From The Archives: Author Evan Thomas on Being Nixon
Hi my name's Alison and I'm a producer on my mind Diana's unfortunately that we out the bad cold this week so instead of are scheduled interview today. We're digging into Diane's archives to Twenty Fifteen conversation with author Evan Thomas About his biography of Richard Nixon called being Nixon a man divided President Nixon's name has been in the news quite a bit lately and no they interviewed doesn't focus exclusively on Watergate and impeachment. Who thought you might find it? Relevant to today. Edmund Thomas. It's good to see you. Great to be back. Diane I must tell you avenue and Hamas he gives me very little pleasure to talk about Richard Nixon. I lived through all of that through the burglar it the Watergate through Nixon denial through his farewells to his staff. He's not likeable. And then why did you decide you write a book about Richard Nixon. I think he's the most interesting political figure of the twentieth century. Really You Know He. He's he's the guy who could barely make a conversation and yet he won the presidency twice once why the greatest landslide history 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 was an endlessly fascinating question. An getting inside the mind. Had anyone pretty tough to do. How did you begin to set about doing that? It is tough and you have to be humble about Nixon. Left incredible trail four thousand hours of tapes thousand page memoir his chief of Staff. Hr Haldeman not only kepting. These incredible diaries but sat there in his office. Writing Down Nixon's every utterance. So you can sit there. And the Nixon Library and read sort of real time stream of consciousness There are in his hometown. Whittier literally hundreds of oral histories of from his childhood. So you can get a pretty good glimpse of that there are any number of memoirs diaries presidents leave an incredible paper trail. And so you know you can you. You truly get inside. Somebody's mind no and I don't pretend to do that. But you can get pretty close with Nixon you can. And you're exactly this sort person and Nixon hate it. I am I worked for The Washington Post Company for twenty four years. I'm a member of our guest. What you call the East Coast Media Establishment Establishment I even went to Harvard. Nixon hated are. He was always saying those Harvard. No more Harvard. None of those Harvard guys get rid of them and he hired without the thing I love about Nixon. He's up massive contradiction his two top aides were RV professors Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Henry Kissinger et. An what did you you want to do with his book. What did you want to show people about Richard Nixon or tell them about him? That hasn't already already been as I said. I come from the Washington Post Company and 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 yellow the yellow pad which is aids called his best friend and golfing write notes to himself and he would write notes about the Richard Nixon he wanted to be and he would use the word joy joy. This is not a word you normally associate with Richard Nixon and serenity and confidence and decency now Senate could say okay. He's just that's what he wants to be seen. He just wants to use side in Time magazine to write a column about this in. There's something to that but it's also the way he wanted to see himself he did. It often often enough that I'm sure of this. And he did it often with his own family that I'm sure of it. Nixon wanted to be a robust decent. Good Person He. He 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 epoch. The Great American novel and you say that goes back to his early child was sure he we had a a father was a bully. And a mother was passive aggressive. He described sweet and say lease saintly and I guess she was but leading leading oral histories from his cousins too. She could give you the silent treatment today. We were talking about conditional love that you had to perform for her to get loving and and Henry Kissinger once said. I wonder what Nixon would have been like. If he'd been really loved as a child I can do as exaggerating. Perfect there. But there's something to do that. Nixon felt he had to perform Nixon significantly lost older brother tuberculosis and a younger brother to disease and Nickson mother said it was as if Nixon had to be all three boys himself and to others to to replace the boys they had lost. Little Kid can't do that yet. It's too much to ask. NATO is a very song little boy at least details he would walk around. He'd like to have pressed white shirts. Various festivus he walked around and barefoot carrying his shoes in the bag He hated to be hugged. He was a solemn lonely. Little boy who wanted to be alone. He's a sad little boy. Where was his father? Most the time His father was a running a gas station as father. Poor at first he failed. Lemon Grove Bove in Yorba. Linda and Nixon was eating Fried Mush. Dinner I mean he was really poor at the beginning but then dad actually made some dough running the station but the Nixon was a hard working boy. He got up at four thirty 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 the Burke Yellow closys mom left and took the boy into the desert to Arizona. Because that's what they did with with TB patients back in the day so Nixon was deprived of his own 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 so poor. We didn't now. We were poor and actually compared to some other people to time. He wasn't so poor when he arrived here. In Washington he was a total outsider. The Washington said George said the Washington Post. How they deal with that will now? Well I mean he was People forget this but back in the late forties there was a social set in Washington people. The top of the CIA a top State Department Joe also the columns my old employer heuer Katharine Graham of the Washington. Post and her late husband Phil. They were the the cool crowd. If you will like high all high school they were the cool crap and they sort of checked checked out. Nixon also invited into one of his famous dinner parties after he beat Douglas in nineteen fifty and But of course also introduced Nixon as Russell. Nixon accent got his name wrong and then April Harriman. Who is a pillar of this community and ambassador turned his plate over and said I will not break bread with that man and walked Out Can you imagine how I yeah I inner. Can you imagine how humiliating that was. Why Harriman Harriman? had been you know a A member of the liberal establishment and they thought Nixon was the devil because he'd exposed Alger Hiss to as a Russian spy. Alger Hiss was a member of the oldest advertisement and Nixon was the one who exposed Spy His actually was Soviet spy and so they just had it in for Nixon also. Nixon was stylistically wrong. He wasn't wasn't good at self deprecating humor. He wasn't good at any number he wasn't cool. He didn't carry himself easily. He's sweated a lot. Could be anxious. He could sound phony all the thanks. The Georgetown's set disdains. Nixon was we 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 hadn't quite realized was the degree to which Georgetown was out to get Richard Nixon. Mrs Mrs Graham held my Oh boss means she she hated Nixon and and the Washington Post now. He wanted to get the post to He. He tried to take away their broadcasting licenses. Nixon made the mistake of lashing out at his enemies in the press that is ultimately a losing game when you're up against the Washington Post nineteen seventy. You're not going to win that game even if you're president of the United States so who left the dinner party April Harriman or Richard Naval Harmon. Walked out on him. Ever harmon walked down to poor Nixon. Just just sitting there. This kind of thing happened again and again Nixon's best friend. 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 Georgetown and she says Oh that common little man even worse for Port Nixon Henry Kissinger singer Nixon's Closest Day who was pretty appreciative of Nixon when he was with Nixon and was really valued huddle duplicity. He would go to these dinner. Parties to Paulie Fritzy as and Joel Sips and he would make jokes about the president about his drinking and and you know 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 adviser gently mocking the president in their midst and Nixon knew about it. Of course got back and of course they can't act. Nixon would say as Henry went out the door. There goes does Henry off to talk to his friends and Georgetown Goes Henry off to talk to The Washington Post. Nixon tried to accept it. He said well Kissinger needs this. Needs I ego. Nixon tried to be philosophical about it but of course it was wounded and yet he so needs it Kissinger he did. I mean Kissinger was a brilliant foreign policy adviser Nixon and extremely ambitious foreign policy agenda. It took a Kissinger to execute 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 and fact when h your Haldeman told Kissinger that the Nixon was thinking of going to China Kissinger responded fat chance now Kissinger brilliantly executed executed Nixon strategy but the idea was Nixon's his paranoia was really profound. I don't know if it was clinical title. 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 are these. These rapid notations their circular. They keep coming back to the press to the wash to in San Enemy. Dan How they have to create a new establishment. We're GONNA win and create a new establishment with people from the West and from the South Not Harvard Not Georgetown. Oh Not New York. And he was obsessive about that and then dumb. who were his friends phrase Yellow Pad? They said. I mean he didn't really have real friends. BB Rebozo who is a real estate developer from Florida. Had the good sense to be quiet around Nixon. He understood that that what Nixon wanted was silence. The Secret Service sitting down below on on the houseboat would would listen and hear nothing. Nixon and BB 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. The tapes is Biz is awful. It is awful Nixon in this is partly generational that generation trying to sound tough by swearing and having having said that I worked for the Washington Post I work with Ben Bradlee. Swearing was not unique to why the White House my share of dumb swearing wearing one of those working at Newsweek But but it's very unattractive and it's kind of this macho in its world was right and they're always wrong. One thing that got to me listening the tapes as they never entertain the possibility that the opposition is right that they have a point and this arrogance really got them in undeterred. Got Them into trouble. It's not the swearing bothers me. It's the arrogance is so when the break in occurred at the Watergate President Nixon in November of seventy three makes a speech to the whole country broadcast press conference in which he denies any involvement. You just say this. I want to say this the television audience. I Made my mistakes. In all of my years of public life I never profited never profited the public service. I've earned every cent and then all of my years. I have never obstructed justice and I think too that I would say that in my ears public life that I welcome this kind of examination because people have gotta know whether or not their the president trump. Well I'm not a crook. I burned everything I've gone. What does he mean by? Why is he talking about dollars? visit is in extremist. He's already toast by November seventy-three. He's 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. 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 accessibly we but so had LBJ. They were following Johnson's example on that Nixon had 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 contrast to the or or or even served as a director. He made all his money from writing books. So Nixon self image was I was. I'm not a crook. I'm not I'm not not Venal. It sounds is pathetic in that press conference. Because he's on the ropes he's also just heard about Rosemary Woods and the eighteen and a half minute gap. I mean he can feel them closing using in and he's just hanging on for dear life playing playing out the string but it sounds awful now a quick break when we come back. More of Diane's Twenty Fifteen interview with Evan Thomas. He's a longtime journalist and author of nine books including his latest. I A biography of the justice. Sandra Day O'Connor and we're back. Here's the rest of Diane's conversation with Evan Thomas. Here's an email from Tom in Pennsylvania. I've always contended. He says that the outcome at the Kennedy next election in nineteen in sixty caused Mister Nixon. To snap to vowed to himself he would never be out done and as similar election election ever again hence the excess is sixty eight and seventy two elections. Your thoughts. Well it's perceptive. Perceptive comment snapped. He snapped but he did think that the Kennedys stole the sixty election in Illinois in Chicago. That those were stolen votes. The stories agree with that Nixon himself did not contest the election which was 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 candidates. Especially when Jack Kennedy said Richard Nixon. He has no class. You can imagine how wounding that was and and to the to the 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 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 the people at at when he's president he is remembering that Kennedy had audited his tax returns. The Kennedys had a guy named Dick Tuck who was sort of a prankster prankster early. Opposition research type PRANKSTER. whose do things like direct voters to the wrong polling booth that kind of thing and Nixon wanted to have his own talk doc? Why can't he would say to his age? 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 who may hunt was formally I spy lydia was a former. FBI Agent Bay have been tough guys but they were also so screw ups so you have president. Nixon did not know about the break in before it happened. I think most scholars alerts who looked at this. Most Watergate scholars on all sides agree on that He did create an environment in which that break in happen. I'm not excusing him. For responsibility what's ability. He did but he didn't actually know about the break in his problems. Came after the break. It and it's not the usual version. I love him just fiercely. Stonewalling Nixon's problem was in his shyness. He was unable to confront others. He'd seen his parents fight and he said himself self. I got an aversion to conflict from watching my parents fight padded seen her father beat her mother and they just hated conflict so Nixon could not bring himself off to confront John Mitchell his former attorney general and head of the committee to reelect president he could not get those guys in a room and say okay. What happened here looking to get to the minute? He never did until the very 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 question. If only in the summer of Nineteen seventy-two he had confronted his subordinates. Even better if he brought in a tough lawyer independent lawyer Nixon Nixon would have survived. He would want sexually absolutely absolutely because he could have shifted total responsibility on sale at a to them and actually exonerated themselves. It would have been ugly but he was GonNa Win The nineteen seventy two election sort of no matter what. He won an overwhelming on woman landslide. The country was not ready for George McGovern. Nixon was brilliant at playing the social issue. Permissiveness was we forget nineteen seventy two. You know people were scared about free sex and rioting kids and and riots in the in in the inner city and Nixon was played on fears played on fears. He he won Nixon. One thirty. Five percent of Democrats in nineteen. Seventy two on the social issue wasn't the economy it was social issue and so- Nixon was going to win anyways. He could have withstood the scandal. But Nixon Wanda run up the score. He wanted to win big and so he allowed this cover up to go on and of course it cost awesome his presidency. And here's what he had to say on August Ninth Nineteen seventy four always remember member others may hate you those who hate you. Don't win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself you know famous last words. Those are literally last words before he gets on the helicopter and flies into exile. All you hear that in you WANNA go. WHOA now too late? It didn't. This thought occurred you earlier. I mean that's it if Nixon had been self aware enough to know that lashing at your enemies will cost you Nixon's brother. Ed told me their grandmother told him. Do not go after your enemies because is it will destroy you. He got that lesson as a little kid but he didn't hear it because or he didn't express it at least until the very bitter end. That was talk about the ironies ironies of history Shakespeare couldn't write. This is just unbelievable for him to say that at the very end when that's exactly what cost him his president i. Let's go on to to Alvin in Saint Louis Missouri Euro Air Hard and. I just wanted to say that And this is probably something he guys didn't expect to hear I. Oh President Nixon the gratitude. I was a junior in high school when Watergate started doing fold. I never read a newspaper before for my wife and I became absolutely glued to the story in the newspaper. And I think that a horrible thing to the country Eric. But I've been involved in politics for some some for that. Here's the sad thing about Nixon. He Nixon really was a patriot. They believed in his country. He believed in political life public yet. Nixon himself did more to create cynicism about public life than anybody. It's heartbreaking when you think about that Nixon it really did devote his life to public service and yet he watergate. Made many particularly young Americans may have read the newspaper. That's great but it turned off a lot of people to government in them cynics. 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 his have hurt only bids did to the hatred coming. Heru starve a couple things on that one as you beaver. Bits there hundreds of hours thousands of hours. I haven't listened into 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. Much better red than most presidents. He goes goes deeper. I've looked through his personal library. Where he underlined political thinkers political philosophers all Churchill? He was a deep thinker. And you feel feel that you listen to those tapes. You can hear that and you could hear our great animating intelligence but absolutely the Anti Semitism as their. It's repulsive you. There's a little bit of racism that's pretty role that little bit their lesson lesson less than the Anti Semitism. It's look it's all bad and it you cringe when you listen. He had this need to vent and blurt which is particularly unattractive. It's a bit of a generational thing men of his generation swaggering by making you know off color or or scatalogical remarks Sort of a locker room. It's so fake. Nixon wasn't even good at it. LBJ LBJ now. He was good at swear. 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. You really do have to listen to a lot. There's a guy named Luke nicktator 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 Nixon's there. It's not always the the Eighty Semitic guy often is a very smart Nixon and there is but look. The bad stuff is bad are Dan finally. He is on the air with David. Frost Dan Frost asks him to apologize. I let down my friends. Let down the country. I let down our system of government dreams. All those young people ought to get into government. But I think it's all to corrupting the rest. Most of all I let opportunity. I would have had for two and a half more years to proceed need on great projects and programs for building lasting peace. Now maybe I am being too vengeful myself. But that didn't realize how apology me. He had to be talked into it his aides said all. You gotta gotTa give him something you gotta give them some couple. He didn't WanNa do it he kinda did grudgingly. There's no moral mea culpa. He doesn't ever say I did anything morally wrong any. Do you listen into the tape of him. Talking to John Dean about hush money for hunt. It's immoral and Nixon did immoral things in Nixon never admits that that he's right about he. Does he sat about the Senate cynicism and he's right about that who knows what a second term would have done. For better or worse I think Nixon action was full of regret. I don't think it was moral regret. I think was regret that he wasn't allowed to finish churches. President you also to talk about lessons for presidential candidates yet. Don't don't pick a fight with the press. I mean you know you can Nixon. Thought he could manipulate the press breasts and he did that Nixon. Pr Spin machine was an early modern example of what they all do now on oppo research great speechwriters and and for a longtime. They could intimidate the intimidated. The networks some but you know ultimately it doesn't work because the press you know the old expression was they own the printing plants that's will now. It's the Internet way the Internet broadcast but but the point is the press is always going to be there and 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 your enemies will come get you. But in fact does us in each candidate create its own press machine and fight back with sometimes the truth sometimes aligns. Well sure I mean that's politics and they've been doing that they were doing that. And Thomas. Jefferson's Day much less now. They do with twitter. But I do think that the the American people like some authenticity. And they don't like all the phoniness AH POLITICIANS SHORT-TERM IT works. The consultants can tell you we can. We can drive brive our poll numbers and you can for a while but I think in presidential elections eventually the voters pay attention and they figure about who's telling the truth and who wasn't are. Hi Dan finally. Let's go to Anthony in Long Island. You're on the air. Eric yes In my opinion the tapes between Nixon and Kissinger Cruise the depth of the criminality of both of them when they discussed the retina renting more they both agree. It can't be one then. They discussed withdrawal and they both agree can't withdraw because it'll be affects reelection and pull that gate on more than twenty. The three thousand Americans died and millions of Asians died these people thoroughly criminal. You can't hear those remarks. They'll so-called decent interval argument extremely cynical but at other times other tapes. You Hear Nixon Sang. I want to win the war. I don't WanNA leave to hanging. Nixon set a lot of things. In those tapes. He had mixed motives. Leaves Vietnam was a complete mess. I'm not sure any president could have gotten us out of it easily. I'm sure I'm sure that nobody could have done it easily. Could they have done it quicker than Nixon. I'd like to think so but it was a Nixon inherited. Five hundred thousand troops in a losing war. He 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 considering everything that you've talked talked about from his childhood through his failed political career early on to his reemergence how in the world they did a man with such inherent and deep-seated flaws. Get to where he got. Insecurity is a powerful motivator motivator. We all know it. You know it can drive you to great heights Think of most great men are driven by something often. It's fear doubt insecurity ready about themselves. It makes them reach higher. It can also destroy you in Nixon's case it it did destroy but it drove him to amazing heights along along with intelligence and patriotism there. There are some good qualities wrapped in there but Nixon's insecurity drove him. Like rocket fuel. Evan Thomas this thanks for being here. That's it for today. Our theme music is composed by Jim. Bromberg and Ben Landsberg of Wunderle. Our engineer. This week is not only your of liquor. The show is produced by Rebecca Kaufman and meet Alison Brody. Thanks for listening. I'm not Diane Rain but you can expect to hear Diane back in your podcast feed very soon.