Sunday, February 28, 2016

Being Nixon: A Man Divided

by Evan Thomas
Random House     2015
619 pages     Biography

When my husband and I began reading Being Nixon by Evan Thomas, he said that he wanted to understand why Nixon would allow something as "stupid" as Watergate to happen. When we finished the book this morning, he said the same thing. "I never could understand why Nixon let something so stupid to happen." I asked if he didn't learn anything about Nixon in the 3 months we had spent reading this book out loud to each other. And then he responded that he had come to see that Nixon's paranoia and lack of self-understanding had allowed an ugly and arrogant atmosphere to permeate the White House which enabled his minions to engage in dastardly acts. 

Being Nixon attempts to explain, both historically and psychologically, the life of Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States. It is a one-volume, full-life biography and tells stories and anecdotes that reveal Nixon to be an extremely complex man. The book is over 600 pages long, but there was little repetition and a never-ending supply of insight that was fascinating to two adults who lived through the entire era covered by the book. My husband and I kept our phones handy so that we could look up the time line and the incidents to refresh our memories. 

My husband reminisced about sitting behind Eisenhower and Nixon in 1956 at the Republican National Convention where he served as a junior page. He remembered the photograph that was taken of him shaking Nixon's hand at a campaign rally in 1960. (We tried to find the photograph, but it is buried in generations of memorabilia). 

Watergate is, of course, the watershed moment in the career of Richard Nixon, and Thomas attempts to show the personality characteristics that defined the man and led to this moment—from a childhood where he didn't fit to his role as an elder statesman after he left the White House. Of course, in a biography, the perspective of the author can't help but find its way into the narrative, and Thomas's self-described goal is to understand the complex makeup of the man who wanted to have "peace at the center" of his life, but more often he was "subject to episodes of venting and lashing out." Thomas tells us that Nixon was never comfortable socially and was hopelessly, helplessly awkward. 

Thomas says that what he hoped to accomplish with his biography was to understand what it was like "to actually be Nixon." Most reviewers agree that he mostly accomplishes his goal. The Chicago Tribune reviewer concludes that Being Nixon is a biography of "eloquence and breadth." I have to agree. My husband and I learned a lot about a time period in the life of our country and in our lives—things that we probably missed because we were busy creating families and molding careers.

I also actually learned some, but not enough, about being Pat Nixon, and I didn't particularly like what I saw. Thomas indicates that Pat was very supportive but very distant from her husband. I could not get over the fact that when Nixon decided to resign, he made the decision without conferring with his family, and when he told his daughters what he planned to do, he had them go and tell their mother. Her response was "But why?" Yet, Thomas tells us that Nixon was attentive to his wife, and she to him. Not sure that was the case.

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