Unraveling the Nixon Puzzle

It's been said of Dick Nixon that he went after Alger Hiss not because Hiss might have, as they charged, "sold us out at Yalta," but because Hiss represented the Eastern privileged establishment that Nixon so hated. Rather than ideology, what defined Nixon, some say, was class. His reference to the "silent majority" was not intended as a description of the so-called "family values" people who have taken over the Republican party, rather he sought to identify himself with all those who weren't privileged, who didn't go to Harvard and who weren't the beneficiaries of large inheritances. But then Dick Nixon didn't seem all that comfortable with the masses either. He wasn't exactly your elbow-rubbing kind of guy. The Martha's Vineyard set -- for certain, no. But he was oddly also uncomfortable with the working class with whom he sought to identify. He wasn't close to ethnic minorities of any cut. It can be said that he was as far removed from a Richard Daley as he was from a Nelson Rockefeller or a Lyndon Johnson. The Irish at the pub? Summers on Cape Cod? Even telling dirty jokes around the barn? Nixon, it turns out, was uncomfortable with all this. He may not have liked Hiss because of his privilege, but he didn't seem to like people from other cuts of life any better. Couple this with a martyr streak, add in what John Dean would call blind ambition, and you get this complex figure that Oliver Stone seeks to unravel. I wish him well. My first encounter with Nixon was the famous "Checkers Speech." You will recall that he had been charged with misuse of campaign funds and Eisenhower was about to drop him from the 1952 Republican ticket. Nixon appealed. He wanted a chance to go on television and make his case. He would let the chips fall where they may. Find that speech. Watch it again. It is all there. The Nixon of the "silent majority." His wife, Pat, whom he reduces to a two dimensional prop, at one time referring to her with a nod of his head in her direction, didn't have a fur coat -- just a good, Republican cloth coat. He had worked for every dime, and honestly earned it. He had helped his parents and paid them back for every small bit of help they had given him. He had gone to war, and wasn't a hero, but "was just there when the bombs were falling." (This line was classic Nixon, for he had been nowhere close to combat, but said just enough to suggest as much.) Then, after clearly fixing himself on the side of the common people, he went on the attack. Yes, he was going to do something unprecedented. He was going to reveal everything about his finances -- his meager, honestly earned finances. And, well, wouldn't it be a good idea if his opponent, Mr. Adlai Stevenson, did the same? And, well, if Mr. Stevenson wouldn't -- not to say that Mr. Stevenson had anything to hide -- well voters could draw their own conclusions. He pushed all the buttons. It was text book. "Glittering generalities." Half truths. Wildly drawn implications. And, no, "I don't care what they say about me," he wasn't going to give up that little cocker spaniel, a gift from a supporter, that his daughter Tricia, "who loves the dog," had named Checkers. There wasn't a dry eye in middle-America. It was all there. He was attacking and was justified for he had been wronged, and, besides, he had ambition, which he wasn't going to sacrifice just because he, as a poor working-class politician had to make some compromises that his wealthy foes didn't have to make because of all that damn privilege they were born into. I mean, look at Stevenson. Who was he to cast aspersions? Adlai's parents didn't live above the store. And, by the way, Adlai had been divorced; well, what do you think about that? And so it went. For almost half a century, until it ended in 1974. Or so the public thought. But Dick Nixon would adapt and adjust. He was so driven to do so. He would have a place in history. So, he became a statesman. Not, mind you, in the same way that Jimmy Carter became a carpenter, doing work for Habitat for Humanity. Carter, we know, never left form. He was who he was, and is to this day. He was always earnest, honest and annoyingly moralizing. Nixon, on the other hand, knew how to adapt, and, to complete the Clint Eastwood line -- adjust and overcome. And he did -- over and over again. It's easy to do to Nixon what he did to Pat in his Checkers speech -- indeed, what he did to most who did political business with him over the course of the half-century. It's too easy to turn Nixon into a two-dimensional figure, for he certainly invited that assessment. We should resist the temptation. But, as we reassess Nixon -- yet again -- as we deconstruct and reconstruct this historical figure, we are well advised to proceed cautiously. Recall that it was none other than Barry Goldwater who said that Nixon was the most dishonest man he had ever met. Put more positively, Nixon, it should be recalled, excelled at poker.

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