Friday, August 2, 2013

Roger Morris' Richard Milhous Nixon 6

In my post today about Roger Morris' Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician, I'll use as my starting-point something that Morris says on page 176.  The context is Richard Nixon's time as a student at Duke Law School.

"One hot spring day in 1937 [Nixon] was working for Fuller in a small, close office, and came out angrily to demand that Ethel Farley and others playing table tennis in the nearby bar association recreation room quiet down and close their door.  Incensed, disliking him to begin with, they refused and told him to shut his own door.  He retreated sullenly.  They 'could feel his rage,' reflected one observer, but not 'his ineffable loneliness.'  It was, of course, the same Richard Nixon who tenderly lifted Fred Cady up the law school steps or dressed shiveringly in the chill dark mornings to save the stove kindling for his roommates.  He left in his wake at Duke the same shifting mixture of admiration, hostility, and puzzlement that was to be the response to his career and personality, the chemistry of his public constituency, to the end."

My latest two readings of Morris' book had good stories about Richard Nixon's empathy and kindness.  When Nixon was working in his father's grocery store and a woman was caught shoplifting, he was the one who supported showing her mercy by handling the matter secretly, rather than going to the police.  Nixon said: "You can't let them arrest her.  You know what it will do to those boys to hear that their mother is a thief.  Work it out some other way."  When Nixon was a student at Whittier College, and some Whittier students spray-painted Occidental College's school chapel before Whittier's game against Occidental, while also spray-painting Whittier's sacred rock to make it look like Occidental was retaliating, there was serious discussion about kicking those Whittier students out of school.  Their prank, after all, put Whittier "in danger of being banished altogether from the small college athletic conference, which would have crippled the sports program with its crucial community subsidies and lure to continuing enrollment on which the school's survival depended" (page 149).  Nixon acknowledged that what the students did was wrong, but he fiercely opposed Whittier kicking them out of school.  A solution was found: the guilty Whittier students "apologized and paid to have the paint at Occidental laboriously removed" (page 150).  Also at Whittier, Nixon pushed to admit African-Americans into the Orthogonians, a group that he helped found.

On pages 166-167, Morris tells stories about Nixon's empathy and kindness at Duke Law School.  A student, Otis Mollenkopf, found out that his wife had to have surgery and that he would have to leave Duke Law School.  Otis recollected that he didn't have money and friends at that time, and that one day he was sitting depressed at the school's entrance.  The students passing by ignored Otis, but one person struck up a conversation with him: Richard Nixon.  Otis told Nixon about his problems, and Nixon encouraged him that he could rise from the setback and start afresh in another area, maybe in another job.  Otis was encouraged by Nixon's words and went on to teach school and eventually become a high school principal in Cincinnati.  Nixon also helped a paralyzed student named Fred Cady by laboriously helping him up the stairs.  When Nixon and a couple of other students were on the road and saw a hitchhiker, Nixon was the one who wanted to stop for her, asking, "Here she is out there, and what's going to happen?"  When Nixon and a student were eating at a Mexican restaurant, Nixon sympathized with the Mexican waitresses "working for tips" (page 167).

Many of these stories are from the recollections of people who knew Nixon.  And, while some of what Nixon did was public, as when he helped Fred Cady up the stairs, most of these incidents occurred outside of the public eye.  I doubt that Nixon was doing all of these things to advance himself in campus politics, in short.

But Nixon had another side, as well.  He was goal-oriented.  He was impatient.  He was not much of a joiner.  He was worried about his grades and keeping his scholarship.  Still, he did manage to have compassion for others, and even to reach out to them.  We, too, may have our struggles and challenges, but we can still cultivate empathy.  I think back to times when I saw students who looked sad.  On some occasions, I may have asked them if they were okay.  Mostly, I did not, since I was shy, or I had someplace I wanted to be, or I wanted to keep my day simple rather than complicating it by listening to someone's problems.

Did Nixon's empathy and compassion last throughout his life?  Probably so.  There are disputes, however, about whether Nixon was exercising compassion in certain cases, or rather was seeking to save his own skin.  Nixon said that he had compassion during Watergate for Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and the Watergate defendants and their families.  Others argue, however, that Nixon threw Haldeman and Ehrlichman under the bus, and that he was getting money to the Watergate defendants to hush them up instead of out of a legitimate desire to help them.  But Nixon, like many of us, most likely had selfishness, but also a concern for other people.

Tomorrow, I'll address the times when Morris seems to argue that Nixon, as he became older, left behind some of his youthful idealism.

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