Literary Vices, with Rudolph Delson: Richard Nixon's 'Six Crises'

JUST HIS FIRST SIX CRISES Sarah Palin’s memoirs will be released next week! To prepare, Rudolph Delson is reviewing the American vice presidential literary canon.

If you publish a memoir before the age of fifty (as Richard Nixon did in 1962, as Sarah Palin will in 2009), you must live the rest of your life in rivalry with it.

Because you turn fifty, and then sixty, and then seventy, and then eighty (as Richard Nixon did in 1993, as Sarah Palin may in 2044), and like any reflective citizen, like any complicated soul, you modulate your opinions, you undertake works and pleasures, you prove your mettle, you reveal your great self. You do your best, or your worst. And what does that damned memoir do? It does nothing! It leans against its library shelf, wearing an expression of casual immortality, its hands patiently in its pockets. Sure, sure: that memoir is happy to keep quiet; but it is also happy to talk. And when it talks, it talks about nothing except you, your character and your ambitions as they stood when you were still in your forties. Your book might say, for example, “Dick Nixon? Young Dick Nixon? He’s a brave man, and a man of principle.” And may God damn your memoir to hell for saying so, because for the last three decades you have been busy proving yourself to be a paranoiac and a crook.

So it is with Six Crises, the only successful vice-presidential memoir of modern times. Consider:

In 1952 and in 1956, Richard Nixon was elected Vice President. But he wrote no memoir! And so in 1960, when he ran against John F. Kennedy for the presidency, he lost. But Nixon learned his lesson. In 1962 he published Six Crises. And so when he ran for President the next time, in 1968, against Hubert H. Humphrey, Nixon won. No other memoir has ever done as much for a Vice President’s fortunes. But Six Crises is a strange book.

Nixon claims that he wants to recount certain incidents from his political life, in order to “describe my personal reaction to each one and then to distill out of my experience a few general principles on the ‘crisis syndrome.'” It sounds like a tedious exercise in bad mid-century social science, an impression only strengthened when Nixon informs us that he has been in correspondence with “James A. Robinson and Thomas W. Milburn of Northwestern University, two political scientists now engaged in a study of crisis behavior.”

What is so strange is that, despite purporting to have this larger project, Nixon’s book contains no theory, makes no argument. The few observations Nixon has about “crisis behavior” are so laughably vapid-the worst part of a crisis is making up your mind what to do; the most likely time to make a mistake during a crisis is when you are tired-that the reader asks why Nixon is pretending that his book is anything more than a memoir.

The reason, of course, is Jack Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage.

Book: Six Crises, by Richard M. Nixon

Published: 1962

Author’s V.P. Bona Fides: Republican nominee, 1952; defeated John Sparkman. Republican nominee, 1956; defeated Estes Kefauver.

National Electoral Success Post-Publication: Elected President in 1968 and 1972.

Oh, how Nixon must have envied Profiles in Courage! Because whether or not Kennedy himself was noble, Profiles in Courage made it look like Kennedy knew all about nobility in a democracy. And because whether or not Kennedy himself wrote the book, Profiles in Courage did win the Pulitzer Prize. (And because whether or not Jack Kennedy actually carried the State of Illinois in November of 1960, he assumed the presidency in January of 1961.)

As he began work on his memoirs, Nixon had every reason to feel intimidated; the only way he could overcome his intimidation was to believe that he could somehow top Kennedy. Nothing ever motivated Nixon more than the fear of loss. And so, if John F. Kennedy had written a book of essays about admirable moments in the lives of other senators, then, by God, Richard M. Nixon was going to write a book of essays about admirable moments in the life of Richard M. Nixon. Here they are, all six of them:

(1) Richard M. Nixon’s decision to take on Alger Hiss during hearings held by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1948.

(2) Richard M. Nixon’s decision to give the “The Checkers Speech” and save his candidacy in 1952.

(3) Richard M. Nixon’s decision to remain calm when President Dwight Eisenhower had his heart attack in 1955.

(4) The time when Marxists threw stones at him in Lima, Peru in 1958. Also, the time they spat on him in Caracas, Venezuela. Also, the time they tried to torch his limo.

(5) Richard M. Nixon’s decision to talk tough with Nikita Khrushchev in 1959.

(6) Richard M. Nixon’s decision to fight a clean fight against Kennedy in 1960.

And as described by Richard M. Nixon, Richard M. Nixon is a solid guy. In Russia he eats “a frozen white fish from Siberia, sliced thin and served raw, spiced with salt, pepper, and garlic.” In Argentina he eats “beef barbecued over an open fire, Gaucho style, with the animal hair still on it.” But he is still true blue, still all-American: “There happens to be nothing I like better than a rich milkshake.” He puts on no pretenses, wears no makeup, at most “some beard-stick to cover my five-o’clock shadow.” He loves puppies and hates Communism. He even cares about civil rights, as reflected in this entry from his index: “Civil rights, 325, 362-63; see also Negroes.” On Election Day, 1960, stuck in Southern California and not sure how to spend the hours until the polls close, Nixon gets in a car with his buddies, shakes off the press, and drives for lunch in Tijuana. All of this is spelled out in the dull prose of a man who’s read Hemingway and learned nothing from it. Here is Nixon describing that mob of Peruvian Marxists in 1958:

Walters, Sherwood and I got out of the car and walked directly toward the crowd. There were more than two thousand of them against three of us, yet those in front backed away. Their surprise was unmistakable. The noise of the shouting and whistling seemed to subside. I tried to get their attention, speaking in English with Walters shouting his interpretations in Spanish. “I would like to talk to you. If you have complaints against the United States, tell me what they are and I shall try to answer them. This is the free way, the democratic way to discuss the differences we have.” …

Walters whispered in my ear, “Mr. Vice President, they are throwing stones.”

In other words, if it weren’t for Nixon’s strange compulsion to structure his book as a study of “crisis behavior,” it would read like any of half a dozen other vice-presidential memoirs-almost.

Almost? Well, there are some baffling omissions from Six Crises. Nixon has almost nothing to say about his wife. He has almost nothing to say about his personal friends. He has nearly no memories of his childhood, nearly no interest in his own children. Perhaps some of this can be excused as incidental to a general mid-century reticence, to a broad tendency among men in post-World-War-II America to say little about their personal lives. But what to make of the fact that Nixon has so little to say about his convictions?

Oh, he is tireless in his exegesis of political tactics; he is astonishing in his memory for old political maneuverings; he is a political showman of the first class and he glories in it. And yet he never explains what those tactics, those maneuverings, that showmanship were meant to achieve. Reading Nixon’s memoir, I have little idea what the Republican Party’s platform might have contained in 1952, or 1954, or 1956, or 1958, or 1960, and I have little sense that Nixon cared much, either. To judge by Six Crises, it mattered to Nixon only that he win, not what he win for.

He is all means and no ends, and I would like to believe that Nixon’s destiny and doom would have been apparent from that fact alone.

But then, I would also like to believe it is possible to separate the unprincipled from the principled merely by reading their books; I would like to believe that I can detect a fraud based on prose alone! But I cannot, and you cannot, and neither can anyone else. Six Crises puts forth the false proposition that its author would be a fine President, and in 1968 and again in 1972 the silent majority of Americans agreed.

Previously: The Literary Career of George H. W. Bush

Rudolph Delson lives in Brooklyn. He has won no awards and earned no distinctions. His novel “Maynard & Jennica” is now available in paperback.