Over the next six days, I will be blogging about Anthony Summers’ The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon, which is an anti-Nixon biography. My format of blogging through this book will be different from my usual custom in blogging through books. Ordinarily, I read a certain number of pages, then I pick out something from those pages to blog about. In the case of The Arrogance of Power, however, I have already read two hundred pages before today, so my usual approach does not strike me as particularly feasible. What I’ll be doing for The Arrogance of Power is that I will select my favorite passages and will blog about them, even if those passages are not from my latest reading.
I was going to blog about Summers’ interesting take on the Alger Hiss case, but I’ll save that for tomorrow. What I’ll blog about today is Summers’ discussion on pages 12-13 about Richard Nixon’s religion. Some of what Summers said is not new to me: Nixon’s references to his Quaker mother, his statement that he prayed each night before he went to bed, etc. Summers refers to possible indications that Nixon was not particularly religious, however: Nixon aide John Ehrlichman said that Nixon’s friendship with Billy Graham was “window dressing”, and also that Nixon “was not a motivated Christian” (Ehrlichman, quoted on page 12). Summers says that “Nixon stopped holding Sunday services at the White House during Watergate and for months did not attend church at all” (page 12). But Summers also notes indications that Nixon had an interest in religion and a belief in God. Summers states that Nixon in his old age had a number of books about religion, and that Nixon told Rabbi Baruch Korff on his last day as President that he felt that God was punishing him. Summers also refers to the view of the Chicago Tribune‘s Walter Trohan that Nixon’s Quaker background may have influenced him to develop loner tendencies: “Quakers don’t have anybody to deal with God except themselves, and that can make them loners. He didn’t consult people…” (Trohan, quoted on page 13).
What I did not know was that Nixon was an admirer of Roman Catholicism. According to Summers, Ehrlichman quoted Nixon as saying: “You know, if I were ever to embrace a religion, it would be Catholicism, because they’re so well disciplined in their dogma, so well defined.” Summers says that, according to Charles Colson (an aide to Nixon who would later become a lay minister), Nixon was thinking of becoming a Catholic before the 1972 election, for Nixon came to believe that “Catholics represented ‘the real America'” (Summers’ words, though Summers may be quoting Colson on the “real America” part). Summers notes that “To traditional Quakers like [Nixon’s] mother, Catholicism is anathema.” On page 13, Summers states that Nixon in his old age “still admired Catholicism, having come to believe that ritual and ceremony were essential to religion…” Summers then goes on to quote a statement by Nixon’s mother that Nixon “shuns even the restrained rituals” of his Quaker faith, so my impression is that Nixon’s belief in the importance of rituals and ceremonies may have developed over time.
This discussion is a fine example of why I like Summers’ book: it contains information about Nixon that I have not encountered in other books by or about Nixon that I have read. Many books that I have read have had the same material. There may be an anecdote here and there that is new to me, and each author adds his or her unique spin or analysis, but it’s still a lot of the same stuff. When I read Summers, however, there is a lot that he presents that is new to me. And, in a number of cases, Summers refers to the testimony of eyewitnesses.
People have encouraged me to convert to Catholicism, but I doubt that I’ll ever do that. There are things that I admire about Catholicism—-the beauty of its liturgy, its solid intellectual tradition, the salt-of-the-earth people—-and there are things about its doctrines that I have problems with (i.e., no birth control). Overall, I’m reluctant to hitch myself to a specific religion because I fear that doing so will hinder my own freedom of thought. Catholicism has clear ideas about what people should do and believe, and I find that to be restrictive. Consequently, I prefer my own loose version of Protestantism (if my religion even falls under that category).
UPDATE: I’d like to mention one more thing about Nixon and religion. Yesterday, I talked about Billy Graham’s eulogy at Nixon’s funeral, and how Graham likened Nixon to King Saul, one who had his own inner demons, yet accomplished great things. It appears that Graham may have interpreted Nixon’s demons literally. Summers on page 318 quotes Graham as saying in 1979, as Graham reflected on Nixon’s downfall: “I think it was sleeping pills. Sleeping pills and demons. I think there was definitely demon power involved. He took all those sleeping pills, and through history, drugs and demons have gone together….My conclusion is that it was just all those sleeping pills, they just let a demon’s power come in and play over him….” In the documentation part of his book, on page 585, Summers refers to “Billy Graham in Esquire, Apr. 10, 1979.”