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A lonely outsider, filled with resentment. This is not the picture one necessarily associates with a future president. But this is the portrait we get of the young Richard Nixon in author Evan Thomas’s new book. Thomas sets out to get inside the president’s mind, starting from Nixon’s childhood. What he finds is more complex than the malevolent, cartoon image of “Tricky Dick” he says many of us have. We meet a man who tried and failed dramatically to overcome his many dark demons…and one whose story could be instructive to leaders and presidential candidates today. We go inside the troubled mind of Richard Nixon.
- Evan Thomas Journalist, author and professor; author of "Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World" and "Robert Kennedy: His Life"
Read A Featured Excerpt
Excerpted from “Being Nixon” by Evan Thomas. Copyright 2015. Reprinted with permission from Random House. All Rights Reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. We're not short on books about Richard Nixon, his failed presidency, his flawed character. But author Evan Thomas is more interested in how Nixon came to be the way he was, a man of many contradiction whose bitterness and fear lead to his downfall. Presidential candidates today, Thomas says, could learn something from this new look at the 37th president. He tells us why in his new book titled "Being Nixon: A Man Divided."
MS. DIANE REHMEvan Thomas joins me in the studio and throughout the hour, we'll welcome your comments and questions. Do joins us on 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Evan Thomas, it's good to see you.
MR. EVAN THOMASGreat to be back, Diane.
REHMEvan, getting inside the mind of anyone, pretty tough to do. How did you begin to set about doing that?
THOMASIt is tough and you have to be humble about it. And Nixon left an incredible trail, 4,000 hours of tapes, 1,000 page memoir, his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, not only kept these incredible diaries, but sat there in his office writing down Nixon's every utterance. So you can sit there in the Nixon library and read sort of real time stream of consciousness. There are, in his home town of Whittier, literally hundreds of oral histories from his childhood so you can get a pretty good glimpse of that.
THOMASThere are any number of memoirs, diaries. Presidents leave an incredible paper trail and so, you know, can you truly get inside somebody's mind, no. And even the best psychiatrist can't do that and I don't pretend to do that. But you can get pretty close with Nixon. You can.
REHMAnd you're exactly the sort of person that Nixon hated.
THOMASI am. I worked for "The Washington Post" company for 24 years. I'm a member of, I guess, what you'll call the East Coast media establishment. I even went to Harvard. Nixon hated -- he was always saying, those Harvard -- no more Harvard -- no more of those Harvard guys. Get rid of them.
REHMAnd he hired them.
THOMASYeah. Well, that's the thing I love about Nixon. He's a mass of contradictions. His two top aides were Harvard professors, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Henry Kissinger. He was always denouncing Harvard and then he promptly hired a whole lot of Harvard people in his cabinet. He hired more Harvard people than all the Harvard presidents hired Harvard people.
REHMBut now, even before that, Nixon thought he was finished with his political career. Let's hear him and hear what's in his voice.
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXONI leave you now and you will now write it, you will interpret it. That's your right. But as I leave you, I want you to know, just think how much you're going to be missing. You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.
REHMWhen he said that, what did you think?
THOMASOh, boy. This is 1962. He's just lost the governor race in California. He may or may not have had a drink before that. But the bitterness, the sadness, it just oozed out of him. In fact, when he went home, he blew right by his wife and kids and just sat in a darkened room. Trisha, one of his daughters, said there was a sadness in the house and it went on for years.
REHMHow do you know about his drinking and how did it begin and how much did he consume?
THOMASThere's a whole lore about his drinking. I think a lot of it's exaggerated. I don't think that Nixon was a drunk. He had very poor capacity. One drink could make him sound fuzzy. He also -- and you have to always think about the times you're in. This is the 1950s. Nixon was an insomniac and he took sleeping pills, seconals, that had barbiturates in them. And seconals mix badly with alcohol. He also took a drug called Dilantin for -- what are those attacks you get?
THOMASIt was, I'm sorry, epilepsy, thank you. For epilepsy and Dilantin combined with alcohol can make you slur your speech. So it could be a mixture of drugs. He was exhausted a lot of the time. Now, it is true that in I would say the last year of his presidency, even Julie, his daughter, writes in her memoir that mom and dad were drinking a little bit too much. So I think he was a bit on the sauce at the end, but I don't think he was as drunk as people make him out to be.
REHMEvan, what did you want to do with this book? What did you want to show people about Richard Nixon or tell them about him that hasn't already been told?
THOMASWell, you know, as I said, I come from "The Washington Post" company and we, over there, we've shared the cartoon of Nixon as a kind of dark, evil man. And there was a dark side to Nixon. There was, obviously. Anybody can see that. But there was another side to him. And late at night, he would take his yellow pad, which his aides called his best friend, and he would go off and he's write notes to himself and he would write notes about the Richard Nixon he wanted to be and he would use the word "joy." This is not a word you normally associate with Richard Nixon.
THOMASAnd "serenity" and "confidence" and "decency." Now a cynic could say, okay, he's just -- that's the way he wants to be seen. He just wants (word?) and TIME magazine to write a column about this and there's something to that. But it's also the way he wanted to see himself. He did it often enough that I'm sure of this and he did it often enough with his own family that I'm sure of it. Nixon wanted to be a robust, decent, good person.
THOMASHe did not sustain that. At the end, he was vindictive. He destroyed himself. But the battle between the Nixon who wanted to be a decent person and the Nixon who was not is epic. It's just -- it's just a great American novel.
REHMAnd you say that goes back to his early childhood.
THOMASWell, sure. He had a father was a bully and a mother who was passive aggressive. He described her as sweet and saintly.
THOMASSaintly. And I guess she was, but I -- reading oral histories from his cousins, she was a -- she could give the silent treatment. Today, we would talk about conditional love, that you had to perform for her to get love. And Henry Kissinger once said, I wonder what Nixon would've been like if he'd been really loved as a child. I think Kissinger was exaggerating for effect there, but there's something to that.
THOMASNixon felt he had to perform. Nixon significantly lost and older brother to tuberculosis and a younger brother, too, to disease and Nixon's own mother said it was as if Nixon had to be all three boys, himself and two others, to replace the boys they had lost. A little kid can't do that. It's too much to ask. This was a very solemn little boy, at least details. He would walk around. He liked to have always white pressed shirts, very fastidious.
THOMASHe walked around barefoot carrying his shoes in a bag. He hated to be hugged. He was a solemn, lonely little boy who wanted to be alone. He's a sad little boy.
REHMWhere was his father most of the time?
THOMASHis father was running a gas station. His father was poor, at first. He had failed lemon grove in Yorba Linda and Nixon was eating fried mush at dinner. I mean, he was really poor at the beginning. But then, dad actually made some dough running the gas station, but all everybody -- Nixon was a hard-working boy. He got up at 4:30 in the morning to go to the markets in LA to buy vegetables before he went to school. When his older brother was sick with tuberculosis, mom left and took the boy into the desert to Arizona because that's what they did with lungers, with TB patients back in the day.
THOMASSo Nixon was deprived of his own mother. He would go there in the summer, always working, always working. Nixon had a very tough childhood. He was proud. He would say, we didn't even know we were -- we were so poor, we didn't know we were poor. And actually, compared to some other people at the time, he wasn't so poor.
REHMSo his father certainly did not have the money to send him to Harvard or did he?
THOMASNo. Nixon likes to joke about this. My Harvard friends wouldn't like to hear this, but I got into Harvard. He got a scholarship to Harvard, but he didn't have enough money to do the travel because the money was going to pay for his older brother's TB so he couldn't go to Harvard. He went, instead, to Whittier College and that was a very good little college in California and Nixon did a extremely well there. But Nixon developed an early bitterness about Harvard that he never lost.
REHMSo your sources. You talked to Mrs. Haldeman. Tell me about Mrs. Haldeman.
THOMASWell, H.R. Haldeman, Bob Haldeman was Nixon's chief of staff, with him all the time. There's a scene of Haldeman in a suit sitting out by the pool next to Nixon. Haldeman's sweating through his suit. Nixon's in his Hawaiian shirt. Haldeman was always had to be there. And, of course, that meant that Haldeman rarely saw Mrs. Haldeman. And she was very poignant with me about the demands on her husband and how it almost destroyed him.
THOMASHe went to prison for Richard Nixon and he was a Christian Scientist. He used his faith to deal with it, but it almost broke his marriage. And poor Mrs. Haldeman, Nixon was so awkward, so socially awkward, so incapable of small talk that every time he encountered Mrs. Haldeman, he would say to her, well, how's the drinking problem? She didn't drink. It was his way of making a joke. And he didn't just do it once. He did it every time.
REHMAnd when he saw Jackie Kennedy?
THOMASNixon would -- we all do this kind of thing at cocktail parties, blurt out something that we don't really mean to. I do it. But he runs into Jackie Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral in 1968 and he looks at her and he says, Mrs. Kennedy, this must bring back many memories. This is painful.
REHMEvan Thomas, his new book titled "Being Nixon: A Man Divided." Short break here. We'll be right back.
REHMThe book we're talking about in this hour just written by Evan Thomas, is titled "Being Nixon: A Man Divided." And I must tell you, Evan Thomas, it gives me very little pleasure to talk about Richard Nixon. I lived through all of that -- through the burglary at the Watergate, through Nixon's denials, through his farewells to his staff. He's not a likeable man. Why did you decide you had to write a book about Richard Nixon?
THOMASI think he's the most interesting man -- political figure of the 20th century.
THOMASYou know, he -- he's a guy who could barely make a conversation. And yet he won, you know, the presidency twice. Once by the greatest landslide in history. He was on five national tickets. Only FDR did that. How did this introverted, shy man become the most successful political figure of his time? To me it was an endlessly fascinating question.
REHMWhat did he do to Helen Gahagan Douglas in that election in California?
THOMASHe has certainly taken a lot of grief for calling her the Pink Lady.
THOMASBut actually her foes -- he didn't coin that phrase. That was done by her earlier foes. She was not a good politician. She could be very condescending. She would stand in churches -- black churches and say, "Oh, I just love the negro people." I mean, she was a condescending, limousine liberal. Nixon could see that and went after her. He was rough, you know. Murray Chotiner, his advisor...
THOMAS...early hatchet man.
THOMASCalifornia politics, in the '40s, helped develop this kind of going -- what we call going negative today, because they did -- they were wholesale politics and using the media. Nixon was an early pioneer in using the media for better and for worse.
REHMYou know, he brought Murray Chotiner to Washington with him.
THOMASHe did. He did.
REHMMurray Chotiner was in an automobile accident on Dolly Madison Boulevard, right on the way to McLean. Tell us about how Richard Nixon found and courted Pat Nixon.
THOMASWell, Pat Nixon, we see now as a kind of a haunted person. She was a knock-out beauty when she was young. I have a photograph of her when she was younger. She was about 15 pounds heavier than we see her. She was a beauty. And Nixon fell in love with her doing amateur theatricals as a young lawyer. And...
REHMThey both were doing those?
THOMASThey were both -- she was -- they were in a play together. And Nixon told her right away, "I'm going to marry you." And she kind of looked at him. And he was patient. She didn't really buy his act at first. It took two years. But he would do strange things. He would drive her on her dates with other guys. He would wait in hotel lobbies while she went out...
REHMI can't believe this.
THOMASWell, Nixon was, if anything, persistent and patient.
THOMASWell, I mean, I don't...
REHMHow many other men -- really, Evan, how many other men would take a woman they loved -- expressed love for -- on a date with another man and sit there and wait?
THOMASWell, Diane, it worked. He married her. You know? And she loved him. Now, it became sad at the end. The last days of Watergate, it is sad. When he decides to resign, he doesn't tell her. He tells Rose Mary Woods...
THOMAS...his secretary. I read that and I thought, "Wow, how? What's going on here?" But, you know, at other times when he was down, she would be the one who would say to him, "You can't give up. You can't do this to me or to the kids. You have to keep going." He needed to hear that. He would get down. And he always thought he was a -- he wanted to be an optimist, but he was a pessimist. You know, when he came home at night -- this is something I learned from Julie -- he would come whistling through the door, turn on all the lights, put a show tune on the record player and have nothing but happy conversation. He wanted to be an optimist because he knew he was a pessimist. Pat understood that about him and tried to buck him up.
THOMASNow, at the end, I think it was too much. But, you know, after he was driven from office, you look at the photographs of him when she died. He's not just crying, he's bawling. He is convulsed with pain. He loved her. And she loved him. But it was a tough, tough time in Watergate.
REHMWhen he arrived here in Washington, he was a total outsider.
REHMThe Washington set, the Georgetown set, the Washington Post, how did he deal with that?
THOMASWell, not well. I mean, he was -- people forget this -- but back in the late '40s, there was a social set in Washington -- people at the top of the CIA, top of the State Department, Joe Alsop, the columnist, my old employer Katherine Graham of The Washington Post and her late husband Phil. They were the cool crowd, if you will. Like all life as high school, they were the cool crowd. And they sort of checked out Nixon. Alsop invited him to one of his famous dinner parties, after he beat Douglas in 1950. And -- but, of course, Alsop introduced Nixon as Russell Nixon. He got his name wrong.
THOMASAnd then Averell Harriman, who was a pillar of this community, an ambassador, turned his plate over and said, "I will not break bread with that man." and walked out. Can you imagine how...
REHMAt that first dinner party?
THOMASYes, at the first dinner. Can you imagine how humiliating that was to Dick and Pat Nixon.
REHMWhy Averell Harriman?
THOMASHarriman had been a big contributor to Helen Gahagan Douglas. And he was also, you know, a member of the liberal establishment. And they thought Nixon was the devil because he had exposed Alger Hiss as a Russian spy. Alger Hiss was a member of the old establishment. And Nixon was the one who exposed Hiss as a spy. And Hiss actually was a Soviet spy. And so they just had it in for Nixon. Also, Nixon was stylistically wrong. He wasn't good at self-deprecating humor. He wasn't good at any humor. He wasn't cool. He didn't carry himself easily. He sweated a lot. He could be unctuous. He could sound phony.
THOMASAll the things that the Georgetown set disdains, Nixon was. So he just didn't stylistically fit in. And they were condescending. And they were out to get him. One thing I got into in this book that I hadn't quite realized was the degree to which Georgetown was out to get Richard Nixon. They -- they just -- they -- Mrs. Nixon -- Mrs. Graham, my old boss, I mean, she hated Nixon. And The Washington Post -- now, he wanted to get the Post too. He tried to take away their broadcasting licenses. Nixon made the huge mistake of lashing out at his enemies in the press. That is ultimately a losing game. When you're up against The Washington Post in 1970, you are not going to win that game, even if you're President of the United States.
REHMSo who left the dinner party? Averell Harriman or Richard Nixon?
THOMASAverell Harriman walked out on him. Averell Harriman walked out. And so poor Nixon is just sitting there. This kind of thing happened again and again. Nixon's best friend was Alice Longworth Roosevelt -- Alice Roosevelt Longworth -- he thought. But I have a scene in there at a dinner party, she's with the British Ambassador and all these people in Georgetown, and she says, "Oh, that common little man." And even worse for poor Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Nixon's closest aide, who was pretty appreciative of Nixon when he was with Nixon and was really valued...
THOMASWell, he would go to these dinner parties, to Pauly Fritchie's (sp?) or Kay's, or Joe Alsop's. And he would make jokes about the president -- about his drinking and -- and, you know, Kissinger's so charming and he's so funny and the Georgetown crowd loved him and embraced him and were only too happy to have the president's national security advisor gently mocking the president in their midst. And Nixon knew about it. Of course, it got back to him.
REHMOf course it got back to him.
THOMASAnd Nixon would say, as Henry goes out the door, "There goes Henry, off to talk to his friends in Georgetown." Or, "There goes Henry, off to talk to The Washington Post." Nixon tried to accept it. He said, "Well, Kissinger needs this. He needs this for his ego." Nixon tried to philosophical about it. But of course it was wounding.
REHMAnd, yet, he so needed Kissinger.
THOMASHe did. I mean, Kissinger was a brilliant foreign policy advisor. Nixon had an extremely foreign policy agenda. It took a Kissinger to execute it. But, having said that, it's important to know that the ideas were Nixon's ideas. They weren't Kissinger's. The idea of going to China, opening up China. That was not Henry Kissinger's idea. In fact, when HR Haldeman told Kissinger that Nixon was thinking of going to China, Kissinger responded, "Fat Chance." Now, Kissinger brilliantly executed Nixon's strategy. But the idea was Nixon's.
REHMHis paranoia was really profound.
THOMASI don't know if it was clinical. But certainly when he got -- late at night, when he couldn't sleep and he started thinking about his enemies, it was pretty bad. You hear it. Reading those Haldeman notes at the Nixon Library, these rapid notations, they're circular. They keep coming back to the Press, to The Washington Post...
REHMTo his enemies.
THOMAS...to his enemies...
THOMAS...and how they have to create a new establishment. We're going to win and create a new establishment with people from the West and from the South, not Harvard, not Georgetown, not New York. And he was obsessive about that.
REHMEvan Thomas, who were his friends -- real friends?
THOMASWell his -- his yellow pad, as they said. I mean, he didn't really have real friends. Bebe Rebozo, who was a real estate developer from Florida, had the good sense to be quiet around Nixon. He understood that what Nixon wanted was silence. The Secret Service, sitting down below on the houseboat, would listen and hear nothing. Nixon and Bebe would be up on the deck and there'd be no sound for hours. They would tell the occasional dirty joke. Nixon liked -- Nixon had a real weakness for stupid macho talk. One of -- listening to the tapes is awful. It is awful. Nixon -- and this is partly generational, that generation trying to sound tough by swearing a lot. And having said that, I work for The Washington Post, I work with Ben Bradley. Swearing was not unique to -- to the White House.
REHMWashington. Yeah, right.
THOMASI did my share of dumb swearing...
THOMAS...when I was working at Newsweek. But it's very unattractive and it's kind of this macho and it's "We're always right and they're always wrong." One thing that got to me listening to these tapes is they never entertained the possibility that the opposition is right, that they have a point. And this arrogance really got them into -- got them into trouble. It's not the swearing that bothers me, it's the arrogance.
REHMSo when the break-in occurs at the Watergate, President Nixon, in November of '73, makes a speech to the whole country -- it's a broadcast press conference -- in which he denies any involvement.
NIXONLet me just say this. I want to say this to the television audience. I've made my mistakes. But in all of my years of public life, I have never profited -- never profited from public service. I've earned every cent. And in all of my years of public life, I have never obstructed justice. And I think, too, that I can say that in my years of public life, that I welcome this kind of examination. Because people have got to know whether or not their president's a crook. Well, I'm not a crook. I've earned everything I've got.
REHMWhat does he mean by that? Why is he talking about dollars?
THOMASThis is an extremist. He's already toast. By November of '73 he's a goner. They're just waiting for the tapes to come out. He was bothered in that particular moment by several things. One was that they were starting to look at his finances. And it's true that Haldeman had spent lavishly to fix up Key Biscayne and San Clemente and probably excessively. But so had LBJ. They were following Johnson's example on that. Nixon had always been proud that he -- he used to say, "Never let a dollar bill touch your palm." He was very careful not to be venal himself. Indeed after he was -- left office, he never took money for speaking, in contract to the Clintons...
THOMAS...or even when he served as a director. He made all his money from writing books. So Nixon's self image was, "I" was, "I am not a crook. I'm not venal." It sounds pathetic in that press conference because he's on the ropes. He's also just heard about Rose Mary Woods and the 18-and-a-half minute gap. I mean he can feel them closing in and he's just hanging on for dear life, playing that -- playing out the string. But it sounds awful.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." All right. We've got some callers. Let's talk with, let's see, how about Andrew in Cincinnati, Ohio. You're on the air.
ANDREWHow you doing, Diane?
ANDREWAnyway, first-time caller. But I wanted to say, my dad was a Cuban refuge living in Peru. And something happened where Cuba was calling back expatriates. And so my dad, not wanting to go back to Cuba, made a deal with the Nixon administration to come to the United States and he was given political asylum if he entered the draft. But then Nixon ended the draft right afterwards. My dad would always joke, you know, "Everybody talks so poorly about Nixon. But, you know, I really like him." And I just thought that was funny in light of just the negative press he seems to get all the time. I'll take my comment off the air. You have a great day.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling.
THOMASYeah. Well, Nixon did end the draft, partly for Libertarian reasons. And he announced -- he decided he was going to do it even before he was elected in 1968. He knew the draft was gasoline on the flames of student dissent in Vietnam. And he knew that one way to shut down dissent was to end the draft. Because if kids weren't being drafted, they weren't going to be out protesting. So he, early on -- partly for political reasons, partly for reasons that he just didn't think people should be drafted -- he did end the draft. And that made him -- I wouldn't say popular with young people -- but it took the heat away from student dissent.
REHMAll right. To Bruce in Houston, Texas. You're on the air.
BRUCE *CALLER)Diane, thank you. You have a wonderful program.
*CALLER)And I enjoy listening to you. I'd like to offer Evan Thomas a little insight. My uncle was John S. Badeau, the U.S. ambassador during the Kennedy administration to the United Arab Republic. One of his daughter -- actually his only daughter married a gentleman by the name of Doak Barnett. And actually, the story goes, that Doak Barnett somehow got an audience with President Nixon and encouraged him strongly -- because he knew that he was leaning towards making relations with China happen -- and Doak at the time was the leading Sino expert. I think at that time he was heading up the Chinese studies at the Brookings Institute. I'm not sure of those details. But I do know that he had a strong influence in getting Nixon to act on his predilections.
THOMASThe source of Nixon going to China is interesting, actually. It's even earlier. He goes to see Konrad Adenauer, the head of West Germany, back in the early '60s. And he says, "You ought to go to China." And de Gaulle -- this is Nixon's wilderness years, he's out traveling about. He's been thrown out of office. He's sort of preparing himself for his comeback. And these European heads of state say, "Hey, let China into the game. Let China join the Community of Nations." And Nixon writes an article in Foreign Affairs, the Eastern establishment journal, in the summer of 1967. And he telegraphs what he's going to do. He's going to say, "China can no longer be kept out of the Community of Nations.
THOMASOf course, nobody notices because they're too busy covering the politics and nobody's really paying attention to Nixon. But Nixon telegraphs his moves early on and then carries them out.
REHMEvan Thomas. His new book is titled "Being Nixon: A Man Divided." When we come back, we'll take callers from St. Louis, Long Island and Washington, D.C.
REHMWelcome back. If you've just joined us, Evan Thomas is here and Evan Thomas has written several books. He's the former Editor-At-Large for Newsweek, author of nine books, including "Ike's Bluff" and "The War Lovers." His newest, "Being Nixon: A Man Divided." Here's an email from Tom in Pennsylvania. I've always contended, he says, that the outcome of the Kennedy/Nixon election in 1960 caused Mr. Nixon to snap, to vow to himself he would never be outdone in a similar election ever again. Hence, the excesses of '68 and '72 elections. Your thoughts.
THOMASWell, that's a perceptive comment. I don't -- snapped? I don't know if he snapped. But he did think that the Kennedy's stole the '60 election. In Illinois and Chicago, that those were stolen votes. A lot of historians agree with that. Nixon himself did not contest the election, which as pretty high minded of him at the time, but Nixon resented the Kennedys. He'd been a friend of Jack Kennedy's in Congress, but he really resented the Kennedys, especially when Jack Kennedy said of Richard Nixon, he has no class.
THOMASYou can imagine how wounding that was. And to the email, Nixon, it's true, thought the Kennedys were better at dirty tricks than he was. He was trying to catch up. Again, he's not totally wrong about that. I wrote a biography of Bobby Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy was pretty good at political espionage. I mean, Nixon was bitter, for instance, because his own tax returns were audited three times by the Kennedy administration. He thought that was vindictive. So when Nixon starts to use the IRS to abuse people, when he's President.
THOMASHe is remembering that Kennedy had audited his tax returns. The Kennedys had a guy named Dick Tuck, who was sort of a prankster, a early opposition research type prankster, who used to do funny things, sort of funny things, like direct voters to the wrong polling booth, that kind of thing. And Nixon wanted to have his own Dick Tuck. Why can't he -- he would say to his aides, why can't we have our own Dick Tuck to perform tricks on the other side? What they got was not Dick Tuck. It was Hunt and Liddy, the plumbers.
THOMASWho may, you know, Hunt was a former CIA spy, Liddy was a former FBI agent. They have been tough guys, but they were also screw ups.
REHMSo, you have written that President Nixon did not know about the break in before it happened.
THOMASYeah, I think most scholars who have looked at this, most Watergate scholars, on all sides, agree on that. He did create an environment in which that break in happened. I'm not excusing him from responsibility. He did. But he didn't actually know about the break in. His problems came after the break in. And it's not the usual version of him just, you know, fiercely stonewalling. Nixon's problem was his, in his shyness, he was unable to confront others. He'd seen his parents fight and he said, himself, I got an aversion to conflict.
THOMASFrom watching my parents fight. Pat had seen her father beat her mother and they just hated conflict. So, Nixon could not bring himself to confront John Mitchell, his former Attorney General and head of The Committee to Re-elect the President, he could not get those guys in a room and say, okay, what happened here?
REHMWhat did you do?
THOMASWe're gonna get to the bottom of -- he never did until the very end, until it was way too late, does he ever get the principles into the room. And even then, he can't bear to ask the question. If only, in the summer of 1972, he had confronted his subordinates, even better if he'd brought in a tough lawyer, an independent lawyer, Nixon would have survived, he would have won a second term.
REHMBecause he could have shifted total responsibility to them.
REHMAnd exonerated himself.
THOMASWell, it would have been ugly, but he was going to win the 1972 election, sort of, no matter what. He won in an overwhelming landslide. The country was not ready for George McGovern. Nixon was brilliant at playing the social issue, permissiveness. We forget, 1972, you know, people were scared about free sex and rioting kids and riots in the inner city. And Nixon was played on fears, played on fears. Nixon won 35 percent of Democrats in 1972 on the social issues. It wasn't the economy. It was the social issue.
THOMASAnd so Nixon was going to win anyways. He could have withstood this scandal, but Nixon wanted to run up the score. He wanted to win big and so, he allowed this cover up to go on. And, of course, it cost him his presidency.
REHMAnd here's what he had to say on August 9th, 1974.
MR. RICHARD NIXONAlways remember, others may hate you. But those who hate you don't win unless you hate them. And then, you destroy yourself.
THOMASYou know, famous last words. Those are literally his last words before he gets on the helicopter and flies into exile. You hear that and you want to go, whoa, now, too late. Didn't this thought occur to you earlier? I mean, that's it. If Nixon had been self-aware enough to know that lashing out at your enemies will cost you, as actually his mother, Nixon's brother Ed, told me their grandmother told them do not go after your enemies, because it will destroy you. He got that lesson as a little kid, but he didn't hear it.
THOMASBecause, or he didn't express it at least until the very bitter end. That was, talk about the ironies of history. Shakespeare couldn't write this. It's just unbelievable for him to say that at the very end when that's exactly what cost him his presidency.
REHMAll right. Let's go now to Alvin in St. Louis, Missouri. You're on the air.
ALVINHi Diane. I just wanted to say, and this is probably something you guys didn't expect to hear, I owe President Nixon a debt of gratitude. I was a junior in high school when Watergate started to unfold, and I never read a newspaper before in my life. And I became absolutely glued to this story and the newspaper. And I think he did a horrible thing to the country, but I've been involved in politics ever since and for that, I thank him.
THOMASHere's the sad thing about Nixon. Nixon really was a patriot. He believed in his country, he believed in political life, public life, and yet, Nixon himself did more to create cynicism about public life than anybody. It's heartbreaking when you think about that. Nixon really did devote his life to public service, and yet, Watergate made many, particularly young Americans, they may have read the newspaper, that's great. But it turned off a lot of people to government.
THOMASAnd it made them cynics.
REHMAll right, to James, who's here in Washington, D.C. You're on the air.
JAMESI remember at Nixon's funeral how emotional Bob Dole was. I always wondered what President Nixon's relationship with the younger generation of Republican leaders was.
THOMASHis relationship with Bob Dole was bad, to tell you the truth. He basically ran off Dole's head of the Republican Party after the '72 election. Dole was upset because Nixon spent all the vast sums of money re-electing himself and not electing Congressmen and Senators. And Dole, at the time, was head of the Party, so they had a rocky relationship. And yet, Dole, who had a dark side himself, has a dark side himself, appreciated Nixon's, I think, courage. And became an admirer of Nixon.
THOMASGave a very beautiful eulogy to Nixon at Nixon's funeral and wept there himself.
REHMAs did Kissinger.
THOMASYes, as Kissinger -- the family did not want to have Kissinger. But Kissinger wanted to give that eulogy and they got him to agree not to take credit for himself, but to give credit for Nixon. And he gave quite a good eulogy, actually, and he said, you know, Nixon, the one thing about Nixon is he never quit. And that's true. Nixon never quit.
REHMBut you know, to this day, it is hard to reconcile the man you're talking about, you're writing about, with those hundreds of hours of tapes that many of us have heard only bits of.
REHMI mean, the hatred coming through.
THOMASIt's terrible. It's terrible. One thing, a couple of things on that. One is, you've heard bits. There are hundreds of hours. Thousands of hours. I haven't listened to thousands of hours, but I've listened to a lot. He's often quite rational, he's brilliant. You know, he's a great foreign policy thinker. He's much better read than most presidents. He goes deeper. I've looked through his personal library, where he underlined political thinkers, political philosophers, all of Churchill. He was a deep thinker, and you feel that.
THOMASYou listen to those tapes, you can hear that. You could hear a great, animated intelligence. But absolutely, the anti-Semitism is there, it's repulsive, there's a little bit of racism, that's pretty repulsive, too.
REHMA little bit...
THOMASWell, less than the anti-Semitism. It's, look, it's all bad. And you cringe when you listen to it. He had this need to vent and blurt, which is particularly unattractive. It's a bit of a generational thing. Men of his generation kind of swaggering by making, you know, off color or scatological remarks, sort of a locker room. It's so fake. Nixon wasn't even good at it. LBJ, now he was good at swearing. Nixon was kind of putting on a show. It was a pathetic show, it's a sad show, you cringe when you listen to it. It's not the whole show.
THOMASYou really do have to listen to a lot. There's a guy named Luke Nichter, who is the king of tapes, who's listened, I think, to all of the Nixon tapes, and he'll tell you, there are a lot of Nixons there. It's not always the anti-Semitic guy. Often, there's a very smart Nixon, and there is. But look, the bad stuff is bad.
REHMAll right. And finally, he is on the air with David Frost and Frost asks him to apologize.
NIXONI let down my friends. I let down the country. I let down our system of government and dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but will think it's all to corrupt and the rest. Most of all, I let down an opportunity that I would have had for two and a half more years to proceed on great projects and programs for building a lasting peace.
REHMNow, maybe I am being too vengeful myself, but that doesn't really sound like an apology to me.
THOMASNo, he had to be talked into it. His aides said, oh, you gotta give them something. You've gotta give them some mea culpa. He didn't want to do it. He kind of did it grudgingly. There's no moral mea culpa. He doesn't ever say, I did anything morally wrong. And he did do, you listen to the tape of him talking to John Dean about hush money for Hunt. It's immoral. And Nixon did immoral things and Nixon never admits to that.
THOMASHe's right about -- he's sad about the cynicism and he's right about that. Who knows what a second term would have done, for better or worse. I think Nixon was full of regret. I don't think it was moral regret. I think it was regret that he wasn't allowed to finish his presidency.
REHMFinish his term. Yeah. You also talk about lessons for Presidential candidates.
THOMASYeah, don't pick a fight with the press. I mean, you know, Nixon thought he could manipulate the press, and he did. That Nixon PR spin machine was an early modern example of what they all do now. On APO research, and great speech writers. And for a long time, they could intimidate. They intimidated the networks some. But, you know, ultimately, it doesn't work, because the press, you know, the old expression was they owned the printing plants. Well, now it's the internet way. The internet or broadcast. But the point is, the press is always going to be there.
THOMASAnd if you think you can manipulate them and stonewall them, you can do it for a while, but you can't do it forever. And your enemies will come and get you.
REHMAnd you're listening to The Diane Rehm Show. But in effect, doesn't each candidate create its own press machine and fight back with sometimes the truth, sometimes lies?
THOMASWell, sure. I mean, and that's politics, and they've been doing that -- they were doing that, you know, in Thomas Jefferson's day, much less now. They just do it with Twitter. But I do think that the American people like some authenticity and they don't like all the phoniness of politicians. It has a short term it works. The consultants can tell you, we can drive our poll numbers, and you can, for a while. But I think in Presidential elections, eventually, the voters pay attention and they figure out who's telling the truth and who isn't.
REHMAll right, and finally, let's go to Anthony in Long Island. You're on the air.
ANTHONYYes, in my opinion, the tapes between Nixon and Kissinger prove the depth of the criminality of both of them. When they discuss the Vietnam War, they both agree it can't be won. Then they discuss withdrawal, and they both agree you can't withdraw, because it may affect his re-election. And from that date on, more than 23,000 Americans died, and millions of Asians died. These people are thoroughly criminal.
THOMASYou know, they -- you can hear those remarks, the so-called (unintelligible) argument, extremely cynical. But at other times, on other tapes, you hear Nixon saying I want to win the war. I don't want to leave Chu hanging. Nixon said a lot of things in those tapes. He had mixed motives. Vietnam was a complete mess. I'm not sure any President could have gotten us out of it easily. I'm sure that no one could have done it easily. Could they have done it quicker than Nixon? I'd like to think so.
THOMASBut it was a -- Nixon inherited 500,000 troops in a losing war. He got out. It took four years to get out. That was too long, too many men died. That is undoubtedly true, but Nixon was not quite as cynical about it all as people make him out to be.
REHMConsidering everything that you've talked about, from his childhood through his failed political career early on to his re-emergence, how in the world did a man with such inherent and deep seated flaws get to where he got?
THOMASInsecurity's a powerful motivator. We all know it. You know, it can drive you to great heights. Think of, well, most great men are driven by something. Often, it's fear, doubt, insecurity about themselves that makes them reach higher. It can also destroy you. In Nixon's case, it did destroy him, but it drove him to amazing heights, along with intelligence and patriotism. There are some good qualities wrapped in there, but Nixon's insecurity drove him like rocket fuel.
REHMAnd what about his daughters? Julie was on this program with her husband, David Eisenhower, when his book came out. She seems like such a solid, reasonable...
THOMASWell, yeah. I mean, how bad was Nixon, if he was such a good father, and he clearly was a good father, just listen to Julie. How terrible could he have been? He actually was a pretty good family guy. A weird guy -- H.R. Haldeman said, the weirdest, his own Chief of Staff called him the weirdest man I ever met. And his own kids must have seen that, but they loved him and he loved them.
REHMEvan Thomas. The book is titled, "Being Nixon: A Man Divided." Congrats to you.
THOMASThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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