Note: Recently I read a review in The Spectator by George Osborne (Tory shadow chancellor, recent convert to government regulation of financial markets, and Russian yachting partner of 'Lord' Mandleson) of Rick Perlstein's book Nixonland. Osborne was speculating whether the Beijing Olympics, and the entire modern China, would exist had not Nixon visited China? Of course coincidence is not causation; one might equally ask if the Cultural Revolution was down to Nixon, or JFK? Osborne concluded 'we don't have Nixon to kick around any more because a new generation hardly knows who he is, unless they Google him of course'. Osborne may be right; and I thought of Nixon's funeral, and how politicans, like hookers, become respectable if they hang around long enough--and then about how Reagan's funeral celebrated his reinvention from corrupt at home and dangerously out-of-control corrupt abroad into an Uncle Joe Stalin figure for an America moved far to the right. It reminded me I'd reviewed a book about Nixon a few years ago, for the TLS, but because I hadn't given it the sort of glowing notice the editor (not the editor who commissioned it) thought it deserved, the review never appeared. That actually happened to me more than once at that stealth Murdoch paper. The review eventually appeared in issue 48 of the estimable magazine Lobster. But since IT is concerned in part with crime, and since true crime is an important part of the crime genre, and since an election is just around the corner in America, now seems a good time to circulate it.
A few years ago, during one of America’s periodic re-evaluations of Richard Nixon, cartoonist Gary Trudeau showed Mike Doonesbury’s young son watching the ex-president on television. After a panel’s worth of contemplation, the boy asks ‘he’s lying now, isn’t he?‘ His parents beam with pride. ‘A new generation recoils!‘ says Doonesbury.
Perhaps David Greenberg needed to recoil just a little too. Pinning down Tricky Dick is as easy as nailing mercury to a wall; it is even more difficult to bring his image into focus if one approaches the past with assumptions borrowed from the present. In fact, it is the very distance between image and reality which proves the stumbling block for this book. Since his death, Nixon has been shifted to the political middle-ground; by shifting along with this and adopting the template of today’s neo-conservative America, Greenberg mitigates, if not accepts wholeheartedly, the decades of pervasive lies from which Nixon benefits. Concluding convincingly that Nixon did change our approach to politicians, Greenberg analyses the man with the assumption that such change must have been, by definition, positive, given that he accepts as healthy the state of America's current American malaise. The result is an unchallenged litany of the received wisdom of blandness that reflects the American media’s avoidance of substantive issues, particularly during election campaigns.
The cartoonists were always way ahead of the political pundits on Nixon anyway. Paul Conrad drew the President's gravestone, sporting the ambiguous epitaph, ’here lies Richard Nixon’. In fact, it's easy to see Nixon as America’s Dracula, rising repeatedly from his grave to suck blood from the collective polis. This would make Greenberg his Renfrew, wanting to raise him from the coffin one last time, while simultaneously criticising Bram Stoker for lack of balance as a biographer.
Is neutrality a sufficient approach to Nixon’s early political years? Can one discuss Nixon’s image while dismissing the influence of Murray Chotiner, the godfather of negative campaigning? Greenberg chooses to portray Nixon as an honest battling candidate during his red-smearing races against Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas. Presumably, since both were ‘liberals,’ they deserved whatever they got. Even the Checkers speech, for most of us the litmus paper of Nixon’s insincerity, becomes to Greenberg a public success, since he sees the 1952 Presidential election as Nixon’s triumph over ‘egghead’ Adlai Stevenson. This is a position tenable only if you somehow manage to disregard the immense popularity of Dwight Eisenhower. If ’most’ Americans really 'embraced' Nixon the man, as Greenberg claims, why would his 1972 re-election committee consciously reject using his name, instead calling themselves the Committee to Re-Elect ‘the President’? They would have avoided the subconsciously inevitable acronym CREEP.
But through deft use of the locutions of mainstream punditry, like the unsubstantiated ‘most’, or the assumptive 'embrace', Greenberg attempts to redefine history, dismissing as conspiracy paranoia a wide spectrum of analysis which to him lies well outside the mainstream and thus doesn't fit his thesis. He makes scant mention of Nixon's shady pal Bebe Rebozo, and none at all of Howard Hughes, whose bribes to Nixon handled by Rebozo may have been the ultimate explanation of Watergate. There is no discussion of the original ‘October Surprise’, Nixon and Kissinger’s deliberate sabotaging of the 1968 Paris peace talks before the election. Respected reporters like Seymour Hersh get lumped in with student radicals, as people who abused the system every bit as badly as Nixon himself. Authors like Jim Hougan are marginalized completely. It’s as if Greenberg is desperate to avoid being labelled a ‘nattering nabob of negativism’ by Spiro Agnew.
Nixon’s defining moments, the Watergate scandal, his impeachment and resignation, exist sui generis for Greenberg in a similarly conspiracy-free light. No matter how much evidence he himself provides to the contrary, he continues to cite with approval those reporters who admit to having been fooled repeatedly by Tricky Dick. They remembered his ’you won’t have Nixon to kick around’ speech after losing the 1962 California gubernatorial election, and their sympathy, if not guilt, led them to accept Nixon at face value in 1968. Even after giving Nixon another free ride in 1972, against the ‘unelectable’ McGovern, Watergate remained a non-issue until the lies became too blatant to dismiss. Right-wing pundit James Kilpatrick is quoted, but not when he opined absurdly on 60 Minutes' Point-Counterpoint segment that the Watergate tapes showed only Nixon’s refreshing sense of humour. Greenberg, who worked on Bob Woodward’s Clinton book, THE AGENDA, never even wonders about the identity or motivation of Deep Throat.
After Nixon quit the White House, he was reborn as an elder statesman, hailed for his realpolitik with the Soviet Union and China. Greenberg is more comfortable here, and traces deftly Nixon’s academic re-evaluation as a ’liberal’, the last Republican President not committed to destroying the New Deal outright. The motivations behind Nixon’s ’liberalism’ can be guessed at; he did, after all, grow up poor during the Depression, but Greenberg is dismissive of most of the ‘psycho-biographers’ who were attracted to Nixon as an early case-study. His analysis of them is cogent, but although he quotes Gary Wills a number of times, he never actually discusses Wills’ NIXON AGONISTES, by far the best of the bunch. More a literary exegesis than psychobiography, it did far better thirty years ago what Greenberg attempts to do now.
Nixon’s campaign manager and attorney general, John Mitchell, said, on his way to jail, ‘this country is going so far to the right you won’t recognise it.’ The next group of California businessmen backing a political candidate chose someone you would buy a used car from, Ronald Reagan, the ‘Teflon’ president. Greenberg says Nixon’s legacy is that Americans now ‘routinely believe all Presidents manipulate images’. But the reality goes far deeper. Nixon’s true legacy is the way ‘character’ has become the bullfighter’s cape of political analysis, used by spin doctors and media to distract the audience while they, or the candidates, get gored.
In the 2000 Presidential election, the mainstream media cast Al Gore as the Nixonian ‘liar’, while George Bush, sporting the American flag lapel pin introduced by Nixon himself as self-conscious refuge in patriotism, proved himself presidential by not stumbling a la Gerry Ford. Not surprisingly, Bush’s Chotiner, Karl Rove, was a young Nixon supporter during the Watergate era. And it’s interesting to note that Bush’s ability to generate visceral protest is positively Nixonian. Shrub’s lip-licking smirk is the most revealing ‘tell’ identifying mendacity since Tricky Dick’s phony smile, and his chimp-like visage is the greatest boon to cartoonists since Nixon’s jowls, five o’clock shadow, and ski-jump nose.
Greenberg also gives short-shrift to the rich catalogue of Nixon portrayals in fiction and film. He is particularly dismissive of Oliver Stone’s NIXON, which, for all its horror-film iconography (America‘s Dracula?), is both more sympathetic to Nixon and closer to Greenberg’s own thesis than he would like to admit. Greenberg at one point quotes Nixon exhibiting a what he calls a Freudian bent, noting that those who lie or cover up tend to over-react. That is less Freudian than Jungian, namely Marie-Louise Von Franz's theory of the Shadow, whereby we hate in others what we fear in ourselves. In a key moment of Stone’s NIXON, Anthony Hopkins talks to a portrait of John Kennedy. ‘When they look at you, they see what they want to be; when they look at me they see what they are.‘ That is the essence of Nixon’s image; it is crystal clear, what you see is what you got. The shadow is not Nixon’s but America's. And behind it is somewhere Greenberg refuses to look.
Nixon's Shadow by David Greenberg, WW Norton, 2003