Monday, April 22, 2013

Nixon Off the Record 1

I started Monica Crowley's Nixon Off the Record: His Candid Commentary on People and Politics.

You may have seen Monica Crowley on Fox News, MSNBC, or the McLaughlin Group.  She's a conservative pundit, yet she's an educated conservative pundit, for she has a Ph.D. in International Relations from Columbia University.  Incidentally, her sister is married to Alan Colmes, who was the liberal on the Fox News program, Hannity and Colmes.

I first heard of Monica Crowley when I was living in New York City, which was from 2002 to 2004.  I listened to her on the radio.  To be honest, as a listener, I didn't care for her that much.  She just struck me as so uncritically right-wing.  Granted, she backed away from that somewhat when it was becoming clear that Iraq was not using forbidden weapons on American invaders (or liberators, if you prefer), but, overall, her spiel seemed to me to be that Republicans are good, whereas Democrats are bad.  After John Kerry gave his speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, her reaction to it, predictably, was that Kerry did a poor job.

When I watched her on the McLaughlin Group and later Fox News, however, I was pleasantly surprised.  It wasn't because she was attractive----I already knew she was attractive when I didn't care for her----but rather it was because she appeared to have a sophisticated, three-dimensional perspective on issues and political personalities, more than seemed to be the case when I was living in New York City, listening to her on the radio.  She was still a conservative on the McLaughlin Group and Fox News, but she was more of a thoughtful conservative than she seemed to be on the radio (at least when I happened to be listening to her).

I knew when I listened to her on the radio in New York City that she had worked for former President Richard Nixon during the 1990's.  Essentially, she wrote Nixon a long letter about foreign policy, and, to her surprise, Nixon responded to her letter and invited her to chat with him, which led to a job.  On one of the episodes of her radio program, she was talking about Nixon and some of her experiences working for him.  Now, I was somewhat of a Nixon fan at the time, so I can enjoy a good anecdote about how Nixon was such a nice guy and was so often misunderstood.  But even I had a hard time stomaching that episode.  It just struck me as a one-sided whitewash, a hagiography, if you will----as if Nixon had few if any flaws.

Years later (well, last year, to be exact), I was planning to do my Year (or More) of Nixon on my blog for the year 2013, which would be the centennial of Nixon's birth.  I took a look at the Amazon reviews of Monica Crowley's books on Nixon, Nixon Off the Record and Nixon in WinterAnd, from the reviews, I concluded that her books were not a hagiography, but rather a balanced, realistic perspective on the man, a man who had his share of sensitivity, vulnerability, grudges, and thoughtfulness, not to mention a desire for people to value his opinion.  So I bought the books.  I'll be blogging through Nixon Off the Record, and, probably in a couple of months or more from now, I'll blog through Nixon in Winter.

In my reading so far, it's basically Nixon pontificating.  At first, that was interesting to me, and yet annoying.  Nixon was talking about how a good leader needs "head, heart, and guts", and he was critiquing leaders who had some of those qualities but not others.  What annoyed me was that he seemed to be upholding himself as the standard.  Part of my annoyance may be due to the fact that I just read two anti-Nixon books for my Year (or More) of Nixon, and so, with the stuff from those books in my mind, I wondered where he came off acting so high and mighty.  And yet, even before I read those anti-Nixon books, back when I was reading Nixon's 1962 book Six Crises, I found Nixon's moralizing to be rather irritating.  I enjoyed his talent as a storyteller, his acknowledgement of his flaws, and his analysis of issues, but not so much his moralistic pontifications about how to meet a crisis.  His memoirs were not as bad in terms of his moralizing, and Nixon appeared to be humbler in his memoirs on account of the mistakes in judgment that he made during the Watergate scandal.  He was still pretty defensive in his memoirs, but humbler than he was in Six Crises.  And yet, ironically, I actually enjoyed reading Six Crises more than his memoirs, perhaps because he seemed friendlier in that book, or his writing was better, or other factors.

But back to Nixon Off the Record!  I started to like the book when Nixon was sharing his opinions about certain Presidents: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush.  Of all of these Presidents, Nixon appeared to have the highest opinion of Truman, who (according to Nixon) went with his gut, and often turned out to be right.  This is ironic, since Nixon's early political career was largely based on attacking the Truman Administration, plus Truman long held a grudge against Nixon because Nixon supposedly called him a traitor.  On the other Presidents, Nixon is largely ambivalent: he still had hurt feelings from his time as Eisenhower's Vice-President; he did not respect Ford's post-Presidential activities (i.e., making money off of delivering speeches and playing golf); he didn't care for Carter and Carter's meddling in foreign policy after leaving the Presidency, yet he grudgingly respected Carter for building houses for the poor; he admired Reagan's leadership and considered Reagan to be a decent fellow, yet he believed that Reagan was naive about Gorbachev, that Reagan's domestic policies lacked compassion, and that Reagan wasn't very professional when sleeping during cabinet meetings (Nixon was careful in expressing his opinions about Reagan to Monica because her ideology was highly influenced by the Reagan Presidency); and he felt that Bush I was too nice and not tough enough.

What Nixon said about Kennedy disappointed me somewhat, since I want to like Kennedy, who often came across as someone who was funny and likable, and who did not take himself too seriously.  (It's like what Peter Griffin said about Sarah Silverman on Family Guy: he wants to like her, so he hopes she's a nice person!)  According to Nixon, both John and Bobby Kennedy were often mean and rude to the help.  My impression from things I have read and seen on TV is that Nixon tried to be courteous to the help.  In the movies Nixon and Frost vs. Nixon, his character is kind to his butler: he chats with the butler and has listened to the butler's stories.  In either Six Crises or his memoirs (I forget which), Nixon criticizes high officials in the Soviet establishment for seeing themselves as such men of the people, when they ignored the help, as if the help were mere furniture.  There may be more sides to Nixon than this: Whether or not Nixon was kind to the help, Ambrose narrates that Nixon alienated his staff due to his temper!  But Nixon's humble roots may have influenced him to try to be kind to the help.

I was somewhat intrigued by Nixon's opinions on Oliver Stone's JFK in Monica's book, not only because I love the movie, but also because Oliver Stone's Nixon seemed to imply that Nixon suspected that the Bay of Pigs fiasco unleashed forces (anti-Castro forces) that led to Kennedy's assassination.  Reportedly, even Nixon's aide, H.R. Haldeman, thought that Nixon was referring to the Kennedy assassination when he (Nixon) expressed fears that the FBI investigation into Watergate could "open up the whole Bay of Pigs thing" (see here).  But, in Monica's book, Nixon essentially says that Stone doesn't know what he's talking about in JFK, that a lone-gunman killed Kennedy, and that (contrary to Stone's thesis) Kennedy was actually escalating the war in Vietnam, not planning to withdraw.

I'll close this post by quoting something profound that Monica says on page xii:

"My four years with President Nixon were not White House years, vice presidential years, or years in Congress.  They were the last of the post-presidency years.  What Nixon had accomplished during his years in power determined how others would judge him; what he did during his final years out of power would determine how he ultimately saw himself."

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