1972 Bumper Sticker

Since “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” came out during my senior year of high school at Los Alamitos High in Southern California; Edmund Morris has always been an idol of mine.  His clear, three dimensional writing on the twenty-sixth president brought TR to life for me.  Someday, I told myself, I wanted to write a biography of Richard Nixon just like that.  Make RN jump off the paper, much like TR does in the Prologue in “Rise.”  And I’ve been trying to make RN jump off the page ever since.

Still I was a bit disappointed with Morris’s biography of Ronald Reagan.  I was the most troubled by was that Morris admitted in several articles that his subject was still a mystery to him.  After fifteen years of access, research and writing about the man; Reagan was a mystery to his authorized biographer?  For the longest time, I viewed that as a historical cop-out.

Although, I must admit to a “Morris Moment” of my own.  It centers on the immediate aftermath of RNs reelection in 1972.  It should have been a moment of great personal triumph for Richard Nixon.  Thirty-seven years ago today, he was reelected President of the United States by the second largest popular percentage in American history.  It was an opportunity for Nixon to shape the post-Vietnam era, and truly “Bring Us Together.”

Instead it was, according to Henry Kissinger termed it “[t]he strangest period in Nixon’s Presidency.”  {See Kissinger, White House Years, (1978), p. 1406.}  On the night of his victory, RN felt melancholy.  In his Memoirs, RN recalled that “it was one of the most frustrating and in many ways the least satisfying of all.” {pp. 717, 665) He was combative, issuing orders to freeze out major players in the news media from access. {See: Haldeman, Haldeman Diaries (1994), p. 532.}  The next morning, instead of celebrating a mandate, he spoke of “exhausted volcanoes,” and requested the resignation of the entire White House staff and non-career administration.  Towards his political enemies, the siege mentality that marked the first term, became “[t}hey are asking for it, and they are going to get it,” of the second term. {See Ambrose, The Triumph of a Politician (1989), p. 662}

At first blush, one cannot help to be amazed by the dichotomy between Nixon’s victory and his baffling bitterness.  Long time aides like Herbert Klein were shocked, stating that “I found this post-election act the most disheartening, most surprising and most cruel of all…  It was ungrateful and it was bitterly cold.”  Kissinger noted that Nixon “in his hour of triumph an impression of such total vindictiveness and insensitivity.” {See Ambrose, Ruin and Recovery (1991), p. 15.}

However, the answers are out there.  While RN later admitted in his memoirs that the mass resignations were a mistake, and were only supposed to be symbolic.  {See Memoirs, pp. 768-769.} There was ample historical precedent of disappointing second terms and Nixon’s own experience with Eisenhower’s second term.

By putting yourself in Richard Nixon’s shoes, the emotions of vindictiveness and confrontation are also understandable.  According to Conrad Black, “he cheered up in crises, was let down by victory…”  {See Black, “Man in Full” (2007), p. 845.}  Through all of the painful political battles of his career, from the Hiss Case, to the Fund Crisis, to the painful defeats in 1960 and 1962; RN always saw the political world as one of confrontation, a constant, eternal “us against them” battle for supremacy.  In Kissinger’s words, “it was as if victory was not an occasion for reconciliation but an opportunity to settle the scores of a lifetime.”  {See White House Years, p. 1406}

Additionally, RN always thought that his presidency was always under siege from old political enemies like the media and liberals, and new ones like anti-war protesters.  The reelected president anticipated a major battle with a Democratic control Congress, as John Connally told him that the mood on Capitol Hill “was the most vicious thing I have ever seen.  They are mean and testy.”   {See Memoirs, p. 770}  Especially taken against the backdrop of the times, all politics was warfare: the only code ‘do onto your enemies before they do onto you.’  The mentality that history would tell us at a later time, was tragically counterproductive and in the end, self fulfilling.

Of course hindsight and perspective displays another path.  A path towards the “New American Revolution”, the ambition to fix what Nixon saw as a crisis of spirit in the country.  An unprecedented reform and reorganization of the Cabinet and the rest of the executive branch.. A path to comprehensive peace in the Middle East, and another round of arms control with the Soviet Union.  The potential for a truly great legacy as a transformational president.

Instead Nixon’s experience in political life didn’t allow this path of reconciliation, but demanded the path of confrontation.