N E W Y O R K, Aug. 29, 2000 -- A new biography of Richard M. Nixon, which describes the nation’s 37th president as a user of mood-altering drugs who once beat his wife, is being characterized as fiction by Nixon backers.
“It is not history,” said John Taylor, executive director of the Nixon Library and Birthplace Foundation in Yorba Linda, Calif. “The book is an act of politics.”
The biography sparked debate about the inner workings of the man who left the White House in disgrace in 1974, and died in 1994, his legacy still largely unsettled.
Irish journalist Anthony Summers, the author of Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon, stood by his reporting in a chat with ABCNEWS.com. Summers noted that Taylor “flatly refused” to be interviewed.
The more salacious details in Summers’ book include allegations the former president hit his wife, Pat, was treated by a New York psychotherapist for depression after making the controversial decision to bomb Cambodia in 1970, and took Dilantin to treat his mood swings.
Taylor said the book’s publisher, Viking Press, “should be ashamed” to publish such allegations of abuse. “Richard Nixon never in over 50 years of marriage ever lifted a hand to his wife,” Taylor said. Through a spokesman, President Nixon’s daughter, Julie Eisenhower, called the charge “inconceivable.”
Taylor also said that while Jack Dreyfus, a longtime Nixon friend and a strong proponent of taking the drug Dilantin, gave Nixon the medication, but the president promptly “threw the pills away.”
Up for Debate
The new biography suggests that Nixon suffered from mental illness throughout his presidency and that it may have hurt his ability to make clear decisions.
The allegations in Arrogance of Power are based in part on revealing interviews with Nixon’s former psychotherapist, Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker, who counseled Nixon for decades and considered the president to be “neurotic.”
“Everyone has their share of neuroses, but there is indeed significant evidence in the presidency, well before Watergate, that Nixon on occasion behaved in a way that to ordinary people was simply not normal,” Summers told ABCNEWS.com. Summers is the author of other controversial biographies of J. Edgar Hoover, Marilyn Monroe and President John F. Kennedy.
In Arrogance of Power, Summers wrote that Nixon ordered bombing raids to impress his friends — which then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger put a stop to — and met with protesting students at the Lincoln Memorial in the middle of the night to talk to them not of war, but of football.
Concern for Nixon’s mental state was so great, Summers writes, that Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger ordered the military not to react to orders from the White House unless they were cleared by him or the secretary of state.
Drugs and Therapy
According to Summers’s account, Nixon started taking Dilantin after Dreyfus gave him the drug soon after the 1968 election. The drug is used principally for the treatment of epilepsy, but Dreyfus, who is not a doctor, advocated the use of the drug for mood disorders such as depression.
Nixon apparently told Dreyfus he wanted “some of that,” and Dreyfus agreed to give the drug to his friend without a prescription, Summers writes. One of the side effects of the drug is that it can cause “severe mental confusion.”
“Obviously the opposite of what one would want in the president of the United States,” Summers told ABCNEWS.com.
Taylor said there is no evidence Nixon took the drug. “He was very cautious about his medication,” said Taylor. “He was very careful about going to traditional internists and doctors and he always did what his doctors said. He never would have given himself pills in the White House without a doctor’s prescription.”
Frank Gannon, a historian and writer who worked for Nixon and interviewed him extensively, agrees that it is unlikely that Nixon took the drug. Gannon called the charges “an insult to my intelligence.”
Yet John Dean, former White House counsel in the Nixon administration, said he knew that Nixon was taking some kind of medication because the late president would take it in front of him, often struggling to open the pill bottles.
At times, he said, the president had “slurred speech,” one of the side effects of Dilantin, but Dean says he never knew exactly what drug Nixon was consuming. “The story seems very strong,” Dean told ABCNEWS of Summers’ biography.
Raises Questions, Short on Answers
Historians argued that the Summers’ book raises more questions than it gives answers, and is lacking substantial evidence to back up his insinuations. But some say it is important to continue to examine Nixon’s legacy.
“It raises more questions about Nixon’s mental stability,” said Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian. “If people write about or think about Nixon in the future, these are the questions they are going to have to ask about him. But [the book], by no means, answers those questions.”
Critics contend the biography does not base its revelations on factual evidence, and often resorts to secondhand accounts.
“It might be true or it may not be true,” Beschloss said. “It points us in an interesting direction, but [Summers] certainly doesn’t have the goods.”
For instance, in making the allegation that Nixon beat his wife after losing the California gubernatorial race in 1962, Summers quotes John P. Sears, a former Nixon aide, who says that he heard the allegations from a Nixon family lawyer, Waller Taylor, and former Nixon associate, Pat Hillings. Both Taylor and Hillings are dead.
Taylor (of the Nixon Library) said he believes both men, whom he considers in a “third or fourth ring of intimacy” from the president, simply heard rumors and repeated them to Sears.
“There seems to be a yawning silence from people who were close to Richard Nixon, most of whom never would have spoken to him if the allegations were true,” Taylor said.
Dean said he was “quite surprised” to read of the allegations that Nixon hit his wife. “Everyone in the Nixon White House knew they had a chilly marriage,” Dean said. “I didn’t think it was that kind of marriage.”
A Complex Man Gannon said that in many ways President Nixon was a very public man, and that it would have been impossible to hide such abuses. He did, however, say that there is still much to learn about the controversial president.
“We are so far from understanding what he was like,” Gannon said. “We are still dealing with the cumulative baggage of controversy, politics and personality that he accrued at each stage of his career.”
“He was a very complex man — emotionally, intellectually and spiritually,” Gannon said. “Did he have mood swings? Sure, who doesn’t? Did he have some things in certain times in his life to be depressed about? Yes, but being depressed, being glum or being blue is the body’s natural way of dealing with difficult times. He was a normal person to that extent.”