One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon by Tim Weiner. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015. 317 pages. $30.
The Last of the President’s Men by Bob Woodward. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. 182 pages. $28.
Richard Nixon was the most reviled American president of the 20th century, perhaps of all time. Open any of these books and read a few pages and the reason for Nixon’s infamy becomes clear. The conversations recorded by his White House taping system or recalled by Nixon’s aides display not the majesty of the office of the leader of the free world, but rather the morality of a Mafia don, the viciousness and vindictiveness of a street thug.
In 1970, with the Senate threatening to cut off money for air strikes against Cambodia and Laos, Tim Weiner notes in One Man Against the World, Nixon gave orders to White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman to establish “a political attack … to declare war” on prominent Senate Democrats, including possible presidential nominees Ted Kennedy and Edmund Muskie “as part of what Nixon called ‘an all-out hatchet job on the Democratic leaders.’ ”
He told Haldeman in that same year, Evan Thomas reports in Being Nixon, to “check the income taxes of all our opponents. Harass them and f[ollow] u[p]. …”
His anticipated re-election in 1972 was to the president a time to wreak vengeance on his political enemies. “Now we’re going to get them, Bob [Haldeman]. Now we’re going to nail those sons of bitches,” Nixon said, according to Bob Woodward in The Last of the President’s Men.
Nixon also was an anti-Semite who told Haldeman in 1971 that “[t]he government is full of Jews … [and] most Jews are disloyal,” Thomas reports.
And yet, Henry Kissinger — a Jew who had escaped Hitler — was Nixon’s most important adviser. He was crucial in planning and implementing the president’s historical trip to China in 1972.
And when the Israelis begged for fuel and ammunition during the Yom Kippur War, Nixon broke the bureaucratic logjam over what kind of planes to use to resupply the Jewish state, ordering the Pentagon, according to Thomas, to “send everything that can fly.”
And, despite his sleaziness and hostility, Nixon had, in the words of Weiner, “an undeniable greatness, an unsurpassed gift for the art of politics, an unquestionable desire to change the world.”
He was, in short, both contemptible and talented, a very complex person.
That complexity is revealed most in Woodward’s account, which focuses primarily on the relationship between the president and one of his top aides, Alexander Butterfield. Butterfield brought down the president by revealing the existence of the White House tapes.
Woodward, in partnership with Carl Bernstein, earned his journalistic chops by breaking the story of the Nixon administration’s botched burglary at Democratic National Headquarters, whose cover up led to Nixon’s demise. (There is no evidence that Nixon had prior knowledge about the break-in. But as these books demonstrate, he was intimately involved in the attempt to cover up the crime.)
Woodward presents a picture of a pathetic Nixon, one who was so socially inept that he was unable to utter a word when introduced to his new employee Alexander Butterfield and sometimes used his staff to communicate with his wife.
“In Butterfield’s view, Nixon was controlled by ‘his various neurosis, the deep, deep, deep resentments and hatreds— he seemed to hate everybody. The resentments festered. And he never mellowed out.”
He was a loner who had no friends. “Being alone was central to the Nixon personality and lifestyle,” said Butterfield, who as deputy assistant to the president saw Nixon every day.
He would work in the morning, the aide recalled, eat his small-curd cottage cheese for lunch, take an hour nap, get up and shave, and work until 7 or 7:30 at night.
About half the time, he would then go to his office in the Executive Office Building, where his butler would serve him a drink and dinner. He would work until 10:30 p.m. when he would go to his personal quarters.
“Lonely existence, but I do believe he liked it,” said Butterfield.
While Nixon, the pathetic loner comes alive in The Last of the President’s Men and Weiner tells the president’s story during his White House years, it is left to Thomas in his biography to try to explain Nixon’s behavior.
Nixon’s mother, Hannah, was not affectionate — in some ways cold — toward her son, and that may have scarred the man. “Nixon feared his father’s temper, but he was more frightened of his mother’s look,” Thomas writes.
Nixon looked for love from his parents, but apparently failed to find it. “Can you imagine what this man would have been like if somebody had loved him,” Thomas quotes Kissinger as saying.
Self-analysis was not the president’s strong point. “… [h]e failed to realize that separating RN, the cool hand at global poker, from the vulnerability and yearning of Richard, the desperate-to-please child of Frank and Hannah, was impossible. … If he had been more self-aware — if he had not pretended so much, tried so hard to be someone he was not — he could have watched for and compensated for his weaknesses, channeled his emotions without succumbing to their excesses.”
Well, maybe. Whatever the veracity of his long-range psychoanalysis, Thomas’ narrative is thought-provoking.
Best of all, there’s no effort to excuse Nixon’s behavior, which was inexcusable, no West Side Story punks telling Officer Krupke, “We ain’t all delinquents/We’re misunderstood/Deep down inside us there is good.”
Richard Nixon was a compelling politician who in some ways deserves our pity. But he also was a political villain, an inveterate liar whose malfeasance in office rightfully led to the only presidential resignation in American history.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.