Yahoo global news anchor Katie Couric sat down with best-selling author Evan Thomas to discuss the many lives of the former president.
Richard Nixon sometimes spoke like a classic anti-Semite in the White House, yet saved Israel. He made some racist remarks, yet he desegregated the public schools of the South and institutionalized affirmative action. He was a conservative who signed more social welfare legislation than any president except LBJ and FDR. He was a free marketer who implemented wage and price controls. He was a leading anti-communist who opened up Red China and established détente with the Soviet Union. He was a good man who could be bad, a bad man who could be good.
How do you explain Richard Nixon? In “Being Nixon,” I tried to get past the cartoon version of the brooding Tricky Dick to understand what it was like to actually be Nixon. He was a profoundly complex and contradictory character, but he was not a malevolent figure. He was human, too human for his own good.
The bad Nixon is on display on the White House tapes, swearing and vowing to crush his enemies. The tapes do not lie, and they reveal Nixon at his worst. But by talking to Nixon’s surviving aides and by closely reading the daily notes of his closest aides, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, I was able to see a different, more complex Nixon, a man who was more vulnerable, more sympathetic, and in many ways more admirable. In private, Nixon often wanted to be a decent person who did the right thing, but, over time, his demons betrayed him.
A lot of Nixon was pure act — showing off, pretending to be macho. He was not even very good at swearing, not nearly as convincing as his earthy predecessor, Lyndon Johnson. It’s as if Nixon could see the disapproving looks of his Quaker mother. When the transcripts of the Watergate tapes were released, he insisted that all the swear words be redacted because, he told his aide Geoff Shepard, his late mother would have disapproved of the “goddamns.” As a result of this, many people who read the tape transcripts studded with “expletives deleted” assumed he was far more profane and scatological than he actually was. (He did occasionally say “c———-.”
President Richard Nixon stresses a point with a clenched fist during his speech at a Republican rally for Sen. George Murphy in Anaheim, Calif., Oct. 30, 1970. (Photo: AP)
Nixon liked to vent and rant, but then he generally calmed down. Haldeman, his chief of staff, knew to ignore most (but unfortunately not all) of his more outrageous orders. In one typical case, after a drink or two with his friend Florida real estate mogul Bebe Rebozo, Nixon ordered his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, to bomb the Damascus airport during a hijacking incident in the summer of 1969. Kissinger stalled; in the morning the president just let the matter drop.
Nixon liked to say that he hated Harvard and would rather talk to an athlete than an intellectual. But Nixon himself was a deeply read intellectual, and his top two advisers — Kissinger and domestic adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan — were Harvard professors. Nixon was an imaginative thinker. Going to China was Nixon’s idea, not Kissinger’s. When he first heard that Nixon hoped to be the first American high official to visit China in 25 years, Kissinger remarked, “Fat chance.”
Nixon loved what he called “the big play.” Going to China or to Soviet Russia to personally work out an arms control treaty was a big play. Nixon wanted to confound his enemies. In 1970, he created the Environmental Protection Agency largely to outflank Sen. Edmund Muskie, the leading senate environmentalist who was emerging as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 1972. Some of Nixon’s big plays were brilliant, but some were busts. Nixon instituted wage and price controls in 1971 partly because a Democratic Congress had earlier given him the authority — cynically figuring that Nixon would shy away from such a Big Government move, thus leaving the Democrats free to blame Nixon for “doing nothing” about inflation. Nixon in effect called their bluff, and at first, wage and price controls were very popular. Eventually, they badly hurt the economy. Writing his memoirs, Nixon admitted that he had blundered. “The piper must be paid,” he wrote.
Nixon did have a paranoid streak. He was sure that the Eastern establishment press, in particular the Washington Post, was out to get him (he was not wrong about that, as Watergate showed). Although he hired many Jewish advisers, including Kissinger, speech writer William Safire, and Fed Chairman Arthur Burns, he believed the East Coast media, as well as the upper levels of some federal departments, were Jewish-dominated. He once assigned an aide to count the Jews working in the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The White House tapes turn particularly ugly when Nixon goes off on an anti-Semitic rant. At the same time, Nixon was a true friend of Israel. In the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, Nixon personally ordered the foot-draggers at the Pentagon and State Department to send Israel every plane they could find filled with armaments and ammunition. Nixon was personally close to Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister, whom he much admired.
Richard Nixon plays a rendition of “Deep in the Heart of Texas” at the piano in Miami, Fla., Aug. 9, 1968. (Photo: Henry Burroughs/AP)
Nixon was a pragmatist. The Democratic-controlled Congress in that liberal era of the early ’70s wanted to pass social welfare legislation, and Nixon did not stand in its way. He worked effectively with southern Democrats to compromise. Nixon was an activist. He woke up every morning wondering what he could accomplish that day. Although he vigorously opposed forced school busing as a tool of integration, he was determined that the Deep South no longer resist federal court orders to desegregate the schools. Working behind the scenes with local leaders, he avoided clashes and demonstrations. When Nixon took office, only 8 percent of black children attended integrated schools. Three years later, 70 percent did. As his attorney general John Mitchell said, “Watch what we do, not what we say.”
Nixon worked with political leaders as varied as Martin Luther King Jr. and Alabama’s segregationist Gov. George Wallace. Nixon was, at the same time, a loner. He would slip off from the Oval Office to his Executive Office Building hideaway with what his aides called his “best friend” — his yellow legal pad. Listening to classical music, he would make notes, sometimes writing of the “joyful” and “serene” leader he wanted to be — but never could be.
Nixon could be painfully awkward around others, especially if they were likely to make him feel socially insecure. Running into Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, Nixon remarked, “Mrs. Kennedy, this must bring back many memories.” On the other hand, Nixon worked comfortably and effectively with heads of state such as Leonid Brezhnev and Mao Zedong. They didn’t want to make small talk, and Nixon never patronized them or preached at them.
Nixon was the ultimate introvert in an extrovert’s business, and it showed. His suspiciousness and resentfulness ultimately destroyed his presidency. But not before he had run on five national tickets and won four times, a record exceeded only by FDR. In November 1972, he won reelection by one of the greatest landslides ever. Less than two years later he was gone, the only president in history to be driven from office. His last words as he left the White House were, “Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” Wise words, if only he had heeded them himself.
Evan Thomas is the author of “Being Nixon: A Man Divided” (published June 16 by Random House), from which this piece is adapted.