Being a British Nineties kid, I didn’t know much about Richard Nixon. Only a few things stick out, such as the disgraceful end to his career, the chirpy racism and the terrible impersonation by the usually-excellent Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon. However, being a resident of the internet, I am very familiar, unfortunately, with today’s Republican Party in America, and the never-ending stream of stupid remarks you automatically assume are from stories posted on the Onion or ClickHole.
Evan Thomas, a well-established journalist and writer who’s previously worked for TIME, Newsweek and the Washington Times, has written Being Nixon, a very clear and accessible biography of America’s 37th president. After learning more and more about this strange recluse, it made me think about the polarised state of America’s politics today and the knock-on effects it has around the world.
Before getting into the meat of just how far right the remaining brain cells of today’s GOP have swung, we have to examine the style of politics itself, and how politicians presented themselves in the 1960s. And who better than the “weirdo” (Thomas’ words, not mine) Richard Nixon?
Here was an introvert acting as an extrovert, a far cry from what is expected from today’s politicians, who can’t help but speak before – if ever – thinking about the subject put in front of them.
Although his family weren’t completely poor during the years of the Depression, they were struggling financially, preventing young Richard from accepting his full scholarship at Harvard and being unable to make the journey to Massachusetts. He often railed against this “East Coast elite” during his political years, but he stocked his political arsenal with Harvard graduates, including a certain Henry Kissinger.
However, his upbringing wasn’t just hampered by family finances. His older brother Harold died of tuberculosis when Richard was 20, their parents spending their savings trying to save the life of their eldest child. His brother’s death was the first time Richard saw his father cry, who asked why his best child had been taken away from him. You might begin to feel some sympathy for the former president at this point. After all, Kissinger later remarked: “Can you imagine what this man would have been like if somebody loved him?”
This “put up and shut up” style of parenting was just the norm back in the good old days, while politics was more detailed and nuanced – a complete reverse of what we find in today’s world.
Examine this style with the way in which most American presidents had to behave. Many were centrist, a traditional way of governing, given the US system ultimately involves one fearless leader representing the whole country. And you can see this in the famous 1960 debate between contenders John Kennedy and Nixon. Or listen to it, in case you want to avoid any second-hand embarrassment (or sweat).
Nixon, a conservative, openly supports paying teachers more, for example. This is something not even something a Conservative government like ours today could ever bring themselves to say, as today’s assumption from the right is there’s never a good time to increase anyone’s pay. Unless of course, you’re the CEO of a large corporation or something.
At the inauguration of the Argentinian president in 1958, the convoy of vice-president Nixon was attacked by protestors. His secret service aide Jack Sherwood drew his gun, only to be ordered by Nixon to put it away. It’s a different universe from today, where the well-rehearsed and planned public events politicians hold are enveloped by an army of security personnel.
What Thomas also notes in his book and subsequent interview is just how well-read Nixon was, which made him much smarter than his rivals, even if he didn’t always appear to be. A perfect demonstration was through the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While today’s conservatives across the world (and in particular the US) try to “conserve” everything but the environment, the flower-power and counterculture revolution in the middle of the 20th century demanded action from political leaders.
In order to outsmart his Democrat opponents on this issue, in particular Senator Edmund Muskie (who later served as a Secretary of State for Jimmy Carter), Nixon moved left to create a new cabinet-level federal agency.
But we have to remember that Nixon was still a conservative. His words versus his actions created a malaise that was reflected when comparing his Quaker upbringing and hardline adulthood. Thomas mentions the advice of Nixon’s grandmother in the book: “Never say, ‘I hate,’ to others. Don’t call anyone a liar. You’re not sure and if you are sure why advertise it? Let the lie die. Use silence.”
Sadly, this didn’t shape what would eventually become his paranoid and dark personality. And of course, I’m never going to defend any of the racism or anti-Semitism exhibited by Nixon in the wonderful audio history he’s left behind. However, it is refreshing to know someone was quite comfortable being openly racist (within the confines of the White House, of course) compared with the thick hosepipe of fresh excrement provided by today’s Republican Party, which simultaneously claims not to be racist.
The book’s introduction describes Nixon as a “fatalistic optimist”, as it reveals his favourite film was not the military-charged Patton, but the 1956 version of Around the World in 80 Days – nothing serious, epic or grandiose that would be chosen by political advisers, I mean, politicians today. I’d be surprised if any of today’s GOP presidential contenders didn’t say they loved the spectacu-killing marathon American Sniper, for instance.
But Nixon always sat through terrible films in the private screening room at the White House, and always said things “will get better”. Maybe they will for us, the silent majority. But certainly not for the current crop of GOP presidential contenders judging by their recent debates, as they continue to represent the vocal minority.