- I ♥ Nixon
In 1960 Sam Rayburn, the Speaker of the House, was watching Vice President Richard Nixon on television. After a moment Rayburn exclaimed, "Look at that face, that hateful face … the worst face of anyone I ever served with." He then asked one of his aides if he could fiddle with the television so that he could hear Nixon but not have to see his face. "That's better," he said once the aide had created enough obscuring snow.1 A few years earlier, America's premier journalist, Walter Lippmann, said that watching Nixon's Checkers speech was "the most demeaning experience my country has ever had to bear."2 There was just something about Nixon that aroused an intense personal hatred of the man. Even before that fateful 1960 election; before his unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in California in 1962; before his appearance on "Laugh-In" in 1968, where, by saying "sock it to me," he forever made that phrase uncool; before the development of his policies in Vietnam, Cambodia, and elsewhere; before Watergate, people saw in Richard Nixon everything they despised about the nature of U.S. politics. And since there were seemingly countless examples of Nixon's skulduggery at work, Nixon haters could despise him almost endlessly.
The two books under review here follow a well-trodden path in making the case that by looking at, listening to, reading about—you name it—Richard Nixon, we gain the key to understanding modern America. Tricky Dick has become in some freakish way the Rosetta Stone of our world. The perfect coda of this phenomenon remains Senator Bob Dole's assessment of Nixon at his funeral in 1994. Here Dole exclaimed shortly before choking up, "I believe the second half of the twentieth century will be known as the age of [End Page 165] Nixon." People tend toward hyperbole at funerals, but given the never-ending stream of Nixon-mania that has followed, this heartfelt statement will find few dissenters today.
Dole's estimation of the man and of our times leads to another, larger point about Nixon: the key to writing about him is to decide on some twist that no one has yet imagined. Once this is done, the book just flows. Garry Wills's masterpiece on Nixon as the last liberal in Nixon Agonistes (1970) is the classic representation of this method, but others have followed with impressive results. Recently there has been Douglas Greenberg's Nixon's Shadow (2003), wherein the Trickster becomes a shape-shifter of sorts, whose meaning depends on the particular historical and political angle of vision adopted by the viewer. Or there is Mark Feeney's Nixon at the Movies (2004), in which Nixon becomes the most astonishing film buff the world has ever seen. Feeney came upon a list of every movie Nixon watched while in office (and included the list in an appendix), and from this he offers a meditation on how these films influenced Nixon and the rest of us. (Nixon's serial watching of "Patton" before his decision to invade Cambodia is the most notorious example here, but he favored weepy melodramas, too). The beauty of this method is that Nixon, simply by being Nixon, makes a book readable. The indefatigable Gore Vidal realized this phenomenon long ago when he argued that Nixon was his greatest literary creation.3
For Rick Perlstein, Nixon becomes America's Rasputin and Svengali. He was impossible to kill off, as there was always a "new" Nixon around the corner, and he was always plotting to drive others to distraction with patently false and hypocritical statements. It's a great depiction, especially because Perlstein locates the origins of Nixon's many maladies in the trauma inflicted upon him by the wealthy, good-looking types during his time at college. To Perlstein, their snubs became the source of America's...