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.
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.
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.
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).