Friday, November 15, 2013

President Nixon: Alone in the White House 1

I started Richard Reeves' President Nixon: Alone in the White House.  I'm finding that I am having to get used to Reeves' writing-style, but I am beginning to enjoy his book, even though I don't absorb every single detail of every single paragraph.  Reeves' book is unlike other books about Nixon that I have read.  Rather than taking a step back and narrating the broad themes and the important events of Richard Nixon's life, Reeves seems to give the impression that he is following Nixon day by day, as if he is a fly on the wall.  Granted, Reeves did not actually do that, but the book so far goes into an incredible amount of minutiae, while occasionally stepping back and commenting on larger characteristics of Nixon's approach and personality.  I'm liking it!

In many cases, when I have started a book about Nixon, the impact of the previous book that I had read lingers within me.  That's true right now.  Reeves narrates that Daniel Patrick Moynihan gave Nixon a copy of Robert Blake's book about Benjamin Disreali, who was a Prime Minister of Great Britain during the mid-nineteenth century.  Moynihan in doing so was encouraging Nixon not to thoroughly repudiate the Great Society but rather to build on it and to make it better, the same way that Disraeli, who founded the modern Conservative Party in Great Britain, "pushed forward great reforms in public health and welfare----reforms initiated by his Liberal predecessor, William Gladstone" (page 45).

I thought about Jonathan Aitken's biography of Nixon, which I had recently finished, as I was reading Reeves' narration here.  Blake's biography of Disraeli comes up a couple of times in Aitken's book.  Aitken actually opens his first chapter by mentioning it, saying that it was Nixon's favorite biography, and that Nixon marked the opening words of the book, which said that Disraeli did not have as humble of a background as many believed, and that "It is possible to overestimate the obstacles in his way and underestimate the assets he possessed."  It's ironic that this passage stood out to Nixon, since Nixon himself tended to emphasize, and perhaps even to embellish, his humble origins, whereas it was some of Nixon's negative biographers, such as Roger Morris, who would argue that Nixon's family of origin was not as poor as Nixon would let on.

Later in the book, Aitken talks about the time that Nixon actually met Blake.  This was after Nixon's resignation, and Nixon went to Great Britain and spoke at Oxford.  Blake said that he could tell that Nixon had actually read his book about Disraeli, rather than just being briefed about it.  Blake himself speculated that Nixon may have seen parallels between himself (meaning Nixon) and Disraeli: how both rose to prominence from relatively humble origins, were rather alienated, inspired animosity on their way to the top, and bounced "back after apparently permanent defeat" (Blake, quoted on page 549).

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