Almost everyone who has tried to make sense of Richard Milhous Nixon has acknowledged serious doubts about the value of the effort, admitted spells of boredom and outbursts of anger, and confessed recurrent frustration in finding and understanding the man. Their exasperation calls to mind the old children’s game: “Nixon, Nixon, who’s got the Nixon?”

The answer, very probably, is nobody. Not even Nixon.

If that is correct, and I think it is, then we can be clear about the reason for our unhappiness, anger, and fear. It is a shell game without any pea.

The support for this interpretation begins to emerge as one reviews other explanations of the man. One approach, offered by liberals and radicals (and some old-fashioned conservatives), pictures him as a bad or evil man embarked upon a brilliant and determined campaign to redefine traditional values in such narrow terms as to exclude most of us from consequential citizenship.1 Without denying the harmful effects, for example, of his slap-dash anticommunism, and recognizing that he does display malice and meanness, I think that interpretation breaks down for one basic reason: Nixon is neither that imaginative nor coherent. Being evil is a heavy trip.

A second analysis explains Nixon as first and always a politician. While admitting that he is guided by a few general values (such as capitalism and a distorted Protestant piety), and differing among themselves about his ability to deal with real issues and problems, these Nixonologists agree that he acts largely to obtain and retain public office. One gets the impression, for example, that Dwight David Eisenhower made that estimate of Nixon—giving him a B in shallowness and a D in leadership. A good bit of Nixon’s career can be explained by this political analysis, and his trips to China and Russia have revived its appeal after his earlier behavior as President had raised serious questions about its accuracy.

That approach has a major weakness, however, because defining a man as a politician does not—in and of itself—tell us how and why he responds to public moods and pressures (or to advice from confidants). It is not convincing to meet that objection by calling Nixon a pure politician (for whom office is all) who occasionally makes a mistake. He is neither that stupid nor that inexperienced, and his gaffes do follow a pattern. The strongest statements of the political analysis have been offered by Ralph de Toledano and Garry Wills, who explain Nixon as the politician as self-made man.2

Wills has attracted more attention because he offers an elaborate discussion of market place individualism and liberalism, because he digresses at great length on various current issues (Nixon disappears for pages on end), and because he is sympathetically critical instead of simply sympathetic. But one cannot read the books consecutively without becoming aware of their important similarities. Toledano’s book (the earlier) is a hopper car full of data, and his interpretation is basically the same as the one offered by Wills. Taken together, they almost convince one that Nixon can be understood as the grade C self-made man as politician.

But only almost.

The first reservation arises from the information provided by Toledano and Wills that is not explained by their interpretation (give them high marks for that), from data supplied by Nixon himself,3 and from further evidence offered in the collection of essays by John Osborne and the book by Rowland Evans and Robert D. Novak. The second weakness involves a central point in the theory of the self-made man. It is this: the classic self-made man does get made. He struggles upward until he makes the place that offers him the opportunity to fulfill himself. Then he proceeds to fulfill himself and, according to the theory, that personal fulfillment contributes to the general welfare.4 Having earned success, the self-made man is at peace.

And so the politician as self-made man explanation will not work for Nixon.

First Nixon reveals no sense of the place where, as himself, he should stop and fulfill himself. It most probably was the House of Representatives; but, typically, he displayed so little recognition of place that he never became involved as a congressman (or even as a senator).5

Hence, second, there is nowhere any display of the self-made man’s competence that becomes excellence in the proper place.

And so, third, there is no psychological ease and contentment.

We must therefore turn elsewhere for assistance in understanding Nixon. Specifically to the insight (first advanced by the Germans) about the middle-class individual who, denied any opportunity to realize himself as a consequential member of society (no sense of place or fulfillment), flees forward to escape destruction. To stop is to die because flight is identity. Life is a sequence of problems rather than a mix of difficulties, opportunities, and realization. And problems are solved either by fleeing past them or by resolving them into ever bigger problems.


Toledano, Evans and Novak, and Osborne supply much evidence for this analysis of Nixon, and Wills seems at one or two points about ready to slide into it without stating it. And Murray Kempton recently caught the essence without pausing to develop it: “The real Mr. Nixon just rushes past us in ill-concealed flight.”6 But the unnerving part of it all is that Nixon not only documents the interpretation in classic form but seems at times to perceive the truth and ask for help by supplying more evidence.

This is most apparent, perhaps, in Six Crises, though the pattern reappears in later interviews. Once the flight has begun, Nixon explains, a man “can never become adjusted to a more leisurely and orderly pace.” “When you have won one battle is the time you should step up your effort to win another—until final victory is achieved.” 7 But there can be no end because final victory is never defined. Nixon’s bumbling effort in Six Crises to construct a psychological theory of crisis reads more like a public warning and a cry for help—watch me and grab me because I cannot stop myself. Father John Cronin, one of his earliest advisers, caught it all in one pithy sentence: “There is something in Nixon that will not let well enough alone.” So did Toledano: “Nixon has always run scared.”8

“Once you get into this great stream of history,” Nixon screams at us as he races by, “you can’t get out.”9 He was so anxious to avoid having to come ashore after he lost the race for governor in California that he was even willing to accept help from the Eastern Establishment, which he has always held responsible for blocking his way forward. “The main thing,” he remarked about the job they offered, “it is a place where you can’t slow down—a fast track. Any person tends to vegetate unless he is moving on a fast track.”10 But even the action in a major law firm at the center of the corporate power structure was not enough. He told one associate that he would die in four years if that was the end of the road.11 As for a life of relaxation, pleasure, and contemplation—“nothing could be more pitiful.”12

The politician as a man in flight is very largely limited to being the politician as campaigner. And that is Nixon’s record. There is no sense of self to provide the basis for a philosophy (even an ideology), and neither time nor confidence to develop issues or answers. Hence the gross exaggerations and wild distortions about his opponents (Dean Acheson as an architect of “retreat and appeasement”); his manipulative and titillating secrecy about himself (“Is there a new Nixon?… You’ve got to answer the question yourself”); and his persistent evasion of issues by laying down a pepper gas smokescreen of rhetoric about liberty, individualism, and responsibility.13 Osborne is correct: Nixon must “be faulted for a fundamental lack of political honor.”14

There are many justifications for that judgment, but perhaps the most convincing one is Nixon’s 1968 bargain with the Southern extremists, which won him the endorsement of Strom Thurmond. Even if John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay actually did agree (in 1824) to divvy up the White House and the Department of State, their higgle-haggle was by comparison a child’s game in the sandbox. Nixon risked—and very nearly lost—the chance for American society to continue functioning while undertaking to transform itself into a community. He could make a case for tucking himself into Strom Thurmond’s vest pocket if he had done so because he was openly and honestly committed to white supremacy, or if he had acted on a broader concern to bring rational and responsible white Southerners back into the national community (and thereby create pressure on white Northerners to mop up their own mess). But not Nixon. He was merely prejudiced and, even more, desperate to avoid having to terminate his life-long flight forward.

The most generous thing to say is that he had a secret hope that being President would give him the identity he had never been able to create. A frightening example of the man who thinks the role makes the man. To be sure, the Presidency is one of the two or three offices in world politics (at least since 1860) that have the psychological power to bring out the best in a man. But it cannot work miracles. Nor is it a loom on which to weave finished cloth from raw fiber.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, Nixon does contain some raw fiber. He does have considerable native intelligence. He does have some sense of what is involved in study and thought. (But he always talks more about the setting than the process, and his intellectual strategy of war-gaming a subject is the dead end of the problem-solving approach to life.) He has, under special conditions, learned from others. And he does have a fuzzy idealism that includes an honest concern for the poor and others who have been stunted by the system.15


The trouble is that even all of that is not enough by half. There is simply no sense of self, no putting it together by Nixon himself. The most wrenching evidence lies in the stories about Pat trying to stop his flight forward. No doubt she is square, but she knows who she is and she wants a chance to realize her particular humanity. But Nixon broke his written promise to her to leave politics, confront himself, and thereby begin the struggle to fulfill himself—and her. Her anger is healthy.

Like ours.

And so into the White House. Where the private weakness becomes the public terror. Lack of identity compounded by incompetence compounded by little comprehension of American reality. “I’ve always thought this country could run itself domestically without a President.”16


No purpose, no program, not even any pragmatics; no ability even to keep on his staff the men who offered leadership to counter his weakness; not even any idea of how to pay the debt to Strom Thurmond. Evans and Novak, and Osborne, tell this part of the story in considerable (and chilling) detail. After two terrifying efforts to destroy the integrity of the Supreme Court (which is about the only established institution that blacks can believe in), Nixon blundered into a solution to that problem. Undertaking to use the Executive Department to weaken the law that the President is sworn to uphold, Nixon discovered that the law on school desegregation would have to be changed for Thurmond to have his way.17

So much for John Mitchell as a lawyer. But Nixon was off the hook, piously explaining to old Strom that he had no recourse but to enforce the law.

As a man who recognized what was going on, and what was at stake (if not what to do), Daniel Patrick Moynihan did his utmost to give Nixon some sense of identity. Appealing to the President’s inherent conservatism and his vague idealism, he suggested that Nixon become America’s Benjamin Disraeli. Find out who you are by aping a British prime minister who saw himself as the Tory as Reformer.18

Imaginative, and worth a try.

And it just might have worked if Nixon could have found the guts to fire (or ignore) Mitchell, and if the other Harvard professor in the White House had not countered by offering Nixon the image of a Woodrow Wilson reinforced and hardened with some realism from Prince Klemens von Metternich. Moynihan (and others who knew even more about America) hung on long enough to put together a reform package dealing with welfare, the draft, the tax system, social security, the electoral process, foreign aid, and the environment.19 But again, the politician as campaigner lacked the skill and dedication required to finesse and muscle the program through the Congress.

John Mitchell and Henry Kissinger knew their man. Mitchell blocked Nixon from any serious effort to become a latter-day Disraeli by deploying the force of his will, and by keeping the campaign blinders tied on tight. Kissinger understood (or sensed) the more fundamental point: for a man fleeing forward, the last frontier is the world. There is the virgin land where a man can find and fulfill himself.20 And, no doubt about it, the making of foreign policy within that idiom is the fastest track of all.

Having scrambled free of Thurmond, and been pulled away from Moynihan, Nixon joyously launched the ultimate crusade to realize the vision of St. Woodrow. Wilson was “our greatest President,” Nixon explained, the man who “had the greatest vision of America’s world role.”21 America must regenerate “a crusading zeal, not just to hold our own but to change the world—including the Communist world—and to win…without a hot war.” “You cannot win a battle in any arena of life merely by defending yourself.”22

Eisenhower had no more use for that concept of global benevolent empire than he did for most of Nixon’s other suggestions, but Dick could never learn the important things from lke. The man fleeing forward is inherently unable to understand the man who comprehends the fable of the tortoise and the hare. So Nixon did not change. He simply smoldered on the slow track provided by the Vice Presidency. But the fires of world salvation leaped skyward when President John Fitzgerald Kennedy asked him what to do after the defeat at the Bay of Pigs. Nixon told Kennedy to “find a proper legal cover” and topple Castro with the Marines.23

So much for Nixon as a lawyer.

Once again running free after 1960, Nixon revived his natural rhetoric: the “sellout” of the “enslaved people in Eastern Europe”; the necessity “to bring freedom to the communist world”; and the crisis of America’s “confidence” in its ability to realize such goals. He was contemptuous of the suggestion that there might be limits. “I completely reject the idea that there are so-called peripheral areas, collateral areas—like Cuba and Vietnam—that are not important.”24

But the consequences of acting on that view of Vietnam could not be ignored by the politician as campaigner. When Democrats began using the issue against Democrats, Nixon had to hurry-scurry about for ways to sustain St. Woodrow’s crusade. His tactical response was to follow Wilson’s lead in distorting the principle of self-determination to mean self-determination for those who accepted the American empire. Meaning Vietnamization maintained with American aid and airpower. That offered the possibility of withdrawing American ground troops, which would help Nixon reach the White House—and also provide time to devise a new strategy capable of realizing the Wilsonian vision.

Nixon might yet squeak through with that ploy despite its inherent weaknesses, and even though two typical actions almost ended his chance to develop a new strategy. Instead of making a full commitment to withdrawal, and then working out a rational plan that would leave no unprotected American supply troops (and at the same time offer a basis for serious negotiations in Paris), Nixon floundered into the dangerous necessity of having to mount a defensive offensive. That meant Cambodia.

He compounded that mistake because, always fleeing forward, he had never taken the time to understand the opposition to the war. He panicked in the face of the upheaval that was intensified by the killings at Kent State and Jackson State. Almost in a state of funk, the Administration was saved by the very kind of people that Nixon had damned throughout his public career, meaning the radicals who were committed to creating an American community, the liberals who were trying to reform the establishment, and conservatives who were trying to use their power responsibly. But, given that moment of grace, which he does not even yet comprehend, he stumbled up and forward toward the great vision.

“We are now in a position to give the world all the good things that Britain offered in her Empire without any of the disadvantages of nineteenth-century colonialism.”25 To the charge that such an approach still means empire, he offered this response: colonialism is not as bad as communism.26 All vintage Wilson. Including the unwillingness to acknowledge past mistakes and accommodate gracefully, and the determination “never [to] settle for second best in anything.”27 Even including the trips to China and Russia. He is Wilson, this time with an assist from Metternich, going to Versailles. It involves the same misunderstanding and mistaken judgment. Wilson should have gone first to Leningrad, and Nixon should go first to Hanoi.

Yet, whatever our deep reservations about Nixon, let us give him full credit (whatever his motives) for renewing the dialogue with China. To worry that issue is to miss the vital point, which is that the relationship cannot be developed creatively within the Wilsonian idiom. Wilson saw opening the door to China as the way to Americanize the Orient. Nixon still chases that fantasy. He is not only “totally unwilling to cede US influence in any part of the world where it exists,” but is determined to extend it wherever possible.28 A man still worried about being No. 1 in a world where such competitiveness is the one attitude guaranteed to produce disaster deserves our sympathy and concern—but not our votes.

The most helpful thing we can do is to make sure that Dick honors his promise to Pat. This is the moment, Mr. President, to stop fleeing forward. Go home and explore the vast inner frontiers. The insight you had back in 1966 is the place to start. “I’d like to write two or three books a year, go to one of the fine schools—Oxford, for instance—just teach, read, and write.”29 Oxford may be a bit much, but the idea is sound.

Go ahead, turn Wilson on his head. Become an imperial politician devoted to scholarship. It offers the most promising way for you to help the rest of us realize the vision of a world of brotherhood and peace.

This Issue

February 24, 1972