Richard Nixon was in my dream last night. The post-presidency Nixon. The bitter, self-pitying, damned Nixon, coiled in the shadows of La Casa Pacifica in San Clemente, dark eyes glaring at the world as it spun on without him. In my dream, I was informed that he had selected me to help him with a new book on foreign policy, his biggest work yet, looking a century ahead, in which he would make 20 predictions of what awaited the United States in terms of economics, foreign policy, war, health and technology.
He also quietly admitted to me that he was going to run for president again, “to save America from itself.” Evidently, my dream was set at some point before his death in April 1994 and in a nation governed by a constitution without the Twenty-Second Amendment. I told him that my political and social beliefs mostly leaned toward the Democrats. “That’s fine, fine,” he said. “All the better.” He gruffly insisted that he wanted to be challenged at every point. “That’s the best kind of White House chief of staff,” he growled with a smile. “Gonna need a bastard like that.” At that point, thankfully, I woke up.
Throughout much of my life, Nixon has fascinated me. Nixon the scarred politician. Nixon the global strategist. Nixon the cold-blooded survivor. Nixon the abused vice president. Nixon the elder statesman. Nixon the social reject. I was born during the last months of the Nixon presidency. My mother recalled cradling her new wrinkly, sleepy baby as she watched the Watergate investigations burn down the Nixon presidency. She thinks that’s why I love political history and political scandal so much.
My bookshelves are filled with books on Nixon. On my office wall I’ve hung framed historic newspapers, including the Friday, Aug. 9, 1974, edition of the New York Times, blaring the fully capitalized words, “Nixon Resigns.” Nixon’s angry, bleary eyes are like scarred volcanic coals staring at me from the yellowed newsprint, as if they’re demanding something from me, something unspoken and unknowable. In Nixon’s case, I think it’s better that it remains unspoken and unknowable.
In recent weeks, Nixon has been on my mind more than usual. Nixon-related news seemed to be everywhere.
The New York Times recently ran a fascinating story on the release of the transcript of Nixon’s combative and acidly sarcastic grand jury testimony to Watergate prosecutors. The story contained a great quote from historian Stanley Kutler: “If you know the voice of Richard Nixon, it’s a virtuoso performance, from the awkward attempts at humor to the moments of self-pity.”
Timothy Naftali, the historian and Nixon Library director, recently announced that he was leaving the presidential center. Two weeks later, the library unveiled audio recordings of Nixon recalling his bizarre meeting with anti-war protestors at the Lincoln Memorial.
Journalist Tom Wicker, who wrote a beautiful essay about Nixon for the Character Above All series, died several days ago. China recently agreed to stage — on its own terms — the play “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers,” an exploration of the clash between government power and a free press.
That 20-year-old PBS documentary, which is sorely in need of an update, ended its introductory segment with a quote that has stayed with me since I first saw it 15 years ago. It was from then-Attorney General Eliot Richardson, who said: “It struck me from time to time that Nixon, as a character, would have been so easy to fix, in the sense of removing these rather petty flaws. And yet, I think it’s also true that if you did this, you would probably have removed that very inner core of insecurity that led to his drive. A secure Nixon, almost surely, in my view, would never have been President of the United States at all.”
For years, as I systematically built a life as an editor, writer and historian, Richardson’s grim observation of Nixon somehow intensified the raging fires fueling my own ambitions. It also challenged me as a presidential historian to understand the intricate mechanisms of a genuinely great and terrible president, along with the diplomatic triumphs and political wastelands he left in his wake.
When I considered Richardson’s observation from the perspective of a novelist, his characterization of Nixon stood as a supreme example of how to design and engineer complex, unforgettable, and tragically-doomed characters for my own fictional illustrations of an equally doomed America. With Nixon in mind, I assembled various aspects of brilliant and frightened men and women, each character crippled by contradictions and insecurities, their virtuous ambitions eventually mutating into bitterness and anger, like the coils of an anaconda strangling their moral centers. Each character is stunning in their own unique way, each one an absolute genius at one thing, magnificently talented, each one contributing to the greater story and the greater society. Some are geniuses yet they don’t know it. Some realize their talents all too late as they look back at a wasted existence, lost love and betrayed principles. For others, their genius is too heavy a burden, or too sharp of a weapon, and they use it to destroy the lives all around them. They are the perfect liars, manipulators, and killers, naturally evil or self-centered people whose true darkness is fully appreciated only when they are thrust into terrible tragedies or failures. A few of my characters — too few — are lucky. They are discovered and guided by the right mentors, and they live rich lives of fulfillment and success, not entirely sure why so many others lead aimless lives destitute of happiness and self-worth.
Lurking not too far behind my musings on Nixon as a president and as a man are my own fears and uncertainties. Some people fear death. Others fear failure. My fear is not as dire as those two, but it’s related to both. I’m haunted every moment of every day by a fear of mediocrity. To me, death is fine as long as I’ve accomplished something notable, as long as I’m celebrated after I’m gone, as long as I’m remembered and appreciated and emulated. Failure is fine as long as I have faith that there are substantive triumphs to eclipse them. I don’t need my face carved onto a mountain or an aircraft carrier named after me, of course. It’s not about ego. Perhaps it’s more about how much I’ve demanded of myself and about how I’ve met those demands, regardless of how ridiculously unrealistic they may have been.
Isn’t this everyone’s personal struggle? Wasn’t it Nixon’s struggle? Shouldn’t I be comforted by the sense that I’m intelligent and perceptive enough to perceive how inconsequential I still am? Shouldn’t that give me some kind of hope, some kind of fresh drive to push harder, write better, think deeper and dream bigger?
Do I have “rather petty flaws” that are driving me to some kind of Pyrrhic doom? Will my hard work in academics and writing build a body of work that I can look back upon with pride? Or am I simply a serene, comfortable, middle class, 21st century American, slowly and sensibly living out his days, not overly flawed and not admirably ambitious, doomed to accomplish nothing? Am I just someone cruising along the suburbs of American existence, blind to the opportunities all around him, a serene man adrift, watched over by his “patron saint,” a forgettable face lost in a forgettable life?
I can’t believe that. I’m a good man who will someday be a great man. That’s all there is to it. This life will improve every life it touches, and it will leave behind a better world. Those are the ambitions I’m achieving and will continue to achieve. That is the greatness I will be remembered for. Hardly mediocre. Hardly petty.
I’ll mention that to Nixon the next time he offers me a job.