Wednesday, March 13, 2013

In Search of Nixon 3

I finished Bruce Mazlish's In Search of Nixon: A Psychohistorical Inquiry.

On pages 144-145, Mazlish quotes Richard Nixon expressing his fantasy of being an academic: "If I had my druthers, I'd like to write two or three books a year, go to one of the fine schools----Oxford, for instance----just teach, read, and write...In order to make a decision, an individual should sit on his rear end and dig into the books.  Very few executives do it.  They listen to this side and that, but they don't go to the sources.  In this respect, I'm like Stevenson...He was an intellectual and he needed time to contemplate."

I liked this passage for a couple of reasons.  First, I myself think that it would be an ideal life to teach, read, and write, and to get paid for doing so.  Second, I appreciated Nixon's admiration for Adlai Stevenson----the Democrat who ran against Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, and who attacked Nixon with his witty barbs.  In Six Crises, on page 96, Nixon criticizes Stevenson as one who was indecisive.  But, in Mazlish's quotation of Nixon, Nixon recognizes a possible reason for Stevenson's indecisiveness: Stevenson needed time to think.  For me at least, it's heart-warming when people can see good even in their foes.

Would Nixon be as sensitive to nuance, as an academic should be?  My impression from reading details in Mazlish's book is that Nixon became more sensitive to nuance, especially when it came to the issue of Communism.  When Nixon visited Latin America and encountered mobs, Nixon tended to reduce Communism in Latin America to those mobs.  According to Mazlish, Nixon most likely did not talk with Marxist intellectuals to hear what they had to say, and Nixon was wrong to assume that the mobs represented the sum total of Communism, as it would be erroneous to think that lynchings in the South represent the sum total of the Southern political system.  Yet, Nixon came to recognize different shades of Communism, and he concluded as President that China was not as intent on aggression against other countries as it used to be.  I doubt that Nixon would say that he grew.  When Nixon was asked if his visit to China as President demonstrated that there were two Nixons----the old Nixon who opposed Communist China, and the new Nixon who visited it----Nixon retorted that there were actually two Chinas!  (I base this, not on Mazlish, but rather my seeing Nixon on television.) Nixon apparently thought that his position in the past was correct, within that historical context, but his view changed as the context changed.

Overall, one thing that I have respected about Nixon in my reading so far has been his openness to knowledge.  In reading Irwin Gellman's The Contender, I noticed that Nixon visited Europe when he was a Congressman and talked with a variety of people, even Communists.  Nixon was eager to learn why Europeans would be susceptible to Communism, and he learned that Communists provided services (i.e., a place to get a sandwich) in a time when Europe was impoverished in the aftermath of World War II.  Nixon still could be pretty dogmatic: sometimes he put words into people's mouths (as Stephen Ambrose says), or heard what he wanted to hear rather than what people were saying.  But, at times, he was a good listener when he sought to learn.

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