Excerpt: Elizabeth Drew’s ‘Washington Journal’

Down and Out in San Clemente

When friends and acquaintances picked up Nixon’s phone calls from San Clemente shortly after he arrived there, they heard a deeply depressed man, sometimes in tears about having been brought so low, convinced that “they” would never relent: “They won’t be satisfied until they have me in jail,” Nixon said. He also fell ill from a serious recurrence of phlebitis, contracted during his Middle East trip in June, shortly before he left the presidency. A later recurrence almost killed him. Yet for all his self-pity and sense of persecution by his “enemies,” Nixon had a striking degree of self-knowledge. In a startling conversation with an aide in the early weeks of his exile, Nixon reflected on what had brought about his downfall. He said to the aide, “What starts the process are the laughs and snubs and slights that you get when you are a kid. But if you are reasonably intelligent and if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence, personal gut performance, while those who have everything are sitting on their fat butts.” He had appointed tough guys as his aides, he said, because he wanted people around him who were, like him, fighters. He went out for high school and college football, and the fact that he had no real athletic ability “was the very reason I tried and tried and tried. To get discipline for myself and to show others that here was a guy who could dish it out and take it. Mostly, I took it.”

If he was poorer and physically weaker than others his age, he triumphed by working harder than they did, and: “You get out of the alley and on your way.” But then came the danger—and the trouble: “In your own mind you have nothing to lose, so you take plenty of chances. It’s a piece of cake until you get to the top. You find that you can’t stop playing the game because it is part of you . . . So you are lean and mean and resourceful and you continue to walk on the edge of the precipices because over the years you have be- come fascinated by how close to the edge you can walk without losing your balance.”

“This time it was different,” the aide responded. “Yes,” Nixon replied quietly, “This time we had something to lose.” His political career had been marked by unlikely comebacks. Only three others had lost a presidential race and then gone on to win one, and none of them in modern politics—Jefferson, Jackson, and Cleveland. When, two years after losing the presidential election to Kennedy, Nixon lost the California gubernatorial election, it was generally assumed that he was finished, as there were no more high political offices he could run for and win. Conceding the California race, he famously told the press corps, “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.”

His memoir, oddly named Six Crises (1962), approached his autobiography from an unusual perspective: each chapter described a time when, as he saw it, he’d been confronted with a challenge so great that it was a crisis, and he’d prevailed. Nixon talked about the book frequently, urging people to read it. (When Nixon met Mao on his breakthrough trip to China, in 1972, the wily Chinese leader flattered and preempted him by telling him he’d read Six Crises—before Nixon had a chance to tout it. Each had read up on the other, and Nixon for his part recited some of the Great Leader’s philosophical thoughts.) Nixon even instructed his staff to make sure that the “plumbers”—the ragtag group, most of them veterans of the failed Bay of Pigs operation against the Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro, who conducted the famous Watergate break-in and other underhanded and illegal acts against the president’s “enemies”—read the chapter about his confrontation with Alger Hiss. As soon as Nixon was elected to the House of Representatives, in 1946, at the height of the Red Scare, he sought and won a seat on the communist-hunting Un-American Activities Committee as a forum for getting attention—and his pursuit of Hiss, a suspected spy for the Soviet Union, brought Nixon to national attention and propelled him into the Senate. Hiss, then a respected member of the Eastern establishment (which Nixon so hated), ultimately went to jail for perjury, though later evidence arose that appeared to confirm Nixon’s charges. A mere two years and some devious pre-convention maneuvers later, Nixon was on the Republican ticket as the party’s vice presidential candidate. But then, facing charges of corruption through a slush fund collected by his friends and supporters, he fought to stay on the ticket by giving the “Checkers speech”—another chapter in Six Crises.

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