What follows is a review I wrote last year of David Greenberg’s book Nixon’s Shadow. As we approach the election, you might consider this look at Nixon as a way to look at any candidate.
David Greenberg takes a thorough look at the political lives and related personalities of arguably the most contemplated, analyzed and maligned American political figure in Nixon’s Shadow: The History Of An Image. Greenberg acknowledges and mines the extensive work already done by historians, analysts and reporters before him. By exploring the ways we look at Richard M. Nixon, Greenberg reveals both the capricious depths of Nixon as a politician and the resultant impact of his image craft upon the American voters’ psyche.
In explaining why Nixon and his images polarize — from the party faithful to the list of enemies — and create fascination for even the politically dispassionate, Greenberg enlightens the cave dweller as much as he can, arguing that the shadows cast by Nixon are both real and perceived (xii). Alluding to Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm in his introduction, Greenberg establishes that the use of a Nixon mask in an adolescent sexual rite of passage begs interpretations ranging from its symbolism for Nixon’s own “awkwardness” and “inauthenticity” to American estrangement from the political system and ourselves (xvi). While not the first and certainly not the last politician concerned with image, Nixon represents “the primacy of images in politics” for postwar America (xxvi). By illustrating the mutable path of Nixon from congressman to symbol, Greenberg examines how and why “individual perceptions” (xii) permeate the pictures Americans have of Nixon, for every image of Nixon stems from something real in Nixon (xxxi). Greenberg concedes this does not mean every image is accurate, yet each image does have a valid reason for existing.
By exploring the arc of Nixon’s postwar career, Greenberg opens with candidate Nixon’s populist image. Recruited by Herman Perry for the Committee of 100, Nixon represented an ideal GOP challenge to the incumbent, New Deal supporting, Democratic congressman Voorhis. Church-going, veteran, attorney Richard Nixon would prove to have an “affinity for image craft . . . rooted in the distinct political culture of twentieth-century California, where, before the rest of the country, the cultivation of a candidate’s image was a key to electoral success” (4). Nixon crafted of himself a candidate who would enable him to win: “a clean-cut, upright avatar of the hopes of Americans who looked forward to a new era of opportunity and ease after the depression and the war” (4). Nixon used the imagery of his community and upbringing to fashion a victory. Greenberg reminds readers that the critics of this early Nixon image came on the scene later, and regardless of the criticisms, the image and its “poten[t] . . . conservative populism” won the election in 1946 (5). To the conservative populist, government was no longer doing its job of serving the people, it was now holding him back (10). Nixon effectively walked the balance beam of running for office. He was who he needed to be. Greenberg informs us that Nixon was “aware of the issues,” yet he “refrained from offering a concrete platform” (14). Rather than saying what he would do, Nixon asked what the public wanted (15), and “(i)f his policy was anti-labor, it was not anti-laborer” (17). From this populist conservative image, Nixon established future threads for future elections. He spoke of “the forgotten man” in that early campaign whom Greenberg indicates evolves into the “Middle Americans” and the “Silent Majority” of his presidency (17). To get elected, one must speak for those who cannot or do not speak for themselves. Not much controversy here.
Critics only later charged Nixon with attacking Voorhis “opportunistically” (22), I wonder why that would be surprising. What politician, wanting to win, has not been opportunistic about his opponent’s record? Nixon’s success in 1946, may have been a result of his image, his campaign, his policies, but as Greenberg points out, “Across the country, Republicans drove out New Dealers in what the news media heralded as a changing of the guard. The GOP captured both houses of Congress for the first time since 1928” (26-27). With his “affinity for ordinary, middle-class families, his capacity for straightforward talk, his authenticity” (32), Nixon may very well have simply been the right guy, in the right place, at the right time, all the while capitalizing on Boorstin’s pseudo-event (xix) which Greenberg suggests throughout the book.
In the House and the Senate for six years, and then as vice-president for another eight, Nixon put on the mantle of anti-communist during a time of fear and uncertainty for many Americans; he could be the hero to the common man. It was also during this time that Nixon found himself with a new image crafted by others. His fame became national, and Nixon was not only a popular Republican speaker, but he was also a popular target of the liberal Democrat (36). Hated not just for his politics, but also for who he was, journalists and the public now crafted an image that “was a photographic negative of the conservatives’ all-American hero” (39). The cries of opportunism helped create the notion that Nixon was a phony, tricky, yet in attacking Nixon, not only was the Tricky Dick image created, but so too was the elitist, out of touch, liberal Democrat (40).
In distrusting Nixon, liberals demonstrated they distrusted the American public, and the Checkers speech solidified Nixon’s position as well-loved on the right and most-hated on the left for the next eight years (and for many the rest of his life): “The address not only crystallized the conservatives’ image of Nixon as an all-American hero but proved seminal for liberals as well . . . transform[ing] Nixon from . . . corrupt, business-friendly right-winger into a uniquely sinister operator of the machinery of modern politics” (50). In 1956, with his role in doubt as vice-presidential candidate for another four years, “Nixon tried to remake himself as more mature and less combative – the first of what would be many ‘New’ Nixons” (63). This remake was not so very new, however, as “Nixon – devoid of beliefs, willing to do anything to win” (64) was only acting the same way he had acted a decade earlier. Greenberg’s argument that there is validity in images created comes through again. For ultimately liberal attacks on Nixon’s deceptions may have been accurate, but maybe liberals had lost the pulse of the public, contributing to “the neglect of poverty, public health, and the environment” (67). This misreading by liberals might best be seen in the presidential election of 1960.
Democratic candidate John Kennedy and Republican candidate Richard Nixon and the results of the election itself reveal tremendous miscalculations from both sides. “Some charged that the two nominations represented the triumph of style over substance” (69). The closeness of the race and the emphasis on style indicate blindness from both sides. “Nixon,” for one, “so skilled with TV during the Fifties, ironically now fell victim to an increasingly image-conscious culture” (71). And “liberals forgot that Nixon’s defeat was almost a triumph,” (71), so they were stunned by Nixon’s victory another eight years later, but they would drag out their image of Tricky Dick over the course of Watergate, and they would remain out of touch with the very voters Tricky Dick managed to woo (72).
Through his populist rhetoric, Nixon won the election in 1968, but charges of phoniness remained, and Nixon and a radical fringe of the left would butt heads with each other over the course of his presidency. By 1968, the nation was divided. Government suspected the left, and the left suspected the government. Both had good reason. “[T]he left’s conspiratorial image of Nixon seeped into the wider culture and became a powerful force in hastening the president’s resignation” (76), contributing no doubt to Nixon’s view that he was “up against an enemy, a conspiracy . . . . They’re using any means. We are going to use any means” (78). Each side rightly feared the other. Nixon faced a New Left, and they “reinforced each other’s fears” (80). The images, while not absolutely accurate, harbor a reason for existence.
The left created an image of Nixon as conspirator, and Nixon did them the favor of fitting the bill: “Nixon’s program of political repression was qualitatively different from anything American protest movements had recently experienced. The assaults were concerted, coordinated, well financed and thorough” (84). All the same, charges of conspiracy were not heard as rational, but they certainly grabbed “the imagination” (86).
Because of the New Left Radicals, Nixon became a symbol of government corruption and conspiracy. While such corruption did not start with Nixon, he certainly did not behave as an innocent would. “During the Nixon era . . . indulging paranoid fantasies made sense” (93). Not only were charges of violent provocation from the White House uncommon, but such charges were not beyond the “realm of possibility” (96). Meanwhile, the charges against Nixon which at one time seemed outrageous contributed to making impeachment possible, according to Greenberg (97), and Nixon’s role in Watergate both confirmed the radical left’s fears and solidified Nixon’s role as symbol of the whole corrupt governmental system (103). As Watergate grew in the media, the New Left Radicals’ image of Nixon as conspiracist gained strength and created a paranoid view of a paranoid president. Greenberg insists the “radicals helped create the conditions that made impeachment possible” (124), yet “[p]olitics no longer seemed a realm in which we could expect to find anything authentic at all” (125). The disillusionment created by Watergate and impeachment created a bloc of voters who may very well never vote again.
The conspirator image, the manipulator (tricky) image, and the populist image all played a part in the image we have of “Nixon as News Manager” (126). Greenberg insists this image we have of manipulative Nixon news managing is misleading. “For all their protests about Nixon’s manipulation of the media, their interpretations of the president ultimately proved far more influential and enduring than his own” (129). Nixon’s earliest political press coverage had been positive (133), according to Greenberg, but Nixon had to be the one controlling the image. Not one to glad handle the press, they had a hard time liking him. “Few reporters felt any warmth from Nixon, and the discomfort, not any political disagreement, fostered a distrust” (134). After the success of the Checkers speech and addressing the people directly, Nixon hoped to continue with similar successes and leaving out the media. As Greenberg says, deciding for himself “how he appeared” (135). Ultimately, as long as the press looked favorably on him, so his popularity was strong. When the press discovered his duplicity, however, the press created the image of Nixon as false, duplicitous, deceitful. Greenberg feels reporters did not realize at the time that their role in presidential image making is just as significant as the President’s. While reporters felt duped, they also helped turn public opinion in favor of impeachment, and as a result of the impeachment and journalisms role and Nixon’s manipulation, we look at news management in a different way: “Any act of news management could be the tip of an iceberg of concealment; any hint of deceit could justify an investigation” (176).
Impeachment is bound to make anyone feel victimized, and it certainly had that impact upon Nixon, but it was not the first time he felt threatened. From 1948 coverage of his role in the Hiss case to the fund scandal in 1952 to his suspicions of Kennedy stealing the election in 1960 (188) led Nixon to “believe his actions had been justified” with Watergate (189). By Watergate, long-time loyal supporters had witnessed the media turn against their boy, “and many Americans realized that the [Tricky Dick] image said as much about the liberals’ enmity toward Nixon as about his own wiliness” (186-187). When the President of the United States is under fire, even previously mild supporters are often bound to become rabid protectors, and for some of those protectors, the “victim image endure[s]” (231). The question arising from the victim mentality, according to
Greenberg, is how could Nixon view himself as a victim?
Greenberg outlines the rise of popular psychology in the postwar years and its impact on historical analysis and journalism and how we view Nixon. Greenberg explains that no psychological account of Nixon is complete, but American questioning of Nixon’s psychological health is the curious image to come out of the psychoanalysis. “Nixon later admitted . . . that a self-destructive impulse had been at work” (262), and it is after Nixon that “Americans scrutinized the emotional fitness of all their potential leaders . . . . Watergate established ‘some link between the private and public person’” (263). Greenberg argues psychiatry cannot give us the answers we are looking for about Nixon when he cites Fawn Brodie. Psychiatry would allow us to put a label on Nixon, and we think a nice label would give us the answers we want (265). But ultimately, psychiatry may very well reveal to the American public that Nixon is very much like many of us – just as he campaigned that he was (267).
Greenberg shows us that Nixon is in many ways what he claimed to be. Nixon is also everything we make him out to be, and he is much of what he was made to appear by other image makers. Nixon was a crook, a liar, and he was one of us. He was every New Nixon he created and then some. Opening Greenberg’s book, I knew the resigned Nixon. The elder statesman Nixon. The tanned, rested and ready Nixon. Greenberg presented sides to Nixon I did not know. I can understand now why my family would have voted for him the times they did vote for him. But, Greenberg also helps me to realize that I knew him outside of his history. “Time can bring forgetfulness as well as perspective, distortion as easily as clarification” (327). More than anything, Greenberg reveals to me not Nixon, but every candidate I consider.