Being Nixon : A Man Divided / Evan Thomas

I campaigned against Richard Nixon during the 1972 presidential election and cheered when he resigned from office. In picking up this recent biography of him, I was unsure of how I would react to being reintroduced to him forty years later. To my surprise, I came away feeling more sympathetic than vindictive toward a man clearly divided. After all, he was capable of great kindness, and he accomplished a number of bold initiatives while in the White House. His intelligence is beyond question. And yet for all his strengths, he was also damaged psychologically. Quick to perceive a slight, his downfall came about as a result of needing to extract vengeance on others who questioned his judgment.

Unlike some biographers, Evan Thomas seems to have come into the book with no preconceived opinions about his subject. In fact, he goes to great lengths to show the favorable side of Richard Nixon. While not excusing the mistakes of his Administration, neither does he present them in a damning manner. Nixon is always allowed to tell his side of the story. This is the book’s greatest strength. Too many of the books written about Nixon are authored by people who seem to have an axe to grind. Here, he gets a fair hearing.

That said, Thomas concentrates on Nixon’s accomplishments in foreign affairs while neglecting his domestic policy. And as he shows in the book, Henry Kissinger played a big part in America’s warming relations with Russia and the opening of China to Western capitalism. Though a staunch anti-Communist, Nixon’s willingness to encourage such overtures shows his flexibility as a politician. The black mark on his record is his assertion that he could quickly bring about an end to the war in Vietnam. His decisions to expand the war into Cambodia and the bombing activity in North Vietnam proved to be complete failures.

Naturally, the centerpiece of the book is Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate break-in and the subsequent coverup by the White House. Thomas suggests that Nixon was not actively involved in explicitly ordering this illegal activity. Instead, he blames Nixon’s inability to rein in his staff, citing the President’s reluctance to involve himself in confronting personnel issues. While Richard Nixon might not have expected his expressed desire to extract vengeance for perceived slights to be acted upon, he did nothing to prevent such acts from occurring.

I have a theory about Nixon’s actions regarding these illegal activities. He was clearly a loner, a person who felt uncomfortable dealing with people on a personal level. And yet he desperately wanted to fit in. As a result, I think he tried to act the tough guy around his staff to prove he was “one of the guys”. The White House tapes show a man who often spouts off emotionally and yet does does not truly expect his words to be taken literally. In the end, Nixon’s dark side proved to be his downfall, whether or not he expected to be obeyed.

As the book’s title indicates, Richard Nixon was indeed a man divided. Throughout his political career, he swung from acts of great kindness to needless vindictiveness. What made me more sympathetic to Nixon was his relationship with his wife and children. While he was often remote and sometimes cruel to his wife in public, there is no doubt he loved her and she him. The same goes for his two daughters who stood by his side through the tumult of Nixon’s last year in office. And to his credit, even after his resignation, Nixon never succumbed to self-pity and surrender. Always the fighter, he continued to work to make a come back on the national stage.

The book in many ways is incomplete, focusing more on the character of Richard Nixon than the American political landscape of the time. In no way is it a definitive biography. But Thomas does succeed to make the man seem less the monster the demonstrators at the time portrayed. Instead, he presents a more sympathetic depiction of a person blessed with intelligence and a drive to succeed, unable to overcome the dark side of his personality. No matter what side of the political divide the reader stands, this book is sure to prove a fascinating read.

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