Saturday, May 11, 2013

Very Strange Bedfellows 4

For my blog post today on Jules Witcover's Very Strange Bedfellows: The Short and Unhappy Marriage of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, I'll comment on three passages.

1. On page 147, we read: "It wasn't so much that Nixon was down on Agnew, John Sears said later, as that he was up on Connally.  At the same time, he said, Nixon's lack of self-confidence, and his consequent self-loathing, led him to tear down others.  'If you were out of his presence and there were any way to pick you apart, he'd do it,' Sears said.  'That way he didn't feel so badly about himself.  Of all the people who hated Nixon, Nixon had the lowest opinion of himself [of] anybody.  It was always, 'Everybody's against me.''"

The part about Connally and Agnew relates to a key plot-line in this book: President Richard Nixon was seriously contemplating replacing Vice-President Spiro Agnew with Democrat John Connally----who had been a governor of Texas (actually, he was the man who sat in front of John F. Kennedy when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas) and was later appointed by Nixon to be Secretary of the Treasury.  Agnew was making a lot of blunders, as when he said in Africa that the African leaders were so much better than the African-American leaders in the United States (which Nixon agreed with, but he didn't think that Agnew should have said that).  Meanwhile, Nixon liked Connally because Connally stroked Nixon's ego (as when Connally compared Nixon to Lincoln), was tough, was better Presidential material in Nixon's eyes than Agnew, and offered what Nixon considered to be good advice (as when Connally said that Nixon needs to stop being stiff and become more passionate in public, which probably resonated with Nixon's fighting spirit).  That Nixon thought the world of Connally is evident in Monica Crowley's Nixon Off the Record, for Nixon even during the 1990's was quoting Connally in his conversations with Monica.

Nixon's insecurity comes up a few times in Witcover's book.  According to Witcover, Nixon was drawn to strong men like Agnew and Connally because of his own sense of inadequacy.  Yet, Nixon didn't like to be upstaged, and that was one of his problems with Agnew.  When Agnew in a meeting was advising Nixon to be tough on attacking Cambodia----when Nixon was advocating a more moderate policy than Agnew was----Nixon did not like for Agnew to appear tougher than Nixon before other people.  Connally was tough, and yet he also seemed to be more of a team-player.

The passage on page 147 inspired me to ask: "Can a person truly hate himself?"  Christians debate this.  Some say that Jesus' statement that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves encourages self-love, in a time when people have difficulty loving themselves.  Others counter that Jesus was taking for granted that people love themselves----that even those with self-pity or low self-confidence wish the best for themselves.  I think that Nixon loved himself in the sense that he desired his own advancement, but I also believe that Nixon was disappointed in himself, seeing himself as limited in areas.

2.  On page 144, we read: "Around this time, the Nixon White House launched new revenue-sharing proposals with the governors, as part of a government reorganization.  Agnew had been led to believe he would be importantly involved.  However, under the label 'the New American Revolution,' the vice-president found himself relegated to the job of salesman of the stump while [George] Schultz, as head of the newly reorganized Office of Management and Budget, and [John] Ehrlichman, as overseer of all domestic affairs, became the policy heavies.  Agnew felt that as a former county executive and governor, he was well-qualified to be in the middle of things rather than simply a huckster for this new 'revolution.'"

Witcover talks about Agnew's attempt to cultivate a role for himself as Vice-President.  It's a problem that many Vice-Presidents throughout history have had, including Richard Nixon when he was Dwight Eisenhower's Vice-President.  Agnew threw himself with gusto into the role of being the President of the Senate, which impressed some of the Senators there.  And Agnew also was a popular speaker, as he attacked liberal elites.  Yet, Agnew wanted more than that.  He desired more influence on policy and more administrative responsibilities.  Perhaps he thought that anyone could preside over the Senate or go across the country delivering a Pat Buchanan-written speech with passion, but that one was truly valued when his opinions on policy were accepted, or when he was entrusted with leading a project. 

Can I identify with this?  Right now, I'd be happy to have a job that makes me some money.  But suppose I already had economic security.  In that case, would I desire something more, such as respect?
On the issue of revenue-sharing, the passage on page 144 calls to my mind an earlier part of Witcover's book, which said that Agnew actually disagreed with Nixon on welfare-reform.  Agnew wanted a single national policy, whereas Nixon was for the states developing their own policy.  Could this have been one factor behind Agnew's exclusion from playing an administrative or policy-laden role in the so-called new American revolution?  I doubt it was the only factor, for Nixon does appear to have been rather clannish in how he ran the White House, trusting only an inner-circle.  But it could have been one factor.

3.  On page 169, Witcover quotes Nixon as saying: "That's the thing.  [Agnew] went to China, he's been to Korea, you know, he's been to all these places....Well, that's the danger.  A little bit of knowledge and you become an expert.  You go to Taiwan once, and 'I know about the China thing.  I know Chiang Kai-shek, I know more than they even think they know.'  But Agnew doesn't see the point there...You know, Henry, the thing about the Agnew thing that irritates me is...we handled this Chinese thing with extreme subtlety and skill and got good credit for it, and [referring to the press] now these sons of bitches will jump on the Agnew thing."

The context of this passage is Agnew's public questioning of a policy of U.S. normalization of relations with Communist China, right when Nixon was supporting this policy.  Agnew was very pro-Taiwan, and his anti-Communism led him to be a fierce critic of Communist China.  But Nixon thought that Agnew had tunnel-vision and was not sensitive to certain nuances in the situation, such as the impact that U.S. normalization with Communist China would have on the Soviet Union, which had differences with Communist China.  Again, in Nixon's eyes, Agnew was not being a very good team player.

The issue of Agnew being one of the more conservative members of the Nixon Administration comes up more than once in this book.  Agnew does not always voice his disagreements publicly, however, for he often sent memos criticizing a person or a policy within the Nixon Administration as too liberal.  Agnew was probably seen as somewhat of a pain within the Administration, and definitely as a loose-cannon when he said something inappropriate in public, even going so far as to disagree publicly with Nixon's policy.

The part about Agnew thinking that he's an expert stood out to me because it made me think about how some people think that they're experts on something, just because they've read a few books.  I am guilty of this as well!  I read a couple of books on foreign policy, and I suddenly see myself as some expert!  But I'm not an expert.  Far from it.  There is much more to read.  Heck, becoming an expert may entail not just reading, but experiencing certain people, places, and situations.  I'm not an expert on much, but I'm learning.  And even experts can learn more than they currently know, which means that we're all learning, even if some are more advanced than others.

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