Nixons Rap Sheet
Photo by Hank Williams/TimepixPeople go through that psychological bit nowadays. They think they should always be re-evaluating themselves. That sort of juvenile self-analysis is something I've never done.
—Richard Nixon, 1966
His fragile masculine self-image always drew him to the strong and the tough—and the ultimate power of the presidency.
—Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker, a psychotherapist Nixon consulted from 1951 to 1994
George W. Bush spends a lot of TV time saying he'll restore credibility to the White House —implying that Al Gore can't because he's connected to Bill Clinton, who, in turn, had his penis sucked in the Oval Office and then ridiculously lied about it. Bush continues to make the claim because Republican strategists think it'll work; they think you've forgotten that Republican Richard Milhous Nixon—not Clinton—was the most dishonest and dangerous man ever to serve as president of the United States.
Nixon was our Janus, the two-faced Roman god, shrouding nearly every aspect of his life in lies: his family, childhood, education, opponent voting records, campaign backers, income, war plans and, ultimately, own criminal culpability. His incredible ambitions drained him of any compunction about lying to his family, aides and allies, as well as, fatally, the American people who put him into office in the first place.
He lied about who funded his campaigns. He lied about his wife's birthday. He lied about what countries the U.S. was bombing. He lied about his income. He lied about getting arrested. "You're never going to make it in politics," Nixon once told Leonard Garment, his special counsel and former New York law partner. "You just don't know how to lie."
Nixon knew lies brought power. And especially when he was president, the lies came hard and fast, quickly swallowing those unfortunate enough to be close to him when the truth came out.
Take his secret Vietnam War-era bombing of neutral Cambodia. On Nixon's orders, many bomber pilots were tricked into thinking they were pounding South Vietnamese targets, when in fact their bombs were falling farther west. Those who knew better received orders to falsify their flight logs. Both actions—which turned junior officers 10,000 miles away into co-conspirators—were unprecedented in U.S. military history.
Nixon's problem, by the end of his presidency, was that his myriad lies came back to haunt him. In fact, a case can be made that he lied so much he lost touch with what was actually happening around him. He stumbled through the months leading up to his disgraced August 1974 resignation—sometimes drunk, sometimes merely clueless—as many of his aides wondered whether he was ever really sane after all.
My favorite Nixon story comes from June 1974. Nixon was in the midst of a Middle East tour; back home, Watergate investigators were circling, ready to finish him off. During a meeting with the Israeli cabinet, Nixon suddenly leaped to his feet, saying he knew the best way to deal with terrorists, and proceeded to gun down the cabinet with an imaginary machine gun, all the while making "brrrr" sounds.
This anecdote doesn't appear in Anthony Summers' new Nixon biography, The Arrogance of Power, but it doesn't need to. There's more than enough evidence in Summers' book to carpet-bomb Nixon's legacy until no aspect of his personal or political life is left standing—until it's finally impossible to erect any more monuments to the man.
The Nixon Library isn't pleased this book is out. During an Aug. 28 CNN interview, Nixon Library executive director John Taylor urged his television audience to "condemn this book and [its publisher] the Viking Press in the strongest terms."
Taylor says The Arrogance of Power is devoid of "fairness and dispassionate objectivity and good sourcing in history." But Taylor has no room to talk. As Nixon's most passionate defender, Taylor has taken to attacking the late president's critics in completely Nixonian ways.
In February 1999, for example, when the National Archives released a particularly nasty batch of Nixon's audiotapes dealing with Watergate conspiracies, Taylor simultaneously released his own transcripts. What he neglected to tell people, as The Washington Post later showed, was that his transcripts differed remarkably from Nixon's actual words, as heard on the tapes. In one exchange highlighted by the Post, Taylor changed a Nixon statement advocating a cover-up to one in which the good president was denouncing a cover-up.
Such rewriting of Nixon's past has grown more popular since his death in 1994. The most recent example is Chapman University professor Irwin Gellman's 1999 biography, The Contender. The first in a proposed three-part study of Nixon, Gellman's book attempts to show that Nixon, far from being the bad dude usually portrayed by journalists and historians, was actually a decent chap in the early years. Not only does Gellman's wife appear in the footnotes as one of his sources (surprise: she works at the Nixon Library), but Gellman also ignores so much documented Nixon history that his book would be laughable if it weren't so damn boring.
An earlier study often cited by Nixon fans for its "fairness" was the 1994 book Nixon: A Life, written by British M.P. Jonathan Aitken. Aitken focused primarily on funny little anecdotes concerning Nixon—then-congressman Jack Kennedy trying to get Nixon hooked up with Parisian prostitutes, for instance. Throughout, Aitken—currently serving 18 months in jail for perjury he committed while suing Granada TV and the Guardian newspaper—portrayed Nixon as a worldly statesman hounded from office on a technicality.
In his remarkably sensitive 1995 film biography Nixon, director Oliver Stone produced a radically different Nixon, the product of an overpowering but distant mother, a man who wanted desperately to be loved. Conservatives condemned the film as outrageously dramatic, but liberal and even leftist friends of mine who saw the film agreed with me when I observed that Stone made me feel for Nixon something I could not have anticipated: sympathy.
Summers will have none of this hagiography—neither Taylor's Nixon the Great Man nor Stone's Nixon the Haunted Man. In The Arrogance of Power, you'll find a hint of Stone—Summers interviews at great length Nixon's psychologist, who concluded "his mother was really his downfall." But it's Nixon's actions, Summers says, not his loveless upbringing in Yorba Linda, that need a reckoning.
Think of Arrogance of Power as Nixon's rap sheet, an exhaustive study of his myriad crimes rather than an all-encompassing study of the man. Events like Nixon's handling of the Vietnam War get minimal coverage, and there's virtually no mention of Nixon's China machinations or his historic arms-control agreement with the Soviets. Summers' study of Watergate contains nothing new either, but it succeeds in weaving into a readable narrative all the relevant memoirs, chief of staff H.R. Haldeman's mammoth diary, recently released FBI records and whatever Nixon tapes have already been released.
Through it all, Summers shows us a Nixon consistently at odds with his public image. We see the so-called master of foreign policy in 1969, for instance, drunkenly ordering a tactical nuclear strike on North Korea after that country shot down a U.S. spy plane. Mercifully, national security adviser Henry Kissinger intercepted the order as the Pentagon chiefs planned the attack, explaining that by morning, Nixon wouldn't remember giving it. Kissinger was right.
Mainstream media reviews of the book have focused on the evidence backing two of Summers' more sensational allegations: that Nixon beat his wife, Pat, shortly after his disastrous 1962 bid for California governor and, as president, took the anti-epileptic drug Dilantin, given to him by mutual-fund kingpin Jack Dreyfus. But these reviews ignore Summers' most gut-wrenching revelation: that Nixon sabotaged the Vietnam peace talks shortly before the 1968 election.
Watergate was bad, but this was treason. Summers shows conclusively that the man who "brought an honorable end to the war in Vietnam" secretly scuttled the 1968 peace talks by encouraging South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to remain intransigent, despite U.S. President Lyndon Johnson's breakthrough peace talks. Nixon promised Thieu that if elected, his administration would win the war.
The idea is shocking—and, indeed, recalls very similar stories concerning Reagan campaign cronies striking a secret deal with Iranian leaders to delay the release of their American embassy hostages until after President Jimmy Carter left office. It overshadows other crimes, like Nixon's fondness for accepting massive and illegal campaign contributions from Iranian and Greek dictators and mobsters like Mickey Cohen and Meyer Lansky.
But Summers' evidence is ironclad: a first-person account by a participant, coupled with FBI surveillance reports, National Security Agency intercepts and Lyndon Johnson's presidential papers. The evidence is so overwhelming the Nixon Library has chosen to ignore it entirely, commenting only that Johnson's peace talks were simply an attempt "to influence the presidential election."
So Nixon was merely countering Johnson's election-eve maneuvering? Tell that to the families of the 20,000 American soldiers who died in Vietnam while Nixon was president.
On the back cover of the "1968 Nixon Yearbook"—a presidential campaign booklet still sold for $1 at the Nixon Library—is a famous full-color photograph of Nixon and his family walking on a beach. Nixon is wearing slacks and shoes, while everyone else is barefoot in either shorts or sundresses; everyone is smiling and enjoying themselves.
Nixon's family always played a key role in his political propaganda. Even from the beginning of his political career, Nixon smoothed his rough-edged personality by emphasizing his adoring family. Television audiences in 1952 saw a scruffy, partisan Nixon flanked by a peaceful, loving Pat as he angrily defended himself against stinging charges of personal corruption with the Checkers speech. Pat hated every second of her role in the speech, but the audiences didn't know that. All they saw was a wife who loved her husband.
Even today, no one—including Summers—can say for certain what Nixon's home life was like. Some aspects of a man's life will remain hidden from all the world's biographers. Yet Summers raises compelling questions about their intimacy, most colorfully by reproducing an official presidential memo Nixon wrote to his wife shortly after taking power in 1969.
"In talking with the GSA [General Services Administration] with regard to RN's room, what would be most desirable is an end table like the one on the right side of the bed, which will accommodate two Dictaphones as well as a telephone," wrote Nixon, referring to himself in the third person to his own wife. "The table which is presently in the room does not allow enough room for him to get his knees under it."
And then there's Summers' most controversial charge, one the Nixon Library has fought hardest to rebut: that in 1962, shortly after Nixon went down to defeat in the California governor's race, he beat the hell out of Pat.
Summers' reporting on this charge has made headlines despite the fact that his sources—five individuals, two of them reporters—can say only that they "heard" about Nixon beating his wife. Those sources say they talked to people who saw Pat in a condition that would seem to suggest Nixon had slugged her, but, Summers tells us, the original witnesses have all died in recent years. In legal terms, this is called hearsay, and it's not admissible in court. Qualifiers like "possibly," "apparently" and "probably" appear in any legitimate work of journalism, but they appear frequently throughout this section of the book.
Any look at Nixon's private life can rarely say anything for certain. For example, Summers relates a sensational story alleging that the Republican Party made $10 million by using advance knowledge of Nixon's 1971 act taking the nation off the gold standard. His source is a convicted gold and silver smuggler currently serving a life sentence, but Summers backs this up by showing that Nixon met the smuggler privately in the earliest years of his presidency. But like the wife-beating allegation, Summers can offer no more than a compelling case.
The allegation that Nixon beat Pat is the least satisfying part of Summers' book, but it's gotten the best play in the media. Elsewhere, Summers is more certain of his evidence, especially concerning Nixon's most private secret: that he consulted a psychiatrist for nearly 40 years.
And this one has the Nixon family fuming. Even addressing this issue "belongs to a darker age," said Tricia Nixon Cox, Nixon's daughter, in an Aug. 28 AP story on the book's release. "It is unworthy of anyone to suggest that there is something disgraceful about anyone, including prominent political figures, seeking the advice of a trained medical professional for any reason."
Cox completely misses the point. In saying that her father sought help from New York psychiatrist Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker, Summers doesn't ridicule him but merely points out that he was a hypocrite for doing so. Indeed, it was Nixon himself—a product of his class—who saw psychiatry and psychology as dark arts. How else can one explain this key moment in Nixon's 1972 anti-McGovern campaign: when it came time to destroy the Democrats, Nixon thought he'd found his best weapon in evidence that Daniel Ellsberg (of Pentagon Papers fame) and abortive McGovern running mate Thomas Eagleton had both consulted psychiatrists.
It's no surprise, then, that Nixon spent half his life terrified the nation would find out he was seeing Hutschnecker. He ridiculed psychotherapy every chance he got—to his aides as well as the general public. We can now see his denunciations were merely another protective screen of lies. Cox's defense of her father is ironic: Nixon—not Summers—was the one who felt his psychiatric sessions were "disgraceful."
Hutschnecker spoke to Summers at length for the book. Some topics, Summers writes, the doctor described easily—Nixon's home life, for instance. But others, like his sex life, were clearly off-limits.
Nixon's fear was simply that if the nation knew he was seeing a shrink, it would think he was nuts. But Nixon kept his secret safe, and he won election after election. Of course, where Nixon is concerned, there's always an ironic twist: although Nixon's closest aides—men like Haldeman and Kissinger—never had a clue he was under psychiatric care, they still thought he was nuts.
The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon by Anthony Summers; Viking, 640 pages, HARDCOVER, $29.95.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter