My latest reading of Fawn Brodie’s Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character was a summary of Brodie’s psychological analysis of Richard Nixon. Brodie essentially argues that Nixon was unloved as a child, and she states that Nixon’s father was for winning at all costs, whereas his mother tended to stretch the truth when it suited her. As a result, Nixon had a hunger for adulation, and he sought that through political success. In the process of this, he stretched the truth, and he tried to win at all costs. Earlier in the book, Brodie states that Nixon’s environment enabled him to have the confidence to pursue his political dreams. Had Nixon been at Harvard, the competition would have made it much harder for him to do so, but Nixon was at Whittier, where his ambitions were more attainable.
Elsewhere in the book, Brodie raises other considerations. She speculates that Nixon’s lying may go back to when he had to lie or adroitly manipulate the truth in order to avoid the discipline at the hands of his harsh father. In the endnotes, she cites Bruce Mazlish’s claim that Nixon did not rebel as a youth, and, “as a result,” he did not bow “so totally before authority” (Mazlish’s words, quoted on page 524). The idea here may be that Nixon was rebelling against his parents’ authoritarianism when he did ethically-compromising things as an adult. Brodie also states that Nixon may have lied to make himself feel better: when someone prominent criticized him, Nixon went on to tell the story that this person had actually praised him. Lying made it easier for him to cope, in short.
Another point that Brodie makes is that Nixon felt rather strangled by Quaker Whittier, which was one of the places where he grew up. Brodie states that Nixon liked the “erosion of even the stoutest Quaker virtues” (Brodie’s words) that occurred when oil was discovered in the 1920’s, and she believes that this sentiment underlies Nixon’s frequent statements as President that America was “the richest and strongest nation on earth” (Nixon’s words), with “richest” coming first. Brodie states that many in Whittier felt threatened by “the fantasy world of Hollywood” and the “surrounding Chicano society, with its taverns and dancehalls, its well-attended Catholic churches, with its more spontaneous gaiety” (page 501), and she seems to present Nixon rebelling against this protective Whittier mentality. Nixon was drawn to acting and celebrities, he thought of practicing law in Havana, Cuba, and he enjoyed vacationing in the Caribbean.
Is there anything to Brodie’s analysis? I don’t rule it out. Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose did not seem to find that kind of argumentation overly convincing, for, as he notes, many people feel insufficiently loved by their parents, and not all of them turn out as Richard Nixon did. The thing is, though, people are different, and thus they respond to situations in different ways.