Above, watch the full conversation featuring “Being Nixon” author Evan Thomas and Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson.
Richard Nixon believed himself to have many public enemies — so many, in fact, his staff maintained an “enemies list” of more than 200 perceived media adversaries and political opponents. But is it possible that Nixon was his own worst enemy? Perhaps, at least according to journalist and author Evan Thomas.
Thomas, a New York Times bestselling author, recently discussed his latest book, “Being Nixon: A Man Divided,” as part of the Alma and Joseph Gildenhorn Book Series at the Aspen Institute. During his talk, Thomas highlighted the polarity of Nixon’s character: a man that was both a boisterous leader and a self-conscious manic, with the characteristics of the latter trait contributing to the president’s personal and professional shortcomings.
Privately, Nixon was an insecure man — particularly in his dealings with Henry Kissinger, who first served as Nixon’s ambassador to the Court of Catherine Grey, and later as his national security advisor and secretary of state. Kissinger was a well-liked member of the “Georgetown elite” who charmed his peers by frequently cracking jokes at his and others’ expenses. As Thomas noted, “[Kissinger] could do something that Nixon couldn’t do on a bet: He was self-deprecating.”
Yet Kissinger’s lighthearted cracks merely fueled Nixon’s paranoia. When Kissinger began publicly joking about Nixon, Nixon ordered that Kissinger and other administrative officials be spied upon — leading to the installation of the infamous Nixon White House tapes that would later serve as evidence during the president’s Watergate downfall.
Nixon also lacked self-awareness. While Thomas noted that a lack of self-awareness can be a necessity of success — “self-awareness can be paralyzing, [so] great men often have blinders on”— he maintained that Nixon’s failure to reflect on his actions hindered personal growth.
“Nixon showed almost [no self-awareness], until the last day,” Thomas said. “He’s leaving the White House, and right before he gets on the helicopter, he says, ‘You can hate your enemies, but if you do, they win.’” That was Nixon’s first moment of self-reflection, though it came too late to positively impact his presidency.
The president was also what Thomas deemed an “odious blurter.” In addition to making anti-Semitic comments, Nixon would often say whatever came to mind — no matter the consequences.
Thomas recalled an event from the summer of 1970, during which a US plane at the Damascus airport was hijacked. Upon hearing the news, Nixon suggested, “[we should] bomb the airport.” Though it’s believed Nixon was joking, his general tactlessness, according to Thomas, undermined his credibility as a leader.
Nixon’s discontent with his personality further exacerbated his individual flaws. He once said, “I hate intellectuals. There’s something effeminate about them. I’d rather talk to an athlete.” Yet Nixon himself was an academic.
“I asked to see Nixon’s private library, [and] it’s like a grad student’s,” Thomas said. “You think regular presidents do this kind of reading? He was much more intellectual [than most].” Nixon was never satisfied with his identity, leaving him overly preoccupied with becoming someone he thought he should be.
Nixon furthermore stood in his own way by adhering to what Thomas deemed “1950s pharmacology.” “Nixon was taking a barbiturates-based tranquilizer, an amphetamine-based upper, Seconal (a type of barbiturate-based drug) and Valium,” Thomas revealed. Nixon consumed the drugs to help him sleep, yet the potent cocktail resulted in adverse publicity, including what Thomas deemed “the Lincoln Memorial incident.”
The author recounted how a drug-induced Nixon thought he had caused the Kent State massacre by bombing Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Terrified, the president met with university students outside the Lincoln Memorial in the early morning of May 9, 1970, in hopes of implementing damage control among collegiates. Yet the impromptu, narcotics-fueled decision ultimately made Nixon appear incoherent and incompetent, relegating him to, perhaps not as a crook, but a kook.
Nixon’s political insecurity, failure to self-reflect, unfiltered mouth, individual discontentment, and frequently altered states undermined his personal and political aspirations. Yet it is his fallibilities that make Nixon a fascinating case study, and what ultimately served as the impetus for Thomas’ book.
“’Being Nixon’ is not just about [his] administration,” Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson said. “It’s about what it is to have fears, as well as ambitions. It’s about being human.”