I have decided that Rick Perlstein's Nixonland is an even better book about Richard Nixon and the Nixonland we live in than Garry Wills's Nixon Agonistes:
One of Richard Nixon’s biographers, reflecting upon the image [of his father repeatedly throwing him into the irrigation ditch], speculated the kid “might well have felt that his father was trying to drown him like an unwanted puppy.” For most farmers, that ditch helped bring a decent crop. Not Frank Nixon, who was filled with the kind of self-destructive abstemiousness that is sometimes labeled pride. “I won’t buy fertilizer until I raise enough lemons to pay for it,” he said, though in Yorba Linda’s “loaf-sugar” soil—it tended to clump—you couldn’t grow lemons without fertilizer. Frank and his family went bust.
California wasn’t supposed to be like this. Frank had come from Indiana after a life spent collecting humiliating jobs: farmhand (upon dropping out of school in the sixth grade); streetcar motorman (his feet got frostbitten in the unheated cab); glassworker; potter; housepainter; sheep rancher; telephone-pole climber; oxcart driver; oil-field roustabout.
When Dick was ten, the family moved to the Quaker outpost of Whittier, home to his mother Hannah’s people. They never really approved of Frank. That didn’t keep the patriarch from affecting a peacocklike sense of superiority. To the point of tedium, he would remind people that he had once met William McKinley—as if that, and not the family he was raising, was his life’s great accomplishment. Eventually Richard Nixon’s loquacious father didn’t do too poorly with his store. He built it in a former church, which was appropriate enough, for in this family, to toil was a sacrament. Frank, who did the store’s butchering, took pride in changing his bloodstained shirts no more than once a week. Richard Nixon would ever transit between feelings of pride and feelings of shame toward his dirty-necked, lusty spitfire of a father, between apologizing for him and boasting about him, between desperately reaching for success to honor him and desperately reaching for success to repudiate him....
At Whittier, a fine Quaker college of regional reputation unknown anywhere else, he embarked upon what might have been his most humiliating job of all: learning to be a backslapping hail-fellow-well-met. (“I had the impression he would even practice his inflection when he said ‘hello,’” a reporter later observed.) The seventeen-year-old blossomed when he realized himself no longer alone in his outsiderdom: the student body was run, socially, by a circle of swells who called themselves the Franklins, and the remainder of the student body, a historian noted, “seemed resigned to its exclusion.” So this most unfraternal of youth organized the remnant into a fraternity of his own. Franklins were well-rounded, graceful, moved smoothly, talked slickly. Nixon’s new club, the Orthogonians, was for the strivers, those not to the manner born, the commuter students like him. He persuaded his fellows that reveling in one’s unpolish was a nobility of its own.
Franklins were never photographed save in black tie. Orthogonians wore shirtsleeves. “Beans, brains, and brawn” was their motto. He told them orthogonian—basically, “at right angles”—meant “upright,” “straight shooter.” Also, their enemies might have added, all elbows. The Orthogonians’ base was among Whittier’s athletes. On the surface, jocks seem natural Franklins, the Big Men on Campus. But Nixon always had a gift for looking under social surfaces to see and exploit the subterranean truths that roiled underneath. It was an eminently Nixonian insight: that on every sports team there are only a couple of stars, and that if you want to win the loyalty of the team for yourself, the surest, if least glamorous, strategy is to concentrate on the nonspectacular—silent—majority. The ones who labor quietly, sometimes resentfully, in the quarterback’s shadow....
The circle could be made to expand, Richard Nixon might have realized even then. Though via a paradox: the greater their power, the more they felt oppressed. When the people who felt like losers united around their shared psychological sense of grievance, their enemies felt somehow more overwhelming, not less; even if the Franklins weren’t always really so powerful at all, Franklin “power” often being merely a self-perpetuating effect of an Orthogonian sense of victimization. Martyrs who were not really martyrs, oppressors who were not really oppressors: a class politics for the white middle class. The keynote of the new, Nixonian politics…though we are getting ahead of ourselves. For first we must send Richard Nixon to law school, where he was a monk....
It was, to be sure, an unglamorous way to play [poker]. The fun in gambling lies in risking the chance. Which was how people who had not mastered the endurance of the dirty job—most people—played. Which may be one of the reasons Nixon was so successful against them. Sometimes Nixon played pots as high as the price of a new car. Waiting, waiting, waiting; enduring not so much the losses as the long stretches of nonwinning; because you’ve only really ever finally lost when you’ve given up the game. At any rate he won enough money at poker to fund the greater part of his first congressional race. He knew a whole lot about winning by then.
There is one more thing to say before we launch Richard Nixon on his public career. Nixon has been the subject of more psychobiographies than any other politician. His career vindicates one of that maligned genre’s most trustworthy findings: the recipe for a successfully driven politician should include a doting mother to convince the son he can accomplish anything, and an emotionally distant father to convince the son that no accomplishment can ever be enough. We have seen something of the father. Now, something of the mother. Nixon called Hannah Nixon a saint. People remembered her as soft-spoken and pious. But Nixon’s best psychobiographer, Fawn M. Brodie, sees evidence of “repressed anger” in Hannah Nixon’s makeup. History dotes upon her honesty. But that, too, doesn’t quite cover it.
For even while instructing her sons that lying was the most unpardonable sin, on one subject she lied often, especially later in life: on the subject of her second son. To understand this we must explain the death of his brothers. It is another psychobiographical theme in the lives of successful men: the deaths of siblings. The first one to die was the youngest, Arthur, who came down with what might have been tubercular meningitis. Twelve-year-old Richard was given reason to believe that a concussion from a schoolyard rock thrown to Arthur’s head that Richard had been unable to prevent had been a contributing factor. Older brothers are supposed to protect younger ones. Richard was convulsed by his failure, and the loss. Then, the second brother. Richard hadn’t been the favorite son. The golden boy, the one on whom great hopes were pinned, was the oldest, Harold—handsome, well-rounded, graceful: the first Franklin Richard knew. Harold became even more the center of the family universe when he came down with tuberculosis.
After Hannah set up a second household for him to recuperate in the hot, dry air of Prescott, Arizona, Richard was left behind with two other brothers under the care of their slave-master father. It was the middle of the Depression. The family almost went bankrupt. Richard was sent to Arizona to help nurse the boarders Hannah brought in to help keep the family afloat.
The work was endless, dirty, unrewarding, sepulchral. When Harold died, Hannah once told Ladies’ Home Journal, Richard “sank into a deep, impenetrable silence.... From that time on it seemed that he was trying to be three sons in one, striving even harder than before to make up to his father and me for our loss.” Hannah would come to recast Richard in her mind as an impregnable figure of destiny, bringer of miracles. When he became famous, she began to report that Richard had been born the day of an eclipse (he wasn’t), that his ragged and forlorn family had sold land upon which oil was found immediately afterward (they hadn’t). The exaggerations she got away with drove home for her son the lesson that a lie unexposed does no harm, that a soul viewed as a saint can also lie. And her swooning (though she withheld praise in his presence) drove home a lesson the politician was predisposed to internalize: that he was a figure of destiny, impregnable. Which could only heighten the pain of the losses he had pledged himself to endure when they came. Which made him want to win even more; though the pleasure of those victories was dulled to the vanishing point by survivor’s guilt; even as any victory could not be enough to please his internalized father anyway. This was an ego finely tuned to believe that it was nothing unless it was everything: one for which winning wasn’t everything, it was the only thing—but which even victory could never fully satisfy...
For the first time, I think I understand how Nixon could win so much and yet wind up such a loser: his entire strategy was to win by making himself the oppressed loser and the spokesman for all the other oppressed losers--which meant that the more he won, the more he saw himself as and became a loser, until in the end he lost absolutely everything.
And made the Republican Party the world's biggest loser as well.