Richard, We Hardly Knew You

What do Hillary Clinton and Richard Nixon have in common? Both entered presidential elections twice. He won his second. She's working on hers. Both share political savvy, undaunted tenacity and significant professional successes. Both have ardent fans. And both are ardently disliked by many. 'Trust' - or lack of it - being the operating descriptor when polls are taken and the mediaratti crow descent. This being an electioneering year, it's possible that Mrs. Clinton and those of us who follow politics like it's the World Series with meaning would benefit from listening/reading Being Nixon, A Man Divided. This is Evan Thomas' regenerative perspective on the 37th president. If you are among the Nixon scorners, this Nixon may surprise you. One of the prime take-aways from this balanced book is considerable respect for a man who overcame his own stygian nature to become remarkably successful. 

Nixon's authorization of unlawful break-ins leading up to the infamous Watergate scandal, his historic resignation, the nickname, Tricky Dick, his attitude that Jews in government were "disloyal" to him -  all that is certainly well covered in Thomas' narrative reporting. Writer and editor for 33 years at Time and the Washington bureau chief for Newsweek, Thomas is a solid reporter and a deft storyteller. It's the book's sub-title, A Man Divided, that's the compelling nub of this story. It's universal, beyond politics. It's a lesson in how to succeed despite significant personal liabilities. Richard Nixon's personal liabilities were significant. As a boy he was small and shy. As an adult, he morphed into socially awkward. Imagine what it must be like to be an introvert in the extrovert's business of politics. Pathologically shy and an embedded distaste for confrontation, his prodigious defeats and remarkable comebacks are testaments to his black-belt in politics. 

He was also one of the most reviled political figures of his time. His media image was several decks below unflattering. There was editorial cartoonist Herblock's famous Nixon caricature featuring a 5 o'clock-shadowed scowler. Rolling Stone's Hunter S. Thompson wrote, 'He was an evil man -- evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it. He was utterly without ethics or morals or any bedrock sense of decency." 

Thomas also reminds the listener/reader about Nixon's considerable achievements: the Voting Rights Act extended, serious postal reorganization, the Clean Air Act, the Water Pollution Control Act, the EPA, OSHA and this former cold-warrior's historic foreign policy achievement - rapprochement with arch-enemy, communist China. Major!

We can also thank Nixon for the American flag lapel pins every president now wears. He started it after seeing Robert Redford wear one in The Candidate.

It's Evan Thomas' observational grace notes that deliver the complete Nixon. You've got to empathize with a guy who was totally helpless with anything mechanical and was comically clumsy while wrestling a lobster that clawed onto his suit; clunking heads with Anna Chennault at a state dinner and dropping the ball while throwing out the first ball on baseball's opening day. He also couldn't open pill containers, or hammer a nail. 

This rewarding book is also a necessary reminder about media and their insightful pronouncements. After losing the presidency to Kennedy, Nixon then lost his home-state California's gubernatorial race to Pat Brown. He held a last press conference saying to the media, " won't have Nixon to kick around anymore." One network then did a half-hour special titled, "The political obituary of Richard Nixon with special guest, Alger Hiss" - who later went to prison and was outed as working for the Soviet Union. And Time magazine declared that..."Barring a miracle, Richard Nixon can never hope to be elected to any political office again."

Being Nixon is well aided with Nixon's own wire-tapping system which is notably effective when you hear the words actually spoken by Bob Walter's spot-on narration in the engrossing audiobook edition. Nixon is not the first president to have audio recording capability in the Oval office. But he is the first to be brought down by it. Listening to the actual White House conversations in the audiobook is a bold reminder that the leader of the free world and his governmental staff are as conversationally inelegant just like the rest of us. And that maybe the oddest take-away of all from this vital biography.