The Nixon Character
Once you get into this great stream of history you can't get out. You can drown. Or you can be pulled ashore by the tide. But it is awfully hard to get out when you are in the middle of the stream—if it is intended that you stay there.
— NIXON TO EARL MAZO, 1959 1
I HAVE LONG BELIEVED that the definitive judgment on a president is almost always written during his life or in the first obituaries. The patient work of historians and biographers may serve to rediscover it and underline it, but it has always already been said by a contemporary, and usually with distinction. Thus Walt Whitman could judge Lincoln even after his second year in office:
I think well of the President. He has a face like a Hoosier Michaelangelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful with its strange mouth, its deep cut, criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion.... Mr. Lincoln keeps a fountain of first-class practical telling wisdom. I do not dwell on the supposed. failure of his government; he has shown I think sometimes an almost supernatural talent in keeping the ship afloat at all, with head steady, not only not going down, and now certain not to, but with proud and resolute spirit, and flag flying in the sight of the world, menacing and high as ever. I say never yet captain, never ruler, had such a perplexing and dangerous task as his, the past two years.... a truly democratic genius. 2
Many distinguished Americans have sat in judgment on Richard Nixon. There has never been anything like the unanimity, the searing eloquence, the sense of vital concern for the nation, in the negative judgments that echoed across the land in August 1974. My own statement here represents not a judgment but a summary of discoveries made in several years of research and writing about the shaping of Nixon's character. My indebtedness to the writings