January 9, 2013

On Nixon’s 100th Birthday: Charisma Had Nothing To Do With It


I’ve never been one of those charisma nuts …. I think one of the curses of the modern television age is that it puts far too much attention on appearance rather than substance, on froth rather than what the beer is really like.

—Richard Nixon (1913-1994) in a 1983 interview

The 37th president’s remarks on the downside of charisma are taken from the remarkably revealing series of interviews his former aide Frank Gannon conducted with him in June 1983, a little less than a decade after the August of Nixon’s discontent. When Gannon was first ushered into the Oval office at the time of Watergate (“the iceberg had ripped a hole in the ship,” as Gannon puts it, “and the compartments were flooding”), Nixon was “in his easy chair with his feet up, eating soda crackers and spilling crumbs all down his chest.”

While much has been written and reported about the Kennedy charisma, Nixon’s notable lack of it is among the qualities that make his life worthy of a great novel. A Scott Fitzgerald might do justice to Kennedy. It would take a blend of Dickens and Dostoevsky to capture the stranger-than-fiction essence of Richard Nixon.

Consider the moment when the 39-year-old Republican vice-presidential nominee audaciously commanded the media on his behalf with the “Checkers Speech” in September 23, 1952. Introducing the full text in Richard Nixon: Speeches, Writings, Documents (Princeton University Press 2008), Rick Perlstein calls it “a remarkably courageous act,” Eisenhower’s handlers having put Nixon “on live television broadcast in order for him to deliver his resignation speech. Instead, he displayed before the world his most admirable quality: a refusal to back down before intimidation.” Charisma had nothing to do with what was arguably the turning point of Nixon’s political life. Even as he craftily exploits the gift of a cocker spaniel and his wife Pat’s cloth coat to save his place on the Republican ticket with Eisenhower, Nixon’s looking almost as nervous, shifty, and unsuited to the occasion as he would in the sweat of his first debate with Kennedy in 1960. While the “nation’s opinion elite,” as Perlstein reports, “considered the broadcast an embarrassing farce,” the Republican party “was inundated with more than two million telegrams demanding that he be kept on the ticket.”

Nixonian Traits

Amping up the rhetorical excitement for his narrative of the 1972 political conventions in St.George and the Godfather (Signet 1972), Norman Mailer claims that it took genius for Nixon, “a politician who was fundamentally unpopular even in his own party” to “nonetheless win the largest free election in the world, and give every promise of doing considerably better the second time” According to Mailer, Nixon is not only a genius but an artist of a sort it was “almost impossible to conceive … a literary artist who has a wholly pedestrian style. It was possible that no politician in the history of America employed so dependably mediocre a language in his speeches as Nixon, nor had a public mind ever chased so resolutely after the wholly uninteresting expression of every idea. But then few literary artists proved masters of the mediocre.”

While Perlstein offers ample evidence of Nixon’s mastery of the mediocre in Speeches, Writings, Documents, he begins with a reference to the opening passages of RN, the bulky 1978 memoir that Frank Gannon helped put together and that displays “several Nixonian traits,” including “first and most neglected, that Nixon was an outstanding storyteller”; second, “the surprising quality of self-revelation”; and finally, “the deep psychological imprint that the modesty of his upbringing made on him, combined with the cosmopolitan yearning of the devoted National Geographic reader who even then longs for worlds to conquer.” The passage that Perlstein’s comment prefaces reads like a trope out of Thomas Wolfe; after referring to the “railroad line that ran about a mile from our house,” Nixon writes, “In the daytime I could see the smoke from the steam engines. Sometimes at night I was awakened by the whistle of a train, and then I dreamed of far-off places I wanted to visit someday.”

One of the more unlikely literary references to turn up in the Gannon interviews concerns the Whittier College summer when Nixon claims to have read “virtually everything that Tolstoy has written …. I became, frankly, a Tolstoyan, which was very easy to do because nobody can read Tolstoy without being deeply moved.” When Gannon has the good sense to ask the obvious (“What is a Tolstoyan?”), Nixon gamely replies that in his case it “meant a belief in the individual and his importance, a belief in freedom, but particularly a passion for peace.”

A Dog’s Life

Of all the charisma-challenged cartoon characters ever created, Charles Schultz’s Charlie Brown is one Nixon might well have identified with in his why-does-everything-happen-to-me moments. Even as a child, Nixon seems to have had a predilection for disaster, for example the schoolboy effort Perlstein includes in Speeches, Writings, Documents. Writing at the age of ten in response to a school assignment to compose a letter in the voice of a pet, he produces a piece of work Franz Kafka might have admired. Addressed “My Dear Master” (he means his mother) and signed, “Your good dog, Richard,” the composition, a veritable treasure trove for predestination-minded pathographers, begins by complaining that “the two dogs you left with me are very bad to me” and the dog named Jim “will never talk or play with me.” When Richard the dog and Jim the dog go hunting with two boys, one of them “trip[p]ed and fell on me. I lost my temper and bit him …. While we were walking I saw a black round thing in a tree. I hit it with my paw. A swarm of black thing[s] came out of it. I felt a pain all over. I started to run as both of my eyes were swelled shut I fell into a pond. When I got home I was very sore. I wish you would come home right now.”

As I said, for a novel about Nixon, you’d need a mix of Dickens and Dostoevsky (forget Tolstoy), plus a touch of Kafka and a pinch of Charlie Brown.

Bunking With JFK

It may be that much of what Nixon has to say about Kennedy in the Gannon interviews is part of the post-resignation attempt to repair his reputation, which included publishing seven books to present himself, in Perlstein’s words, “as a foreign policy sage, the man who could take the long view, the guru of peace.” His centenary comes at a time of vicious political endgamesmanship, the worst of it fueled and fired by the Far Right with a blind fury that makes the Nixon era look like a bipartisan holiday. Numerous passages in the Gannon interviews stress the collegiality of his days in the House and Senate, whether playing poker with Tip O’Neill or working closely with Kennedy when they were first-term congressmen serving on the Education and Labor Committee. He tells Gannon that the original Kennedy-Nixon debate actually took place 13 years before the presidential one, at a Chamber of Commerce meeting at the Penn-McKee Hotel in McKeesport, Pa., where the subject was the recently passed Taft-Hartley bill. On the overnight train back to Washington, the two men shared a compartment and drew straws for who had to take the upper berth. “Didn’t make a lot of difference,” Nixon tells Gannon, “because we didn’t sleep all the way back. We talked, and mainly about what we agreed on. You always do that when you’re in Congress, and with people that are personal friends though political opponents.” In another passage from the Gannon interviews, Nixon returns to that overnight train ride: “We talked about our experiences in the past, but particularly about the world and where we were going and that sort of thing. I recall that was the occasion too, we talked about what we had done in the Pacific [when they were in the Navy] or where we had been. I asked him if he’d ever been in Vella Lavella [in the Solomon Islands]. He said, ‘Absolutely.’ He’d been in there many times. And I said, it’s very possible we met there, because I went aboard a PT boat and met all the officers … and we laughed about the fact that we might have met.”

Nixon in Princeton

In the spring of 1947, around the time he was debating Kennedy in McKeesport and making a name for himself going after Alger Hiss, Richard Milhous Nixon stopped in Princeton to speak at a meeting of the Republican Club. His growing fame was not yet widespread enough to prevent posters on campus from incorrectly announcing him as “Richard W. Nixon.” According to an email from the person who invited him, novelist, translator, and Princeton professor emeritus Edmund Keeley, then a Princeton sophomore, “He proved to be a good-looking (if slightly heavy-jawed) and reasonably intelligent young speaker, who offered rather casual thoughts on how spending might be cut back here and there in the national budget, except for the military portion, how taxes might be reduced for those paying too high a portion of their just riches, and how the kind of foreign policy the country was heading towards under Truman deserved serious review. At the end of his talk he took a few non-controversial questions, shook hands all around, and left with his aide for New York on an apparently tight schedule. As it turned out, he was scheduled to meet Whittaker Chambers later that evening.”

In his role as president of the Princeton Republican Club, Keeley was given a smiling picture of Nixon dedicated to the Club. “I wrote him a thank-you letter soon after his appearance on campus, and that was the last time I had any communication with him or, soon after with any Republican politician, because my education in Republicanism was so devastatingly negative under the selection of speakers I had invited to campus that I resigned from the club during the following year and joined the Liberal Union.”

The Nixon Foundation is hosting a centennial gala in Washington D.C. today, January 9, at 7 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel. Both daughters, Julie and Tricia, will be there, along with Henry Kissinger, who will chair the dinner. The quotes from and about Frank Gannon are from the online archive of People (April 2, 1984). The Gannon interviews can be found at www.libs.uga.edu/media/collections/nixon/nixonday1.html.