Saturday, February 26, 2011
In the Arena: A Memoir of Victory, Defeat, and Renewal By Richard Nixon
In the Arena: A Memoir of Victory, Defeat, and Renewal
By Richard Nixon
More than a traditional memoir, this book is a collection of essays composed by the former president where he ruminates, reminisces, and waxes philosophic on topics both political and social.
Peaks and Valleys
Nixon kicks off his memoir by recalling the moments of his greatest triumph and gravest failure. The book opens as he describes, much like it was transcribed from a journal, that first meeting with Chou En-lai, China’s premier. It was Nixon’s greatest triumph, establishing relations with a nation with whom we’d had no communication in 26 years.
He recounts the toasts, the tours, and talks, and the prevailing feeling of significance both sides felt. He is perhaps a bit overdramatic in the telling, but one can forgive him for dramatizing what must have been a great feeling of triumph in a career full of them.
We flash forward to August 9, 1974 – Nixon’s final day in office. He is tense, tired, and worn out from the two year battle over Watergate. He’d spent the night prior working on his speech to his staff he would deliver before departing the White House grounds for the final time as President of the United States.
This is one of the most analyzed of all of Nixon’s speeches. Critics panned it because, in recalling his greatest moments, in dispensing thanks, and in naming his source of hope and inspiration, he did not once invoke his immediate family. As was his wont, Nixon showed no appreciation or affection for his family in public.
Nixon says this was to spare them any additional hurt and humiliation. Instead, he departed with sagely advice he now doubt acquired during his two year struggle and his own foibles that led to it. He admonished them, “Always give your best. Never get discouraged, never be petty. Always remember, others may hate you, but those that hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
Words to live by from a man who learned them the hardest way possible.
He goes on to discuss the immediate months following his resignation. He was despondent. He was emotionally and physically exhausted. His health started to fail and he developed phlebitis. He was hospitalized and surgery was performed. He would spend the next several days in a state of semi-consciousness. Feeling that he could not go on living, it was Pat who, at his bedside, inspired him to fight back to improve his health and meet the challenges that were coming.
He also discusses his anguish over the pardon. He knew it would be a devastating blow to President Ford and the party. He also lived with the idea he’d done nothing illegal. However, for his own mental and physical health, as well as the political health of the nation, he excepted the full and unconditional pardon with a statement of contrition, saying he should have acted sooner in the Watergate matter to spare the country the constitutional ordeal it had just been through.
In this chapter, Nixon discusses his post-Watergate life in San Clemente. He opens with brief histories of Winston Churchill’s dismissal from the Conservative government of Stanley Baldwin. At the age of 57, it seemed he was done. But less than 10 years later, he successfully led his nation through its darkest hour. He also discusses Charles de Gaulle, whom resigned from the French presidency after a poorly drafted constitution left him powerless. Just a few years later, he was re-asserting France’s independence of the old allies in keeping it out of NATO.
Nixon recalls his narrow and bitter defeat in 1960. What is remarkable here is that he still does not speak of what we now known to have been a stolen election. Say what you will about Richard Nixon, but his conduct in the wake of the 1960 election was one of the most selflessly patriotic political acts in history. He goes on to recount the even more bitter defeat in the 1962 California governor’s race which he lost decisively to Pat Brown. That was when he held his notorious “Last Press Conference,” and walked off the political stage, seemingly forever.
He talks about establishing a New York law practice and avoiding politics. He made it clear that he would not be a candidate in 1964, sensing a Democratic tide to come. Sensing a Republican wave in 1966, he re-entered politics and campaigned across the country for congressional candidates, building himself a national base with which to work.
He was coy about his candidacy in 1968. He announced that he would take a six month moratorium from politics, then decide. He let a strong “draft Nixon” movement build, then emerged as the party favorite. He would go on to narrowly defeat Hubert Humphrey.
Flash forward to 1974. Nixon has already endured time in the wilderness in the 1960s and it made him stronger. But the Nixon of 1974 had a different problem: he had nothing left to which to aspire. He had already held the highest office in the land. There was no place for him to go and he was bereft of aspirations.
He first concentrated on renewing his health, then his golf game. Golf provided much needed relaxation and therapy. He then set about restoring his financial health. Nixon was deep in debt to his lawyers. He signed a sizable deal to publish his memoirs and also received a sizable sum for a series of interviews with David Frost. All of that money went to pay off his lawyers.
Here is where Richard Nixon, ordinarily a solid writer, veers off course. Rather than devote an entire chapter to his defense of his conduct during Watergate, he lays it out here. While there is nothing wrong with Nixon’s writing, recounting those events, it should have been chronicled in a separate chapter.
Nixon first dismisses the notion that he ordered the Watergate break-in as silly. Having been in politics for 30 years, he knew there was no intelligence to be gathered at the Democratic National Committee. He points out that there has never been a shred of evidence produced that indicates he knew of the break-in. He is correct there.
He claims that the most politically damaging myth of Watergate is that he ordered or approved the payment of hush money to the Watergate defendants. In the notorious March 21, 1973 meeting with John Dean and Bob Haldeman, Nixon does consider the idea. He tells Dean he knows where the money could be obtained. However, he and Haldeman kick the idea around a little and decide that it would be foolish and told Dean not to do it.
Many Nixon detractors will point to this taped conversation as evidence of Nixon’s deep involvement in the cover up. But Nixon is right. One must read the entire transcript to get to the end where Haldeman tells Nixon that if they pay these guys off, they’ll “look like dopes.” Nixon clearly said no to payoffs, but history seems to ignore this.
Nixon addresses the “Smoking Gun” tape of June 23, 1972 – the one that forced him to resign. On that tape, Nixon can be heard ordering Haldeman to call the CIA and tell them to inform the FBI that the break in was a CIA operation and to call off the investigation. Clearly, this is obstruction of justice.
Nixon’s defense is that, despite his efforts to thwart the investigation, the CIA refused to play ball and the FBI investigation did go forward. Claiming that he did nothing wrong because the CIA refused to play ball is a specious defense at best and as a lawyer, Nixon ought to know better.
Nixon goes on to bemoan the fact that he was subject to repeated tax audits and the allegation he had an illegal deduction for the donation of his vice presidential papers because he back dated the receipt by three days to avoid a new tax law going into effect. He lays out a plausible defense that the papers had been delivered weeks prior, but the paperwork was not completed until the new law took effect.
He addresses the issue of wiretaps, saying they were justified to prevent leaks of sensitive and secret military and diplomatic information. I agree with him that he did have the right and the duty to tap the phones of federal employees subverting the government, but never does the government have the right to spy on journalists.
After the Watergate interlude, Nixon resumes his story of his wilderness years. He decided that he would tour the world, not as a president or even as an emissary of the American government, but as private citizen Nixon. Respected around the world for his knowledge of geopolitics, he had no trouble gaining audiences with the world’s powerful men and women. After this tour, he found renewal in writing books.
Nixon ends his last chapter by stating that he determined to end his time in the wilderness by traveling and writing. This chapter recounts the many meetings he had through those years, several of the interviews he gave, and speeches he made.
He also analyzes the geopolitical situation as it existed in 1989-1990.
He talks about the protests in Tiananmen Square and strongly approves of how the Bush administration handled the affair. Bush condemned the act, but refused to allow the imposition of economic sanctions on China after the crackdown. Nixon says that it was an open China that led these young Chinese students to protest on behalf of reform. An isolated China would have the opposite effect. While it was clear that Nixon expected further protests and demands for reform to come from the Chinese people, he was correct (as was Bush) that economic sanctions would have been disastrous for the Chinese and for our economy. China has made great strides toward capitalism, but its totalitarian government remains unchallenged.
He sounded a warning about Mikhail Gorbachev and Russia’s Perestroika and Glastnost. While the world hailed Gorbachev as a reformer of a kinder, gentler, more open Soviet Union, Nixon cautioned that Gorbachev, whatever his actions, had only one goal in mind: to strengthen the Soviet Union and the Communist Party. Within a year, the Berlin Wall would fall. Soon, bloodless revolutions would be underway in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary and the Soviet Union would eventually collapse. Nixon was not so prescient as to predict these events, but his analysis of Gorbachev was spot on.
Nixon describes this time in his life as relaxing and liberating. He released his Secret Service detail and hired his own security. This gave him greater freedom of movement around the world, which he enjoyed a great deal. He enjoyed the encounters with journalists whom he once regarded as his most hated enemy. His detractors accused him of trying to make another comeback. But, with nothing to come back to, he was enjoying life and trying to stay relevant in a world that could still use his knowledge and expertise.
In this chapter, Nixon discusses his upbringing as the son of a Quaker mother and extended family and a Methodist minister. While Pat has her own chapter, it’s curious that Nixon did not discuss Tricia or Julie in this chapter.
Nixon, in his farewell to his cabinet, said that his mother was a saint. His critics scoffed at this, figuring that anybody who raised Dick Nixon must be a demon from Hell. However, saint was a word that was often used to describe Hannah Nixon by her contemporaries. Nixon recounts how she cared for tuberculosis patients around the clock as her own son died of the disease. It was from her he got his indomitable will to fight. For all of Hannah’s saintly deeds, it was she who as the firm hand in the family and held it together when they weathered bad times.
Nixon recalls his father as a exceptionally generous man who extended credit to his out of work neighbors from the small grocery he owned and operated. It was from father Frank that Nixon got his fire in the belly and his sharp temper. Frank Nixon’s temper was legend in their hometown.
Nixon recalls his childhood as a happy one even though we know that he suffered greatly upon the deaths of his brothers and looked on with anguish has his parents buried their two children. The Nixons were a middle-class California family who occasionally knew hard times. They lived in a Sears and Roebuck house Frank Nixon built with his own hands.
Nixon was raised primarily as a Quaker although, as an adult, he did not have a declared denomination. Nixon seldom employed piety in politics and seldom attended church. He says that his appearance at any church would have disrupted the service for the church members who would have to put up with the security and for him who would have to put up with protesters.
Nixon’s spiritual adviser was Rev. Billy Graham. Graham counseled Nixon and prayed with Nixon in the White House. When Pat died, it was Graham who escorted the prostrate Nixon to her funeral. When he died, it was Graham who eulogized him.
Nixon ruminates on the importance his teachers (and his parents as teachers) played in his life. He recalls the lessons he learned, not only from traditional teachers, but from his college football coach and fellow students.
He goes on to analyze teachers today and finds the entire educational system wanting. I share his lament. It’s not the people who teach whose quality has declined, but the means they employ today. Nixon admonishes teacher education schools who spend a great deal of time instructing future teachers to concentrate not on the subject at hand and imparting knowledge, but on being a “friend” to students and enhancing their self esteem. As someone who earned a college degree when “multicultural” education was the latest fad, I can attest to the truth of Nixon’s analysis.
Some of his observations are a bit old fashioned, but his analysis is spot on.
Nixon waxes philosophic on the importance of struggle in one’s life to meld character and integrity. He recounts the importance of his college football coach, Chief Newman, in molding him into a man and Nixon’s struggles to be an athlete, despite the fact that he was a poor athlete.
He also discusses his college years which were quite struggle for Nixon. As stated earlier, the Nixon’s were a middle class family. But with no student loans or grants available at the time, the Nixons struggled to put young Dick through college. Nixon himself struggled, not with the academic side, but with living arrangements in college. He lived in a storage shed with four other guys while attending Duke Law School. It had no heat and no running water – standards today that would be unfathomable by college students. But it was the best he could afford.
Of all of the modern (post Roosevelt) presidents, only Harry Truman can match the financial modesty of Nixon’s post presidential years. As was noted earlier, Nixon received handsome sums for his memoirs and for the candid interview he granted David Frost. But he kept none of it. It all went to his lawyers.
Nixon reminds us again and again that he forewent honoraria for speeches, eliminating for himself a lucrative income. In his post presidential years, Nixon relied on his congressional pension, his vice presidential pension, and his presidential pension along with book royalties as his income. Nixon was well-off by American standards, but never got rich the way that Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan did.
It’s clear from Nixon’s own observations and any study of the man’s life that wealth meant little to Nixon. He made enough money from his political career and legal career to keep his family comfortable, but there is no Nixon fortune.
Nixon used his middle class standard politically. In the famous Checkers Speech, he noted that his wife wore not a fur coat, but a “Republican cloth coat.” They drove an older car and owed a balance on their mortgage on their home. Nixon’s critics have always regarded Nixon’s pleas of poverty to be more whining from Tricky Dick. However, the formula worked for Nixon. While he could not spin tales of childhood poverty the way Ronald Reagan did to win over the masses, Nixon did connect with the American people in this way. His financial status was similar to most Americans even though he made more money than most. In a financial sense, Nixon was very much one of us, just as Harry Truman who left the presidency and resumed the life of a middle class American.
Nixon tells prospective politicians to find the right motive and purpose for entering politics. He tries to dispel some of the glamor of the job by telling them that, as freshmen, nobody will care what they have to say, they will be allotted substandard offices, and their lives will be quite boring.
He also cautions them to avoid going into politics for the money. He says even an average lawyer earns much more with half the effort.
His bottom line is to have a purpose or a goal that you want to achieve in elected office. Keep your eyes on that goal and work to achieve it through all of the distractions that come with elected office.
Nixon discusses how to allocate time while working in politics. He cautions against making the mistake of being long-winded in speeches and points to how the great progressive Republican, Robert LaFollete blew his candidacy for the presidency by making long, redundant speeches. Not only were the speeches ineffective, but they left him physically and mentally drained toward the end of the campaign.
Nixon points out one of his greatest misuses of time leading up to the debate with John Kennedy in 1960. He had been off the campaign trail for two important weeks, recuperating from a knee operation. Desperate to make up for lost time, he campaigned through the day of the debate. By the time he got to the debate, his appearance was haggard. He had bags under his eyes and five o’clock shadow. He forewent makeup and, while he was up to the task of debating Kennedy on an intellectual level, he did not look good on television. Nixon should have rested and prepared for the debate that day instead of campaigning.
What Nixon did not mention was the greatest waste of time in the history of presidential campaigns and that was his promise in 1960 to campaign in all 50 states. This was foolish. While Kennedy plugged away at states with large electoral college delegations, Nixon spent time in inconsequential states to meet that promise. More time in Illinois or Texas might have made the difference in the campaign.
As the Watergate scandal raged in early 1974, there was a great deal of speculation that President Nixon was drinking heavily and a few congressmen expressed concern about his ability to govern if he were in the tank at a critical moment. These rumors persisted despite the fact that no credible witnesses had provided accounts of having seen Nixon drunk, nor was there any physical evidence of excessive drinking.
Nixon discusses his drinking habits through the course of his life, but does not address this long standing accusation. Nixon makes no secret of having over-indulged in college on occasion, but maintains he has always lead a temperate life.
He explains that alcohol can indeed be the lubricant of verbal discourse and recounts how a couple drinks between world leaders often lead to greater candor and more open minds. This we know to be true. However, he goes on to rail against drugs in a near hysterical manner. Keep in mind that this book was written as the crack wars were raging in urban America. Drug paranoia raged anew in America. Nixon, the most ardent general in the war on drugs, preaches from the pulpit in a sermon that seems old fashioned and quaint today.
Most presidents are avid readers. Nixon was perhaps the most avaricious. Nixon was well read in the law, philosophy, American history, European history, Russian and Soviet history, and current events. He also consumed a great deal of classical literature and a few contemporary books as well.
Nixon’s views on reading match my own. Daily reading serves two purposes. Through reading non –fiction, one not only gains knowledge, but exercises the intellect. While Nixon claims that he enjoys fiction much less than history and philosophy, he recommends the reading of fiction as a diversion from the stresses of life. I know reading is certainly my favorite, and most effective, diversion from stress.
From a wisened view of reading, Nixon starts a rant against television. He claims that he has occasionally enjoyed television, but generally found it useless as an entertainment medium and only marginally useful as an information tool. He brags about having all of the television sets removed from the presidential offices and bathroom where the television obsessed Lyndon Johnson had them installed. Just as his paranoid views on drugs, his opinion of television is old fashioned and delivered in the manner of a grumpy old man lecturing.
In this chapter, Nixon discusses the art of conversation between politicians and statesmen rather than between two people. It reads as a how-to for aspiring politicians.
Again, Nixon describes how a strong memory – especially for names – are a strong asset for the elected official and describes how the memory, just as the intellect, must be exercised to remain intact.
This chapter is a foolish bit of doggerel about when to think, when not to think, and how to think. It leads him into another of his bitter old man critiques of modern technology, a bitter rant about how television destroyed thinking in a generation and how computers are on their way to destroying thinking in another generation (and this before the Internet was mainstream). Nixon has a lot of knowledge and wisdom to impart. But his cultural criticisms are just the bitterness of a technologically obsolete man. A Luddite to the end was Mr. Nixon.
What is interesting in this chapter is his recollections of President Eisenhower’s heart attack and stroke. Nixon was the paragon of vice presidents in those days when he took over responsibility for running the day to day affairs of the country while Ike convalesced. Nixon set a precedent for how a vice president should conduct himself in times of presidential incapacitation -- a model George Bush emulated as Ronald Reagan convalesced from a bullet wound and from cancer surgery.
This chapter consists mostly of Nixon’s bragging about his golf game. However, he does recall having talked Jimmy Carter out of decommissioning Camp David, saying that it was a retreat from the pressures of the White House and that he should utilize it before deciding. Carter ended up carrying out the only meaningful accomplishment of his administration at Camp David.
Nixon recounts how various illnesses suffered by world leaders changed history and how illness affected his own life.
One little interesting tidbit that emerges is that Napoleon was suffering from hemorrhoids at Waterloo. Perhaps he lost because he was itching to get out of the saddle. On a more serious note, he points out that had Franklin Roosevelt been able to employ his dynamic personality and keen intellect at Yalta, the postwar world may have been much different. Instead, a weak and tired Roosevelt was unable to meet the bombastic Stalin head on and defeat his successful efforts to bring eastern Europe under Soviet domination.
He talks of how illness impacted his political career. He missed three weeks on the campaign trail in 1960 recovering from an infected knee that kept him hospitalized. It is in this chapter that he acknowledges his promise to campaign in all 50 states in 1960 was a big mistake. He says that he spent the final days of the campaign, he worked too hard to meet that promise instead of campaigning in key campaign states. In an election settled by 119,000 votes, it may have made a difference.
In 1973, he was recuperating from viral pneumonia when the existence of the White House taping system was revealed. He states that perhaps if he’d had all of his mental faculties employed, he might have made the decision to destroy the tapes.
Nixon talks about how to channel tension to your advantage and how it served him through his career.
First he recounts his trip to Venezuela when he was vice president. He and Pat were nearly killed there in 1957 when pro-communist protesters set up roadblocks for his motorcade and protesters attacked his limousine. As Nixon tells it, his translator, Vernon Walters, was convinced they were going to die and drew his pistol, prepared to take a few protesters with them. As their car rocked and was pelted with rocks, it was Nixon who remained calm and waited for his driver to make a move to get them out of danger.
Nixon also reminisces about how tense he was leading up to the Checkers Speech. Just before he was to go on, he received a call from a supporter telling him that the Republican National Committee had passed a resolution asking Nixon to announce his departure from the 1952 presidential ticket. Nixon was pissed and when his friend asked him his plans, Nixon angrily told him he didn’t know what he was going to do.
This was one of the very first televised political speeches and Nixon was understandably amped up with anticipation. Just before the cameras went on, he resolved to ask viewers to send their thoughts on him being on the ticket to the Republican National Committee. He admits to being very tense and nervous right up until the words started flowing, then he was calm.
History would have been served had he also revealed his thoughts and his mood leading up to his resignation speech. Although it was short and to the point, it was one of the most important speeches in American history. What was going through the man’s mind as he prepared to resign the most powerful office in the world would be fascinating to know.
It is in this chapter that we get a glimpse – just a glimpse – of Nixon as he’s never portrayed himself in his writing. In recalling how he entered his first campaign for Congress without owning a home or car, his writing takes on a voice of an elderly gentleman recalling fond memories. Nixon’s writing is deeply philosophical and he’s never given to flights of rhetorical whimsy. It is interesting for him to recall his early years in politics and the time he and Pat spent together so fondly.
The chapter itself is about risk taking in politics. Nixon talks of risking what little he and Pat had in a race to defeat a Democrat most thought unbeatable. He talks of his votes for Truman’s Greek-Turkish aid bill and for the Marshall Plan, both of which were not popular with his constituents. He instructs us that a representative of his people owes it to them to exercise his judgment based on the facts known to him rather than bowing to the prevailing opinion of his constituents. A leader leads the people to his way of thinking. Sage advice from the great sage of 20th century politics.
Nixon also fondly recalls time spent with Jack Kennedy, recounting a trip they took across the country, debating the Taft Hartley Act. They shared a sleeping birth aboard the train and spent many hours discussing politics and current events. It’s also apparent that Kennedy bested him in the debate for Nixon brags that he one the draw of straws for the lower birth by saying, “I won that one.”
That Nixon and Kennedy were friends and occasionally political allies is common knowledge. To my knowledge, no scholarly work has ever been conducted that explores this relationship. It would be worth exploring. The conspiracy theorist in me sees the links between the Kennedy assassination and Watergate as too many coincidences. All of the parties involved had CIA connections and Kennedy and Nixon were two presidents who frequently challenged the leadership of the CIA.
This was Nixon’s life, yet he gives politics just five scant pages. Here, Nixon makes several recommendations and engages in some (inaccurate) prognostication.
He complains of the power of incumbency and how little turnover there is in Congress. This was true in the time Nixon wrote this book. He points out that, despite having won landslides in three consecutive presidential elections, the Republican party lost 17 congressional seats in those same elections. He predicts that the presidency would remain in the hands of the Republicans and the Congress in the hands of the Democrats for the remainder of the 20th century. Unfortunately for him, he died just months before the Gingrich Revolution of 1994.
Nixon provides an elementary lesson on the limitations of power placed on the presidency embodied in the Constitution. But he says the real curb on the power of the presidency was the federal bureaucracy. Nixon recalls his fight to get the vintage World War I temporary buildings removed from The Mall in Washington so that it might be restored to the pristine condition in which the designer of the city had intended. Nixon won that fight, but not without a struggle with the Pentagon bureaucracy. A fight that Nixon lost was to have the White House tennis courts removed. He thought they destroyed the beauty of the south lawn of the White House. Despite his orders and demands that it be removed and the earth resodded, it never happened. I think it was that sneaky Bob Haldeman, an avid tennis player, who blocked that directive. The tennis courts are still there today.
When Richard Nixon writes an essay on speaking and speech writing, I pay close attention for this man has authored and delivered speeches that have moved American public opinion and changed our world. Few presidents or world leaders can make that claim.
When it comes to speaking, Nixon and I take the same approach. We outline first. He makes three or four outlines. I generally make just one and develop it. If the speech won’t develop from that outline, I scrap it and start again. Nixon then memorizes the topical sentences of his outline and uses that to speak. When I speak publicly (and it has been a couple years since I’ve done so), I speak with a piece of paper in front of me with just a few sentences to remind me of the points I want to make.
I have written hundreds of speeches, and the office holders for whom I wrote these speeches preferred to have them written out verbatim. Sometimes they read them verbatim, sometimes they supplemented them with their own thoughts. Sometimes, they eschewed my text all together. A speech writer must check his ego at the door when it comes time to deliver that speech.
Nixon and I disagree on the advantages of providing the media with advanced copies of the text of a speech. The two years I served as our mayor’s executive officer, I provided advanced copies of our State of the City speech to the media. I embargoed direct quotes from the speech, but told the media they could reference its points for their pre-speech coverage. I thought it enhanced our coverage.
Nixon was a gifted orator. However, as a speaker, he was physically awkward. Non-verbal communication during a speech is almost as important as the words delivered. Nixon’s gestures and movements reflected a physical awkwardness that was an often mocked characteristic of his.
I am avid fan of museums and have enjoyed spending an entire day inside the Nixon Library and Museum. On display there is a page of Nixon's famous "Silent Majority" speech, in Nixon's own hand; his edits on display. For a political geek like me, that is nearly a sacred document and count seeing it as one of the high points of the week I spent in Los Angeles.
Having already railed against television as the root of all societal decay, Nixon’s ire is somewhat reserved in the chapter he set aside for the small screen. Instead, he talks of its importance and influence in politics.
He does state that he should be a bigger fan of television, having used it to his advantage in his career. But he laments the need for a candidate to look good on television. He also laments that television news reduces important, complex stories to sound bites.
His biggest lament is that we will elect second rate intellects that rise to high office because they look good on television. History has not born out this prediction. Television was not George H.W. Bush’s friend. He was not exceptionally articulate. His voice is thin and reedy. He was not exceptionally attractive. Television was not friendly to his son either who suffers from the same inability to articulate well in the visual medium. Both managed to get elected.
Frankly, Nixon’s own election is proof that television is not the determining factor in any campaign. Nixon the president used conveyed the power of the presidency strongly when he was in the White House. However, he’s not an attractive man. His voice is deep, but not resonant. He did not talk in sound bites. But he made it work for him.
Nixon made one television appearance that was totally out of character for him. In 1968, when many were pressuring him to run for president, he appeared on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, delivering that famous line uttered by many, “Sock it to me!” Except, Nixon delivered it, “Sock it to ME?” It was awkward and horrible. It didn’t impact his candidacy at all.
Nixon is entirely too cynical about television. One can only imagine what he’d think of the Internet.
Nixon discusses the boundaries of a public person’s private life and his public life. He recalls that the media did not touch Kennedy’s personal transgressions, but reported on Gary Hart’s. As one might expect, Nixon also laments the passing of the old unspoken agreement that the media did not report on a public man’s private life unless that man put it on display – inadvertently or on purpose.
One might wonder what Nixon would have thought of the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Somehow, I could have seen him providing at least a little sympathy for Clinton for Nixon also was embattled by a zealous partisan in the form of a special prosecutor.
Throughout his political career, Nixon was chided by commentators, enemies, and a few friends for never showing Pat any public affection or appreciation. Stephen Ambrose, in his three volume biography, takes Nixon to task for mentioning his mother and his father in his emotional farewell to his cabinet, but not mentioning Pat or his daughters.
In reading this chapter, we come to find that perhaps this was more Pat’s design than Dick’s. Nixon describes Pat as exceptionally private. In hindsight, this would seem to be true. She made hundreds of campaign appearances and appeared at dozens of fundraisers. However, she did few one on one interviews. She did not discuss her family or her marriage. When the Nixon’s left public life, she granted no interviews.
Nixon describes her as a an exceptionally intelligent person with keen political instincts. He said the few times he did not take her advice, he ended up wishing he had. She was quicker to spot an enemy than he was and was adept at developing political strategy.
Her mother died when she was just 13 and her father when she was 18. She worked her way through college with no family support at all. We can discern that Pat was strong and independent. She would have to be to co-exist with her husband who was noted for strength and independence of his own.
He doesn’t get into their emotional relationship. To Nixon, and really his entire generation, this subject was not discussed in public. He danced with her at Tricia’s White House wedding, but other than that, they did not display affection when they were together – not even holding hands as the Fords, Carters, Reagans, and all couples that followed did.
We know that she stayed with Richard Nixon through her entire adult life in good times and bad. We know that she raised two lovely daughters her adored both their parents. We know that she delighted in spending time with her grandchildren. One can surmise that she was a warm and caring woman – far from “Plastic Pat” as her detractors called her.
All we need know of their relationship was put on public display the day of Pat Nixon’s funeral when, as he approached the crowd for the start of the ceremonies, Nixon physically and mentally collapsed. Supported by Billy Graham and his daughters, he was able to make it to his seat, but wept uncontrollably through the ceremony.
This chapter really reads like a laundry list of Nixon associates. He talks of learning who his real friends were in 1952, during the fund crisis that nearly got him booted from the Republican ticket and after Watergate.
Truth is, according to his contemporaries, he had few close friends. It seemed that only with Bebe Rebozo and Robert Apblanalp could he be himself. Otherwise, all of his “friends” were really political supporters.
This subject is of interest to Nixon researchers because of Nixon’s notorious “Enemies List.” He claims to have never seen it. Nixon waxes philosophic on how one should avoid making enemies. However, Here is part of the transcript of Nixon talking to Chief Counsel John Dean about enemies:
Dean: I have begun to keep notes on a lot of people who are emerging as less than our friends because this will be over some day and we shouldn’t forget the way some of them have treated us.
Nixon: I want the most comprehensive notes on all those who tried to do us in. They didn’t have to do it. If we had had a very close election and they were playing the other side, I would understand this. No – they were doing this quite deliberately and they are asking for it and they are going to get it. We have not used the power in this firs four years as you know. We have never used it. WE have not used the Bureau (FBI) and we have not used the Justice Department, but things are going to change now. And they are going to do it right or go!
Dean: What an exciting prospect.
Nixon’s battles with the media are the stuff of legend. There was the “Last Press Conference” when he told reporters, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore!” to his belligerent exchanges with the White House press corps – particularly Dan Rather.
Nixon goes on to say that there were and are many reporters and columnists he admires even if they did not agree with him. He found most reporters to be of above average intelligence and finds print reporters to be smarter than electronic journalists. Again, one can only imagine the ire he would express over “citizen journalists” in the form of bloggers on the Internet.
In this chapter, we see more of Nixon the Grumpy Old Man come to the fore. He laments the rise of television as a major factor in campaigning. He recounts the last presidential campaign that did not rely on television as an instrument of communication: the 1948 contest between President Truman and Tom Dewey. He says that pollsters, media advisors, and image makers would have taken the rough edges off of Truman’s “in your face” approach to campaigning that made him effective. He’s probably right.
He laments that he is often labeled as the first president “made” by television. This perception exists with some because of Joe McGinnis’ book The Selling of a President which recounted the media portion of Nixon’s 1968 run for office. Nixon complains that McGinniss made himself sound as if he were inside the campaign chronicling it when in fact, all he had access to was the media operations side of it. McGinniss was clearly anti-Nixon in his book and refuses to acknowledge that Nixon’s “Man in the Arena” television commercials, while entirely scripted, had a clear look of authenticity and rank as some of the most effective campaign commercials in history.
He also discusses polling quite a bit and says that candidates should fire their pollsters because campaign polls usually skew toward the candidate for whom they work and are not accurate. In this he is quite correct. If one relies on polls – and every high level candidate does – he should watch the national polls which are usually more accurate and disseminated for free.
He states that real leaders to do not campaign by polls, but work to move the polls. This is a bit hypocritical of him since his White House was well known for having one of the most elaborate polling systems in presidential history. Nixon often did set out to move those polls and other than Ronald Reagan, no one has done that more effectively. However, Nixon’s domestic record as president reflects a man whose agenda was driven almost exclusively by polling. Almost every domestic initiative he undertook – wage and price controls, the notorious Family Assistance Plan that furnished every American household a minimum income, The creation of the EPA and the creation of OSHA were quite popular and except for the FAP, well received. They, however, clearly were not Nixon driven ideas since they were liberal for their day and Nixon was nobody’s idea of a liberal.
Of all the topics upon which Nixon ruminates, this is perhaps the most topical. He talks about the incredible expansion of the federal bureaucracy and congressional staffs since he was in Congress. As he points out, a freshman congressman has a much larger staff than he had as vice president. He prosecuted the Alger Hiss case with just six people working for him. He was correct in 1990 and he would be correct today in stating that the federal bureaucracy is bloated.
He recommends a 25 percent across the board cut in the staffs of all three branches of government. It has been 20 years since he made that suggestion, but I have to believe it would be well received today.
He talks about what makes a good staffer: head, heart, and guts. His own chief of staff, Bob Haldeman had these traits. Yes, Haldeman got caught up in Watergate, but his only real involvement in the coverup was the stupid decision to authorize cash payments to the Watergate defendants – a decision made while he was working 16 hour days in preparation for Nixon going to China. He also talks about Ike’s chief of staff, Sherman Adams or the “Abominable No-man.” He says that a good chief of staff is essential to any congressional or presidential office.
I’ve worked for two chiefs of staff. They were very different individuals, but they had one thing in common. They were abrupt and to the point. They waste little time in niceties or formalities. However, when not dealing with issues, they were both caring, considerate people who made me feel like a valued part of a team. I too know the value of a good chief of staff.
Nixon discusses the difficulties of governing as the chief executive. He decries the notion of an imperial presidency. He says the bureaucracy is the equal of the president in maintaining a government and the president wins only some of his battles against the bureaucracy.
He also discusses congressional relations. Nixon’s congressional relations were acceptable in his first term, with Jerry Ford paving the way for Nixon’s legislative initiatives. However, in his second term, even before Watergate caught fire, his relations were tepid at best. Nixon never made any effort to help Republican congressmen get re-elected and hoarded campaign cash despite the fact that it was clear he was going to beat McGovern in a landslide in 1972. Congressional Republicans never forgot that sleight.
Every president and congressman must balance principle with pragmatism. Nixon was certainly the pragmatist president. He initiated many liberal programs to preempt even more liberal programs that were going to be enacted by Democrats over his veto.
He discusses congressional politics of the 1990s as devoid of pragmatism and the need for absolute victory as primal with both parties. Compared to today with the rise of the “professional left” and the Tea Party, the early 1990s were relatively tranquil.
Nixon talks about the use of silence in conducting negotiations or meetings. It’s a silly, wasted chapter.
In reading this chapter, one can tell that Nixon has studied his philosophy. He authors a superb essay on the philosophical roots of our Constitution and the republic invoking Locke as the primary philosophical inspiration.
The chapter may be entitled Causes – plural. But the only cause Nixon discusses is the campaign against communism. Here, Nixon sounds like a minister on the pulpit. Instead of the sinners, it’s the communists that are going to Hell.
He defends the conduct of past presidents and is especially complimentary of Harry Truman as he discusses the construction of weaponry never used and lives lost on foreign soil, all sacrificed in a war never declared. It’s a war he regards as the most important ever fought.
He describes Americans as peace loving isolationists who only want to be left alone in the pursuit of happiness. He describes communists as motivated by the expansion of power, influence and territory. He is exactly right. Nobody understood communists the way Nixon did.
Nixon analyzes the geopolitical situation in what was, at that time, a dramatic warming in the Cold War. Nixon made it clear from the beginning of the book that he did not trust Gorbachev. He says that while most of the American media and public has caught “Gorby Fever,” he knows Gorbachev’s true motives, which was to strengthen communism by reforming it rather than scrapping it. While he may have been a kinder, gentler, communist, Gorbachev was still a communist.
Nixon’s sober analysis is spot on. Perestroika and Glastnost did not come about because Gorbachev was ideologically inclined to inject capitalism into his economy or a measure (small measure) of competition into the totalitarian election system. Gorbachev recognized that his country and the system that made him powerful would die with it. Dissidents were looking for political reform amidst a dire economic situation. Only by introducing a marginal profit motive could he hope to start the economy. Only by allowing competing parties could he calm the dissidents clamoring for political reform.
Most of the chapter is dated, for it was written about a year before the Iron Curtain would fall in eastern Europe and about three years before the fall of Gorbachev and the Soviet Union.
Nixon is prescient in predicting the circumstances that would lead to Gorbachev’s ouster. He states that Gorbachev did not rise to the top of the communist hierarchy by being a nice guy. He did it through ruthless politics. Nixon notes that he has consolidated his position with the party and government by removing his opponents from office. Nixon notes that as long as Gorbachev can keep his cronies comfortable in the high life of an upper echelon party member, he’ll be ok. But if those men see their rank and privilege jeopardized, Gorbachev would be in trouble.
Of course, that is precisely what happened. The fall of Gorbachev and the Soviet Union was not forced by external pressures of democracy nor the internal pressure of reform. It came from hard line communists who wanted to eliminate Gorbachev and re-establish the hierarchy that had made them comfortable.
Given his exceptionally high IQ and gift for understanding geopolitics, perhaps Nixon would have made an exceptional college professor. He could educated thousands while playing cutthroat faculty politics.
Nixon governed in challenging times. Doing so, he made many important decisions that still impact our lives today. He discusses how he made many of those decisions, including the pursuit of Alger Hiss, bombing Hanoi, etc. Nixon sought the opinions of advisers, but, as the chief executive, stood alone to make the decision.
One pearl of wisdom comes from this chapter: When a decision ultimately proves successful, a leader shares credit. When it fails, he stands alone to take the blame.
I was going to remark in an earlier entry that Nixon seemed to avoid the second seminal event of his presidency which was the Vietnam War. He addresses it here. Nixon justly defends his conduct of an unpopular war he could have easily ended by surrendering and blaming Johnson and Kennedy for the mess.
Instead, he chose to fight and fight hard, calling our cause in southeast Asia just. He was right. To walk away for short term political gain would have made Nixon a traitor and he knew it. He made hard decisions to bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia, to bomb Hanoi, to mine the Haiphong Harbor. Just like the governors of Wisconsin and Ohio today, Nixon was willing to fight the hard fight to win an objective. Alas, as Bob McNamara, the architect of American foreign policy in southeast Asia would finally admit, there was no way we could win.
Nixon's take on peace is identical to his views on war – so much so that the chapters could have been combined. Nixon’s philosophy: peace is desirable, but never possible. The best we can hope for and what we should always strive for is uneasy coexistence with our enemies. We must fight for peace and prepare for war.
Nixon was a strong adherent to the philosophy of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). He sought not to outrace the Soviets in the Cold War, but to bring about an equality of destructive power that would assure that neither nation would unleash its nuclear arsenal for fear of equal reprisal.
Reagan rendered this philosophy (which Nixon adhered to until his dying day) obsolete when he set out to WIN the Cold War by burying the Soviet economy, forcing them to devote more and more of their meager economic resources toward national defense to counteract ours.
This is not to perpetuate the simplistic myth that Reagan won the Cold War. That would ignore the contributions of every president since Harry Truman (with the exception of Jimmy Carter) who fought the communists in their own time and their own way.
That Nixon was in his twilight years when this book was published can not be doubted. He was 77. Not ancient by any standard and relatively young for an ex-president by today’s standards. But he knew he was in his final years.
Instead of utilizing the evening of life to reflect and reminisce about what a glorious day it had been, Nixon encourages mental and physical rigor. He points out that the brain will atrophy just like a muscle if not put to work, especially in one’s twilight years.
Nixon’s twilight was short, for he was dead just four years after the publication of this book. But the quality of his twilight was grand compared to his contemporary former presidents. Truman and Ford all but resigned from public life. Ford’s mental acumen slipped badly in his final days. Lyndon Johnson’s twilight was that of an emotionally exhausted and bitter man who gave up caring about his physical appearance, his mental prowess, and his place in history. We all know of Reagan’s sad and slow demise.
Nixon certainly could have resigned from private life and lived out his days bitter and angry. Instead, he launched a final comeback to achieve respectability as an elder statesman. In this he was successful beyond what anybody thought possible. He maintained his mental prowess up until a stroke felled him in 1994. His last book, Beyond Peace, was published just before his death. As the heavenly shades of night fell upon Nixon, he was still at the top of his game.
My Final Thoughts on the Book
This was not Nixon’s autobiography. For a complete autobiographical account, one must read the voluminous RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. However, much of the material contained in this book is anecdotal and adds to the body of what we know of one of the most analyzed political figures in American history.
He is much more thoughtful, reflective and analytical about the events he shaped, that shaped him, and shaped the world than he was in his autobiography which carries through it a tone of defensiveness. While the petty gripes and cultural backwardness that always were the demons that drove Nixon to do his worst are still present in 1989, it is apparent that, when he wrote In the Arena he was a much mellower and wiser man.
This book should be on the reading list of any person who aspires to public life. Much of it is a “how to” and “how to not” become a successful politicians. Even Nixon’s staunchest enemies had to admire how shrewd, calculating, and deft Richard Nixon was and how dangerous he could be when he was in the arena. Very few were or are in Nixon’s league when it came to politics and in this book, he passes along life lessons that he learned the hard way. That alone made this wonderful book worth reading.