When journalists fashion cartoons: Was Richard Nixon already crazy when he was just 11?
That’s the sense of Rick Perlstein’s writing in his 2008 best-seller, Nixonland.
We started discussing this topic last weekend. This is the highly peculiar passage in question:
PERLSTEIN (page 21): Richard Nixon was a serial collector of resentments. He raged for what he could not have or control. At the age of seven, he so wanted a jar of pollywogs a younger boy had collected from the forbidden canal that he beaned the kid in the head with a toy hatchet (his victim bore the scar for life). He ever felt unfairly put upon: at age ten he wrote a letter to the mother he revered, rendered distant by the raising of four other often-sickly boys, for a school assignment in the voice of a pet. Addressed “My Dear Master,” it spun out fantastic images of unearned persecutions. “The two dogs that you left with me are very bad to me…While going through the woods one of the boys triped [sic] and fell on me...He kiked [sic] me in the side...I wish you could come home right now.” A few months later, he betrayed another foreshadowing trait: groveling to elevate his status in life. “Please consider me for the position of office boy mentioned in the Times paper,” he wrote to the big-city daily his family took and which he devoured, the reactionary Los Angeles Times. “I am eleven years of age...I am willing to come to your office at any time and I will accept any pay offered.”When Richard Nixon, just turned 11, tried to get that job at the Times, was he already “groveling to elevate his status in life?” When he wrote that composition at age 10, was he, “a serial collector of resentments,” showing that “he ever felt unfairly put upon?”
He contained his raging ambition in the discipline of debate...
Wow! We’d have to say those claims are inane. Inane, and tending toward cruel.
On Saturday, we asked what it means about our culture when an historian is honored for making the types of presentations and claims you see in that cockeyed passage. We think it means something bad.
For what it’s worth, Perlstein’s sourcing of this trio of claims is virtually non-existent. In his 1987 biography of Nixon, Stephen Ambrose presented the full text of the “My Dear Master” composition and of the letter to the Times. According to Ambrose, Nixon’s mother provided both documents to Bela Kornitzer in connection with Kornitzer’s 1960 biography, The Real Nixon.
(Ambrose offers no wild interpretations of the documents. He does say that the “My Dear Master” document was a favorite of Nixon’s “numerous psychobiographers,” who “go to great lengths to analyze its hidden meanings.”)
As best we can tell, Kornitzer’s name isn’t mentioned anywhere in Perlstein’s sourcing. (We’re not saying it should be.) At the start of his Chapter Two, he provides an all-encompassing note citing biographies by Leonard Lurie and Fawn Brodie as the sources readers should see “for Richard Nixon’s early life.”
Through the bulk of his adult life, Lurie was a public school administrator; he also wrote a biography of Nixon in 1972. Brodie wrote a widely-criticized psychobiography of Nixon in 1981. Presumably, Perlstein is adopting the unflattering interpretations presented in those earlier books as he helps us see that Nixon was already nutty at 7. Because of the pollywogs!
What does it mean when our era’s major writers are praised for this kind of work? We’d suggest it means that modern journalistic culture is adopting the norms of the novel—or more accurately, of the cartoon.
In one final post on this topic, we’ll review the crazily unflattering portraits Perlstein drew of each of Nixon’s parents; we’ll struggle to discern the basis on which he felt free to sketch these cartoons. For today, let’s look at the remarkable portrait he draws of the town where Nixon was born—and of the many “godforsaken burgs” where Nixon campaigned for the Senate decades later.
How do we liberals practice to lose? As he starts Chapter Two, Perlstein shows how to create the class resentments Nixon drew upon with great success all through his adult career:
PERLSTEIN (page 20): Chapter Two/The OrthogonianWas California full of “godforsaken little burgs” when Nixon ran for the Senate in 1950? Had Nixon been born in one of those “godforsaken burgs,” across from a “cruddy” ditch?
By 1966 Richard Nixon had been clawing all his life. Whenever a dirty job had to get done, he had been there to do it.
From the time he was a boy in the Southern California citrus groves, staying up half the night to man the creepy little potbellied orchard heaters that kept the frost from the trees but not the black smudge from the boy tending them, to stain his clothes for school the next day; from the time his father built a combination grocery and gas station and made it his second son’s dirty job to begin each day in the dark, at 4 a.m., driving to the Los Angeles market to select the day’s produce; from the time he was denied a chance to go to Harvard because he could only afford to live at home; from the time he was blacklisted from his little local college’s single social club because he was too unpolished; from the time he was reduced to sharing a one-room shack without heat or indoor plumbing while he was working his way through Duke Law School; from the time, finishing third in his class, he trudged frantically from white-shoe Wall Street law firm to white-shoe Wall Street law form and was shown the door at each one (he ended up practicing law back home, where, forced to handle divorce cases, he would stare at his shoes, crimson-red with embarrassment, as women related to him the problems they suffered at the marital bed). To the time, back from the war, he begged Southern California’s penny-ante plutocrats, navy cap in hand, for their sufferance of his first congressional bid; to the time he trundled across California in his wood-paneled station wagon, bringing his Senate campaign into every godforsaken little burg in that state with so many scores of godforsaken little burgs.
The town he was born in, Yorba Linda, was just that sort of godforsaken little burg. Frank Nixon has built a little plaster-frame house there in 1910 across from a cruddy, oversize ditch that must have shaped one of the boy’s earliest indelible impressions of the world.
As a boy and then as a youth, was Nixon involved in a series of “dirty jobs” as he worked to help his family, even as they lost two of his brothers to childhood diseases? And by the way, in a different vein:
Do you really believe that, as a young lawyer, Nixon “would stare at his shoes, crimson-red with embarrassment,” as women explained the basis for their legal actions? In notes, we looked for a source for that entertaining claim. There is none. But then, these passages are cartoons.
Our view? When “historians” write about dirty jobs in godforsaken burgs, they are teaching us liberals how to lose. Somewhat ironically, they are encouraging liberals to recreate the sense of resentment on which Nixon often drew for his electoral success.
In our mind, it’s a losing game when liberals trade the norms of journalism and scholarship for the culture of cartoonized novels. Later this week, we’ll explain why.
That said, was Nixon crazy at age 7? If he was, Perlstein has no apparent way to know it. But as Nixon knew by the late 1960s, regular voters will always hate the swells who express their contempt for regular people in this ridiculous, sneering manner.
For the record, these same techniques were used against Candidate Gore during Campaign 2000. According to one major journalist, he was a creepy little guy by the age of 6!
This signaled other scribes that it was OK for them to pile on. But then, progressives always stand to lose the most when basic rules and procedures are abandoned in favor of clowning and license.
Did Nixon grow up in a cruddy burg? Let's sneer when we say those things, liberals!