In retrospect, it seems almost unthinkable that anyone but Richard Nixon would win the presidential election in 1968. Although at a certain point that year, it was no longer surprising that he would win, it was not self-evident from the beginning. Once the conventions were over, however, it was clear, at least to observers like Mailer, that he would easily defeat Humphrey in the general election, which he did Still, most of the literature at that time focused on the person of Nixon rather than the larger implications of his nomination and victory. In this, the notion of the ‘new Nixon’ was particularly important, comparing his campaign that year to his race against John F. Kennedy eight years earlier in 1960. Even though Nixon has gone down in history as a controversial figure in light of the Watergate scandal, people at the time had varying opinions of him, not always negative.
Nixon as a villain
Perhaps the fiercest critic of Richard Nixon was Thompson, who wrote about him for most of his political career and never hid the antipathy he felt for him. In 1968 he wrote “The Richard Nixon Doll” in which he gave his thoughts on the new Nixon. He describes him as something fake and plastic; a ruthless opportunist who will do whatever is necessary to make sure he will win. In fact, the main reason why he decided to run again was because he felt like he had a chance after the events of the nineteen-sixties, providing the right circumstances for him to run and potentially win. Thompson’s criticism continued after the election, for example in his account of Nixon’s inauguration is aptly titled “Memoirs of a Wretched Weekend in Washington” (1969), in which he suggests that the main reason he went was to make sure that this was actually happening; that “it wasn’t a TV trick. It seemed impossible that it could actually happen: President Nixon” (The Great Shark Hunt 179), showing his disbelief and disgust at the realization that Richard Nixon had been elected president.
Not surprisingly, Cleaver also strongly condemned Richard Nixon, describing him as “the foulest racist pig ever to become president of the United States, Richard Meally Mouth Nixon” (par. 3) in a text called “To My Black Brothers In Vietnam” from 1970. As with many other issues, Cleaver would go on to change his mind, even going so far as to say in Soul on Fire that he has forgiven Nixon and come to terms with the hatred he felt for him in the past, although that change probably has more to do with Cleaver himself than with Nixon. Baldwin never really went into great detail on his feelings about Nixon, but what he did say makes clear enough how he felt, and he was particularly critical of Nixon’s civil rights policies. In No Name in the Street, Baldwin talks about Black Panthers and the problem with ghettos, suggesting that “Nixon and other politicians reinforce separation” (163-164), rather than carrying on with the progress that had been made in the years before. As such, Nixon was also an indication that America would never change, unlike what some had hoped (Baldwin No Name 92), making a connection between the promise of change that the early nineteen-sixties had offered, and the reality of racism and segregation that African Americans still faced under the Nixon administration.
Mailer’s account is very ambivalent, rather than outright negative. Overall he does not really know what to think of Nixon and he identifies elements of both the old and the new Nixon in his appearances, even annotating a press conference to identify which is which, suggesting that it was not a complete transformation yet. The media in particular were fascinated with Nixon (Mailer Miami 36), because a comeback had seemed impossible and they were wondering whether he had changed or if they had just misinterpreted him from the beginning. Mailer himself felt a similar confusion, ending his report on the Republican Convention with a long list of possible interpretations, but without being able to give a definitive conclusion of his feelings on Nixon because “he had not been able to come away with an intimation of what was in a politician’s heart” (Mailer Miami 79), something that was new to him and thoroughly worried him.
‘Nixon is a man of commercially created image.’ (Deloria)
What was clear to Mailer, however, was that the new Nixon was an older Nixon, who had learned from some of his mistakes, which also meant a greater emphasis on his image. He calls him an actor; “the spirit of television. Mass communication was still his disease.” (Miami 77), suggesting that Nixon was a man who cared mostly about how he came across on television and often said things only to appeal to certain audiences. As far as the new Nixon is concerned, Deloria’s most important observation is similar to Mailer’s. In 1972, Deloria suggested that Nixon “created an entity which would and could change to reflect everything that bothering voters without actually facing any of the ultimate issues” (We Talk 52); he is a man of “commercially created image” (We Talk 81) . This is related to the increased role of television, with an emphasis on form rather than content (Deloria Custer 240), which led Nixon to present a more perfect version of himself, without paying much attention to his actual policies. Although Deloria has credited Nixon for some of his policies on Indigenous issues, such as the move toward self-determination, but he is highly critical of his views on topics like law and order and the Vietnam war, suggesting that both Nixon and Johnson were “professional politicians and opportunists of the first magnitude” (Custer 50), who did not really care about the issues they stood for.
Nixon in context
Although it is a much later account, written post-Watergate, Vidal’s essay on Richard Nixon from 1983 also adds interesting nuances to the traditional depictions of Nixon, though in a slightly different manner. Although Vidal acknowledges Nixon’s flaws and expresses his dislike of him, he provides important context to nuance this criticism. By looking beyond the negative portrayal to see why he was like that, Vidal draws the conclusion that Nixon was far from unique. Considering every president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Vidal draws the following conclusion:
“We are stuck with the peculiar notion that Nixon just happened to be the one bad apple in a splendid barrel. The fact that there has not been a good or serious president since Franklin Roosevelt is ignored, while the fact that Nixon was corrupt some of the time, and complex and devious all of the time, is constantly emphasized in order to make him appear uniquely sleazy.” (901-902)
Clearly, it would be wrong to suggest that Nixon was the only bad president the United States had had since the Second World War, and although that does not make him a good president, it is a very different take from the blunt criticism that others issued. This is another reason why it might be good to take a second look at Nixon and find some nuance, especially in our post-Watergate era.
- In hindsight, was there really a new Nixon? And if there was something “new” about him in 1968, to what extent was that really genuine?
- Could Nixon have benefited from extra media attention because he gave them what they wanted?