The Disaster of Richard Nixon

1.

In the course of his twenty-eight years in politics and twenty more in active retirement, Richard M. Nixon uttered a great many dubious propositions. None was less accurate than the words he spoke on November 7, 1962—the day after he lost the governorship of California to Edmund S. Brown, two years after losing the presidency to John F. Kennedy: “Just think of how much you’re going to be missing,” he told reporters gathered for what he billed as his last press conference. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

Richard Nixon at a press conference at the White House, October 1973
David Burnett/Contact Press Images
Richard Nixon at a press conference at the White House, October 1973

A flawed prognostication. The critics who first found fault with Nixon’s 1946 red-baiting campaign against Democratic congressman Jerry Voorhis of California have been disparaging him ever since. Reading these books twenty-one years after his death, one realizes that finding fault with Nixon still has a future. It may never end. Thanks to his gross abuses of presidential power symbolized by the Watergate scandal and to his own decision to record the details of his presidency on tape, Nixon seems destined to remain an object of fascination, amazement, scorn, and disgust for as long as historians pay attention to the American presidency. When the subject matter is their foreign policy, Nixon’s sidekick, Henry A. Kissinger, will be right there beside him.

Is Nixon’s historical reputation doomed forever? These books suggest that it is. Evan Thomas’s highly readable Being Nixon is, inadvertently, the most persuasive. Thomas set out to write a sympathetic account of Nixon’s life. He is persistently empathetic to his subject, but he is also a fine reporter and biographer (of Robert F. Kennedy, Edward Bennett Williams, John Paul Jones, and others). The good reporter gives his readers so many details of Nixon’s bad behavior that Thomas’s intention to write a sympathetic account collapses under the weight of its own facts. You can feel sorry for Nixon as a human being after reading Thomas’s book, but it is much harder to excuse his repeated transgressions—of ethical standards, of the law, of democratic values—and his quite abject reliance on alcohol and drugs. Thomas bends over too far in his effort to forgive Nixon’s misdeeds, particularly his Vietnam disaster and his ugly racial politics.

The other books in this collection of recent works are openly hostile to Nixon (Tim Weiner and Ken Hughes) or subtly devastating (William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball). Weiner, a former New York Times reporter and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, focuses on Vietnam and Watergate; he uses many of the most recently released tape transcripts and documents to give his version of these familiar stories new energy and salience, but his well-paced narratives of both stories don’t break much new ground.1 Hughes, a good researcher but inelegant writer who has been studying the Nixon tapes since…


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