Friday, January 31, 2014

Reflections on My Year (or More) of Nixon

Sometime in 2012, I got in the mail a book that I had ordered off of Amazon for a cheap price: Irwin Gellman’s The Contender, which was primarily about Richard Nixon’s years in Congress (both the House and the Senate).  I had seen the book years earlier at one of Columbia University’s libraries (I had library privileges there as a Jewish Theological Seminary student), and it intrigued me.  The book came across to me as a defense of Richard Nixon against detractors who claimed that Nixon ruthlessly and unfairly exploited anti-Communism to advance himself politically.  One of the book’s arguments was that Nixon was actually a level-headed voice of sanity on the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

When I received Gellman’s book in 2012, I had a thought: I knew that the centennial for Richard Nixon’s birthday was coming up—-for Nixon was born on January 9, 1913, and it would soon be January 9, 2013.  How about if I read Gellman’s book during the month of January?  But then I thought some more.  Richard Nixon had long intrigued me, for he was socially-awkward, introverted, resentful, and yet rather hard working, like me.  He had a kind side, and also there were liberals and conservatives who were claiming that he was politically progressive in areas, and that was of interest to me.  I had long noticed Stephen Ambrose’s trilogy about Nixon in libraries and I had wanted to read it, yet I did not feel that I had the time or the discipline for such a task.  But what if I were to devote an entire year, or even more, to reading about Richard Nixon?  Instead of just blogging about Gellman’s book in January 2013, perhaps I could devote all of 2013 to reading books by and about Nixon!

I had reservations.  For one, I feared that I would become bored with the topic.  Wouldn’t I be reading the same stories over and over, which would get old after a while?  Second, I feared that my blog stats would plummet because my readers would become bored with the topic, and potential readers would not read my blogs because they would see that I write primarily about Nixon.

But I decided to go ahead with the project.  On my fear of boredom, I reminded myself that I would read thirty pages of a Nixon book a day: I could handle that, even if I became bored.  On my fear of my blog stats plummeting, there was a part of me that said “So be it.”  I felt that I had to do this project for me, even if nobody else appreciated what I was doing.  If I could not blog about my own interests, then what was the point of me blogging?  But another part of me hoped that my posts on other topics would allow my stats to remain as high as they were, or to increase.

I went into the project with a list of books that I wanted to read.  Many of them, I read.  Some of them, I did not.  And there were books that I read that were not on that initial list.  My plan was to read Gellman’s book, the Ambrose trilogy, Monica Crowley’s books about her time working for Nixon, Richard Reeves’ book about Nixon, a psychological profile of Nixon that I saw at a Harvard library years before, all of the books that Nixon wrote, Theodore White’s books about the Presidential races in which Nixon ran, and others.  I read most of these.  I never got to Theodore White’s books, however, but I’ll probably read them during the next Presidential election (in 2016).  As I read Gellman’s response to Roger Morris’ book, and I noticed that I could get Morris’ book off Amazon for a cheap price, I decided to read Morris for My Year (or More) of Nixon.  I also added other books to the list in the course of the year.

I am proud of myself for sticking with this project.  I also think that most of my blog posts for it were good.  The project did not result in a drop in my blog stats.  On my blogger blog, my Nixon posts got the same amount of views that my other posts usually got.  (My hunch is, though, that the 200-plus views for one of my posts on Gary Allen’s Richard Nixon: The Man Behind the Mask was largely due to spam or robotics!)  On my WordPress blog, my stats actually increased in 2013, but that was not due to my Nixon posts: I had a lot of views of posts that I had written in the previous years, or of non-Nixon posts that I had written.  But at least My Year (or More) of Nixon did not hurt my WordPress stats!

I think that I wrote a lot of good posts about life and social skills as a result of My Year (or More) of Nixon, but many might not read them because they don’t have a catchy title.  I titled my Nixon posts in reference to whatever book I was reading (i.e., “Six Crises 3), and that does not exactly catch readers!  I thought that a number of my posts were rather antiquarian, in that they discussed historical situations that many may think are not particularly relevant today.  I can understand why those posts would not attract people, but my hunch is that some of them eventually will.  I won’t be surprised if someone who is interested in learning the nuances of the Alger Hiss case will find my blog after doing a Google search!

Interestingly, I can’t say that I became thoroughly bored in doing this project, for I did it for a year, and there was enough material in the books that engaged me enough for me to write blog posts.  There were stories that crept up in most of the books that I read, but each book had a story or a take that was unique.  Still, I have to admit that I am itching to move on to another project!  I decided to end My Year (or More) of Nixon today because there are books that I want to read for Black History Month, which is in February 2014.

What was my favorite book about Nixon?  To be honest, I think that it would be Conrad Black’s Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full.    It was far from being the best book about Nixon that I read, for there were other books that I found far more informative.  I was initially hesitant to read Black’s book because it seemed to me to rely largely on secondary sources, a number of which I had already read.  But I have pleasant memories of Black’s book, for a couple of reasons.  First of all, I loved the scene where Richard Nixon’s father was driving Richard and some of his schoolmates, and Black was talking about the improvements around them on this road-trip that were due to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.  Second, I liked Black’s analysis of issues and his suggestions of what Nixon and others should have done.  Granted, Black did come across to me as somewhat of a know-it-all in these discussions, but I still liked them.

Irwin Gellman's The Contender has a warm place in my heart because it inspired this project and was the book that introduced me to prominent aspects of Richard Nixon's life----the controversy surrounding Nixon's activity at the 1952 Republican National Convention, for example. But, as I read books after Gellman, my conclusion was that he did not say much that was particularly new, that others (I think of Jonathan Aitken) had defended Nixon better than he did, that some of his arguments were not that good, that his representations of the other side sometimes amounted to being strawmen (for example, the biographers Gellman criticizes acknowledge that Helen Gahagan Douglas lost the 1950 Senate race not only on account of Nixon’s attacks of her), and that the authors Gellman criticized themselves presented a fairly decent case.

There were books that I liked, but my liking them had little to do with what they said about Nixon.  For example, Fawn Brodie had some interesting things to say about Nixon’s lying or embellishments of the truth early on in her book, but what she had to say about Nixon got pretty boring as the book proceeded.  But I was fascinated as she told the story about the Kennedys and how Joseph Kennedy had to struggle to become accepted in the United States on account of his Irish and Catholic heritage.  Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland told many of the same stories about Nixon that I had read elsewhere, but it had a number of interesting stories about other political figures, and it, more than any other book I had read, effectively told the story of the political developments and turmoil of the 1960′s-1970′s.

Did I learn more about Nixon as a result of this project?  Well, I learned a number of facts that I did not know before, but I can’t say that my conceptualization of the man is all that different from how it was before the project.  I will say that I am more familiar now with the arguments of those who do not feel that Nixon was overly progressive, with the view that Nixon was a calculating politician rather than a principled leader.

All of that said, I am glad that I did this project, and I hope that some of you got something out of it, or will get something out of it if you stumble upon my posts in the future.

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