Nixon Was Not Noble, But Today's Leaders Could Learn From His Pragmatism

Elizabeth Drew, in an article in The Atlantic, adds me to the list of revisionist books on Richard Nixon. But I was not seeking to write a revisionist book when I wrote Being Nixon. I don't fundamentally disagree with her description of Nixon (though I do regret not citing her two books dealing with Nixon in my bibliography).

Instead, I was trying to portray what it was like to be Nixon -- what he was thinking and feeling. I was not trying to psychoanalyze him but rather gain some insight into his view of the world.

As a longtime employee of the Washington Post Company, I shared the negative, almost cartoonist view of Tricky Dick. But as I got into his extensive papers and the hundreds of oral histories and many hours of White House tapes, I realized Nixon was a more complex figure. He is not tragic -- he was not a noble man with a fatal flaw.

But he was a poignant figure. Late at night he would make notes to himself about the man he wanted to be. He would use words like "joy" and "serenity," words not normally associated with Nixon.

By day he would bluster and rant, but some of that was just showing off. He swore a lot, but probably not as much as Ben Bradlee, and not nearly so colorfully as Lyndon Johnson.

With Nixon, it was important, as his attorney general John Mitchell put it, "to watch what we do, not what we say." Nixon did make occasional racist remarks (and more than occasional anti-Semitic remarks), and as a political leader he pandered to southern resentment of federal judges and bureaucrats with his so-called Southern Strategy to win over the then-Democratic deep south to the Republican column.

But it is important to note that it was Nixon who integrated the southern schools. When he came into office, about ten percent of black kids went to integrated schools. Within two years the number was closer to 80 percent. Yes, he was following court orders, but, working with his trouble shooter, George Shultz, he was able to defuse a very tense situation and bring about orderly compliance, hardly a given in that region during that era.

It is also true that Nixon cared more about foreign policy than domestic policy -- and he could sound dismissive saying so. But at heart he was a pragmatist who compromised with a Democratic Congress to produce a raft of social welfare legislation.

Washington could use a little of that pragmatism today.