Friday, November 1, 2013

Jonathan Aitken's Nixon: A Life 1

I started Jonathan Aitken's Nixon: A Life.  Jonathan Aitken was a member of Parliament in Great Britain as well as the Minister of State for Defense.  His biography of Nixon came out in 1993, and Aitken was convicted of perjury later, in 1999 (see here).  This book is considered to be rather pro-Nixon, and I one time read an online commenter who remarked that two of Nixon's greatest defenders in recent history were convicts: Conrad Black and Jonathan Aitken.  Aitken in his book, however, narrates that he was not a Nixon fan at first, but he gained admiration for the man through his interactions with him, and he was impressed by Nixon's knowledge and kindness, notwithstanding Nixon's social awkwardness and clumsy mannerisms.

I was initially reluctant to read Aitken's book because I already had enough books by or about Nixon to read.  Plus, when I read that Aitken relied heavily on interviews with Nixon, I wondered why exactly I should read Aitken's book, since I already got Nixon's perspective through Six Crises and his memoirs.  What more was there for me to learn of Nixon's own perspective?

I checked out Aitken's book, however.  One reason was that I was in the mood to do so, the same way that I was in a mood to read Conrad Black's book, even though I was initially reluctant to read Black's biography of Nixon because I already had enough to read.  Another reason is that I had read about the extent of Aitken's documentation and interviews, especially when it came to controversial times in Nixon's career, such as his 1946 congressional race.

Now that I've checked out Aitken, I am glad that I decided to read it.  Stephen Ambrose praises Aitken's book, saying that Aitken had access to documents and people that many other biographers of Nixon did not have.  I saw that in my latest reading.  More than one of the biographies about Nixon that I had read quote an essay in which Nixon as a student at Whittier College expressed his liberal religious views about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  Nixon himself in his memoirs quoted that particular essay.  But Aitken quotes more essays that Nixon wrote as a college student at Whittier, on such topics as creation and evolution, the nature of the soul, and worldwide disarmament (Nixon expressed support for it).  Nixon in some of those essays relates how he evolved in his views from his Quaker religious conservatism and biblical literalism, to a more liberal outlook.  (Aitken goes on to say, however, that Nixon remained quite religious.)  As Aitken notes, those documents are not widely available.  (Whether or not that's still the case, I don't know.)  But you can read more about them in Aitken's book!

I was thinking about some of the other books about Nixon that I read when I was reading Aitken.  Don Fulsom in Nixon's Darkest Secrets says that "Young Dick favored his mom ('My mother was a saint,' he tearfully asserted, in his farewell speech to his White House staff) while, for unknown reasons, his siblings did not" (page 69).  Fawn Brodie says that Nixon's mother would really eviscerate her children when she gave them her little lectures after they misbehaved, making them feel horrible about themselves.  Brodie and Anthony Summers both refer to someone who claimed to have seen Hannah Nixon holding a switch while her son Richard was playing the piano.  But Aitken quotes Nixon's youngest brother, Ed, saying that: "She had a temper too, but controlled.  She knew how to throttle my Dad if he was hurting one of us unintentionally...she was the great defender of hurt feelings in our family...she always looked beyond an action thinking in terms of consequences two or three moves ahead, but she often did not say much at the time because she had a proper sense of privacy" (page 14).  Apparently, Richard was not the only Nixon child who spoke highly of his mother!

Fawn Brodie paints a picture of conservative Whittier trying to keep the Mexicans outside of the town at bay, appealing to that to explain Nixon's later love for Latino people and culture.  (For Brodie, Nixon was repudiating Whittier's stuffiness.)  Aitken, however, says that there were Mexican students where Nixon went to school.

I'm not pointing these things out to say "gotcha," as if Aitken's story refutes the other stories, or vice-versa.  Rather, I believe that reality is complex, which is why it is difficult at the outset to tell a satisfying, completely accurate tale of what really happened, or what a person or situation was like.

Something that I liked about Fawn Brodie's book is that she talked some about how people who knew Nixon in his younger years reacted to the Watergate scandal years later.  Aitken offers similar anecdotes.  Aitken said that Nixon called his Whittier College mentor and coach, Chief Newman, when Nixon was feeling down in 1975.  (I didn't know Chief Newman was still alive then!)  Aitken also talked about some of Nixon's professors.  One Whittier professor was a liberal and encouraged his students to think outside of the box, and his love for reading was contagious!  He disagreed with how Nixon conducted his political campaigns, and yet he and Nixon continued to stay in touch for years.

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