Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas

being nixon“Rock ’em, sock ’em”

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Evan Thomas tells us in his introduction that he is not attempting to “weigh the success and failure of Nixon as a policy maker” or to solve the “many mysteries” of Watergate. Instead, his aim is to understand Nixon as a person or, as he puts it, “to understand what it was like to actually be Nixon”. The book is very well written in a style that makes it accessible to the general reader. It’s a linear biography that follows its subject from birth to death, and is well balanced in that the bulk of it concentrates on Nixon’s political career, with just enough of the before and after to shed light on Nixon’s character.

Thomas shows the child Nixon as a high achiever at school, despite being naturally shy. His background was one of hardship, though not poverty, which prevented him from attending one of the Ivy League colleges. This meant that after graduation he wasn’t able to get into the top law firms, and Thomas suggests that this left him with a lifelong chip on his shoulder, always declaring he wouldn’t have Ivy League graduates working for him, though in fact he put many of them into top jobs. This small example in itself shows a trait that is repeated again and again throughout his life – a disconnect between what he said and how he acted. Even at this young age, Nixon is shown as pompous and humourless, and something of a loner. Despite his Quaker background, when America entered WW2 he joined the Army, though he was never directly involved in the fighting.

19500122_Nixon_With_Hiss_Newspaper

His introduction to political campaigning came after the war when he was invited to stand for Congress in California. Dirty tricks were rife and accepted as pretty much the norm by all sides. Again this is something Thomas emphasises all the way through, that dirty campaigns were not unusual and that each side expected the other side to be as devious as they were.

In recounting Nixon’s pre-Presidential political career, Thomas highlights most those features that he feels shed some light on Nixon’s personality, character and political beliefs. Politically, even at this early stage Nixon’s interests lay more in foreign than domestic affairs. He made his name by going after Alger Hiss on behalf of the House Un-American Activities Committee, refusing to give up until he achieved success. Thomas suggests this experience was important in forming Nixon’s approach to politics in general – at times when he faced difficulties he often referred back to the Hiss affair as a way of insisting that his tactics were the way to get results. He also served on the committee that pushed through the Marshall Plan and was genuinely fearful of the communist threat to a destroyed and poverty-ridden Europe. Later, when serving as Vice-President, Eisenhower would use him as a kind of travelling diplomat, in which role he had some significant successes. At home, he was used as Ike’s attack dog against his political opponents. Reviled by the Press and despised by the social and political elite because, Thomas suggests, of his comparatively humble background and lack of social savoir-faire, Nixon nonetheless had the common touch, and when Ike considered dropping him as running mate in ’56, it was popular pressure that kept him on the ticket.

NIXONcampaigns

In the ’60 election, Thomas suggests that the Kennedy camp ran a huge dirty tricks campaign, pretty much buying JFK’s way in to the Presidency with blatant bribes and backhanders. I have no way of knowing how accurate that is, but given that underhand and devious methods seem to have been the norm on both sides, it doesn’t sound unbelievable. However at this point for the first time Thomas gave me the impression that he was being too soft on Nixon, building excuses for his later behaviour. He suggests Nixon vowed after this never to be beaten in the matter of dirty tricks again.

Once the book reaches the stage of Nixon’s Presidency, Thomas provides a believable picture of a rather isolated President, not personally close even to the people who worked most directly with him. The concentration on Nixon’s personality leaves the book a little light on actual policy matters, I felt, assuming a familiarity with events that some non-American readers and even perhaps younger US readers might not have. But I thought Thomas gave a really good picture of the social unrest of the late ’60s and of how Nixon reacted to the ongoing questions of race, social liberalisation and, of course, Vietnam.

1974_Nixon_quits.pdf-1024

Thomas delves into the background and events of Watergate in some detail, and I was left with the impression that it was a combination of paranoia and the belief that as President he was untouchable that led Nixon to become so heavily implicated. He also is shown to have had a kind of mistaken loyalty, or perhaps it was just weakness, that prevented him from getting rid of people as they fell under suspicion. Though he was clearly responsible for setting the tone that led to the prevalence of dirty tricks within his office, he probably wasn’t aware of the actual Watergate affair in advance, so could probably have escaped the worst of the scandal had he been more decisive and brutal about sacking people at an earlier stage.

Thomas finishes with a look at Nixon’s life after the Presidency, when he gradually became a kind of elder statesman, giving advice to a succession of Presidents.

If Thomas’ portrayal is accurate, then it all seems like a rather sad waste of a man who clearly had great talent and intellect, but whose personality weaknesses took him along a path that led to his own downfall. If there was really as much corruption in politics as Thomas suggests, then one can’t help feeling that Nixon was merely the one who got caught. Though it seemed that just occasionally Thomas went a little easy on him, I felt overall that this was a fairly balanced account and certainly provided a credible portrait of Nixon’s complex character. An interesting biography.

The apology…

 

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

45 thoughts on “Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas

  1. It’s so funny how much you like Politics! Nixon definitely left his mark on history. Good thing he was kicked…and to bad Clinton didn’t leave when he was. There. That’s the professor’s political thoughts for the day. Go Ted!

    It would’ve been an interesting time to live thorough, huh? Seems like such a different world back then. And too bad he was humorless.

    • Why, you little Republican, you! Who’s Ted? It could be worse, I suppose – you might have said Go Donald! Or… *gulps*… Go Sarah!! Will you be voting? The first time I voted my party lost. And the second time…and the thrid time… and the fourth time… and then, dadblameit, they won, and that was worse!!

      *laughs and sobs simultaneously* Some of us may, in fact, have lived through some of it… *hobbles off to the old folks’ home*

      • *laughing* I’m a little conservative, really! Now, now…I say, you weren’t much luck for you party at all. You’re much better luck for the Pats, which is awesome. Sarah… *gulps* Is she running? I don’t think she is, thank heavens! *shudders* Poor Donald. You know, he’s quite entertaining and all. Does he have an accent? Sounds like it to me! Ted is Ted Cruze! He’s a conservative, so you’d hate him. But a plus…he had the Newsboys at one of his rallies! *does a dance*

        *laughing lots* You were not! You were just a little FEF who didn’t know her right foot from her left. Of course, I’m presuming you know that now.

        • Aw, that sounds quite sweet! Yeah, I kinda seem to be a jinx as far as politics is concerned – maybe I should vote for the ones I want to lose in future. But I’m glad I don’t seem to be jinxing the Pats… yet! Isn’t she? Oh thank goodness for that – she makes Donald look adorable! I don’t know about his accent – I’ve never been able to listen to him for longer than three words…ugh! Noooo! You couldn’t make me look at Ted’s face for eight years! Even you couldn’t be that cruel! The thing that worries me is that Jeb is beginning to look attractive in comparison to the rest…. *dies*

          *laughing too* Well, yes it was before I started being 21… long before! I hope I do too, or we’re going to get in an awful fankle when we dance the cotillion…

          • It is not sweet at all! *grumbles* Well, she was sure odd, that’s for sure. And has a scary voice, poor thing. Donald is quite funny. Especially when he’s insulting Carly! It’s a must watch, really. You don’t have to! Just listen to him on the radio if you want to… Ted would be awesome and you know it! Of course, he’d have to pick me for his vice-president. *laughs then gags then laughs* Jeb?! Good thing you can’t vote, the sudden!

            What a thingy. You really aren’t sure if you know or not! I’ll have to yell at BUS for not teaching you properly about the left and right.

            • I think they’re all awful! They almost make me like our own Prime Minister… almost. You should vote for Hillary! It’s time you Yanks had a woman Pres. And you could play guitar at her inauguration…

              *laughs* Oh, I can usually work it out when I think about it… but do yell at BUS anyway! *stands well back and prepares to enjoy*

            • *laughing lots and lots* If she gets in, we both must go on a secret assignation mission! But what would I play? I must admit, that’d be cool.

              I’ll win the yelling, too. I’m unnaturally good at such things.

            • But I like her! Sorta! A bit! In comparison to the rest! You could play some Confederate rebel songs – that’d confuse them! Or the Russian national anthem…

              I believe you!! Though BUS is pretty good too… *puts in ear plugs*

            • You like her?! FEF, you naughty thing. She’s guilty of treason just like her hubby. I’m shipping them to Scotland just for you, the sudden. *laughs* Like Dixie! I think I’ll just play the Kraken!!

              *laughs and puts in firing plugs* Okay, I’m ready. Where is she?

            • Treason?! *laughs lots* Oh all American politicians are silly! You’ll be horrified to know I quite liked Bill too. He was… kinda cute! So I’ll take them! Ooh! That’s dramatic!! Yes, play that! Who did the music for that movie?

              Just shout her name!

            • I’m afraid it’s true. But you wouldn’t understand. *laughing lots* Bill, too? He liked women for sure. Cute?! See, that’s exactly why women shouldn’t… *ducks* That was Hanz Zimmer! Great composer, I think.

              BUS!

            • No, it’s probably some strange American thing – like she didn’t eat enough cannolis on Cannoli Day or something. *gasps and frowns thunderously* Ducking will not save you, sir! The Feminist Sisterhood has been notified and will be marching on your house soon – just as soon as they’ve done their hair and make-up! Be afraid – stiletto heels can do a lot of damage…

              Well, I’ve never heard of him, but I thought that was great! Bet he’s a woman…

              Is that the best you can do?! She wins!

            • Cannolis aren’t American!! *laughing lots* There’s nothing they can do to me, for, after all, you’ll protect me! *stands behind FEF*

              Oh yes you have! He wrote PotC. He wrote Gladiator. I’m trying to think of movies that he did that you’d know… Let’s just say he’s the most prolific movie composer today. Replacing John Williams, in fact.

              *screams BUS till he dies*

            • Oh, they are too!! They’re as American as chop suey! Will I? I mean… yes, yes, of course I will! *sniggers slyly*

              I haven’t seen Gladiator or Pirates and you can’t make me!! But you should do a Pirates thingy like the LOTR thingy… ooh, and I could find you a nice pirate outfit to wear for it…!! Who did the music for Enchanted?

              *sobs* Well, you won, but I’m not sure the price was worth it…

            • *laughs* Really? *questioning eye* Don’t believe you, the sudden!

              Oh yes, I would not recommend either of those to you. The music to Enchanted was done by Alan Menken. If you’re familiar with the old Disney Cartoons (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin) he did all of those, too.

              Now I’m dead. Give me a proper burial, please.

            • Wise, very wise!

              I should pay more attention to the music in movies…

              I shall pop you in a Viking boat, set it alight and shove it gently into the sea so that you may join the other heroes in Valhalla…

    • I was there. In fact I remember working all night as they counted the votes. My first time to be able to vote, too. I was in fifth grade when Kennedy beat him. But Nixon…he was a complex person. The most entertaining politician I remember was Reagan. Politicians just aren’t entertaining anymore.

  2. Sounds very interesting. I love a political biography, although I’ve confined them to UK politicians thus far, apart from reading the Obama autobiographies. One to look out for.

    • I love them too – much more than actual politics! Love trying to see what makes them tick. I hadn’t read many American ones either, until recently. Their political system is so different to the UK’s – fascinating!

  3. It certainly sounds like a very interesting biography, FictionFan. And whatever you think of Nixon, he was certainly an interesting and very complicated person. I think it always helps, too, when a biography presents a portrait of a person against the backdrop of the era(s) during which that person lived. Doing that gives the reader a broader picture of the subject of the biography. I’m glad you enjoyed this one.

    • Yes, the flawed politicians are often more interesting than the good ones – which must say something about my mind-set! I do think it’s important to understand the context, and this book does that better at some points than others. I did wonder if people who were younger than me would get a bit lost at times. But another interesting, readable biography – definitely a golden age for factual books at present!

  4. Hmmmmm. I’ve known people who worked for civil rights during the Nixon administration. They always ended their statements about this with a laugh, saying “the joke was on me.”

    From what I “know” about Nixon (I was pretty young when he was ejected from office), he would have been a much better statesman than president. My understanding is that his level of paranoia was extreme, and he was always shifting his eyes about the room, looking for the person who had the most power, even when he was being introduced to people. This latter statement coming from a politically-connected friend who met Nixon several times during his “reign.” I think biographers tend to fall in love with their subjects, or maybe they were already in love with their subjects (hence choosing to do a bio), and go easy on them. Unless, of course, their purpose was to expose their subject in some way. Those bios do tend to be more harsh. So I’m thinking, I will have to demur to your sense that Nixon was fairly portrayed here. I still hold him in pretty low regard.

    • Yes, I definitely got the sense of paranoia from this bio, and also weakness – not really suited to a job where sometimes the big decisions involve fairly brutal behaviour to the people who work under you. But I did also get the sense that he understood the dangers of what could happen in post-war Europe more than most, and did his best to circumvent them – with some degree of success, though of course he wasn’t the sole voice promoting the Marshall Plan. I agree – a better statesman or even diplomat. He just wasn’t suited to the Presidential role and his paranoia and weakness laid him open to taking the easy… ie, corrupt… way once he had the power. But the bit that surprised me most was what the author had to say about the JFK campaign – if he’s right about the level of corruption in that one, then it does suggest they were all as bad as each other. It’s always hard to judge the fairness when you’re only vaguely aware of the details in advance, but I did feel this was pretty unbiased, and I see the consensus amongst American reviewers seems to be that too. It’s certainly interesting…

  5. Sounds interesting, but I’m not sure I could cope with another book about Nixon, though this one sounds as if it might draw a better picture than the thousands of miles of print I have read about Watergate.

    • He certainly made the whole Watergate thing much clearer to me – the actual sequence of events, I mean. Most of what I’ve read or seen before has assumed people know what happened at Watergate and go straight to the cover-up. But I think I’ve now read about as much as I want to about him too. 🙂

  6. Book review aside (which was terrific as always, but I won’t be reading this book, not my country or time), but didn’t Nixon have a wonderful speaking voice? I do enjoy the clips and photos you add to your reviews.

    • Aw, thank you, Rose! I must admit digging out the images is one of my favourite parts of blogging. Yes, I love that sort of mid-20th century upper-class American accent – they always sounded so eloquent in comparison to our politicians…

  7. I do love it when you review political bios or history books – at both of which you excel – as so few blogs seem to. Always thought the Alger Hiss thing utterly bizarre, and very questionable. I’ll hope this gets cheaper soon and I’ll probably snap it up (and perhaps I’ll finally completely comprehend the American political system!)

    • Aw, thank you, crimeworm! Frankly, I find the whole American political system utterly bizarre! That’s mainly why I find it so fascinating. What a pity – it was on NetGalley but has been archived. I’m running so late with reviews at the moment that an awful lot of the ones I’m doing have already disappeared. Did you ever get a chance to read Herman’s The Scottish Enlightenment? It gives a really good explanation of why the US system is set up the way it is – more than any of the other books I’ve read. Apparently it’s all our fault… 😉

  8. My late dad would’ve loved this one — he found biographies, especially of presidents, to be good reads. I’m afraid I would’ve been all “yawn” over it, ha! Probably because of all those biographies we had to read in school, then the book reports we had to do to prove we really read the things!

    • I love political biographies and autobiographies, but only over the last ten years or so. Before that, I felt like you about them. I think it was Margaret Thatcher’s that started me off – she was such a divisive figure over here, it was fascinating (to me!) to try to find out what made her tick. Plenty of them are still yawnfests, though…

  9. What made you read this? (Just curious.) (Ooops. Just glanced at your answer above. You love bios and autobios. 🙂
    I smiled when Nixon was a character in a Doctor Who episode a few seasons ago. 🙂 His was definitely a controversial presidency.

    • Yep, I read a lot of political bios and autobios – the type of person who goes for that sort of power tends to be quite intriguing, if you strip the politics out of it. And this one appealed because Watergate was all over the TV when I was really young, and I never properly understood what it was all about. Yes, he just didn’t have the right kind of personality for the job – not to mention his lack of integrity…

  10. I made a gift of this book to someone who is interested in politics and biography and he is really enjoying reading it. I would never have found this book myself and he would never have picked up a book about Nixon, so thanks for your review and assurance of a well written book.

    • Oh, thank you for telling me, underrunner! It’s always such a pleasure to know when someone has enjoyed a book I’ve recommended – makes me feel less guilty about taking all these freebies! There are so many good biographies at the moment – it’s a real golden age for factual writing. I’m enjoying the factual stuff more than a lot of the fiction at the moment, in fact.

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