Book Review: Richard Nixon (Brodie, 1981)

(Copyright © 2014 by Wil C. Fry.)

Full Title: Richard Nixon: The Shaping Of His Character
Author: Fawn McKay Brodie
Year: 1981
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN 0-393-01467-3
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◊ Summary

One thing that strikes me as I read biographies of U.S. presidents (including the volume that covered all of them to date) isn’t how many of them were immoral, unethical lawbreakers, but that so few of them weren’t. Nixon, as many have said over the years, was just one that got plainly caught at it. Like almost no one else in that office, he tumbled from very high to very low — very quickly.

It was just two years from his historic 1972 landslide election, one of the biggest wins in history (the widest margin ever by a Republican), to his complete and utter disgrace.

This book touches lightly on that, but its primary focus is on how and why Nixon came to be the man he was — “a virtuoso of deception” (George V. Higgins) with “a deeply bogus streak” (John K. Galbraith) who “marched instinctively down the crooked path” (Arthur Miller). In some senses, he was the opposite of George Washington who “could not tell a lie”, as a man who could not tell the truth.

Fawn M. Brodie, perhaps best known for her 1974 biography of Thomas Jefferson that brought again to the public eye Jefferson’s relations with one of his slaves, did not like Nixon at all, and it shows in her writing. However, the book was well-researched and planned, and skillfully covers Nixon’s life from infancy through his presidency.

◊ What I Liked Least About It

I didn’t know when I bought this book for a dollar at a library sale that it would be a “psychohistory” rather than a true biography, so throughout my reading of it I suppose I expected a more linear storytelling style, a regurgitation of the facts of Nixon’s life. Instead, the chronology jumps back and forth — Chapter 1 opens with the 1974 resignation and we don’t really get to Nixon’s childhood until Chapter 2, for example.

Throughout the book, Brodie feels free to jump around in Nixon’s life to present examples of various personality traits and how they developed.

There are also plenty of assumptions and conjecture in the book, but at least the author notes them as such.

◊ What I Like Most About It

Nixon was the president when I was born. Perhaps I’m alone in this, but I ascribe at least a small degree of importance to the president of one’s birth. My wife, for example, was born under Ronald Reagan; my parents under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. The world at the time of my birth was shaped at least in part by Nixon, and that world, in turn, helped shape me.

Before reading it, I knew almost nothing about the man, other than a handful of stats: (1) vice president under Eisenhower, (2) elected in ’68 as the “law and order” candidate, (3) resigned under threat of impeachment in ’74.

After reading it, I think I have a grasp of who the man was, where he came from, and at least understand a little more about what he did in his public life. Despite Brodie’s focus on his character, morality, and personality, many of the facts of Nixon’s life are necessarily presented.

◊ Overall Impression

In all, I enjoyed the read. I would indeed recommend this book to anyone interested in the modern history of the United States in general or Richard Nixon in particular.

  1. I was little when Nixon was president, but I remember my wise mother voted for McGovern in 1972.

    JFK was president when was born, and I was four months old when he died.

    Abby and I are currently watching a four-part series about him from PBS, and one point they make repeatedly is that he had a number of affairs, and the press kept it a secret.

    How times have changed.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      My U.S. History teacher in high school was admittedly a hormone-filled teen during JFK’s presidency, and she made no secret that he was just a step below God Almighty in her estimation. Perhaps as a reactionary tendency to her devotion, I never became a fan of the man. :-/

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