My blog post today about Jonathan Aitken’s Nixon: A Life will focus on a couple of items on page 556. They concern Richard Nixon’s relationship with Robert “Bud” McFarlane, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Adviser.
McFarlane got frustrated with Reagan, mentioning to Aitken his “difficulties in overcoming President Reagan’s inability to understand foreign policy” (McFarlane’s words). But Nixon would offer tips to McFarlane on how he could explain foreign policy to Reagan (“Put it to him this way”), and McFarlane said that the advice would often work.
Over a year after quitting his job as National Security Adviser, McFarlane would try to kill himself on account of the controversy surrounding the Iran-Contra affair. Aitken narrates about McFarlane that “The morning after he was coming round from his drug overdose in February 1987, his first visitor at Bethesda Naval Hospital was the 37th President of the United States.” Nixon tried to make McFarlane feel better, knowing that McFarlane would be portrayed as weak by the media. Nixon told McFarlane that Churchill and de Gaulle endured their “black dogs.” Nixon also encouraged McFarlane to continue his practice of prayer and Bible reading, since those could be an anchor to him, and having faith could get McFarlane through his hard times. And Nixon exhorted McFarlane to look to the future, not the past, when getting out of the hospital, and to go earn himself some money. McFarlane relates that “Coming from him, I can’t tell you what a tonic that encouragement was.”
There are a lot of issues here. I could identify with both Reagan’s difficulty in understanding foreign policy (assuming that what McFarlane says is true), as well as McFarlane’s struggle to explain it to him. It’s refreshing when someone cares about how well we are learning, enough to explain things to us in a way that we can understand, rather than just writing us off as slow or dumb.
Nixon’s visit to McFarlane in the hospital was inspiring to me. It illustrates one of the reasons that I enjoy Aitken’s book: it has stories about Nixon’s kindness to people, that I have not found in other books. I agree with Nixon that prayer and Bible reading can be an anchor in hard times. They are often things that I hold onto—-since I need something to hold onto. Moreover, Nixon’s encouragement of McFarlane is actually an encouragement to me, a motivation for me to get back up and try after setbacks, as I attempt to look to the future rather than the past.