Friday, August 16, 2013

Roger Morris' Richard Milhous Nixon 20

I finished Roger Morris' Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician.  In this post, I'll comment on Richard Nixon's fund, which would be controversial during the 1952 Presidential election and would lead to Nixon's famous "Checkers Speech."  I will also offer some overall thoughts about Morris' book.

1.  In my first post about Morris' book, I said that one reason that I wanted to read it was to get an alternative perspective about Richard Nixon's fund.  Essentially, Nixon had a fund from the donations of California businessmen, and there were accusations that Nixon was using some of that money for personal purposes.  Nixon, however, went on national television and argued that the fund was for political purposes, to keep the people of California informed through mail, for example.  Nixon also presented himself as not particularly wealthy, and there were many people who liked Nixon's Checkers Speech because they thought that he came across as one of them.

Did I get an alternative perspective about the fund in reading Morris?  Well, yes and no.  Like others I have read (including Nixon himself), Morris seems to agree that Nixon was not using the fund for his own personal use, even though Morris does say that the fund, by taking care of political expenses, allowed Nixon to have more of his own money at his disposal that he could use for such things as his expensive house.  I made a similar point in my post here.   But Morris still appears to deem the fund to be problematic, since it made Nixon beholden to wealthy special interests, whose desires Nixon would pursue as a Senator, in terms of what policies he would support and oppose.  Morris on page 821 gives examples: "Tyler Woodward's and William Anderson's special oil lease sought at Camp Roberts, the votes for the banking industry, the dairy issue at odds with his other stands, the crusade with Joe Crail and the developers against public housing and rent controls, Dana Smith's tax claim for Red River lumber or his gambling adventure in Havana, the constant battle for Colorado River water for the manufacturers and builders, Alpha Beta, Hollywood promotions and the Malaxa affair..."  According to Morris, the fund provided Nixon with a platform to be a spokesperson for wealthy special interests.  Morris acknowledges that Democratic Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson had his fund, too, and Morris does not give Stevenson a free pass.  Rather, Morris laments that little was done in 1952 to address the problem of campaign finance, on both sides.

Morris also does not buy into Nixon's common man persona in the Checkers Speech, for Morris points out that Nixon had two homes, and lots of money.  Nixon even made money making speeches, Morris notes.  At the same time, Morris does appear to take at face value some of the elements of the narrative about the fund that I have read in other books.  Morris says, for example, that Pat Nixon did not really want for Nixon to give the Checkers Speech because she didn't want for people to know how little the Nixons had!  This reminds me of Morris' discussion of how well-off the Nixons were when Nixon was a child and a teenager.  Morris argues that the Nixons were not as poor as Richard would later claim, that they were actually well-off in comparison with their neighbors.  And yet, Morris also quotes a lady who claimed that Richard Nixon's mother, Hannah, was discouraged by how poor her family was.  How could people who are well-off still feel poor?  Maybe it's because it's hard to make a buck stretch, unless one is unbelievably wealthy.

2.  Overall, I liked Morris' book.  It had information that I did not find in other books by and about Richard Nixon that I have read.  In how many other books, for example, can you read about Nixon's notes on the text of his Checkers Speech, notes that indicate what Nixon chose to say, and what he chose to omit?  The book is worth reading on account of its vast information, particularly when that information contradicts standard narratives that are out there and repeated.  Morris' critics have said that Morris' book is a lot of narrative, but not a whole lot of documentation.  I respectfully disagree, for Morris often appeals to the testimony of eyewitnesses.

I guess that my one complaint about the book is that it's a little one-sided.  I'm not saying that Morris' book is partisan, for Morris criticizes both Republicans and Democrats.  But Morris' book largely depicts Nixon as an ambitious politician who was a friend of special interests and who was not afraid to mow people down to achieve his goals.  I didn't see much of a human side to Nixon in my reading of Morris' book, but rather Nixon came across primarily as an ambitious political machine.  The exception would be Morris' narrative about Nixon's early life----the time from his childhood through his time in the navy.  There, I got to see Nixon's likes and dislikes, and also certain redeeming aspects to Nixon's character.  It's when Morris talks about Nixon's entrance into national politics (with his 1946 House race) that Morris becomes more one-sided (even though Morris does have some snark earlier than that, as when he points out Nixon's flaws as a lawyer and an unsuccessful businessman).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Search This Blog