Saturday, March 16, 2013

RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Volume 1

I'm actually writing this post on February 26, 2013.  I've just returned from Indiana, where I was attending my sister's wedding and visiting with family.  The Internet connection was not that good where I was staying (most of the time) in Indiana, and so I decided to postpone my blogging to when I would return to my home in upstate New York.  Plus, I needed a bit of a break from blogging!  During my time in Indiana, I still did my reading for My Year (or More) of Nixon.  I read volume 1 of Richard Nixon's memoirs, which goes from Nixon's birth through his Presidency in 1971.  The copyright for the memoirs is 1978, which was four years after Richard Nixon resigned from office.  I read 300 pages during the car ride to Indiana----and it was a good book for car ride reading, on account of Nixon's clarity, pleasant conversational style, and stories.  Then, during the eight days that I was in Indiana, I followed my usual practice of reading 30 pages a day.  I finished the book on the car ride back to New York.

The book is 669 pages, and I don't think that I've ever covered the entirety of a book that long in one post.  I have a list of topics to cover, but I may not go through them all.  Rather, I'll make some points. Some of them will get into the nitty-gritty, whereas others will focus more on the forest rather than the trees.

1.  As in Six Crises, Nixon in his memoirs comes across as a basically decent person.  Nixon admires goodness in others and is fair-minded.  He empathizes with people, even political opponents and those he did not particularly get along with.  He is compassionate towards the disadvantaged.  He has had a long-standing love for peace and an admiration for pacifists (even though he admits that he's not a pacifist), and he has seen the horrors of war.  He recognizes mistakes that he has made in the past.  And yet, it was noteworthy to me that Nixon in volume 1 of his memoirs sometimes appeared to be rather shady, or he sought to justify activities within his administration that many considered shady, as opposed to flat-out denying that accusations had merit, as was the case in Six Crises.

For example, Nixon talks about his 1968 campaign for President, when President Lyndon Johnson was about to suspend his bombing for the Vietnam War.  Nixon was receiving inside information about Johnson's policies from Henry Kissinger, who (in some capacity) was advising Johnson at the time.  Nixon was all for suspending bombing, as long as North Vietnam met certain conditions, such as ceasing its aggression.  But what astounded me was that Nixon in his memoirs was quite up-front in narrating his concern about how Johnson's move would impact Nixon's campaign.  That just looked devious to me.  I mean, shouldn't a statesman be rooting for the President to succeed in bringing forth peace, rather than thinking about how a certain policy would affect his (the statesman's) political future?  Nixon often portrays himself as one who was concerned about the good of others rather than himself.  That's why his narration of how he handled LBJ's Vietnam policy in 1968 stood out to me like a sore thumb.

In some cases, Nixon's justifications for certain shady practices struck me as poor, even if they were understandable.  For example, Nixon says that he supported dirty tricks in campaigns because the Democrats themselves engaged in dirty tricks, and he wanted the Republicans to fight back.  That's understandable, but "they did it first" or "they do it too" (not that Nixon uses those exact words) sounds rather childish to me.  One justification that Nixon offered seemed to me to contradict another position that he holds.  Nixon, for example, expresses support for intelligence people stretching the law in order to fight domestic terrorists, such as the Black Panthers and the Weathermen, and he cautions that following the exact letter of the law is not always wise because the authors of the law could not have foreseen every circumstance that might come up.  That's a valid point.  And yet, Nixon emphasizes the value of appointing strict constructionists to the judiciary.  Perhaps Nixon's justifications that made most sense to me concerned his attempts to keep a lid on leaks.  Nixon talked about how leaks to the press about his foreign policy plans had the effect of disrupting those plans, since it's not prudent to let the people with whom one will be dealing to know everything one has in mind; moreover, according to Nixon, the Pentagon Papers contained some sensitive information, such as the names of sources of information to the U.S.  Good points.  It's ironic, though, that Nixon criticizes leaks, when elsewhere in his book he acknowledges that Kissinger was his source within the LBJ administration.  But it's still a fairly decent point.

2.  In reading the first volume of Nixon's memoirs, I thought about previous books that I had read about Nixon.  First, regarding Nixon's run for the U.S. House against Democratic incumbent Jerry Voorhis, Stephen Ambrose essentially argued that Nixon was unfair to say that Voorhis had the support of NC-PAC (a group that was believed to have been infiltrated by Communists) in 1946, for Voorhis had NC-PAC's support in 1944 but not in 1946, when Voorhis had a reputation for having anti-Communist beliefs on foreign policy (see here).  Nixon in his memoirs, however, says that the Los Angeles branch of NC-PAC indicated in 1946 its support for Voorhis, and Nixon said that this branch had a lot of Communists.  Nixon's issue was that Voorhis (in Nixon's eyes) was not sensitive to the problem of Communist infiltration.  Ambrose said that Nixon tended to misremember places, as when Nixon said that a fried-chicken lunch with Senator Joseph McCarthy and other officials occurred in Nixon's own office, when it actually took place in Senator Everett Dirksen's office (see here); on page 174 of the first volume of his memoirs, however, Nixon says that the fried chicken lunch occurred in Dirksen's office.

Recently, I've been reading psychological profiles of Nixon (one by Bruce Mazlish and another by Eli Chesen), which assert that Nixon was not open to pursuing in-depth self-examination.  In reading his memoirs, did I find Nixon to be one who speculated about how early events in his life shaped the sort of person that he became?  Occasionally.  Nixon said that his father was argumentative and that his father's fights with Nixon's brothers made Nixon want peace.  Nixon also stated that his mother's low-profile religiosity----which focused on doing good rather than wearing religion on one's sleeve----made him adverse to wearing his religion on his sleeve.  But I didn't see anything about Nixon's earlier experiences in life making him an insecure perfectionist who sought control, which was the picture I got from the psychological profiles that I read.  Nixon even mentioned the incident of him falling out of a buggy at a very young age, but he did not comment about how that shaped the way that he turned out.

3.  There were a lot of interesting discussions about public policy in volume 1 of Nixon's memoirs, ranging from such topics as the Vietnam War, to welfare, to civil rights.  (And I'm still scratching my head about Nixon's discussion of civil rights, for Nixon brags about how more schools became racially desegregated under his administration, while also making the bizarre argument that Brown vs. the Board of Education had no problem with segregated schools, just so long as they were equal, which was one reason that he opposed busing while supporting more federal support for education.)  For this item, however, I'd like to highlight something that stood out to me on page 640:

"The budget I submitted in January of 1971 was set to be balanced at full employment and run a deficit to help take up the slack when unemployment was high."

Nixon appeared to be walking a fine line.  Inflation was a problem during his administration, and he attributes that (at least in part) to the heavy government spending under the LBJ Presidency, as LBJ increased government spending for both the Vietnam War and also the Great Society, running a deficit in the process.  At the same time, Nixon acknowledges that unemployment was rather high under his Presidency, and Nixon seems to be aware that austerity (clamping down on spending) is not that good on the economy when unemployment is a problem.  Nixon does not mention Keynes in the first volume of his memoirs, but he may very well have had a Keynesian notion that the government needs to spend money to stimulate the economy.

Overall, on the issue of the Great Society, it seems to me from Nixon's memoirs that he was for the government spending money to alleviate poverty, but he did not care for how welfare split up families, and he wanted for there to be work requirements or job training for poor families who (under his proposal) would receive a stipend.  He also thought that George McGovern's proposal that every family of four receive $6,500 a year went way too far!

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