being nixon

Several months ago Charlie Rose had two authors on discussing their new books about President Nixon; Evan Thomas, Being Nixon: A man divided, and Tim Weiner, One Man Against the World: The tragedy of Richard Nixon. Both men were among the first people to access the final batch of Nixon tapes and documents recently released to the public and both books sounded interested. I have now finished both of them and highly recommend Being Nixon.

one man against the world

One Man Against the World has some interesting parts, particularly in its heavy reliance on White House tapes that show Nixon at his worst, but it fails to fully live up to its subtitle. A tragedy, in the classical sense, is not just something bad, it is something that is fated to be; it is inescapable. The Greek play, Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles, is the archetypal example. Oedipus learns that he is fated to kill his father and marry his mother, so he runs away from his family in order to escape his fate. Unfortunately for him, he did not know that he was being raised by adoptive parents, so he runs right into his fate, killing his real father and marrying his real mother. No matter how arrogant he has been (“hubris” is a better word), you feel sorry for Oedipus when he gouges his own eyes out at the end.

Weiner’s Nixon is not a tragic figure; he is an angry, pathetic drunk who never seems to have spent any time with his family or enjoyed life in any way. Weiner’s constant bias, not just against Nixon, but on a number of things, is blatant and omnipresent (e.g. at one point he refers to the, “dubious notion of Executive Privilege.” Nixon’s application of the idea was arguably dubious but the Supreme Court affirmed that the concept is not just a notion, let alone a dubious one).

Thomas’ Nixon is a much more interesting, multidimensional, and sympathetic figure. I loved the way he began Being Nixon by talking about Nixon the movie fan. Contrary to the popular story that Nixon’s favorite film was Patton (1970), about the “old blood and guts” World War II general, Thomas explains that Nixon’s actual favorite film was Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), an adventure comedy. More importantly, Thomas paints a portrait of Nixon as the eternal optimist. No matter how bad a film was, after his wife and daughters and nearly everyone has else at the White House had given up and gone to bed, the President was still insisting that, “It might get better.” It’s one of those simple stories that really seems to reveal something important, even profound, about the heart of the man.

Thomas’ book also deals with the full scope of Nixon’s life, whereas Weiner is much more focused on just the White House years. Once you have the more complete view that Being Nixon gives it is easy to see him both as, “a man divided,” and a, “tragic,” character. I don’t know that the book will change the minds of any committed Nixon haters but I do think that the average person, who doesn’t really know anything about Watergate or the life of the 37th President, will find the story compelling and a little sad.

Another thing that stuck me about Being Nixon was the comical nature of the men who helped bring down Nixon with their incompetence. E. Howard Hunt, in particular, who is often named by conspiracy theorists as one of the many gunmen in Dealey Plaza firing at President Kennedy, is exposed as a CIA reject who should never have been entrusted with anything.