I happened to think of President Nixon this evening. I’m not going to talk about him in a critical way, or judge him.
When my dad first practiced law in 1951, he had an office in Whittier on Whittier Boulevard, and Nixon had recently been elected to Congress. Everybody there knew him. Dad talked about current affairs, politics and history, and people, so I became aware of Mr. Nixon then. I don’t think Dad ever met Mr. Nixon except maybe to shake ands, and he knew Nixon’s brothers in business. Quite a few SHHS dads were prominent and even powerful Republicans, and some may have known Nixon well.
From early on, I noticed political cartoonists drew extremely unflattering, even cruel cartoons of Nixon, and I got the impression not many people really liked him much, or at all. It always seemed that way. Through no fault of his own, he was not an attractive man, and most successful politicians are.
From the beginning, however, he was an immensely skillful politician, and perhaps the greatest debater of all US Presidents. In my opinion, the other two were Bill Clinton -- seriously, he was a tremendous debater and a brilliant man, no matter what else you may think of him -- and Abraham Lincoln. Maybe I should include T.R. Roosevelt or others. But Nixon was clearly among the very best. Yet he lost his televised debates with Jack Kennedy because he didn’t understand yet how to "use" television: how to appear calm and collected, how to avoid visible perspiration, how not to appear intense, how to use humor, how to appear “medium cool". That is, that appearances mean much more than words.
As TV people and publicists learned more about TV, and as Nixon’s career went forward, he received remarkably poor advice on when and how to pose for pictures, or no advice at all. In those days, photographers were much freer to “catch” presidents and leaders unaware and snap their pictures. Security was much looser, even after JFK was assassinated. Nixon’s so-called “ski-jump” nose and his 5 o’clock shadow bought him jeers, mockery and disdain till the day he died.
Nixon was at all times competent, almost super-competent, a brilliant man, a masterful politician, an astute historian himself. He was highly articulate, although in personal situations, he could be awkward and sound stilted. He was an introvert, meaning he was most energetic and at his best with a small group of people or by himself. Most presidents are extroverts, or even extravagantly extroverted like Bush 2 who disliked being by himself, or Teddy Roosevelt, or FDR or LBJ.
Nixon had a beautiful wife, one of the most admired and gracious coeds at USC, and she remained loyal and apparently loving to him all their lives. His approach in courting her was a little unusual, and again, he did not attract her by being big, handsome, athletic, charming or those kinds of things. If Jack Kennedy was the epitome of Presidential charm and swashbuckling spirit, Nixon was the opposite.
Yet Nixon was elected president twice, and became one of the most powerful and influential leaders in modern world history. In Fullerton and nearby, he was disliked for not being conservative enough, yet he still got most of the local Republican votes, in every one of his elections.
If we are allowed one criticism of Nixon, surely it would be his extreme determination, and yes, all right, his obsession. He famously said, “Never ever, ever give up,” and he evidently never did until it was clear he’d be impeached. His determination -- his obsession -- seemed to overwhelm him, and in that way it could be argued he was a tragic figure.
We see signs in his childhood and adolescence of what kind of man he would be, with what characteristics. As a boy of 14 or 15, he began rising at about 3 or maybe 4 in the morning in Whittier to drive his father’s pickup truck to the produce markets in downtown Los Angeles, a distance of 20 miles over both paved and dirt roads, sometimes muddy, narrow highways, through occasional farms and sometimes through rain, fog or smudge pot smoke.. Did he take Slauson west into the city? Maybe. Manchester? Then he loaded the truck with vegetables, fruit and other items and returned to Whittier, where he helped his father unload and get the store ready. Only then could young Nixon go on to school, to do his homework, to read, and during the day participate in debate and football, among other things.
Could you do that?
I’ve wondered if that experience gave Nixon the conviction of the world as an extremely difficult, not necessarily fair, arduous place to be and make a living, a dark place, a dangerous place.
I’m not ignoring the decisions and actions he made that cause so many to condemn him. That’s not the subject here.
After he left the presidency, Nixon practiced law in New York City and maybe LA -- I forget. He slowly and gradually tried to rehabilitate his image and reputation somewhat, by acting as a senior observer, a foreign policy expert, somewhat of a sage, and an author. He granted interviews and spoke in a friendly, relaxed, avuncular way. It’s possible that for the first time in his life, large numbers of people liked him. We don’t know.
I am convinced that Nixon did his very best as a congressman, vice president, and president, and that he loved the United States and led us as well as he could. In many ways he was unsuccessful, and we don’t need to belabor that.
Do you forgive him? Do you hate him still, as you once may have? These are rhetorical questions, and no actual answers are necessary.
Nixon always fascinated me. I never voted for him. For one thing, he was about the only famous person from our area for a long time. I could kind of imagine his early life and knew where it took place. He even went to Fullerton Union High School for a year or two, and lived on Amerige, I believe. My parents and my uncle drove me on many of the same roads Nixon went on earlier: Imperial, through the oil fields of Pico and Rivera, through Maywood, Bell, Bell Gardens, Huntington Park, Cudahy and into Los Angeles, past all the big factories that remained until 1970 or so. I knew a little about the setting, and most of you did, too.
Would you have liked to know Nixon after he left office, to talk to him, to discuss politics and world affairs? I would have. He must have had thousands of good anecdotes and stories. He knew everybody for sixty or seventy years.
These are some of my thoughts as I approach my own sixty-ninth birthday.
If you would like to add a comment, you may send it to SPOON307B@mail.com.
July 16, 2018