Excerpt: Elizabeth Drew’s ‘Washington Journal’

room and talk. Nixon didn’t know how to begin the conversation—but after an uncomfortable pause a congressman asked him to talk about foreign policy. Whereupon Nixon brightened and performed his lengthy disquisition about what was going on in the world and leaders he had known, enthrall- ing his audience. He even made a couple of prescient comments about the forthcoming presidential election.

He couldn’t remove himself from politics. Nixon wasn’t invited to the Republican conventions, but he made it his business to know what was going on, calling candidates and operatives, offering advice; he learned the names of who was running each campaign and what were the poll numbers in almost every district. Nationwide, people were astonished to hear his voice on the phone, and it apparently never occurred to him that his advice wasn’t necessarily desired. After Reagan was reelected, Nixon was so disconnected from reality that he made a run at getting a high-level position in the administration. He felt that he had earned it.

Sometimes it seems that Nixon never had a chance. He was trapped in a character that wouldn’t permit him to be content—he felt over and over that he had to prove himself, he was at war in his imagination. In Richard Nixon’s tormented mind a large array of “enemies” was out to get him—so he had to retaliate, “get the goods” on them, or even, as he put it, “destroy” them. He would never be accepted, he believed, because of his modest roots. Even after he won scholarships, his parents couldn’t afford the other costs of sending him to an elite college or law school. Certain that Ivy League graduates would always look down on him, he had to show ‘em. There could never be enough success. He was a lonely man—there was no one to challenge his assumptions, to set him straight in his confusion of political opponents with enemies. He didn’t recognize boundaries. He never learned to observe limits—anything went—and one thing led to another until he was in too deep to extricate himself.

For a man whose exposure to the world was extensive, his prejudices blinded him and led to some of his darkest moments. Count the Jews in the Department of Labor, he instructed an aide, and he had hired the kinds of people who would carry out such instructions. He simply couldn’t stop himself until he arranged his own doom. One can almost empathize with a man who was a prisoner of his own resentments, suspicions, hatreds. It’s tempting to indulge in amateur psychology in Nixon’s case, in part because his interior became so public—but that’s tricky business. Books have been written containing amateur analyses of the man, but most rely on a shaky determinism. The violent father and the mother who has been variously described as warm and cold, loving and distant, whose approval was, by most accounts, hard to win. Nixon’s childhood was marked by her long absences while she took care of two tubercular sons, both of whom died of the disease. With the poverty thrown in, Nixon’s is almost a Dickensian story. Nixon lacked the sort of support that might have saved him from himself: he had no stabilizing mentors, no lifelines to a more normal existence, no one to give him satisfaction with his talents and achievements. Yet people who have had difficult childhoods don’t necessarily end up nearly destroying constitu- tional government.

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