What do you think of when you think of Richard Nixon? Watergate, Vietnam, the televised debates with John .F. Kennedy? or perhaps you imagine the sweating, nervous, paranoiac portrayed by Antony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s biopic Nixon? Images that emphasise his failures, that suggest a man unfit to be President, a villain and one thus out of step with the American public.
At Nixon’s funeral, in 1994 Senator Bob Dole described him in very different terms, suggesting that the second half of the twentieth century would become known as “the age of Nixon”. “To tens of millions of his countrymen, Richard Nixon was an American hero”, Dole continued. Hero or villain, the 37th President of the United States seems to have always been a polarising figure in American politics, viewed depending upon your standpoint – or party allegiance.
In Carl Freedman’s brilliant book The Age of Nixon – a study in cultural power a different argument emerges – one that suggests that regardless of whether Nixon was a hero or villain, he had a profound if unlikely relationship with the American public, and that the cultural significance of Nixon’s career is a key tool to studying American society and political power in the late twentieth century . It’s an innovative book, applying Marxist, psychoanalytic, and other theoretical tools to the study of American electoral politics, and while it focusses on Nixon’s biography it seems as much a book on contemporary American society, race, the so-called culture wars and much more.
Professor Freedman kindly agreed to the following email interview.
Freedman: I would like to dedicate my portion of this interview to the memory of my father, who passed away at the age of 91 while the interview was being prepared, and who was the first person to teach me about Nixon, American politics in general, and much else
Nixon so perfectly condensed in his personality so many of the fundamental components of our national culture that he remains a one-man exemplar of much in our national identity
TMO: How relevant do you think Nixon’s career, and presidency in particular, is today? Or, to put it another way, imagine that one could have read your book during the Clinton, Bush or Obama presidencies — which context would provide more resonance?
Freedman: I think that Nixon’s career remains of enormous relevance today, and in at least two different ways. Perhaps I can explain by discussing the two meanings of the phrase, “The Age of Nixon,” which forms the title of my book.
In a perfectly straightforward, political sense, the age of Nixon refers to the years of his active political career–from 1946, when he was first elected to Congress, to 1974, when he was forced to resign the presidency in disgrace. Nixon was the single most influential American politician of those years, during which he reconfigured American politics for many years to come. He did so mainly by shattering the old New Deal Democratic coalition built by Franklin Roosevelt that had dominated our politics since the 1930s, and by building a new Republican coalition based largely on white racism–especially but not only in the South. In this way, Nixon made the Republican presidencies of Reagan and the Bushes possible. He also helped to make sure that even a Democrat like Bill Clinton was forced to govern as (in Clinton’s own words) an “Eisenhower Republican.” Of course, Nixon did not do these things all by himself; but he was more instrumental than any other particular individual.
Now, it may be that Obama is, finally, dismantling the Nixon coalition and building a new, Democratic one–in effect, doing to Nixon what Nixon did to Roosevelt. But this is not certain, and, even if it is what’s happening, there is still much left to be done. So Nixon is still very much with us, in the most direct political way.
But “the age of Nixon” also has a larger cultural meaning, and in this sense every age in America is, as I say in the book, the age of Nixon. What I mean is that Nixon so perfectly condensed in his personality so many of the fundamental components of our national culture that he remains a one-man exemplar of much in our national identity. Some of these components, as I discuss in the book, are racism, liberalism, petty-bourgeois resentment, and even what Freud described as the anal-erotic character. So, even if Obama does replace Nixon’s political handiwork with his own new political coalition, Nixon will still be with us in this big cultural sense.
TMO: Let’s talk a little about Nixon’s use of racism, which is a central theme in the book. Do you think Nixon was at heart a racist, or more an opportunist exploiting a cultural bedrock for political purposes? Does it make a difference?
Freedman: Politically, it doesn’t make much of a difference. But it’s an interesting question on the cultural and psychological levels. Nixon actually came from a pretty anti-racist background. Slavery and segregation were considered great moral abominations by the Quaker culture in which he was raised. When Nixon attended the Duke Law School in Durham, North Carolina, his Southern classmates were shocked to hear that he had eaten meals at the same table with blacks. In the 1950s, as vice-president, he worked with Martin Luther King, Jr., on civil-rights legislation. So yes, it does look rather opportunistic that Nixon, in the 1960s, did so much to reshape the Republican Party as the party of white racism (and remember: up until this point, the most ardently racist whites had generally been Democrats).
But the matter is more complex than that too. The form of bigotry that really possessed Nixon’s soul–and the White House tapes and the Haldeman diaries make this absolutely clear–was anti-Semitism. He was utterly obsessed with hatred and fear of Jews and Jewish betrayal–although he was the (quite common) kind of anti-Semite who could also say, with a weird sincerity, that some of his best friends were Jews. Now, Nixon seldom showed his anti-Semitism in public, and why should he have? In contrast to anti-black racism, there was little political advantage in anti-Semitism in the US during the period of Nixon’s career. But what I argue in the book is that Nixon’s entirely genuine anti-Semitism may have given him a kind of “training” in bigotry that allowed him to slip almost effortlessly into the racism that he had generally avoided.
TMO: Two major shifts in American Culture developed during Nixon’s political career – the civil rights movement which you discuss in detail, but also the women’s rights movement; what, if anything, can we learn about the age of Nixon viewing it through a feminist lens?
Freedman: Well, before answering your actual question, I should say that the movement against the Vietnam War was also a major cultural event of the period. True, it may not seem so directly cultural as the civil-rights or feminist movements; but the phenomenon of millions of Americans rising up against American military and foreign policy had a major cultural impact–and on nobody more than on Nixon, who was quite horrified and driven to all sorts of paranoid responses. Most Nixon scholars believe, correctly I think, that there would have been no Watergate if not for the Vietnam War and the movement against it.
As to Nixon and feminism, there was little direct, political overlap. There just wasn’t that much open discussion of women’s issues in US electoral politics during Nixon’s career. It’s worth noting, though, that in 1972 the Nixon forces attacked George McGovern for supposedly supporting the “three As,” which were amnesty (for draft resisters), acid (i.e., LSD), and abortion–thus trying to tie McGovern to the women’s movement as well as to the anti-draft movement and the drug culture.
I confess that, in my book, I don’t do much analysis of Nixon from a feminist or gender-studies point of view–and I’m not aware that anyone else has, either. But there is surely some interesting work to be done. Nixon was always shy, studious, unathletic, and rather lacking in self-confidence. Unsurprisingly, he had a strong attraction to the brash, macho types that he could never emulate–men like John Connally, the former Texas governor whom he named Treasury secretary and who he wanted to succeed him as president; or General Patton as portrayed by George C. Scott in Franklin Shaffner’s film, which Nixon watched repeatedly shortly before launching the invasion of Cambodia. I doubt that any feminist scholar would be surprised that the boy who desperately wanted to be a football star–but who could never make the team as anything other than a bench-warmer and a tackling dummy–grew up to drop more bombs than any other president in history.
TMO: What do you think of the thesis that Nixon was unfairly vilified more because of his personality than because of his actions? For example, the argument goes that plenty of Presidents before him and after engaged in dirty tricks like phone-tapping, but Nixon arguably less photogenic and charismatic bore the brunt of moral outrage. Or approaching things from the opposite viewpoint, do you think in the end he was unfairly rehabilitated, with various Presidents paying tribute to him despite Watergate and the illegal bombing of Laos and Cambodia?
Freedman: You’ve asked two good questions. I’ll begin to answer the first one by telling a story about Dick Tuck. Tuck was a Democratic Party operative who worked largely for the Kennedys and was most famous for some practical jokes he played on Nixon. For instance, once during the 1960 campaign, Tuck donned a signalman’s hat and waved a train out of the station just as Nixon, standing on the train’s rear platform, was beginning a speech. In 1968, Tuck hired a group of very obviously pregnant women to march outside the Republican Convention in Miami, carrying signs emblazoned with Nixon’s chief slogan of the year—“Nixon’s the one!” Nixon was somewhat obsessed with Tuck, and one of the origins of the Watergate crimes was Nixon’s insistence, in 1972, that his campaign should have, as he put it, its own Dick Tuck.
Well, during the Senate Watergate hearings in the summer of 1973, as the Nixon Administration was beginning to fall apart, Tuck happened to run into H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s former chief of staff. Tuck greeted Haldeman with a friendly, “Hi, Bob,” and Haldeman, who by this time knew that he was probably facing prison time, growled back, “You’re the son-of-a-bitch who started this whole thing.” Tuck replied, “Sure, Bob–but then you guys drove it to a ridiculous extreme.”
I think Tuck had it about right. Nobody gets to the White House by being a Goody Two-Shoes, and Nixon was far from the first president who didn’t quite play by the Marquess of Queensberry rules. But he and his people really did drive things to a ridiculous extreme. Forging a diplomatic cable in order to implicate a dead president (Kennedy) in an act of state murder? Burglarizing the headquarters of the opposition party in the middle of a presidential campaign? Stealing the psychiatric records of a political opponent (Daniel Ellsberg)? Such things were not politics as usual but truly Nixonian innovations. During Watergate, the most frequent slogan heard from Nixon’s last-ditch defenders was, “Everybody does it.” But nobody did it the way Nixon did.
As to your other question, about the rehabilitation–you know, I’ve never been quite convinced that it actually happened. I know people talk about it, but where, exactly, is the evidence for it? I suppose the mainstream media did, over time, refer to Nixon less as “the disgraced former president,” and more just as a former president. But he was never really invited back into American public life. Never, for instance, was he allowed to address a Republican Convention–although this is a courtesy that both parties extend pretty routinely to their ex-presidents. Republican presidents didn’t consult Nixon on foreign policy, about which he possessed a vast store of knowledge; or, if they did, they did so very, very quietly. The president who paid the most open respect to Nixon was Bill Clinton, who presumably felt that, as a Democrat, he was immune to the taint of guilt by association with Nixon. (By the way, it’s interesting to note that, as a young staffer just out of law school, Hillary Clinton worked for the House Judiciary Committee that drew up and recommended the articles of impeachment against Nixon.) True enough, all the living ex-presidents and the incumbent president–Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton–paid their respects at Nixon’s funeral in 1994; but, of course, that was after he was safely dead.
TMO: That’s an interesting point about Clinton. Let’s imagine for a moment, if it’s possible, that a young Richard Nixon was just starting out his political career now – would he be more likely to join the Republicans or Democrats?
Freedman: You say, “if it’s possible,” and of course in the strictest sense it isn’t. A Richard Nixon who was young today would not have been born in 1913, would not have come of age during the Great Depression, would not have served in World War II, and would not have entered politics during the great anti-Communist fear of the 1940s. All of which is to say that he would not be Richard Nixon.