Perhaps the life of Richard Nixon is best viewed not as that of an individual but in terms of a dynasty, some historical chronicle of an entire family, similar to a Greek tragedy: “The Rise and Fall of the House of Nixon.” The comparison is intended to be factual, not fanciful, for throughout his long and controversial career, Richard Nixon reinvented and resurrected his public persona many times. After each crushing, seemingly final defeat or disgrace—the Alger Hiss imbroglio, the “secret fund” scandal and the Checkers speech, the loss to Kennedy in 1960, the “final press conference” of 1962, the questionable legality of the Cambodian “incursion,” and Watergate—after each of these, a “New Nixon” appeared from the apparently limitless depths of the man’s determination and ambition.
The inevitable questions are “how?” and “why?” How could an individual summon sufficient resources to return again and again, shifting his character, rearranging his philosophy and beliefs, and managing, through a variety of political devices at once brilliant and corrosive, to secure the approval of at least a bare majority of the voting public?
The other question, more profound and interesting, is why a man would submit himself to this endless cycle of offering and disgrace, triumph and defeat. Ambition seems too easy an answer; power, even that of the presidency, almost too limited a reward for the toll exacted.
One of Us is a lengthy and thoughtful examination of these two intertwined questions, and Wicker seeks their answers in the tangled skeins of Nixon’s own character. Wicker winds through the years of Nixon’s career, explaining the maneuvers, speculating on the motives, yet his work is not simply a narrative of events but a focus on them and a reflection on their meanings. Wicker is determined to discover how Nixon made himself Nixon and then continued to remake himself, as often and as drastically as necessary, in his search for something more than prestige or power, something that is best termed “acceptance.”
In a sense, as Wicker’s title reveals, Richard Nixon’s deepest passion was to be “one of us.” His greatest and most abiding fear was that somehow, because of the active manipulations or passive disdain of others, he would be denied the acceptance he craved. Feeling isolated and besieged, Nixon was ready to follow any course and adopt any strategy to counter that manipulation and overcome that disdain.
He started young. At Whittier College in California, he was a founder and first president of a society called the Orthogonians, a group of students whom Nixon later recalled as “mostly athletes and men who were working their way through school.” The Orthogonians were in marked contrast to the Franklins, the dominant student society on campus, and Nixon cast this distinction in typically stark and implicitly moral terms: The Franklins “were the haves, and we were the have-nots.” The haves and the have-nots, the undeserving privileged few and the hardworking but unrewarded many; it was a typical Nixonian division, perhaps the key Nixonian separation of the sheep from the goats.
The name Orthogonian, according to Nixon, meant “Square Shooters,” and so implied that the Franklins were, by definition, not square shooters. In a sense, as Nixon divided the Whittier campus, the Franklins became those who were not “one of us.” It therefore followed that the young president of the Orthogonians was himself the squarest of the square shooters, and so was, by virtue of his office, very much “one of us.”
It was an enduring legacy for the House of Nixon: redraw the lines, making the first last and the last first. The politics of acceptance is what the Orthogonian incident tells about Richard Milhous Nixon, and the rest of his long, troubled career was a series of variations on that theme as he scrambled toward ever higher positions, each more “one of us” than the position below. In a democratic republic, no office captures so totally the essence of that acceptance as the presidency.
It is tempting to believe that the House of Nixon, as embodied in its changeable avatar of Richard Milhous, had always the presidency as its goal, but Wicker’s incisive study shows that this simple explanation does not fit the complexity of the case. There is a sense that Nixon was drawn to the presidency almost accidentally rather than by design. At any stage along his tortuous path, there was the possibility—however slight in his case—that he might have found the acceptance and approval he craved. There was no lack of “us-ness” in the posts he held as congressman, senator, vice president, or respected Republican Party elder. Other politicians have been content with these offices, but they could not sooth the fevered brow of the members of the House of Nixon.
Nor, it seems, could the lofty confines of the Oval Office contain those restless spirits. Wicker’s biography suggests that there was no office, no position, however exalted, that would have assuaged the mysterious but deep sense of isolation and wronged pride that the House of Nixon carried as its birthmark and its bane.
It was this sense of isolation and pride, along with the belief that all the world was against him, actually or potentially, that caused Nixon to turn to tactics that, while they worked in the short run, were in the long run...
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