Richard Nixon's Political Hinterland: The Shadows of JFK Adn Charles De Gaulle
Roper, Jon, Presidential Studies Quarterly
Each president enters the White House to be confronted by the reputations of those who already have held the office. It is commonplace to ask the new incumbent which predecessors are to be admired. For Richard Nixon, the presidents included among his personal pantheon were Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Yet, his political career was shaped also, inevitably, by less publicly acknowledged influences. Two of these can be teased from Nixon's writings: from his first book, Six Crises, and, more speculatively, from his post-Watergate book of memoirs. Between them these works illustrate the political affinities that Nixon felt for two contemporary leaders: John F. Kennedy and Charles de Gaulle. Whereas Six Crises is a manifesto that makes clear that Nixon regarded himself at least as Kennedy's equal as America's cold war heroic leader, the memoirs reveal a conception of personal destiny wrapped up with a sense of national honor that suggests an idea of Nixon as an American de Gaulle. Kennedy and de Gaulle thus become significant parts of the political hinterland from which Richard Nixon's image of presidential leadership was fashioned.
In his closing remarks in the fourth debate between the candidates for the 1960 presidential election, Richard Nixon said, "In the years to come it will be written that one or the other of us was elected and that he was or was not a great president. What will determine whether Senator Kennedy or I, if I am elected, was a great president? ... It will be determined to the extent that we represent the deepest ideals, the highest feelings and the faith of the American people."(1) The new president would be judged by his capacity to articulate a vision and to confront gathering threats, symbolized by the contemporary fears and anxieties engendered by the nuclear age and the cold war. Nixon thus endorsed an idea that would characterize John F. Kennedy's administration: heroic leadership would be defined as a constant battle against crisis. And indeed, if successive presidents have defined their administrations "in the shadow of FDR,"(2) then it can equally be suggested that Nixon, when out of office and then as president himself, would construct a political persona too in the penumbra of JFK. Even before he was elected to the presidency, Nixon's self-image reflected this conception of the leader as hero. In this context, moreover, Six Crises is not simply a revealing counterpoint and contrast to Kennedy's Pulitzer prize-winning Profiles in Courage. It is also Nixon's effort to project himself as an American leader capable of fighting and winning the cold war.
Nixon and Kennedy shared an almost symbiotic political and personal relationship. First elected to Congress in the same year, their careers ran in parallel, until Nixon became vice president in 1952. Their paths converged in the presidential election of 1960, and following the assassination and Johnson's inheritance of the dubious legacy of Vietnam, it was Richard Nixon once more who was the ultimate beneficiary of the political dislocations and turmoil among the Democrats in 1968. Yet, whereas Kennedy had the ability to catch and thus define within his own political persona the transient spirit of his age, Nixon could not match him in this respect, as the Watergate scandal would reveal. What is relevant, however, in terms of the demands that the cold war placed on the chief executive at this time is the way in which both presidents attempted to assume the role of the nation's heroic leader.
Thomas Carlyle, in his nineteenth-century lecture On Heroes, argued that "in all epochs of the world's history, we shall find the Great Man to have been the indispensable saviour of his epoch; the lightning, without which the fuel never would have burnt."(3) Kennedy's contemporaries saw him as such a person. After the Eisenhower years, as Norman Mailer had suggested in his seminal essay on JFK, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," "it was a hero America needed, a hero central to his time." For "only a hero can capture the secret imagination of a people, and so be good for the vitality of his nation." Roosevelt, Churchill, Lenin, and de Gaulle were such heroes; so too Hitler, the "hero as monster, embodying what had become the monstrous fantasy of a people." The conclusion was that "without such a hero the nation turns sluggish."(4) Of the heroic leaders Mailer mentions, coincidentally, only de Gaulle was still in power as Kennedy and Nixon competed for the White House.
In 1960, de Gaulle visited the United States and met with Nixon, who was then still vice president. According to the French version of Jean Lacouture's biography of de Gaulle, Nixon recalls him offering some advice on the forthcoming election campaign. "You must base your campaign around the theme of a new America."(5) This Nixon could not do without repudiating the Eisenhower administration, of which he had been part. But it is precisely what Kennedy did, and he won the election. This anecdote is omitted from the American edition of the book. But the English language version does include the observation that
during his visit to the United States, the General had acquired a high
opinion of Vice-President Nixon, who struck him as "one of those frank and
steady personalities on whom one feels one could rely in the great affairs
of State," and in all likelihood he had hoped that Eisenhower's presumed
dauphin would be elected.(6)
After the election, he replied warmly to a letter Nixon had sent him on leaving the vice presidency and asked him to lunch should he visit Paris.(7)
In June 1963, and apparently in the political wilderness following his defeat in the California gubernatorial election the previous year, Nixon was in France, ostensibly on vacation. He took up de Gaulle's invitation. As he wrote in his memoirs, on this occasion the president "rose and proposed a warm and typically eloquent toast. He said that he knew I had suffered some difficult defeats, but he predicted that at some time in the future I would be serving my nation in a very high capacity."(8) Nixon was being respected as a potential president in waiting by a leader for whom his admiration was unreserved. In this way, "late in his life Nixon wrote a book entitled Leaders; in it he put de Gaulle second only to Churchill among the many world leaders he had known."(9) From de Gaulle, moreover, he might learn the value of patience in politics, along with a sense of his own destiny.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, "whoso is heroic will always find crises to try his edge."(10) In Profiles in Courage, Kennedy wrote "great crises produce great men, and great deeds of courage."(11) He presented himself as president at a time of acute--almost apocalyptic--challenge. And as Richard Slotkin argues, Kennedy's "inaugural address, and the policy formulations that followed it, framed the New Frontier's project as one of personal moral regeneration achieved through action in a particular heroic style."(12) In assessments of the new president, then, a recurrent theme is of Kennedy as a potentially heroic leader. But for the image to retain its political resonance, Kennedy had to maintain the atmosphere of challenge and confrontation that characterized his administration. Henry Fairlie captured this sense in The Kennedy Promise (1973) when he suggested that throughout Kennedy's time in the White House, America "lived in an atmosphere of perpetual crisis and recurring crises." In this way, "policy was subjected to crisis, and crisis was used in turn to stimulate the response of the people.... So they lived for a thousand days in expectation of danger, and of rescue from it."(13) Crisis indeed was a key word. While Kennedy was to deal with, among others, the Bay of Pigs crisis, the Berlin crisis, and the Cuban missile crisis, his defeated opponent in the 1960 election in turn could only write about crisis and his method of meeting it in an effort to remind Americans of his qualifications for leadership, Kennedy-style. Nixon's 1962 book Six Crises, like Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, was a multifaceted work. Part autobiography part political statement, in sum it was an advertisement for its author at a time when Kennedy threatened to monopolize the role of America's heroic leader. The book, then, can be read in the context of its times as Nixon's response to Kennedy acting the part that, in view of the closeness of the 1960 election and the suspicions of fraud that accompanied it, the former vice president might have claimed for himself.
Six Crises: Nixon as Kennedy Manque
In the introduction to Six Crises, Nixon recalls visiting President Kennedy after he had taken office and, incidentally, after the Bay of Pigs crisis:
When I told him I was considering the possibility of joining the "literary"
ranks, of which he himself is so distinguished a member, he expressed the
thought that every public man should write a book at some time in his life,
both for the mental discipline and because it tends to elevate him in popular
esteem to the respected status of an "intellectual."(14)
This observation is used by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in his biography of Kennedy as an example of the president's ironic wit at the expense of a political rival for whom Schlesinger himself had no respect: "only the solemnity with which Kennedy's remark was received could possibly have exceeded the ambiguity with which it was uttered."(15) The circumstances of the meeting might explain both Nixon's and Kennedy's use of the ironic form: during the election campaign, Kennedy had been able to appear more hawkish than Nixon on America's response to the Cuban Revolution. Nixon was unable to reveal that plans for an invasion, which he supported, were already under way. Now one reason why they were together was to discuss its failure.
Six Crises, then, was Nixon's attempt to emulate. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, but with no sense of the existential detachment that had characterized JFK's biographical vignettes of a number of distinguished senators. Whereas for JFK, writing a book could be presented as a genuine attempt at historical scholarship, even if that was combined with a calculated act of political self-promotion, Nixon's work was in many ways an emotional catharsis. His book was intensely personal. Garry Wills indeed suggests that "the whole of Six Crises is a saga of moral education."(16) In it, Nixon attempts to extrapolate from his own experience some more generalized ideas about crisis and its management. But in so doing, he dramatizes his political life and experiences in a way that sometimes strains to its very limits the conception of what constitutes a crisis. As Stephen Ambrose puts it, "Six Crises was a book written by a great man about small events."(17) Yet, Nixon's attempt at explaining the way in which crisis may be confronted is revealing in its self-analysis. For him, "crisis can indeed be agony. But it is the exquisite agony which a man might not want to experience again--yet would not for the world have missed."(18) His conduct in these self-defined crises in turn defines Nixon both to himself and to others. The book became, for Nixon, of talismanic importance, recommended to aides as essential reading when fresh political problems are to be confronted.
Nixon's crises are built around confrontations: with individuals (Alger Hiss, Khruschev, Kennedy), with groups (the Caracas mob, the press who, revealed his "secret fund" in the 1952 campaign), and with an unexpected event (Eisenhower's heart attack). He divides each crisis into three phases: the period of indecision, when a course of action is debated and decided; the "easiest period ... the battle itself"; and the aftermath in which, having been exposed to the extreme tensions of the crisis, the individual relaxes in what is, for Nixon, the most dangerous time, when it is necessary to be aware of "dulled reactions and faulty judgement."(19) The lessons from early crises are applied to later political dramas. So, as Wills notes,
The problems that plagued him at the outset of the book are all overcome
by the end. In the first four crises, for instance, he suffers from
emotional collapse when the crisis has passed. In the last two, he has
learnt how to prepare for this danger, and obviate it.(20)
The book, however, fails as a self-help manual for would-be crisis managers. There is little evidence, for example, that JFK reacted to the trauma of crisis and its aftermath in similar fashion. Nixon's lessons reveal more about himself than they provide a guide to crisis conduct.
In dramatizing such personal challenges as crises, Nixon is able to inflate not only their own importance but also his political skills in dealing with them. Thus, "one factor common to all six of these crises is that while each was an acute personal problem, each also involved far broader consequences which completely over-shadowed my personal fortunes."(21) The sentiment is disingenuous. Each of the events Nixon describes is intimately associated with his political career. What the book reveals is an obsession with crises as away of testing his ability to conduct himself according to the standards that he has set for himself in public life: as a political and ultimately heroic leader in cold war America's confrontation with communism.
Three of the crises thus involve and revolve around Nixon's battles with communists. In a process of learning about the communist threat, he confronts his enemy first within the United States, before being ambushed by communists abroad and finally taking the fight to the citadel of communism itself Moscow. The Hiss case, the attack by the Caracas mob, and his conversations with Khruschev thus combine to show Nixon as the most effective--and heroic--leader that America might have in its cold war confrontation with the Soviet Union.
In exposing the Hiss case, moreover, Nixon took on the American liberal establishment and won, catapulting himself into national mythology and to the vice presidency itself Without Hiss, Nixon would have been, like Kennedy at the time, another young, ambitious representative in Congress. The Hiss case promoted him temporarily above his political contemporaries. It also defined for him the communist threat and the communist enemy. It was "a vivid case study of the continuing crisis of our times, a crisis with which we shall be confronted as long as aggressive international Communism is on the loose in the world." Moreover,
the Hiss case, for the first time, forcibly demonstrated to the American
people that domestic Communism was a real and present danger to the
security of the nation. ... The nation finally saw that the magnitude of
the threat of Communism in the United States is multiplied a thousandfold
because of its direct connection with and support by the massive power
of the world Communist conspiracy centered in Moscow.(22)
So Hiss is not history. Six Crises makes clear that while Nixon won a battle against communism in 1948, the war continues. But at least one aspiring American political leader had established his heroic credentials in the fight.
In confronting Alger Hiss, Nixon appeared to be playing a high-stakes game with his own political future. When Hiss made his initial appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, to refute the allegations made against him by Wilttaker Chambers, Nixon concedes it was "a virtuoso performance.... He so dominated the proceedings that by the end of his testimony he had several members of the Committee trying to defend the right of a congressional committee to look into charges of Communism in government."(23) Furthermore, "when the Committee reconvened in executive session later that afternoon, it was in a state of virtual shock" and was tempted to end its investigation. Nixon, though, wanted to persevere even though he was in a minority of one. He did, however, have the support of Robert Stripling, the committee's chief investigator, and an eventual compromise was reached whereby Nixon was appointed as head of a subcommittee to continue the questioning of Chambers.(24) The stage was set: "When I arrived back in my office that afternoon, I had a natural sense of achievement over my success in preventing the Committee from dropping the case prematurely. But as I thought of the problems ahead of me I realized for the first time that I was up against a crisis which transcended any I had been through before."(25)
As Garry Wills points out, however, the confrontation with Alger Hiss was not quite the dramatic confrontation that Six Crises describes. Prior to his public investigation of Hiss, Nixon had already discovered "information that made the encounter of Whittier College with Harvard Law a kind of rigged bout between David and Goliath." Nixon's mentor while he investigated the issue of domestic communism was Father John Cronin, who, eighteen months before Whittaker Chambers made his accusations, had told his congressional protege of Alger Hiss's communist connections. Nixon had prepared his case well before the matter became public. This interpretation explains Nixon's persistence when the House Committee on Un-American Activities almost halted its investigation following Hiss's initial testimony. So "when Nixon--a first-term congressman, as lowly a creature as exists in Washington--pushed the Hiss case, he seemed to be taking a great risk. It was less than it looked. He had cards all up and down his sleeves and inside his vest."(26) It Was to Hiss's public embarrassment that he encountered in Nixon not a Mississippi riverboat gambler of the McCarthyite variety but a confident poker player who knew when to bet the limit.
The problem with domestic communists such as Hiss was that in appearance they looked like any other American. That was what made them most threatening. They could only be identified through their mistakes or their actions. Otherwise they were anonymous, unseen faces in the lonely crowd. The heroic leader, like Nixon, had the talent to uncover the communist conspirators at home, but he also needed the qualities to win confrontations with communists abroad. The second encounter with communism in Six Crises is an account of what was perhaps the most genuine of the challenges Nixon faced. As vice president, on a "goodwill tour" of Latin America and having faced down what was, in his estimation, a communist mob in Peru, his car was attacked by another mob in Caracas, and during a twelve-minute siege where his motorcade was trapped, his physical security, and that of his entourage, was threatened.
Nixon was face to face with the enemy. In Peru, the leaders of the mob were "the usual case-hardened, cold-eyed Communist operatives." When he confronts "one of the most notorious Communist agitators in Lima," Nixon sees "a weird-looking character whose bulging eyes seemed to merge with his mouth and nose in one distorted blob".(27) This, then, is literally the ugly face of communism, where Hiss had been its disguised countenance. Once more, though, Nixon, the consummate poker player, has the measure of his opponents. Americans would "not put our tails between our legs and run every time some Communist bully tries to bluff us."(28) This, then, was the philosophy he took to Venezuela and to his confrontation in Caracas.
"They had used the same slogans, the same words, the same tactics that `student' demonstrators had used in every country in South America I had visited, which was absolute proof that they were directed and controlled by a central Communist conspiracy."(29) Nixon's encounter with communism abroad confirms his belief that the fight against the international enemy is a constant battle against a coordinated campaign directed from Moscow. Like the Hiss case, therefore, "Caracas was a much-needed shock treatment which jolted us out of dangerous complacency."(30) Once again, Nixon's personal crisis focuses the nation's attention on its cold war enemy and on his abilities as a political leader in confronting and facing down the communist threat.
Nixon's final confrontation with communism in Six Crises comes in Moscow, a direct encounter with the leaders of the international conspiracy itself He meets Khruschev, "Communist man at his most dangerous best," at a time when "at stake was world peace and the survival of freedom."(31) In their "kitchen debate," Nixon stands up to his adversary, refuses to be browbeaten, and gains an unrivalled insight into the character of the communist leader. So Khruschev "never plays by the rules. He delights in doing the unexpected."(32) For all his efforts to entertain his American guest, in negotiations he reveals himself as just another communist operative of the kind Nixon had encountered elsewhere. It is in his eyes. "His expression never changed. His eyes were as cold as they had been all afternoon."(33) This, then, is Khruschev:
Intelligence, a quick-hitting sense of humor, always on the offensive,
colorful in action and words, a tendency to be a show-off, particularly
where he has any kind of gallery to play to, a steel-like determination
coupled with an almost compulsive tendency to press an advantage ... to
run over anyone who shows any sign of timidity or weakness.(34)
The enemy is finally unmasked.
Nixon, though, has his measure. For in Khruschev he recognizes an aspect of himself the calculating card player.
There is no doubt that Khruschev would have been a superb poker player.
First, he is out to win. Second, like any good poker player, he plans
ahead so that he can win the big pots. He likes to bluff, but he knows
that if you bluff on small pots and fail consistently to produce the cards,
you must expect your opponent to call your bluff on the big pots.(35)
Through his experience in Moscow, Nixon can project himself as the American leader capable of sitting down at a poker table with the communists in a game played with the prospect of nuclear confrontation should things go awry.
But Americans had rejected him. His last and biggest crisis, as he writes in the book, is the election of 1960. It was the first defeat of his political career, throwing into relief his earlier experiences where at times of personal crisis he had managed to emerge successful, with his political reputation enhanced. Now Kennedy had assumed the public role of heroic leader, despite the fact that, as Nixon's book makes clear, his own profile was at least as courageous as that of JFK. He projects himself as the president's equal. As JFK encounters the Bay of Pigs crisis, it is up to Nixon's daughter to speak his mind. The president asks him to the White House. Tricia Nixon relays the message: "JFK called. I knew it! It wouldn't be long before he would get into trouble and have to call on you for help."(36) Kennedy's first confrontation with communism had ended in the kind of defeat that Nixon had never encountered in his battles with the conspiracy both at home and abroad. Who, then, was the more capable heroic leader? For Nixon, finally elected to the White House in 1968, as for others who seek to disentangle the political achievement of JFK from the myth surrounding him, always it would be a question of character.
America's de Gaulle
John F. Kennedy projected himself in the role of heroic leader through an appreciation of the symbolic significance of crisis as a way of seizing and holding the nation's attention. For him, crisis and political courage were inextricably linked: only by facing and overcoming challenges would individual character be revealed. In turn, Six Crises is not simply an attempt to join the ranks of politician-intellectual. It is Nixon's howl from the political wilderness. It shows that he too understood the demand and the need for heroic political leadership during the cold war. His book attempts to establish its author's credentials as that leader in waiting. It is as if, after 1960, particularly after his defeat in the Californian gubernatorial election of 1962, Nixon became America's de Gaulle, awaiting the crisis and the time when the nation would turn to him--an admission of its previous error in failing to elect him president.
In 1946, de Gaulle had apparently retired from French political life, withdrawing his support for the nascent fourth republic. In 1958, he returned as president of the fifth republic and remained in power for the next decade, until the events of 1968 precipitated another and final resignation. De Gaulle thus knew the value of a dramatic gesture in politics: although he removed himself from public life in 1946, lie remained in the public mind thereafter. When the fourth republic collapsed, he was in a position to exploit the political opportunity. Compare Nixon. His famous "last press conference" after his defeat in California--"you won't have Nixon to kick around any more"--was another dramatic gesture from a consummate political actor. For even in defeat, Nixon ensured that he would capture the headlines. His apparent act of political suicide was the story of that election campaign: in fact, when Democrats studied recordings of the event in 1968 in an effort to brand Nixon with the image of a loser, as Stephen Ambrose comments, "They found nothing on the tape that was usable. Nixon had eluded them again."(37) Like de Gaulle, Nixon "retired" from political life very much on his own terms, awaiting the juxtaposition of circumstance and opportunity that would enable him to reemerge as a viable candidate for the presidency. As France turned back to de Gaulle in 1958, so would the United States turn once more to Nixon a decade later.
In a sense, then, whatever happened in California in 1962, Nixon emerged a winner. At that time, it seemed certain that Kennedy would run as the incumbent in the 1964 presidential contest. Nixon would not have wanted to challenge him. In the previous twenty years, first Thomas Dewey, then Adlai Stevenson, had tried twice to win the White House and failed, to be followed by Nixon, whose first attempt had ended in defeat. If Nixon had become governor of California, he could have removed himself temporarily from presidential politics through the pretext of placing state above nation. Losing effectively accomplished the same objective: removing him as a serious challenger to Kennedy--or in the event to Lyndon Johnson--in 1964. It did, however, also threaten Nixon's political base within the Republican party. And this was the focus of his efforts to rehabilitate his career in the following six years.
To do this, Nixon maintained his status as a potential statesman. His overseas vacation, which included his lunch with de Gaulle, was evidence of that: relaxation for Nixon out of office meant politicking with world leaders. Constantly attentive to his political profile within the Republican Party and within the nation as a whole, Nixon presented himself, he de Gaulle, as a man of destiny. In the preface to the 1968 edition of Six Crises, he wrote,
Sometimes a nation is ready and a man is not; sometimes a man is ready and
a nation is not; sometimes a nation decides that a man is ready for
leadership and his is the right kind of leadership for the time. Only time
will tell what course destiny will take in this watershed year of 1968.(38)
Again, the echoes of de Gaulle are in that sentiment: the destiny of the nation and the destiny of the leader are inextricably linked. The leader embodies the nation--the times call forth the hero.
In his memoirs, Nixon describes his decision to run for president in 1968 in terms familiar to the veteran of Six Crises. There is agonizing and indecision. He writes down the reasons for not running, ending with the Rhett Butler-like statement: "I don't give a damn." And yet, there could be no escaping his destiny. "I had somehow always known that if everything worked out right, I could have another presidential candidacy." And there is a quasi-religious epiphany when Billy Graham tells Nixon that he "had been denied the chance to provide leadership in 1960, but now, providentially, [he] had another chance. `I think it is your destiny to be President,' he said." The decision is made, and even Nixon's Cuban housekeeper is convinced: "You are the man to lead the country! This was determined before you were born!"(39) Nixon--like de Gaulle--cannot deny his fate, nor, ultimately, does he wish to do so.
Conclusion: Models of Heroic Leadership
In 1965, Alfred de Grazia described the American presidency as "the focus of the anxious crowd of the age."(40) The modern chief executive has had to operate in a climate of cultural expectations molded around the hope for inspirational leadership. As successive presidents accommodated their political styles to such aspirations, America was also fighting the cold war. Confronted by a totalitarian threat, its ideological enemies led by dictators who themselves promoted the myth of heroic leadership--a Stalin or a Mao, a Khruschev or a Ho Chi Minh--how might democratic America respond? Its own leaders had to be equal to the challenge.
Nixon believed that, as president, he should use Theodore Roosevelt's "bully pulpit" to fashion rather than to reflect political opinion, particularly in the area of foreign policy. As Stephen Ambrose puts it, "Rather than wait for a constituency to develop behind such [foreign] policies, Nixon acted, and by acting, created a constituency for them."(41) There is nothing new in this. The same aspiration might be ascribed to both Kennedy and Johnson. But Nixon's use of presidential power could be seen by his political opponents as evidence that, in seeking to manipulate consent, he was defining a political persona aloof from a liberal consensus. After his election in 1968, however, the president had to finesse a fundamental dilemma of democratic leadership: to define the course of public policy while retaining support among the electorate. Or, more simply, simultaneously telling and giving a divided public what it wanted. For in terms of Vietnam, Americans wanted both success and disengagement.
In the decay of political consensus that marked the transitions from JFK through LBJ and to Nixon, liberal commentators turned from supporting the president as heroic cold war leader (Kennedy) to suspicion of the chief executive's accumulation of power (Johnson) and finally to the conviction that the presidency itself was at the mercy of corrupt politicians (Nixon). The cold war imperial persuasion had created the imperial presidency. It is a thesis that neatly traps Nixon in an institutional accident that, according to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., was waiting to happen. In this way, "a plebiscitary presidency could be seen as the fulfillment of constitutional democracy." So,
Nixon was carrying the imperial presidency toward its ultimate form in the
plebiscitary Presidency with the President accountable only once every
four years, shielded in the years between elections from congressional
and public harassment, empowered by his mandate to make war or to make
peace, to spend or to impound, to give out information or to hold it
back, superseding congressional legislation by executive order, all in
the name of a majority whose choice must prevail till it made another
choice four years later--unless it wished to embark on the drastic and
improbable course of impeachment.(42)
By this line of argument, Nixon's presidency represented the culmination of historic trends that transcended the era of cold war America.
Thus, "personalization, the plebiscitary stance, and presidentially induced mass expectations, we are told, began with John Kennedy or, at the earliest, with Franklin Roosevelt." But Schlesinger immediately absolves two recent Democrat heroes from such responsibility. For "this notion springs from a curiously foreshortened view of American history. In fact, the Presidency has been a personalized office from the start, both for political reasons--the interests of the President--and for psychological reasons--the emotional needs ofthe people."(43) In other words, the office of chief executive has been molded by both historical circumstance and personality--presidential character. In the cold war, the imperial president defined the institution in a manner that threatened the political integrity of the constitutional system and its animating theory of checks and balances. Nixon's becomes the cathartic administration. It lays bare the realities ofthe imperial presidency and, at the same time, through the president's resignation, preserves the integrity ofthe Constitution. With Nixon, the imperial presidency disintegrates. But the dilemmas of presidential leadership remain.
Schlesinger's conception of the plebiscitary presidency, then, is reminiscent of Max Weber's analysis of the nature of the democratic process. Thus, "for Weber, plebiscitary democracy functioned to provide a reliable and efficient selection of rulers, not [to] legitimate political power." In this way, he defined such a democracy
as a form of Fuhrer-Demokratie (leader-democracy) as "a variant of
charismatic authority, which hides behind a legitimacy that is formally
derived from the will of the governed" ... but the real authority of
the ruler depends on the trust and commitment of his ... political
Such a democracy works well, then, when the charismatic appeal of the leader creates a genuine political constituency among the populace. Yet, Schlesinger's model of a plebiscitary democracy cannot operate when led by someone who, in his view, fails to command charismatic authority. In this sense, the imperial presidency fails because of Nixon's character: the thesis becomes almost a lament for the loss of charismatic leadership in America--a loss that resulted from the untimely deaths of both John and Robert Kennedy. Indeed, had Bobby survived in 1968 to beat Nixon at the polls and reinherit the political legacy that Johnson had usurped, The Imperial Presidency might have remained one ofthe great unwritten books of American constitutional analysis. Despite Nixon's attempts to offer himself as a president in the heroic mold of a Kennedy, which are revealed in his accounts of Six Crises, he proved unable to seize the popular imagination in the way achieved by his predecessor. But if not a Kennedy, why not a de Gaulle?
The political affinity that Nixon felt he had with the French president was evident in the relationship that he forged in Paris, not simply as a private citizen in 1963 but also as president himself in 1969. Nixon's first presidential visit overseas was to Europe. He recorded in his memoirs that "the high point of this trip personally and substantively was my series of meetings with De Gaulle." Their brief encounter at Orly airport was complete with symbolic actions on both sides. De Gaulle stood in almost freezing temperatures without a coat. Nixon immediately imitated him. The French president then welcomed his American counterpart by speaking English, "a virtually unprecedented gesture for him."(45) Nixon had arrived.
At a state dinner, Nixon's praise of de Gaulle pushed at the limits of diplomatic hyperbole. So "greatness of leadership can be seen in the character of a great man. That character can be measured in three ways: the quality of courage, the quality ofthe ability to convince others of a point of view, and the quality of being able to bring a nation back after that nation has fallen on difficult days." De Gaulle's life was "an epic of courage, an epic also of leadership seldom equaled in the history ofthe world, leadership which now has brought this great nation to the rightful place that it should have in the family of nations." Nixon described de Gaulle as "a leader who has become a giant among men because he had courage, because he had vision, and because he had the wisdom that the world now seeks to solve its difficult problems."(46) It is as if Nixon first paints a portrait of the heroic leader and then glimpses an image of himself as an elder statesman: his courage, his vision, and his wisdom would mean that he too might aspire to the role of heroic leadership.
Three months later, de Gaulle resigned. Nixon wrote him a personal letter, expressing his "deep sense of personal loss ... in this age of mediocre leaders in most of the world--America's spirit needs your presence." Eighteen months later, de Gaulle died. Nixon attended his funeral and met with his protege and successor, Georges Pompidou. "The two of us had lived and worked for so many of our public years in the shadows of two giants, Eisenhower and de Gaulle. Now both were dead. Pompidou sighed, and looking at me, said, `Enfin seuls.' He too must have been thinking about this bond we had shared; now we were alone."(47) Like Eisenhower, de Gaulle would be difficult to emulate as a national leader, but he defined the terms of the nature of leadership for his successors. He had become a significant part of Nixon's own sense of history and his part in it.
In contrast to such hubris, however, Nixon's conception of the presidency and his personal destiny would become eviscerated as Vietnam and Watergate brought about the collapse of popular confidence in the capacities of the president as heroic leader and forced him to emulate de Gaulle in a fashion that he could not have anticipated. He resigned. But as the only twentieth-century president to be elected after first being defeated at the polls, Nixon's career is unique in other ways. Approaching Nixon through the hinterland not simply of Kennedy but also of de Gaulle is to appreciate how models of political and presidential leadership emerge. Strategies for achievement of office and conduct in office are suggested too, which ultimately may depend as much on the appreciation of political possibilities and circumstances as on ideas of individual destiny or fate.
(1.) Quoted in Sidney Kraus, ed., The Great Debates: Kennedy vs. Nixon, 1960 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), p. 430.
(2.) William Leuchtenburg, In the Shadow of FDR (Ithaca, NY. Cornell University Press, 1983).
(3.) Quoted in Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State (New Haven, CT. Yale University Press, 1946), p. 281.
(4.) Norman Mailer, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," in Some Honorable Men (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976), pp. 18-19.
(5.) Jean Lacouture, De Gaulle: Le Souverain (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1986), vol. 3, p. 357: "Il vous faut faire votre campagne sur le theme d'une Amerique nouvelle."
(6.) Jean Lacouture, De Gaulle: The Ruler (New York: Norton, 1992), pp. 370-71.
(7.) Charles de Gaulle, Lettres Notes Et Carnets (Paris: Libraire Plon, 1986), p. 35.
(8.) Richard Nixon, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York. Grosset & Dunlap, 1978), p. 248.
(9.) Stephen Ambrose, Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician 1962-1972 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989), pp. 23-24.
(10.) Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Heroism," in Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (London: Bell & Daldy, 1866), vol. 1, p. 110.
(11.) John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961), p. 55.
(12.) Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), p. 499.
(13.) Henry Fairlie, The Kennedy Promise, quoted in Raymond Price, With Nixon (New York: Viking, 1977), p. 80. Price observes that "Nixon sought ... on taking office: to move, as he put it, from crisis management to crisis prevention."
(14.) Richard Nixon, Six Crises (New York: Pyramid, 1968), p. xxiii.
(15.) Arthur Schlesinger Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (London: Andre Deutsch, 1965), p. 584.
(16.) Garry Wills, Nixon Agonistes (Atlanta, GA: Cherokee, 1990), p. 147.
(17.) Stephen Ambrose, Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-621 (New York. Simon & Schuster, 1987), p. 639.
(18.) Nixon, Six Crises, p. xxviii.
(19.) Ibid., p. xxviii.
(20.) Wills, Nixon Agonistes, p. 147.
(21.) Nixon, Six Crises, pp. xxv-xxvi.
(22.) Ibid., p. 2.
(23.) Ibid., pp. 8-9.
(24.) Ibid., pp. 10-12. This view, which Nixon emphasizes in Six Crises, dramatizes his role in relation to the rest ofthe committee. There is no doubt, moreover,that the prevailing interpretation at the time was that Nixon alone had stood firm while the rest of the committee had expressed doubts about the wisdom of pursuing Hiss. See Sam Tanenhaus, Mittaker Chambers: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1997) for a further exploration of this. (I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for Presidential Studies Quarterly for this reference.)
(25.) Nixon, Six Crises, p. 12.
(26.) Wills, Nixon Agonistes, pp. 26, 28.
(27.) Nixon, Six Crises, p. 219.
(28.) Ibid., p. 223.
(29.) Ibid., p. 240.
(30.) Ibid., p. 246.
(31.) Ibid., pp. 253, 265.
(32.) Ibid., p. 270.
(33.) Ibid., p. 292.
(34.) Ibid., p. 294.
(35.) Ibid., p. 294.
(36.) Ibid., p. 439. Ben Bradlee in Conversations with Kennedy (New York: Norton, 1975) reports Kennedy's reaction to this: "I can't stand the way he puts everything in Tricia's mouth. It makes me sick. He's a cheap bastard; that's all there is to it" (p. 75).
(37.) Ambrose, Nixon: The Education of a Politician, p. 672.
(38.) Nixon, Six Crises, p. xvii.
(39.) Nixon, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, pp. 291-94 passim.
(40.) Alfred de Grazia, "The Myth of the President," reprinted in Aaron Wildavsky, ed., The Presidency (Boston: Little, Brown, 1969), p. 65.
(41.) Ambrose, Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, p. 654.
(42.) Arthur Schlesinger Jr., The Imperial Presidency (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989), pp. 254-55.
(43.) Ibid., p. 428.
(44.) Bryan Turner, Max Weber. From History to Modernity (London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1992), pp. 188, 222.
(45.) Nixon, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, p. 371.
(46.) Public Papers of the President of the United States: Richard Nixon, 1969 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1971), pp. 167-68.
(47.) Nixon, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, pp. 385-86.…
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Publication information: Article title: Richard Nixon's Political Hinterland: The Shadows of JFK Adn Charles De Gaulle. Contributors: Roper, Jon - Author. Journal title: Presidential Studies Quarterly. Volume: 28. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 1998. Page number: 422+. © 1999 Center for the Study of the Presidency. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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