Saturday, August 17, 2013

Nixon Reconsidered 1

I started Joan Hoff's Nixon Reconsidered.  I first heard of this book when I was in high school.  I believe it was in 1994, when the book came out.  I had a subscription to the rather conservative Insight magazine (which someone bought for me for my birthday present), and it had an article about Nixon Reconsidered.  According to the article, Hoff's book was arguing that Nixon made significant progressive accomplishments on the domestic front.  I guess that didn't surprise me that much.  Back when I was in the sixth grade, I read Peter Hannaford's book, The Reagans, and (if I recall correctly) it discussed how Reagan was quite critical of President Nixon's proposed Family Assistance Policy (FAP).  In my mind, the fact that Nixon even proposed such a policy told me that Nixon was open to liberal ideas.  Moreover, one of my relatives had a copy of John Bircher Gary Allen's Richard Nixon: The Man Behind the Mask, and I read pieces of it when I visited his house.  At the beginning of the book, Allen quoted someone who complained that, under the Nixon Presidency, liberals get the action, whereas conservatives get the rhetoric.  I knew that Nixon wasn't exactly a conservative, in the Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater sense.

Still, the article in Insight about Hoff's book intrigued me.  I hoped to read Hoff's book someday, and, nineteen years later, that is what I am doing.  Why did Insight's description of the book intrigue me at the time?  Well, although I was aware that Nixon was open to liberal ideas, I really didn't know anything about his accomplishments in the environment and civil rights.  The notion that a Republican President would have a successful track record in making progressive accomplishments on issues of concern to liberal Democrats gave me a sense of glee.  Moreover, I was intrigued by a historian stepping forward and arguing that Nixon was essentially a good President.  My impression at the time was that not many people did that (though some praised his China policy).  My perception (limited as it was) was that Nixon was widely considered to be a crook, a liar, and a villain, and those who thought otherwise were Republicans (like the fictional Alex Keaton) who were blinded by their own partisanship.  But, with Hoff's book, here was someone who was proposing an alternative understanding, one who was arguing that we should reconsider Nixon.

As I said in my post here, I was worried that Hoff's book would be primarily a laundry list of President Nixon's domestic accomplishments, which I thought might get old and dull after a while.  But, as I look at the book's Table of Contents, I see that Hoff discusses other issues as well, such as Nixon's foreign policy, and also Watergate.  The book may be worth reading to get her take on a wide variety of issues pertaining to the Nixon Presidency.

So far, my reading of Hoff's book had not been dull.  I have had to go back and reread sentences because I was mindlessly reading, and something told me that Hoff had just said something profound and so I needed to go back and reread what I just read.  Hoff discusses such issues as Nixon being aprincipled (in her eyes), and also how the "modern industrialized state" and the media have been conducive to "the formation of the aprincipled megastate" (page 12), one that is repressive yet generous, and that justifies morally questionable activities using righteous-sounding terminology.

What particularly interested me in my latest reading, however, was Hoff's discussion of her historical methodology.  She said that she did not want to rely solely on interviews with people "about events that took place a quarter of a century ago", since one cannot always trust people who are interviewed, people who have their own agenda and who may want to rehabilitate their own reputation "by telling researchers or reporters what they want to hear" (page xiv).  Rather than just relying on interviews, Hoff also wanted to look at documents.  The reason that this interested me was that I had just finished Roger Morris' Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician.  Morris does refer to documents, but he also relies a lot on interviews, or the testimony of eyewitnesses.  I wondered if I could really trust what many of these eyewitnesses were saying, or if they had their own agenda, which either clouded their recollection or influenced them to distort the past deliberately.  At the same time, I figured that if more than one eyewitness testified to something, there was greater likelihood that what they related actually happened.  In addition, I wondered if we would have much of a history if we could not, on some level, trust the testimony of eyewitnesses.  I recently watched a YouTube video of Pat Buchanan interviewing Gore Vidal in the 1980's about Vidal's book, Lincoln.  Buchanan appeared to be taking issue with Vidal's claim that Lincoln had syphilis, and Vidal responded that he was basing this on the testimony of someone who knew Lincoln, someone who is actually one of the few sources we have about Lincoln's young adulthood.  If one dismissed this source, Vidal seemed to be implying, we don't have much left about that particular time in Lincoln's life!

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