Friday, January 7, 2011

Bring On The Nixon Psychobiographers!

Richard Nixon, who strenuously resisted introspection, despised nothing more than so-called psychobiography, which combined the traditional historical method with speculation about subjects' hidden (even to themselves) motivations. As far as I can tell, that kind of history has gone mainstream, as it probably should have. Leaders are far more than the sum of their memoranda, especially ones as emotionally reserved and complicated as Nixon. Politics probably couldn't have been an unhappier choice for someone of his driven but painfully introverted temperament. Yet he felt called to make a difference, and his powers of solitary concentration and focus enabled him to envision foreign policy moves that made the world safer for billions of people.

Some insiders' insights from historian and former Nixon tapes archivist Maarja Krusten's new blog, NixoNARA. First, from one of Maarja's latest posts:
[I]n Nixon’s approach to issues as a student, a candidate, a president, and a creator of government records, we see...what has become an all-too-familiar refrain, “they’re against us, we won’t be treated fairly, try to out maneuver or crush them.” Ironically, more openness to reflection, and a willingness to consider data rather than relying so heavily on emotivism—a sense that archivists as civil servants would not treat his records fairly–would have made it much easier for him and for the National Archives.
Was his suspicion of civil servants -- not just archivists but members of the diplomatic and intelligence services -- a function of temperament or philosophy? Probably a little of both. Like many during the Cold War, Nixon had a Manichean view of the struggle between freedom and communism. At home, in the political and policy arenas, he saw everything (literally) as a matter of right vs. left. Since civil servants tended to be liberal, it seems not to have been much a stretch for Nixon to conclude that, knowingly or unknowingly, they were participating, if only in a tangential or a symbolic way, in the global communist project. A natural consequence of their ideological bias, in his view, was their hostility to him, the hated persecutor of Alger Hiss.

Getting to know them better would've enabled a more accurate view, but Nixon's introversion ruled that out. I take exception with those such as Rick Perlstein who focus on Nixon's alleged class resentments. Like many introverts, he resented those who were more socially adept than he, which, in politics, was just about everyone, no matter what side of the tracks they came from. He'd always tell us that socializing was a waste of time, but the real issue was that he didn't enjoy it, because it was exhausting. Instead, he spent a considerable amount of time alone, reading, thinking, planning, deciding, and accomplishing.

And yet there's no question about the unfortunate consequences of Nixon's corrosive assumptions about civil servants. In a comment at Maarja's blog, the former head of the Nixon tape processing unit, Fred Graboske, writes:
Our tapes processing staff held widely-ranging political views. Some, such as Maarja and I, were Republicans. Others were Democrats, some Independent, some agnostic, and one was a Socialist. I saw no evidence that anyone’s personal views of Nixon, or general political views, affected their archival work. President Nixon believed that the civil service was predominantly Democrat in its views (probably correct) and that it consequently attempted to sabotage his programs (not correct). If Nixon had understood this, he could have spared himself some grief during his Presidency...
The nadir of Nixon's cold war against federal bureaucrats was his asking one of his aides, Fred Malek, to count the number of Jews working in the Bureau of Labor Statistics, where, Nixon had decided, liberal officials were purposely skewing data to hurt the administration. First he had another aide, Larry Higby, make sure Malek wasn't Jewish. The unsavory episode is described in the upcoming Nixon library Watergate exhibit that's been opposed by Nixon's White House aides.

About the worst excesses of Nixon and his men, another NixonNARA commentator, historian and blogger Jeremy C. Young (shown here), says this:
To be fair, had Nixon possessed “more openness to reflection, and a willingness to consider data rather than relying so heavily on emotivism,” he probably wouldn’t have done the things that make his aides so sensitive to the publicizing of his papers. Gerald Ford, a man possessed of a very similar political worldview to Nixon’s, committed none of Nixon’s sins and was accordingly unconcerned with the publication of his official papers.
Ford also committed none of Nixon's political and policy breakthroughs. He would probably have finished his career as House minority leader if Nixon hadn't turned to him in 1973 as the choice for vice president that would be least offensive to the most U.S. senators. Also thanks to his inoffensiveness, he ended up as the right president for the aftermath of Watergate. But it's hard to imagine him (or Ronald Reagan for that matter) functioning as effectively as Nixon did in the first four years of his presidency -- for starters, transforming relations with the Soviets and the Chinese and the conduct of the Vietnam war.

1 comment:

MK said...

Very interesting! I'll have to expand on the introversion angle. I agree with you that Perlstein overemphasizes the resentments. Yet resentment combined with Manichean thinking now seems to be a characteristic of more people on the right than it was when I called myself a conservative. That some of it is directed towards academics (who bring some of that on themselves, as Benton points out), is a problem with history and the efforts to educate people about what historians do. I encountered some of that at The New Nixon, in fact. Thanks so much for a most interesting essay and for giving me such good food for thought!