Books: From the Land of Shadows : From Log Cabin to Log Cabin |
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From Log Cabin to Log Cabin

The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (Sidgwick & Jackson, London, and Grosset & Dunlap, New York)

Largely deservedly, Richard Nixon is in such low repute that it is hard to give him credit for anything without sounding capricious. Yet it must be said, in the teeth of all expectation, that his Memoirs constitute a readable book of no small literary merit and considerable human dignity. Doubtless there are ghost writers in the picture somewhere; in the acknowledgments a large number of secretaries and editors receive thanks; but if a committee wrote this book, it was one of those rare committees which, setting out to design a horse, actually succeed in designing a horse instead of a camel.

Nixon has done many reprehensible things in his career and in a way this book is just one more of them. By internal contradictions alone, quite apart from evidence that can be brought up from outside, it is a book patently full of half-truths and false conclusions. But it is not a mean book. Nixon’s faults are all on view, but so is the fact that they are faults in something substantial. His claims to a place in history are shown to be not all that absurd. He will be harder to mock from now on, although perhaps even easier to distrust.

Such a judgment should emerge naturally from any fair reading of the text. A fair reading, however, might well be prejudiced by an initial glance at the copious photographs. Featuring a hero described in the captions as RN, these tend to show Nixon at his most bogusly histrionic. During the Hiss case he profiles like a concave Dick Tracy while examining the ‘pumpkin papers’ through a magnifying glass. His dog Checkers helps him read the newspaper on a bench in Central Park. There is a supposedly eloquent photograph of construction-union leaders’ safety-helmets arranged on a White House table as an endorsement for Nixon’s Cambodian adventure, with nothing in the caption to tell you that the union leaders would probably have reacted the same way if he had atom-bombed the Eskimos. Finally there are pictures commemorating his long hamming contest with Brezhnev. The most startling of these shows Brezhnev apparently sticking his tongue in Nixon’s right ear. If you get no further than the photographs, your estimate of the book is bound to be wide of the mark.

The text proper is more than a thousand pages long. Most people who tackle it at all will probably start near the end, to find out what the author (for practical reasons I shall assume this to be Nixon himself) says about Watergate. But there are good reasons for beginning at the beginning and reading the whole way through. For one thing, it’s a good story. Nixon’s anabasis was the classic journey from log cabin to White House, and the early stages of the trip are made no less absorbing by the consideration that he was later obliged to retrace a portion of the itinerary from White House to log cabin.

Nixon’s poor-but-honest Quaker background in Depression-era California is celebrated with all-American pride. The scene-setting is like watered-down Steinbeck, but there is a certain gusto in the way the clichés are deployed, and the prose is grammatical. (As, indeed, it is throughout the book: apart from a solitary use of ‘credence’ for ‘credibility’ there are no solecisms.) Nixon’s father is portrayed as a strong-willed populist, his mother as an exemplar of ‘inner peace’. There are deaths in the family. There is no money. But deprivation is material not spiritual. At Whittier High School Nixon plays Aeneas in a production marking the two-thousandth anniversary of Virgil’s death. Working his way through Whittier College, in his Junior year he reads Tolstoy. Winning a place at Duke University Law School in North Carolina, he strengthens his mind with the unyielding facts of case law.

The emphasis is always on self-help. The boy Nixon professed liberalism with a populist tinge, but in effect he was already a conservative. He was always for a free economy as opposed to a managed one. He was thus a Republican from the outset. His political beliefs are the most honest things about him and it is doubtful if they ever varied. Since they were hard won, in circumstances which favoured the opposite case — if any family stood to gain from the Democratic Party, the New Deal and the welfare mentality, it was the Nixons — he should be given credit for his independence of mind.

Even when young, Nixon can never have been a charming figure, but he has every right to be proud of his upbringing. Later in life, especially after his defeat by Kennedy, it became an article of liberal belief that Nixon was embittered by resentment of the Eastern establishment and its fancy Ivy League ways. In particular he was supposed to be eaten up by envy of the Kennedys. If any of this was ever true, he has done a thorough job of covering it up in his memoirs. But there is good cause to suppose that Nixon’s undoubted vindictiveness was more against liberalism as a philosophy than against the Eastern establishment as an institution. Nixon felt that liberals were fashion-conscious, changeable and unscrupulous. He felt that they would get him if he did not get them. In the end his obsession with this point led to his downfall. But we will fail to understand the strength of Nixon’s mind, and the breadth of his political appeal, if we suppose that his fixations were energised by nothing except spite.

It is better to be a poor boy who makes good than a rich man’s son. This general truth becomes particularly true when you compare Nixon and Kennedy according to criteria more telling than mere points of style. Nixon knew American society and politics from the ground up. Kennedy had the shallowness of the man who starts at the top. Nixon has his gaucheries, but they have always been part of the whole man. The Kennedy clan thought that Nixon lacked class. It was never strictly true, but even if it had been, there are worse things to lack. In the long view corn looks better than chic. Kennedy pretended to admire Casals. Nixon honestly thought that Richard Rodgers’s score for Victory at Sea was great music. Nixon was the one who could actually play the piano. Nixon’s homely enthusiasms were in fact part of his strength.

Unfortunately for himself, America and the world, Nixon could never see his strength for what it was. He was forever augmenting it with unnecessary cunning. If he had been less clever he might have lasted longer. But he always felt that he needed an edge — he had to get the bulge on the other guy. He claims to have joined the House Committee on Un-American Activities with ‘considerable reluctance’. You would think from his account of the Hiss case that he had conducted the prosecution in a temperate manner. He is careful to dissociate himself from McCarthy, whose own juggernaut was soon to get rolling. But on any objective view, Nixon behaved like a demagogue throughout the hearings. Whether Hiss was guilty or not is a separate issue. Nixon tries to make Hiss’s guilt a matter of historic importance, but in fact the historic importance has all to do with the way Nixon used the Fifth Amendment to undermine the spirit of the First Amendment. Nixon pioneered the McCarthyite technique of establishing silence as an admission of guilt. It was Nixon who gave McCarthy the courage to be born.

The House Committee was a Star Chamber. Nixon still professes to assume that Hiss invited suspicion by being mistrustful of the Committee. But only a fool would have expected to be tried fairly by such methods. The point recurs awkwardly a thousand pages later, when the author can be heard protesting that his own trial by Senate Committee is a travesty of justice. If Nixon objects to the methods by which his Presidency was destroyed, then he should repudiate the methods by which he destroyed Hiss. They were the same methods. He claims that Sam Ervin and the other Watergate committee members were publicity seekers. But what, on his own admission, did the Hiss case bring him? It brought him ‘publicity on a scale that most congressmen only dream of achieving’.

And so he was off and running — running for President. He pretends, characteristically, that such thoughts were not yet in his mind. Quoting Harry Truman’s observation that the Vice-Presidency is about as useful as a fifth teat on a cow, he makes out that it was his very innocence of high ambitions which enabled him to take on the job of playing second fiddle to Eisenhower. After all, it was a thankless task. The media applied their double standards, forgiving Adlai Stevenson everything and Nixon nothing. Because Ike was too big to touch, the liberals ganged up on Nixon. Or so Nixon tells it. Certainly the attack over his supposed misuse of campaign funds must have hurt: his first response was the horribly maladroit ‘Checkers’ speech, and the long-term result was an unquenchable hatred of the press. But he usually forgets to say how indiscriminate he himself was accustomed to being when dishing out abuse. The furthest he will go is to say that he had no choice. ‘Some of the rhetoric I used during the campaign was very rough. Perhaps I was unconsciously overreacting .to the attacks made against me.’ Someone else was always unscrupulous first. Nixon, says Nixon, would have played clean if they had let him.

During Ike’s 1956 campaign Nixon tries to fight high-mindedly, but he can feel that people are disappointed. They want him to be tough against the ruthless Stevenson. This is Nixon’s message throughout: the liberal-dominated media might be against him, but the pulse from the grass-roots is the country’s true heart-beat. Nixon could already hear the low roar of the silent majority long before he gave it a name. Its good wishes sustained him in adversity, which arrived in 1960, when he lost the Presidential race to Kennedy. In an act of heroic self-sacrifice, Nixon talked Ike out of appearing on his behalf, lest Ike’s heart should give way. Nevertheless he came within a whisker of not losing. He might have won on a recount, but patriotism stopped him asking for one.

As everywhere else in the book, Nixon has only good to say of JFK. But he is scornful of the Kennedy machine. ‘From this point on I had the wisdom and the wariness of someone who has been burned by the Kennedys and their money and by the licence they were given by the media.’ He certainly learned the wariness. One doubts ifhe learned the wisdom: anger probably exacerbated his natural vindictiveness. It must have been galling for Nixon to see Joe Kennedy’s family being indulged by the press while he himself was hounded, right up to the end, for transgressions which often did not even exist. But sympathy should not mislead, although Nixon would like it to: the whole tendency of the book is to suggest that extraordinary persecution justified extraordinary retaliation.

Honourable defeat in the 1960 Presidential race was followed by ignominious disaster in the 1952 California gubernatorial contest and a duly embittered retirement to the wilderness, where the Internal Revenue Service, egged on by the White House, harassed him about his tax returns. (What he did unto others was done unto him first.) Will he run again? On Key Biscayne, Billy Graham and Bebe Rebozo help him decide. Bebe Rebozo is half of a comedy duo, Bebe Rebozo and Bob Abplanalp. It is nowadays fashionable to deride these two as shady characters, although it seems likely that they are just a pair of routinely dreary millionaires. Billy Graham is harder to explain away. Here again we see the real difference between Kennedy and Nixon. Kennedy paid lip-service to the Pope. Nixon really believed in Billy Graham. Kennedy was a high-flying cynic. Nixon was low-rent sincere.

Back from nowhere, Nixon runs and wins. He has the grace to concede that his victory over Humphrey was no more convincing than his loss to Kennedy. But that’s war, and here, thrown open, is the White House with all its wonders, including a refrigerator well stocked with butterbrickle ice-cream, left by the Johnson girls so that Tricia and Julie shall not starve. Bliss!

Vietnam spoiled it all in the short term, and Watergate ruined it in the long, but before turning to those issues we ought to concede that Nixon had a lot going for him as President. Without dressing the set too much, he is able to show us in these pages that he could handle the work. Just the way he offers us proof of his political intelligence is proof of his political intelligence. The picture he paints is of a man on top of the job. With Haldeman keeping the side-issues at bay, Nixon deals with the essentials. Whether in the Oval Office, at Camp David, at San Clemente or on Key Biscayne he is at the hub of America. Whether in America, Europe, China or the Soviet Union he is at the spindle of the world.

He obviously revelled in the task and doesn’t fail to convey the excitement. He gives you a better idea than anybody else has of why someone should want to take the job on. He even transmits a sense of mission. You can see how he might have thought of himself, without megalomania, as ideal casting for the role. Pat was just right too. She wasn’t as flash as Jackie, but she was solid: less up-to-the-minute, but more in tune with the past. She might not have known Andy Warhol personally, but she arranged an exhibition in the White House for Andrew Wyeth. The Nixons were proud to be square. At their best, they showed why squareness is better than sham.

It could have been an idyll. But America was at war, both in South-East Asia and in Nixon’s soul. Attaining the Presidency made him feel more victimised than ever. The Democrats had bequeathed him the mess in Vietnam. Now they would attack him however he handled it. They would stop at nothing. ‘Therefore I decided that we must begin immediately keeping track of everything the leading Democrats did. Information would be our first line of defence.’ He says this on page 357. The thought is supposed to be going through his head in 1968, when he was already looking forward to the 1972 elections. A harmless enough looking statement, until you realise that he is attempting to justify, in advance, the private espionage activities carried out by the slapstick team later to become famous as the Plumbers.

Nixon makes the best possible case for himself. He was certainly in a fix about Vietnam. If he had been the cynic he is often supposed to be, he could have blamed American involvement on Kennedy and Johnson and brought the troops home. We can see now that it would have been the right thing to do, since the North Vietnamese won anyway. Even at the time it was clear to every responsible authority except the Pentagon that Vietnam was a bottomless pit. By staying to fight it out, Nixon was contravening his own idea of a sensible foreign policy. The Nixon Doctrine advocated aiding only independently viable governments and confining the assistance to hardware — roughly the same policy Carter is pursuing now.

Nixon might have got out of Vietnam straight away if he had thought it was the difficult thing to do. But the liberal opposition to the war convinced him that quitting was the easy thing to do, and he made a fetish of doing the difficult thing instead of the easy one. If the whole world begged Nixon to do the easy thing he would do the difficult one, every time. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the strength of Nixon’s convictions. He thought he was saving the world from communism. He was probably right to believe that for communists peace is never an end, only a means. He was certainly right to be untrusting. But he never understood that there was such a thing as handing the moral advantage to the other side. He thought that the other side was too immoral for that to be possible.

Kissinger thought the same way. As Nixon’s National Security Adviser Kissinger was the man in charge of strategic brainwaves. It would be easy now for Nixon to blame Kissinger. More damagingly for them both, he approves of everything Kissinger did. There are successes to record: détente was probably the right move, which Nixon carried through patiently, without weakness. The Middle East policy was realistic in an area of competing unrealities. But Nixon still seems to think that the toppling of Allende was some kind of triumph, by which thtt Red Sandwich was undermined. The Red Sandwich was the device by which communism, squeezing inwards from Cuba and Chile, would capture the whole of South America. The Red Sandwich had to be foiled. Innocent Chileans have gone through the torments of the damned because Nixon and Kissinger thought that a sandwich had to be stopped from closing in on a continent.

It would have been better for everyone, capitalists included, if Nixon had burdened Allende with help. The best that can be said for such catastrophic initiatives is that they did not originate with Nixon. Eisenhower turned down Castro’s requests for aid. The same sort of mistake goes all the way back to the repudiation of the Dixie Mission. Nixon’s proudest boast is that he reopened the doors to China. He forgets to say that he started out as a fervent advocate of the policy which closed them.

So in foreign affairs Nixon didn’t show quite the clear vision that he thinks he did. He still seems to think that the invasion of Cambodia was a ‘complete success’. Right up to the final débâcle, he and Kissinger understood everything about the war in Vietnam except what mattered. ‘As Kissinger saw the situation, we were up against a paradoxical situation in which North Vietnam, which had in effect lost the war, was acting as if it had won; while South Vietnam, which had effectively won the war, was acting as if it had lost.’ If that was indeed how Kissinger saw things, then he was seeing them backwards. (Apart from a few such local outbreaks, ‘incidentally, the word ‘situation’ is kept under tight control.)

Meanwhile, as Nixon tells it, the liberals and radicals were wrecking the country. On page 471 he argues that the depredations of the Weathermen were sufficient reason for stepping up the activities of the intelligence agencies. Reference is made to the FBI’s long history of black-bag jobs in defence of liberty. The reasoning is specious, since Nixon is really out to justify the existence of the Plumbers, who were not a government agency but a private army. On page 496 he is to be found ‘keeping the pressure on the people around me ... to get information about what the other side was doing’, the other side being the Democrats. He admits that he overstepped the mark, but blurs the importance of the mark he overstepped. He was in fact subverting the Constitution of the United States, which is framed not so much for democracy as against the tyrant, and declares that a Presidential party shall not be formed. ‘At least, unlike previous administrations,’ he says on page 78I, ‘we hadn’t used the FBI.’ But at least the FBI is to some extent accountable for its actions. Nixon’s personal fact-gathering unit was accountable to nobody — not even, apparently, to Nixon.

Nixon persuasively argues that he knew nothing about the black-bag jobs in detail. There is no good reason to suppose that he did — what use is power if you can’t leave the dirty work to subordinates? But plausibility evaporates when he tries to suggest that his ignorance was genuine rather than wilful. The first unmistakable evasion comes on page 514, when he addresses himself to the matter of the raid on Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. ‘I do not believe I was told about the break-in at the time.’ Why isn’t he certain? How could he forget?

Credibility slips further on page 638, which records the day — 18 June 1972 — when Nixon, at ease on Key Biscayne, first hears about the Watergate caper. Haldeman tells Nixon that the FBI will have to go further than Miami if it wishes to trace the cash found on the burglars. Nixon tells us nothing of how he reacted to what Haldeman said. An eloquent silence, because what Haldeman was really saying was that the cash was laundered. Why would Nixon accept that information without question, unless he knew that the White House was bankrolling intelligence operations with funds meant to be untraceable even by government agencies?

For the rest of the book, Nixon gives a convincing impersonation of a man standing on a landslide. As his world collapses, his prose attains the authentic poise of deep grief. But the remorse is all about the cover-up, not the crime. Just as Nixon always did the difficult thing instead of the easy thing, so he always accepted the responsibility but refused the blame. He takes the responsibility for the cover-up: his subordinates started it, but in order to protect them he allowed it to go on. He doesn’t take the blame. Still less, then, does he take the blame for the crime itself. To the end of the line, the most he will admit to is an error of judgment. His aides sinned through an excess of zeal. His own sin was to let them do it.

‘If I had indeed been the knowing Watergate conspirator that I was charged as being,’ he says on page 902, ‘I would have recognised in 1973 that the tapes contained conversations that would be fatally damaging.’ It ought to be a strong point. Unfortunately Nixon has by this time already made it clear that the main reason he considered himself guiltless was that circumstances had made extraordinary measures legitimate. He had done what he thought necessary with such self-righteousness that the possibility of ever being called to account hadn’t entered his head.

Nixon’s book is one long act of self-justification. To a remarkable degree the attempt succeeds. At the end his enemies are plausibly made to sound hysterical victims of what he calls ‘liberal chic’. The House Judiciary Committee produced 7,000 pages of evidence against Nixon, but most people now would have trouble being precise about what he did wrong. The media caught Watergate fever. Rumours that he had lined his pockets assumed the status of common knowledge. He almost certainly didn’t. He would never have risked losing the Presidency for the sake of personal enrichment. He lost it because he went on feeling hunted even after he was home and dry.

A House Committee created him and a Senate Committee destroyed him. Under a different system Nixon’s talents might have flourished and his drawbacks been nullified. Men just as devious warm the front benches on either side of the House of Commons. The strangest thing is that none of it was necessary. He could have pulled out of the war straight away. Failing that, he could have resisted the liberal opposition by constitutional means. But to a fatal extent he was still the man he had always been. ‘The Presidency is not a finishing school,’ he says memorably on page 1,078. ‘It is a magnifying glass.’ Judging by his own case, he is only half right. The job did in fact bring out the best in him. But it also magnified the worst. Even as their President, he still felt that the liberals and intellectuals had an unfair advantage. So he tried to preserve his power by extreme means, and if he had not first resigned he would surely have been impeached for it.

The book is well enough done to establish Nixon as a tragic figure and turn the tide of sympathy. It might even put him on the come-back trail. But we ought to keep our heads. The real tragic figures are all in Chile, Vietnam and Cambodia. It is ridiculous to class Nixon with the great villains of modern history, but not so ridiculous to be more angry with him than with them. He should have known better. Nobody sane expects Russia or China to be bound by scruple. The Russians and Chinese, says Nixon — as if their endorsement supported his case — couldn’t understand what the Watergate fuss was all about. Of course they couldn’t. They have forgotten what freedom feels like. A state in which power does not perpetuate itself has become unimaginable to them.

In certain crucial respects Nixon forgot what America is supposed to mean. Yet the virtues of this book prove that in other respects he didn’t. Even now that he has lost everything, he has difficulty seeing himself from the outside. But whatever havoc he might have played with his country’s institutions, in these pages he does not betray its free spirit. The book is like a soap-opera, yet the central character emerges as a human being. They were right to throw him down. Here is proof that they were not entirely wrong to raise him up in the first place.

New Statesman, 1978