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A review of 'Being Nixon': the internal battles

Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas (Credit: Random House Publishing)The guarded man who was forced to resign due to his tenacious pursuit of secret information finds himself the subject of another biography. Though it does not produce any new information, it does provide a captivating story. Generous in his portrayal and humanizing in his narrative, Evan Thomas does not edify the cartoonish Nixon persona that has been popularized; rather he seeks to illuminate the conflicting natures of the man, myth, and 37th President of the United States. In his Being Nixon, Thomas echoes some of the popular notions of the infamous Nixon and attempts to project the Dr. Jekyll/ Mr. Hyde persona upon him.

Like most other humans, Nixon was a complex person, however unlike most other people, he was under the presidential spotlight. This complexity was seamlessly narrated by Thomas's accounting of a variety of Nixon anecdotes, both good and bad. Nixon was "locked in a titanic battle between hope and fear," between his "light side" and "dark side" and "struggled, bravely if not always wisely, against the dark." And this battle took place in the very public square. Nixon was always "in a heroic if ill-fated struggle to be a robust, decent, good-hearted person."

He was, as Mr. Thomas notes, "an introvert in an extrovert's business." Though introversion does not preclude someone from running for public office, it does make it somewhat more difficult. However, Nixon's resolve and intellect catapulted him into levels of success that were not achieved by many. Winning four national elections, two as vice president and two as president, the last of these (in 1972) by the widest margin then recorded, Nixon was a political force that not even Texas would mess with.

His contradictions were not limited to his profession, but continued in the way he functioned in his job. Campaigning as a hard-right Republican, Nixon presided over a number of new liberal programs. He increased spending on Medicare (serving as almost a forerunner to the Affordable Care Act), Social Security, and public broadcasting. He was, Mr. Thomas writes, "by some measures, a bigger spender on social programs than LBJ had been." His administration oversaw the creation of the White House Office of Consumer Affairs, the Environmental Protection Agency, Amtrak, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Though it should be noted that during his presidency, the Democrats did control both houses of Congress and public sentiment was significantly activist (e.g. Vietnam). All of this for a president that was much more interested in foreign affairs, however his most significant mark was on domestic policy.

Assisting him in his leadership were "eastern elites" and Jews, individuals who Nixon harbored animosity towards. Due to White House tapes, the highly private Nixon is vulnerably public in his remarks concerning both. His prejudice towards eastern elites was rooted back in his own college experience. Extended a scholarship to Harvard, he was unable to go due to his middle class family finances, thus an inferiority complex developed. Along with this were his vindictive comments towards Jews. Thomas writes, "When Nixon was trying to sound tough …he would sometimes make racist remarks." Sometimes is a subjective concept, especially considering Nixon's frequent vilification of the Jews repeated throughout the tapes. However, his cabinet and administration was filled with both those who went to Ivy League schools and Jews. They helped him do his job, as well as do the parts of his job that he did not want to do.

As Nixon struggled and lived through these contradicting forces, Thomas writes that "in his battle against his darker impulses, he fought with a kind of desperate courage." Nixon "wanted to show that he was hard because he felt soft." As these internal battles manifested themselves in external outbursts, the localized watching world took note. However, when the White House tapes were released, the entire world was shocked. While this was not new behavior for Nixon, it was a much more public expression.

For all his faults, Nixon was an astute politician, a brilliant mind, and a tortured, sunburned soul due to the spotlight. Much has been written and postulated concerning Nixon, however instead of endlessly analyzing him, we all could learn from him. The spotlight is unrelenting and not as much character forming as character revealing. As Abraham Lincoln illustrated, character is like a tree and reputation a shadow.

But the tree is only as strong as its roots. The shadow is contingent upon the tree and the tree upon the roots. But as Nixon symbolized, sometimes the greatest battles are not fought externally, but internally (James 4:1, Romans 7:14-25). God seemed to think it was important to be planted in a communal position (Psalm 1, Hebrews 10:24-25), rooted deeply in his love (Ephesians 3:16-17), and soaking up the living water, which is his word (Ephesians 5:26, John 4:14).

So when the adversity comes, you are prepared. But adversity, like car problems, comes from unexpected places and at unlikely times. As Lincoln poignantly found, "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."

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