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Why we liked Dick.


It must be hard for today's young, as it wasfor me growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, to understand why Richard Nixon was so popular in his time. He had none of the qualitites we associate with "modern' leaders. He was square, empty of charisma, shy--"an introvert in an extrovert's profession,' as he said of himself--and so stiff that when Sammy Davis Jr. hugged him at the Republican National Convention in 1972 it was one of the most surprising gestures I had ever seen. No one had ever touched Nixon; he posted an electric fence between himself and everyone else, including his wife. From his earliest entry into politics, Nixon was hated intensely, and even his supporters had to forgive his awkward manner. Despite defeats that would have ended most political careers, he went on to become president and to receive one of the greatest mandates of his time. Few people loved Nixon as they loved Eisenhower and Kennedy and even Adlai Stevenson, and yet Nixon was popular in a way these men had never been. He was an irresistible force, a democratic urge. More than any of his many opponents, he represented the fears and hopes and aspirations and resentments of his age.

Nixon went to Congress in 1946, the yearbefore I was born. He came into office on a wave of savage red-baiting that set the tone of domestic and international politics for the next quarter-century. Leo Rangell, a psychiatrist who moved to Southern California the same year Nixon was elected, observed the mixed reactions Nixon evoked. "I was struck with a feeling of something awesome and uncanny, even, if you will believe it now, ominous and frightening, in the public's willing acceptance of the style and tone of his words; the uncritical and compliant acceptance of the artificiality, the obvious opportunism, the insincerity, and the questionable credibility which came across in his every utterance. Nixon at once polarized people into those who felt this way about him and those who did not . . ..' The emotional rift that Nixon opened in California's Twelfth District in the first postwar election would eventually become the fault line of American politics. Four years later it had split the state of California with Nixon's election to the Senate over Helen Gahagan Douglas. Two years after that Nixon was on the winning ticket with Eisenhower, and the entire country was beginning to arrange itself on one side or the other.

My parents didn't love Nixon, but he came torepresent them in ways they couldn't control. They feared and hated communism, and there was Rep. Nixon, the foremost anticommunist in the country. They loved Eisenhower, and there was Vice-President Nixon, the Eisenhower loyalist and chief defender, although Ike himself had always treated Nixon like an unwanted pet. They were proud of their country, and there was Nixon, the Goodwill Ambassador being stoned in Caracas, or standing up to Khrushchev in the kitchen debate. Nixon made claims on their emotions without their consent. He began to personify certain attitudes they endorsed. Their vision of America had become, in subtle ways, Nixon's America.

Nixon appealed to emotions that were not soeasy to admire or understand. He never cared to play the role of the rustic; he was always yearning for dignity and status, and yet when he had first come to Washington, The Washington Post had him spotted as "the greenest Congressman in town.' His friend and congressional classmate John Kennedy summed him up abruptly: "No class.' That was an insult that implicitly included the millions of Americans who were, like my parents, earnest strivers, self-made people, who had seen their own parents fail and knew more of hardship than of ease. Kennedy had meant Nixon had neither style nor grace, but it was also true that Nixon, and people like him, were economically classless. They were moving upward through the social strata in unprecedented numbers. They had not grown up in a world of crystal and careful manners; many of them were just now learning which fork to use at dinner, but these people, who had lived near the bottom of society, whose childhood world had been a squalid city block or godforsaken stretch of farmland, were now buying decent homes, even sending their children to private schools. They had more money than power, more ambition than position, more enthusiasm than taste. In the battle of merit versus privilege, they had seen the advantages of old wealth and connections and credentials. Hard work and money were their only resources. In these millions of no-class Americans were deep reservoirs of resentment. Nixon became their angry representative, their score-settler, "a kind of dragon-slayer,' as he later described himself.

Pat's cloth coat

He began by whipping Alger Hiss. AlthoughHiss had had his own tortured beginnings in Baltimore (his father slit his throat when Alger was three), by the time he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1948 he was an advertisement for Eastern Establishment. Unlike Rep. Nixon, Hiss was witty, handsome, beautifully dressed. He was a product of Johns Hopkins and Harvard Law. He had been a secretary for Oliver Wendell Holmes, and had gone on to practice in prestigious firms in Boston and New York before drifting into government--and the Communist Party. He had risen through the State Department like a bubble toward the surface. He had stood at Roosevelt's shoulder at the Yalta Conference and helped to found the United Nations. He was a protege of men like Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles, rulers of the Establishment.

Harvard awarded Nixon an academic prize inhigh school, but he couldn't afford to go there; after he graduated from his hometown college in Whittier, California, he went to Duke law school on a $250 tuition scholarship and earned money by working in the law library. But the big firms in New York gave him the cold shoulder; Nixon the star student couldn't even get a job at the FBI. He went back to Whittier and became a divorce lawyer. Then he went to war. Alger Hiss was too important to go.

Until this point my father's life paralleled Nixon'salmost exactly--local college, law school scholarship, years of deprivation, struggle, and rejection, and the war. It's no wonder that men like my father, who started with so little, looked at Hiss with the same cool loathing that Nixon did. Hiss had everything they wanted, and what he had was in some unsaid way really theirs. Hiss had not earned his easy access to money and power by hard work, nor had he fought to defend the system that gave it to him. He had been handed everything on the silver platter of class. That's what Nixon hated about Alger Hiss. As Robert Stripling, HUAC's chief investigator later said, "Nixon had set his hat for Hiss. It was a personal thing. He was no more concerned whether Hiss was [a communist] than a billy goat!'

Nixon nailed Hiss, but even after Hiss was convictedof perjury, many members of the Eastern Establishment continued to defend him and deny his guilt. The Establishment protected itself. Nixon and the resentful, avenging, no-class Americans that he represented believed instinctively that the Establishment was in league with the communists, and the ringing denials of Hiss's guilt gave shape to the conspiracy.

The Hiss case brought Nixon attention; it evengot him on the ticket with Eisenhower. But it also made him the permanent enemy of the Eastern Establishment. The hatred directed at Nixon after that would always have an element of classism-- the wealthy, the privileged, the intellectuals on the one side, and Nixon on the other with the forgotten Americans, the Silent Majority.

Nixon knew where the lines had been drawn.When his personal political fund was uncovered in the 1952 campaign ("Secret Rich Men's Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond his Salary,' said the New York Post), and Eisenhower was preparing to dump him from the ticket, Nixon defended himself before the largest television audience ever. "What I am going to do--and incidentally this is unprecedented in the history of American politics--I am going at this time to give this television and radio audience a complete financial history of everything I have earned, everything I have spent, everything I owe,' said Nixon. "I was born in 1913 . . .'.

Out it came, the family grocery store, the hardyears of education, the inflated war record ("I guess I'm entitled to a couple of battle stars . . .'), his wife's job as a stenographer, their 1950 Oldsmobile, their modest inheritances, their mortgages, a loan of $4,500 from the Riggs Bank in Washington, another of $3,500 from his parents, no stocks, no bonds, no interest in any business. "I should say this, that Pat doesn't have a mink coat, but she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat . . .'. And of course, the dog, perhaps the most famous campaign donation in history: "black and white, spotted, and our little girl, Tricia, the six-year-old, named it Checkers.'

In describing himself, Nixon might have beendescribing my parents or millions of other Americans who had worked hard but were still on the outside, who did not--"like Governor Stevenson'--inherit fortunes, who had ambitions but no advantages. The speech made Nixon into a national figure, almost on a par with Eisenhower himself. The unofficial count of letters and telegrams sent to Nixon, Eisenhower, local television stations, and local party offices was over two million; they contained three million signatures. Republican headquarters in Washington alone received 300,000 letters and telegrams, as well as petitions signed by over a million people. Nixon had discovered an electorate no one had known was there.

In some subconscious way, the attacks on Nixonafter that--the derision directed at the speech, Stevenson's erudite loathing, Eisenhower's obvious snubs, the Herblock cartoons--reflected upon those same people who had spontaneously identified themselves with Nixon. They had not chosen Nixon to lead them, but they had seen themselves in Nixon's place, and they believed that what would happen to Nixon would have happened to them. Nixon was not under attack because he was unscrupulous, but because he was an outsider, a usurper, an avenger of the new world.

Until the Checkers speech, my father, then avice president of a small bank in Abilene, Texas, had no real idea who Nixon was. Of course he had heard of Eisenhower's puzzling selection of the 39-year-old freshman senator from California, and he had probably read Nixon's name in the newspapers during the Hiss trial, but he had never seen Nixon until this moment, when Nixon was fighting for his reputation and career. It was an arresting moment in my father's life. Before the Checkers speech, Nixon was no one in my father's mind; after the speech, Daddy was a Nixon man.

A god and a mortal

The presidential election of 1960 dividedAmerica for the rest of the generation between Kennedy-haters and Nixon-haters. It was a contest of class more than of issues. For people like my parents, the Kennedys were the kind of people they dreamed of being, but the Nixons were the kind of people they were. They didn't hold it against Kennedy personally--at least Mother didn't; she voted for him--but just by being unapologetically himself, Kennedy had made them feel less real. He was above ground and they were somewhere below.

It was precisely those qualities in my parentsthat made them identify with Nixon that caused me to gravitate to Kennedy. Perhaps a similar allure of wealth and glamour had drawn my father toward Roosevelt in his own teen-age years. Money seemed to give Kennedy and Roosevelt extra vitality, despite their chronic poor health. Nixon, on the other hand, was fit but worn; the drudgery of life told on him. He longed for native charm. He wanted to be a man of wealth and influence. He would have liked to have been handsome.

Instead he was Nixon, with the ski-jump noseand the jowls, the mortgages that were personally burdensome and yet embarrassingly modest; a man who could never get off a funny line; a vice president whom even the president refused to take seriously. The gap between Kennedy's natural gifts and resources, and those of Nixon, was like the distance between a god and a mortal. Kennedy was the American dream personified, a completely secure personality.

Whereas, Nixon! My own earliest feelingsabout Nixon were sensations of sympathy and discomfort, what one might experience when watching a performer flub his lines--or, if not actually flub them, carry them off so poorly that one is too aware of the effort, the acting, the awkward reaching of the man for the role. There was always that feeling about Nixon, the amateur actor, of the leadenness, the pretense, the hopeless mortality of community theater.

"This is a man of many masks,' said AdlaiStevenson in 1956. "Who can say they have seen his real face?' Stevenson was one of the first to speculate on the phenomenon of multiple Nixons. Even when I was a child, and Nixon was vice president, I heard of the New Nixon. Herb Klein, Nixon's press secretary, wrote that every campaign began with a New Nixon, who disappeared midway as the candidate began to feel mistreated by the press, and gradually withdrew. "We would start out with daily press conferences and end with none,' Klein wrote. Nixon was always undergoing renovation, always reforming himself. He was a sinner yearning for salvation, but not very earnestly. The problem with the New Nixon was that he was invariably accused of being the Old Nixon in disguise. Herblock caricatured the New Nixon in 1960 as a smiling, well-shaven mask covering the familiar stubbled monster underneath.

The reality of the man was dismayingly evident.What we saw in Nixon was a duality we didn't see in more polished performers on the public stage. In Eisenhower we saw the contented hero playing out his presidency on the golf course. In Kennedy we saw the American Prince assuming his throne. In Nixon we saw ourselves--he was neither a hero nor a prince, but a man of extraordinary ordinariness who was trying to be something more. His vices were as common as his talents. One would never say about Nixon, as even Lyndon Johnson's bitterest enemies said about him, that he was larger than life. He was exactly life size. One saw Nixon in a way one never saw Kennedy. Kennedy showed us what he wanted us to see. Nixon showed us himself showing us what he wanted us to see.

In the space between the man and the mask,the Old Nixon and the New, lay the anxiety of the age. Most Americans were a part of the vast and expectant middle class. They were not, or did not feel themselves to be, members of as stable or as static an institution as the European bourgeoisie. They were emergent. They were fluid. They were moving off the land and into the suburbs, out of the old metropolis of the North and East and into the booming cities of the West. Ambition and uncertainty were their distinguishing features. More than any other politician, Nixon represented the aspiration of this grasping, highly charged middle class to better itself. Old Nixon was the aggressive, no-class newcomer on the make. He was fearful of falling off the track, of sliding back to his origins. He was resentful of those ahead of him in line, those who already had it made. Old Nixon dreamed of the day he would finally arrive, and then he could become the gracious and secure New Nixon, able to relax, let down his guard, cultivate friends, be generous to his enemies. But the lesson everyone drew from the Old Nixon is that he would never catch up to the New Nixon, and this knowledge was alienation itself, for if Nixon couldn't close the distance, how could we?

The New Nixon mask might have had anotherface: John F. Kennedy. It hit Nixon during the first debate, when Kennedy opened with a surprise attack on communism and the do-nothing Eisenhower administration. Nixon was watching another version of himself, the ruthless campaigner, hitting the same notes that Nixon so often had hit. There was much, Nixon said, that he and Sen. Kennedy agreed upon; they differed not on goals but on measures to achieve those goals . . . mumble, mumble, what could he say? Kennedy was using all his own themes, bashing Khrushchev, Castro, the Chinese; he was even lying in the clever way Nixon lied; he accused the administration of coddling Castro (when he had already been briefed on the plans for the Cuban invasion); he spoke of a missile gap (when none existed). Nixon was nearly speechless. He cast an occasional lovesick glance at the tan and handsome and wealthy and secure and sexy and charming politician who was destroying him. That was the Nixon that Nixon longed to be.
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Title Annotation:Richard M. Nixon
Author:Wright, Lawrence
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Dec 1, 1986
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