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Being Nixon: A Man Divided Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 16, 2015
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“A biography of eloquence and breadth . . . No single volume about Nixon’s long and interesting life could be so comprehensive.”—Chicago Tribune
“Terrifically engaging . . . a fair, insightful and highly entertaining portrait of the thirty-seventh president . . . Being Nixon should be read by anyone with a more open mind about the oddest man ever to occupy the Oval Office.”—Max Boot, The Wall Street Journal
“[A] fully rounded portrait, carefully pairing each indictment of Nixon with a mitigating perspective . . . Thomas has a fine eye for the telling quote and the funny vignette, and his style is eminently readable.”—The New York Times Book Review
“From Nixon’s hardscrabble California childhood to his post-presidential exile, Thomas proves an amiable and fair-minded tour guide. . . . The result, in Thomas’s rendering, is a man of intertwined threads, in some ways the personification of the contending passions of American life of the period.”—The Boston Globe
“How self-aware are the great men of history? That’s the fascinating question at the heart of Evan Thomas’s new book on Richard Nixon. . . . Here in one sharp and briskly written volume is what you really want to know about the great and horrible thirty-seventh President: How could someone so wise about the world be so utterly clueless about himself? . . . [Nixon] is revealed in Thomas’s hands as awkward, striving, victimized and alone—strange habits for a man who opted for such a public life, and traits that carried the seeds of his destruction.”—Time
“Ambitious . . . Thomas’s book is filled with anecdotes that humanize Nixon. There are pages suggesting real insight and, especially, how the president was seen by those around him. . . . There are well-crafted word-pictures of Nixon throughout the narrative, from his legendary awkwardness to his catastrophic frustration and vindictive rage.”—Carl Bernstein, The Washington Post
“A well-written and balanced account . . . gracefully written and highly readable . . . [Thomas’s] interest goes to the man himself, like most of us a man of contradictions, a man with a dark and light side, with the dark side often leading to disastrous decisions, encouraged by his increasingly tight circle of self-serving advisers.”—The Washington Times
“[Nixon’s] oddity, more than any policy choices or impeachable crimes, is the subject of this book, which is marked by unexpected and startling empathy. . . . One feels for Nixon.”—The New Yorker
“[A] glossy, armchair-ready biography . . . [a] book in tune with our time. It’s a trick of fate that Nixon, a sitting president who experienced a version of supersize public shaming, might have appreciated for its futuristic appeal. Instead of being passively read, Being Nixon invites argument.”—The New York Times
“What was it really like to be Richard Nixon? Evan Thomas tackles this fascinating question by peeling back the layers of a man driven by a poignant mix of optimism and fear. The result is both insightful history and an astonishingly compelling psychological portrait of an anxious introvert who struggled to be a transformative statesman.”—Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs
“An infamous, polarizing, and enigmatic political figure—President Richard Nixon—comes to life in a surprising and engaging look at a man capable of great bravery and extraordinary deviousness.”—Publishers Weekly
“As Thomas’s biographical—and sometimes psychobiographical—study builds, it becomes ever more unlikely that Nixon, a loner in the constituency-pleasing game of politics, could ever have succeeded. . . . This is one of the better books on Nixon in the recent crop.”—Kirkus Reviews
“The great Evan Thomas has brought us a measured, concise, and important American biography. Now that the shouting and tumult have faded and Richard Nixon moves from our contemporary politics toward history, Thomas offers wise insights, based on many new sources, achieving what might have seemed impossible: He has rendered a new Nixon who, in vital and unexpected ways, is very different from the character about whom, for the past seventy years, so much has been said and written.”—Michael Beschloss, author of Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789–1989
“Richard Nixon is one of the most complex and fascinating characters in American history. In this poignant, revealing, and compellingly readable book, Evan Thomas makes him human.”—Jay Winik, author of April 1865 and The Great Upheaval
“In the sprawling literature surrounding the only American president to resign from office, Being Nixon stands apart. For while many have praised or damned Richard Nixon from afar, poked and prodded at his psyche and tapes, struggled to understand the mysterious sources of his enduring communion with the American spirit, Evan Thomas is the first writer daring enough to aspire to be Nixon. The result is a supremely rewarding portrait, refined yet readable, unsparing and generous, rich in history with fresh research and evidence: a ‘new Nixon’ for the twenty-first century, innovative and invaluable.”—James Rosen, Fox News chief Washington correspondent and author of The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate
About the Author
Evan Thomas is the author of nine books: The Wise Men (with Walter Isaacson), The Man to See, The Very Best Men, Robert Kennedy, John Paul Jones, Sea of Thunder, The War Lovers, Ike’s Bluff, and Being Nixon. John Paul Jones and Sea of Thunder were New York Times bestsellers. Thomas was a writer, correspondent, and editor for thirty-three years at Time and Newsweek, including ten years (1986–96) as Washington bureau chief at Newsweek, where, at the time of his retirement in 2010, he was editor at large. He wrote more than one hundred cover stories and in 1999 won a National Magazine Award. He wrote Newsweek’s fifty-thousand-word election specials in 1996, 2000, 2004 (winner of a National Magazine Award), and 2008. He has appeared on many TV and radio talk shows, including Meet the Press and The Colbert Report, and has been a guest on PBS’s Charlie Rose more than forty times. The author of dozens of book reviews for The New York Times and The Washington Post, Thomas has taught writing and journalism at Harvard and Princeton, where, from 2007 to 2014, he was Ferris Professor of Journalism.
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A reading of Nixon’s life is important not just for understanding the kind of people who can be catapulted to the heights of political power but as a roadmap to understanding those who are seeking political power right now. It also teaches us how our perception of someone as maligned even as Nixon can change over time. “Being Nixon”, Evan Thomas’s balanced and nuanced biography of the 37th president provides a good guide for answering these questions, although it still doesn’t provide definitive conclusions.
Thomas’s account is a comprehensive one, tracking Nixon from his childhood days as a working class kid growing up in a hardscrabble town called Whittier in California, through his rise through Congress and the Presidency to his ultimate fall from power through the Watergate scandal. Thomas amply demonstrates Nixon’s well known negative attributes: his constant resentment and paranoia of Ivy League-educated East Coast liberals, his obsessive, depressive personality that constantly had him staying awake in the middle of the night and scribbling notes on his yellow pad, his almost infinite capacity for self-delusion, his profanity-laden diatribes and outbursts which left his subordinates wondering about his sanity, his touching yet formal relationship with his high school sweetheart Pat, his tendency to surround himself with scheming, crooked men and his burning desire for power.
In spite of what we today think of all these qualities, there is a shred of truth to many of them. For instance, while he grossly overestimated both its magnitude and its details, Nixon was in fact largely loathed by East Coast liberals, and it was ultimately East Coast liberals who got him. And yet it’s a measure of the contradictions in the man that he often bucked his own attributes. He was often tender-hearted toward trusted colleagues and ordinary people, he showed incredible determination to succeed in spite of his intrinsically dark disposition, and he surrounded himself with the same Harvard-educated men whom he despised; the Machiavellian and diabolical Henry Kissinger being the most infamous one. Thomas demonstrates well these contradictions in Nixon’s personality, ones which prevent us from looking at him in black and white terms. Most importantly, in spite of being an avowed conservative right from his teenage years, Nixon engineered policies that would be considered alarmingly liberal in today’s day and age: he created the EPA and passed the Endangered Species Act, he opened up China to the US – a move whose repercussions are rocking the world today – and he softened up relations between the US and the Soviet Union in the form of détente.
In spite of some of these redeeming features, it’s frankly hard to see how a man like him ever got elected President. He was wooden, withdrawn and clumsy with people, having none of the flair, way with words or charisma that marked several of his predecessors. Pettiness and vindictive outbursts marked his presidency, although he also had a marked tendency to avoid personal confrontations. But the fact that these qualities still brought him to the heights of power say much about both his sheer determination to succeed and the political conditions which surrounded him. Foremost among the ingredients in his success was a tenacious capacity to bounce back and keep on going; this capacity was demonstrated both after his loss to Kennedy in the 1960 election and his loss during the 1962 California gubernatorial election. Nixon refused to give up both times and was convinced he could stage a comeback. However conditions around him clearly helped a great deal. In 1968 the country was thoroughly disillusioned and almost broken apart by Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam and was ready for a fresh face. And in 1972, Nixon’s Democratic opponents simply could not put up a fight and nominated the weak and ineffective George McGovern to run against him, handing Nixon one of the greatest landslides in Presidential history (that’s a good lesson for today’s politicians – sometimes a bad president gets elected simply because there’s nobody good on the other side).
This great run of good luck should have allowed Nixon to accomplish much, and as noted before, his bold strokes in opening up China and his environmental legislation were some of the most important positive presidential policies of the century. And yet the manic and obsessive Nixon could not let go of Vietnam. He intensified the war in Cambodia, dropping more bombs on that tiny rural country than all the non-atomic tonnage dropped during the World War 2. He bombed dams and harbors in Vietnam. He issued a presidential pardon for William Calley who led the horrendous My Lai massacre. He could be extremely moody and temperamental, and his staff gradually learned to ignore his more outrageous demands. One thing that I think is missing from Thomas’s account is the enormous human suffering that Nixon and Kissinger caused in Southeast Asia; it would not be unreasonable to view both men as war criminals in this light. Yet there were bizarre but touching moments, such as the time when Nixon suddenly decided to take his Latin-American valet to the Lincoln Memorial in the middle of the night. Surrounded by puzzled and angry war protestors, Nixon stood his ground.
And then there was Watergate. Thomas’s account of Nixon’s downfall is brisk and touches all the major episodes of that sordid story. There is no evidence indicating that Nixon directly ordered the infamous and botched up bugging of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel complex that unraveled his career. But there is also no doubt that he created a toxic environment encouraging highly unethical behavior which his subordinates reveled in and interpreted to suit their own unseemly ends. Even before Watergate he tacitly endorsed spying on his opponents. To be fair to him, almost every president before him had engaged in similar subterfuge, but Nixon’s blatant violation of ethical norms reached new lows. The most infamous of his officials – his chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, his counsel John Dean and the supervisors of the actual burgling, E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy – played fast and loose with Nixon’s equivocation, interpreting his silence and “don’t ask don’t tell” permissiveness to carry out their deeds. As he vividly later quipped, he “gave them a sword, and they stuck it in, and twisted it with relish”. Thomas’s account makes it clear that Nixon had multiple occasions to put a stop to all the illegal activity being carried out – most notably in a conversation with his counsel John Dean on March 21, 1973 in which Dean made it clear that Watergate posed a potentially fatal shot to his presidency - and yet multiple times he instead advocated buying off potential defectors or investigators through secret funds and covering up the crime.
Was Nixon the scheming, brilliantly diabolical crook that everyone takes him for granted today? Thomas’s answer is a studied no. Based on the evidence from the infamous Nixon Tapes as well as Nixon’s background, he thinks that Nixon’s capacity for self-deception was so large and he was so clueless about the actual details that he actually had little idea what he was getting into and what the ramifications of his actions would be. He was far from an innocent bystander, but neither was he the master manipulator and conductor of the orchestra which everyone thinks him to be. It’s worth noting in this regard that many of his subordinates often took matters into their own hands; Kissinger exercised so much influence over the state department and national security apparatus that Nixon came close several times to thinking that Kissinger was running his own foreign policy without the president’s intervention. Nixon’s frequent outbursts also made it hard to take him seriously, so people like Haldeman and Hunt also had no problems running their own covert operations. Nevertheless, his actions were undoubtedly crooked, unethical and deeply un-Presidential. His impending impeachment would have been justified.
Watergate put an appropriate and yet tragic end to Richard Nixon’s life, since without it he would have been regarded at least as an average president during his lifetime, and probably a pretty good one in posterity. In fact even with Watergate, today’s crop of Tea Party Republicans make him look like a flaming liberal. His espousal of a conciliatory foreign policy, his willingness to bridge the gap with his opponents, his environmental legislation and his unwillingness to pander to the extremists in his party all make him stand apart from today’s rabid rhetoric of division and partisan hectoring. Whatever the judgment of history may be on Richard Nixon right now, my suspicion is that in the final analysis, while we may still call him a crook, we might also end up calling him a man who genuinely wanted good things for his country.
On the other hand, Nixon was an outrageously abrasive personality who inflamed animosities in the press and in Congress when he could easily have soothed them. So, a fair portion of the animosity was his own doing.
Author Evan Thomas makes plain that Nixon set the table for his Watergate downfall both by callous stupidity and malignant contempt for those he perceived were persecuting him in the press, academia, and Congress. But Thomas gets beyond the war between Nixon and his enemies that climaxed in Watergate. He fairly portrays Nixon the Statesman who very possibly saved the world from a three-way nuclear confrontation between the USA, USSR, and China.
He shows the Nixon who saved Israel from destruction when it was on the knife-edge of defeat in the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. He shows the Nixon who was cheered by six million Egyptians a few months later for "brokering an honest peace” between Israel and Egypt. The world today, which competes economically instead of militarily, is largely the world that Nixon envisioned in his inaugural speech of 1969. His grandeur as a peacemaker is brought to life.
I’ve studied Nixon for much of my life. My father campaigned for him in 1960, so I grew up in a family friendly towards him. I’ve read every book he has written, plus the books by his detractors. I came of age during his term. One of the first televised news stories I remember was his announcement of his presidential campaign in 1968. I lived through the trauma of Vietnam and the domestic riots, and the escalating investigation of Watergate. This book portrays Nixon’s most important years as president exactly the way I remember them --- with objectivity neither apologizing or denigrating Nixon or his opponents.
The book succeeds in making the reader “a fly on the wall” who lives every day of Nixon’s life, from his birth to his death. It is packed with both meaningful history and interesting gossip about the power struggle shenanigans between Nixon and his staff. Many of Nixon's staffers --- Kissinger Haldeman, Erlichman, Mitchell, and Rosemary Woods --- were almost as fascinating as Nixon himself. I would normally take only about 48 hours to read a book like this, but I savored it so much that I stretched out the reading to three weeks.
The book is thunderous in what it DOESN’T say. Author Evan Thomas doesn’t have any axes to grind for Nixon or against him. He lets the facts of Nixon’s life speak for themselves. His objective focus on the man’s psychology as well as his deeds and misdeeds makes this book a unique work, more than 40 years after Nixon’s resignation. It is essential reading for those who want to understand who Nixon was a person as well as a president.