career by portraying his opponent as insufficiently patriotic. Was Dole doing something similar, by implying that being a patriotic American coincided with appreciating Richard Nixon as one who epitomized American values? Frick notes later in the book that Richard Nixon’s Six Crises came out at around the same time as Michael Harrington’s book on poverty, entitled The Other America, and also Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Is Frick implying that there was a growing acknowledgment that things were not as rosy in America as Nixon was indicating in Six Crises: that America was not a place where everyone could get ahead through hard work? (That’s not to suggest that Harrington and Friedan were responding to Six Crises.)
On the topic of getting ahead through hard work, I see some value in that narrative. I agree with the Puritan Frick quotes who asked how one could go to sleep at night without having done a hard days work. I’m all for working hard and persevering because that increases the chance of me arriving at success. What I don’t like is people appealing to that narrative to imply that everyone who is poor is somehow at fault, for there are plenty of people who are poor yet work long and hard. I one time read a conservative friend of mine appeal to his father’s folksy wisdom about being a hard-working employee in arguing that the minimum wage should not be increased. I agree with that friend’s father that an employee should show his or her worth to an employer by working hard. But that should have nothing to do with the debate over whether or not to raise the minimum wage. When an economy does not pay people enough to support themselves or their families, then that is problematic, and no amount of folksy wisdom will change that.