What has been salient to me in my reading of Jonathan Aitken’s Nixon: A Life are Aitken’s stories about Richard Nixon’s compassion, generosity, and kindness. Aitken tells two stories that I particularly enjoyed.
The first story was Aitken’s story about the Donnellys. Dorothy Cox Donnelly was Richard Nixon’s appointments secretary when he was Vice-President, and her husband was a lobbyist who served on the Civil Aeronautics Board’s staff. Both were Republicans, and there was a strong possibility that both would be removed from their jobs once President John F. Kennedy entered office. Their finances were fragile, and they were worried. But Richard Nixon interceded for them with Kennedy. Nixon asked if a job could be found for either Donnelly, and Kennedy replied, “Oh yes, sure, I remember Dorothy from your Senate office—-the little one with the bun on the back of her head.” Aitken goes on to narrate that “To the amazement of the CAB, its Republican appointee was confirmed to his post a few days later on the orders of the White House” (page 292).
The second story was set in 1969, when Nixon was about to enter to Presidency, while President Lyndon Johnson and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey (against whom Nixon ran for President in 1968) were about to leave. On the day of his inauguration, Nixon remembered what it was like back when he was the departing Vice-President, and President Kennedy and Vice-President Johnson were taking over. Aitken calls it Nixon’s “Cinderella-like exit from the Vice Presidency in 1960, when all facilities, including his car, were withdrawn at the stroke of midnight” (page 371). Aitken narrates how Nixon resolved to treat Humphrey differently when Humphrey was exiting the Vice-Presidency:
“In addition to the warm public and private tributes he paid to his election opponent, Nixon personally supervised all the arrangements for Humphrey’s last hours in Washington. These included putting an Air Force jet at the ex-Vice President’s disposal, choosing a bouquet of Muriel Humphrey’s favourite flowers to be handed to her as she got on to the aircraft, and attaching to them a handwritten note of presidential thanks for the couple’s twenty-five years of public service. The son of Hannah Nixon had not forgotten the importance of small acts of kindness.”
Bruce Mazlish, in In Search of Nixon, said that Nixon could be generous from a position of strength, but he usually could not ask for help himself. What are reasons to be compassionate for others? So we can feel good about ourselves and have power as benefactors? Because we don’t want someone else to experience the pain that we experienced? Because we have genuine compassion for people in a predicament? Because we believe that we have an obligation to do so, either to God, or to the goal of creating a humane and generous society?
These are all reasons that people are generous. Some may be generous for a mixture of one or more of these reasons. In a number of people, one reason may predominate. I hope to be generous out of a genuine sense of compassion, or a recognition of the shared humanity and vulnerability of both me and also the person I am helping. There has been a tendency within me to treat people who need help as charity-cases for my benevolence, and perhaps the reason for that is that I have a hard time appreciating their humanity, since I am primarily looking to make myself feel better, or I think that looking at their humanity will turn me off from them, since I don’t particularly like people. (I can, say, help a blind person as a blind person who needs my help, but, once I look at the blind person as simply a person, I can begin to feel alienated from him or her, the same way that I feel alienated from most people.) What I should remember is that we are all selves, that even those who may not like me are people with thoughts, feelings, experiences, and lives, and thus they deserve my compassion when they are experiencing hard times, the same way that I would deserve compassion were I experiencing hard times.