Thursday, August 24, 2006

When we write or discuss the 19th century in terms of broad American history, it usually comes down to a handful of names. Abraham Lincoln, of course, enjoys pride of place but in his vanguard march Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Andrew Jackson and John Calhoun. They march there not because everything they did was great or good but because, unlike lesser figures, even formidible ones like Mark Hanna or Thomas Hart Benton, these men and their battles defined the age. For the twentieth century, among the very few figures that historians will select to stand alongside Franklin Roosevelt will be Richard Milhous Nixon.

Nixon ran for national office no less than five times, winning four out of those five times and losing to John F. Kennedy only by one of the slenderest of margins in American history and winning reelection as President, in the midst of an unpopular war, by one of the largest landslides. Nixon served in both houses of the legislative branch where he established himself as a force to be reckoned with despite his lack of seniority. His exposure of Alger Hiss as a Communist spy earned Nixon the undying hatred of the left-liberal wing of the Establishment in a way that Nixon's bareknuckle red-baiting against Jerry Voorhees and Helen Gahagan Douglas did not. Nixon's comeback in 1968, after his crushing defeat (and subsequent televised self-destruction) in California's gubernatorial election, was a skillfully executed rise from the political dead.

Space in a mere blog post does not permit detailing the heights of Nixon's accomplishments in foreign policy or his ignominious fall in his criminal conspiracy of Watergate. For that, books are required:

If you are and remain a devoted Nixon-hater, your best bet in terms of scholarship would be historian Stanley I. Kutler's Wars of Watergate and Abuse of Power. If you are an admirer of Richard Nixon, he wrote a slew of books of which his memoirs, RN, may be the most interesting from any American president other than those of Ulysses S. Grant. I would also recommend Six Crises. For a more balanced (though hardly favorable) view than Kutler's, of this analytically brilliant, at times visionary and deeply flawed man, I like Richard Reeves' biography, Richard Nixon:Alone in the White House. Nixon's role in the Hiss case is illuminated by Sam Tanenhaus in his biography Whittaker Chambers.

Alongside Nixon and his critics are a few books by Nixon's collaborators and aides. The postumously published The Haldeman Diaries are an indispensible resource for historians that far eclipses Haldeman's The Ends of Power. Less meticulous, but a still interesting sampling of Nixon administration mentality, was From: The President, edited by Bruce Oudes. Henry Kissinger's ponderously large, three volume memoirs have numerous valuable commentaries about Richard Nixon and especially, his foreign policy, must be included in any serious study of Nixon.

Most of the books produced by the Watergate conspirators tend to be at least as self-serving as Nixon's account without the benefit of Nixon's selectively incisive intellect. Dean's Blind Ambition is probably among the worst of the lot but none of them, often written hastily in the face of mounting legal bills and fines, add much substance to that covered by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. John Ehrlichman's cynicism is occasionally amusing as is G. Gordon Liddy, though often unintentionally. Of lesser figures, little need be said.

Next, Part II. Nixon in his own words:
Nixon is a very major figure. You are the only other person I have seen mention that, like FDR, Nixon was on five national tickets and won four times. Unlike FDR, in the middle of this stretch, he had a political crash-and-burn, double defeats in '60 and 62. Also like FDR, he was a president who is deeply misunderstood, because he was complicated and devious. Both men came into the presidency when the country was in the midst of a disaster which threatened the foundations of our political order. 1932 and 1968 were rock-bottom years for America. Both, in effect, put out political forest fires and saved the country.

I have not read most of the books you mention, but I like very much Stephen Ambrose's first volume of his trilogy on Nixon, which goes to 1962.
hi Lex,

Thanks for bringing the point about FDR up - the difference between the public reputation of the two men is stark and to some degree, demonstrates the effect of personality on politics.

FDR's political accomplishments were larger but Nixon's were large enough to merit comparison. Both were devious, vindictive, manipulative, prone to playing politics " rough" and determined to expand the powers of the executive. FDR however was radiantly charismatic, optimistic and confident while Nixon was, while combative and determined, an insecure and paranoid man, often ill at ease in social situations. These qualities yielded political reactions.

I'm not sure if I read Ambrose on Nixon ( have his book on Eisenhower on the shelf) or not - I read so many Nixon books in a short period of time when doing research in grad school that some of them have blurred together. Will check it out though
Ambrose on Eisenhower is excellent, too. I like Ambrose's books from before he got famous.

RMN was what the country wanted in 1968. Some guy who was not a nice guy, to reimpose some order. A tough guy. But the country was not yet ready to truly turn to the right. FDR was what the country needed in 1932. Somebody who was optimistic, who could see a way out of the swamp. I agree Nixon's political achievements are not in the same league as FDRs. The only challengers for that title are Washington and Lincoln.

I read somewhere about somebody in Washington in the mid 1950s saying the two guys in this town who are going to be president some day are Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. The reason? They were the two guys in town who knew every single county party chairman by name and stayed in touch with them. They routinely did the hard, grinding work of building up a national political base. Both guys were pluggers, marathon racers, not sprinters.

I'm currently reading a book called The Politics of Recovery: Roosevelt's New Deal. It is very good. It shows what FDR was up to, which was to restore confidence and get the various factions in the country working together, and fending off more radical proposals that would have destroyed the basic underpinnings of our economy. No one is willing to admit that FDR was the greatest conservative president we ever had -- he "conserved" democratic capitalism, when most people wanted to give up on one or both of those elements. Similarly, no one wants to admit that Nixon was our greates liberal politician, cementing in place LBJ's Great Society, and putting in many liberal programs, e.g. the EPA, ending the draft, that could not have been put into place by a Democrat.

We are still to close to both men to understand the magnitude of what they did. FDR is still a polarizing figure. But we may in my lifetime start to see "post-revisionism" on him that gets the story straight.
Again, very incisive comments Lex, we're in agreement here.

I recall reading somewhere that FDR could recall something like 30,000 ppl by name. Incidentally, that's around the size of George H.W. Bush's famous Christmas card list. Nixon, Clinton, FDR and Gingrich all knew/know electoral stats for counties and Congressional districts like avid baseball fans memorized batting averages. Very successful politicians are masters of the data.
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