Nixon Without Hindsight: Determined, Creepy, Durable

The Contender: Richard Nixon, The Congress Years, 1946-1952 , by Irwin F. Gellman. The Free Press, 590 pages, $30.

You and I supposedly have a baby squatting in our psyches. An “inner child.” Maybe. But I believe most of us do possess an “inner Nixon.” For those of us who were teenagers during Watergate and rebelling against our fathers, our “inner Nixon” is a Darth Vader-like figure–Nazi on the outside, but mashed up and pathetic beneath his helmet. As adults, we can now no more hate Nixon than we can our own screwed-up pops. I respect the validity of other inner Nixons. For example, I recently had the occasion to rhapsodize to Garry Wills (author of Nixon Agonistes ) over the goofy pathos in the “My mother was a saint” farewell speech that Nixon gave on that sad August morning so long ago when he flew away from the Presidency. Mr. Wills remained silent, then he mentioned how he and his wife had celebrated that day–”Nixon, good riddance.” I realized Mr. Wills’ inner Nixon was a hundred times more malevolent than mine.

This concept of an inner Nixon is no more absurd than Irwin F. Gellman’s division of humanity into “Nixonphiles” and “Nixonphobes.” Mr. Gellman correctly slots Mr. Wills in the later category, adding other Nixon biographers like Fawn M. Brodie ( Richard Nixon: The Shaping of his Character ) and Roger Morris ( Richard Milhous Nixon ). Nuts to you all! says Mr. Gellman, who claims that after he poured over private papers in National Archives files he discovered a Nixon “who almost always contradicted previous biographies.” The Contender , the first volume of Mr. Gellman’s proposed trilogy, begins pre-Pumpkin Papers and follows Nixon through his entanglement with Alger Hiss and up to his nomination as Ike’s running mate. We take leave of Nixon several days before the Checkers speech–a bit of a letdown, like walking out of Eyes Wide Shut before the orgy scene. Still, it’s enlightening to read about Nixon’s Congressional career in a continuous narrative, with Alger Hiss as just one dramatic climax among many.

Mr. Gellman insists that we see Nixon in context. “To examine Nixon from his contemporaries’ viewpoint is paramount,” he writes–we should block out our post-Watergate hindsight. “Anti-communism was as American as apple pie in the late 1940′s,” he adds. Here are the specific historical corrections he makes: Nixon was not a congenital liar. During his first, 1946 Congressional race against Jerry Voorhis, Nixon supporters did not place hundreds of anonymous phone calls to voters, whispering, “Did you know Voorhis is a communist?” Whittaker Chambers was as red as Laurence Duggan (the guy who took a swan dive out of his office window at Christmastime, 1948, because Nixon leaked word that his name appeared on a list of Commie spies). Helen Gahagan Douglas lost to Nixon in 1950 because she really was a red dingbat (so much for Greg Mitchell’s Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady ). In the end, Mr. Gellman only partly succeeds in rescuing Nixon from censorious historians. Nixon may really be clean after all on the Douglas affair, but The Contender unintentionally emphasizes the fact that even in the 40′s, Nixon’s contemporaries considered him as much of a sleaze as The Washington Post did in 1973.

Helen Gahagan Douglas bestowed the moniker “Tricky Dick” way back in 1950. (She also referred to Nixon as “pee wee.”) Years before he typed up his 1970′s enemies list, Jerry Voorhis observed: “Any critic of Nixon is labeled an enemy of the country.” Even if Mr. Gellman’s claim is true (and to me it seems backed by inconclusive research), that Nixon supporters did not after all make crank calls about his opponent in 1946, we all know about the skullduggery of Nixon supporters in 1972. Slander from the future didn’t color Nixon’s past–there’s always been something creepy about him.

Near the beginning of the book, Mr. Gellman tells how, in 1947, Dick, Pat and daughter Tricia moved into an $80-per-month duplex in Park Fairfax, Va., while Nixon’s mom and pop, Hannah and Frank, bought a nearby dairy farm. We learn, “Frank named the cows for movie stars like Loretta Young, Gary Cooper, and Dorothy Lamour.” Loretta Young as a moo-cow? This is a charming throwaway in a book so eager to vindicate Nixon that it forgets to equip him with any charm. We get very few intimate glimpses of Nixon at work: hunched over a pumpkin, say, or studying the science of lie detector tests administered by Dr. Leonardo Keeler of Chicago. Other biographies slip in specific details of Nixon’s history (his talents as a cardsharp, for example), but the only time Mr. Gellman’s Nixon becomes a regular Joe is when the historian mentions Dick’s family. The Nixons get their first television and Pat relates, “We fell for television too and the children are now watching it.… Tricia likes cowboys or horror stories so Julie has little chance.” Nixon himself shines with Buster Keaton brilliance when he does a pratfall down icy steps in 1947–little Tricia in his arms–and splats on his back and elbows “saving his daughter from injury.”

Maybe there wasn’t anything particularly humanizing in Mr. Gellman’s new National Archives papers. Or maybe he just followed his binary belief that you either hate Nixon or love him. Touchy-feely scenes would be wasted on Nixonphobes, redundant for Nixonphiles. Yet at the end of the book, you realize Mr. Gellman himself doesn’t love Nixon. “Was [Nixon] a saint, as some of his staunchest defenders assert?” Mr. Gellman asks rhetorically. “Of course not.” So what’s Mr. Gellman after? I believe Mr. Gellman’s inner Nixon is the Nixon who courted Pat in 1939, an episode mentioned briefly in The Contender , and at greater length in those numerous “false” biographies Mr. Gellman hates so. Pat–the story goes–refused to date Dick at first, but consented to let him drive her to L.A. to rendezvous with other men . Nixon had to cool his heels somewhere, then pick the girl up to drive her home. Dick went along with this humiliating arrangement–this pimping of the heart–because he knew in the end Pat would give in and marry him. Which she did. This Nixonian determination is what Mr. Gellman himself is acting out: If he patiently and steadfastly corrects misconceptions about Nixon’s past, his effort will somehow whitewash Watergate.

The futility of Mr. Gellman’s gesture makes The Contender unintentionally touching. But America is big enough for a thousand different Nixons–inner or otherwise. The real Nixon is dead, but in life he was one American who got exactly what he deserved, both good and bad. Instant karma.