Pride and Prudence

Pride and Prudence

Mini Teaser: A spate of books provides a welcome opportunity to reassess Nixon.

by Author(s): Jacob Heilbrunn

Conrad Black, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full (New York: PublicAffairs, 2007), 1,152 pp., $40.00.

Elizabeth Drew, Richard M. Nixon (New York: Times Books, 2007), 192 pp., $22.00.

Timothy Naftali, George H. W. Bush (New York: Times Books, 2007), 224 pp., $22.00.

James Reston, Jr., The Conviction of Richard Nixon: The Untold Story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews (New York: Harmony Books, 2007), 208 pp., $22.00.

James Rosen, The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 640 pp., $35.00.

Jeremi Suri, Henry Kissinger and the American Century (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 368 pp., $27.95.


ALEXANDER HAMILTON, one of the fathers of American realism, observed in 1787 that the United States should seek "to incline the balance of European competitions in this part of the world as our interests may dictate." Hamilton concluded, "Our situation invites and our interests prompt us to aim at an ascendant in the system of American affairs." His admonition did not go unheeded. In the nineteenth century, as Fareed Zakaria, David Calleo, Walter A. McDougall and a host of other historians have observed, the United States, in its conduct of foreign affairs, adhered to realist principles to expand its influence and power.

This was especially so for the Republican Party, which went on to frame the views of Woodrow Wilson and his successors in the Democratic Party as utopian dreams. Thus Theodore Roosevelt-along with his own vigorous assertions of America's interests on the global stage-inveighed in 1918 against the "sorry crew" of "professional internationalists" who wished to substitute peace organizations for robust American attempts at military self-defense. Then, in the 1930s, realism curdled into isolationism. And after World War II, the GOP, led by Robert Taft (widely known as "Mr. Republican"), recoiled at membership in the United Nations and NATO.

But the "loss" of China, the explosion of the Soviet atomic bomb and the revelations of Red traitors inside the American government prompted the Republican Right to go on the offensive and call for the rollback of Communism. The Right, you might say, embraced unilateralist internationalism. America had to define and defend its interests wherever and whenever they might be threatened. One of the chief proponents of ramping up the fight against the Reds, at home and abroad, was a young congressman and senator named Richard M. Nixon. But as vice president of the United States and later president, Nixon endorsed a far more cautious course based in realpolitik. So did Dwight D. Eisenhower. Whatever rhetorical excesses the Far Right might indulge in, the GOP's national leaders pursued a far more flexible course that dismissed utopian notions of rolling back Soviet gains during and after World War II. Cooler heads, in sum, prevailed.

No longer. Were either Eisenhower or Nixon to survey the current state of the GOP, they would most likely be astonished at the vehemence with which a crusading foreign policy, marrying Wilsonian idealism with military force, has become de rigeur for any serious presidential candidate.

And thus Republican candidates are attempting to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan. Reagan, as the argument goes, single-handedly won the cold war by spending the Soviet Union into the ground and proclaiming a crusade against Communism. That Reagan was extremely cautious about actually deploying military force, however, goes unsaid-as well as Reagan's focus on changing Soviet policies rather than the regime itself. The idea of retrenchment or prudence in foreign affairs seems no more appealing to many politicians in the GOP than it did in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, when George H. W. Bush was chastised by an array of conservative outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, for failing to go to Baghdad. Indeed, while some foreign-policy thinkers associated with the Democrats have begun to make the case for prudence and realism in foreign affairs, the term remains, by contrast, a synonym for immorality and pusillanimity among Republicans.

What explains this state of affairs? How could the GOP go from espousing realist principles to yielding to the crusading instincts it once looked upon with suspicion? Is a return to realism in the cards for the Republicans, or is this a hopeless ambition?


PERHAPS NO career and legacy may offer more illuminating answers than Richard M. Nixon's. Like no other Republican, Nixon straddled the divide inside the GOP between liberal and conservative Republicans. Nixon exploited the Red Scare, but he was also a staunch internationalist who traveled widely. As president, he jettisoned much of his harsh rhetoric, with his final years devoted to improving U.S.-Soviet relations. In retrospect, Nixon stood for three vital foreign-policy principles that have been willfully flouted in recent years. The first is the recognition that there are limits to American power. The second is a refusal to demonize America's adversaries as evil incarnate. The third is a keen interest in diplomacy and strong alliances abroad.

Despite his numerous accomplishments, Nixon commands scant interest in today's GOP. Instead, it's liberals who are taking a fresh look at Nixon. A telling moment came in November 2007 when Sam Tanenhaus, an editor at the New York Times, delivered a Bradley Lecture at the citadel of neoconservatism, the American Enterprise Institute. After Tanenhaus extolled Nixon, the audience seemed to flinch. Tanenhaus's slightly subversive message, at least in the context of his immediate surroundings, was that Nixon, in contrast to George W. Bush, pursued a cautious conservatism that tried to conserve (and, in some notable cases, extend) liberal accomplishments, and that Hillary Clinton, of all people, resembled Nixon in her doggedness and constant maneuvering. And in a June 2007 column, the Times' Frank Rich confessed that while watching Frank Langella play the former president in the excellent Broadway production Frost/Nixon, "I did something I never expected to do in my life. I shed a tear for Richard Milhous Nixon."

Indeed, with Bush's presidency stirring up such unexpected passions about Nixon, a spate of books provides a welcome opportunity to reassess him. Elizabeth Drew's and Conrad Black's accounts could hardly be more different in tone or bulk. James Reston, Jr.'s recounting of the 1977 Frost/Nixon interviews contains many fascinating detailsF, while James Rosen and Jeremi Suri supply a wealth of new information about the Nixon presidency.

If sheer weight is the measure, then Black's is the most substantial of the lot. It provides a marvelous tour of Nixon's life. Far from being a reverential apologia, it is a critical and fair appraisal. It suggests that Nixon's record on foreign affairs has been misunderstood. A convinced internationalist, he exploited the Red Scare to win election to Congress. Decades later, however, the very forces that he had exploited on the Far Right would help undo his foreign policy, as the neoconservatives and the Republican Right, led by Ronald Reagan, turned on him, not for being too firm with the Soviet Union, but not firm enough. The result was that Nixon's downfall not only spelled the end of his presidency, but, ultimately, the demise of a realist foreign policy in the GOP itself.

Nixon's realism was hard won. Unlike Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy or George H. W. Bush, Nixon was not born to wealth and privilege. On the contrary, he had to work his way up. Richard inherited his belief in the Republican Party from his father, Frank, who ran a gas station and grocery in Whittier, California. His mother, Hannah, a staunch Quaker, may have left the firmest impression upon him. She inculcated in him the precepts of hard work and unceasing effort-two qualities that he would pride himself on all his life. Nixon recognized that while he was not always the most talented or popular person in his class, he could always outwork his peers. Sometimes even that wasn't enough, though. Black makes much of the fact that in 1929, when Nixon ran for student body president of Whittier Union High School, he was defeated by a grassroots renegade named Robert Logue, who "was all that Nixon was not: tall, attractive to women, a fine athlete, and a good student to whom everything appeared to come easily." In Black's view, Nixon was "always wary of a type of person who seemed naturally graceful and lucky, and he thought the world was frequently unjust, as such felicitous people kept popping up to overturn what he had worked with great self-discipline to achieve." Black diagnoses this as the central conundrum of Nixon's political life: while he could project the ordinary fears and ambitions of the average person, his lack of natural magnetism left him vulnerable to more suave opponents such as John F. Kennedy, a kind of Robert Logue writ large.

Resentment of the Ivy League was part and parcel of Nixon's mental makeup. Though the Harvard Club of California rated Nixon "best all-round student" at Whittier, he had to forego attending the university because his family would have been unable to foot the transportation bill between Whittier and Cambridge. (Black speculates that attending Harvard might have lent Nixon more polish and erased some of his phobias about the Harvard set, allowing him to lead a life "less charged with fears and resentments of the Eastern Establishment.")

Essay Types: Book Review