The way Fawn Brodie reasoned: In 1981, an influential book was published by the late Fawn Brodie, who had succumbed to cancer before publication.
Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character was a work of psychobiography. Sadly, the weird influence of Brodie’s weird book has continued into the present:
One unfortunate part of the book seemed to transmigrate into the press corps’ coverage of Campaign 2000. Eight years later, Rick Perlstein cited the book as a major source for an early, cartoonized part of his important best-seller, Nixonland.
Yesterday, we began to explore the weirdness of Brodie’s chains of reasoning. We looked at a strange discussion of the ways the young Richard Nixon was punished by his father.
Today, let’s set mere spanking aside. Let’s feel the weirdness as Brodie asks and answers a rougher question:
“Did Frank Nixon kick his sons?”
Did Frank Nixon kick his sons? We have no earthly idea, but then again, neither did Brodie! Her discussion, which was borderline crazy, started off like this:
BRODIE (page 44): Did Frank Nixon kick his sons? The theme of kicking, and of being kicked, appears early in Nixon's life, and surfaces repeatedly. As we shall see, in a letter to his mother written at age ten, he complains about being kicked...At this point, things sound promising! According to Brodie, Nixon wrote a letter in which he complained about being kicked. When he was just ten years old!
Alas! Thirty-two strange pages later, we learn what Brodie was talking about. She was talking about the “letter” which Nixon wrote in the voice of a dog—for a school assignment, Perlstein says—in which the dog complains about being kicked by a boy with whom he went hunting. For background, click here.
Back on page 44, Brodie let us imagine something exciting and different. But to see the professor’s essential Crazy, let’s extend her passage a bit:
BRODIE (page 44): Did Frank Nixon kick his sons? The theme of kicking, and of being kicked, appears early in Nixon's life, and surfaces repeatedly. As we shall see, in a letter to his mother written at age ten, he complains about being kicked. In Peru, when he was spat upon, he kicked the hostile demonstrators in the shin, and reported the satisfaction in Six Crises. His statement to the press in 1962, after the defeat by Pat Brown, became famous: “You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around any more.”Did Frank Nixon kick his sons? In response to that uncaused question, we’re now discussing: 1) a “letter” in the voice of a dog; 2) a comment Nixon made about kicking someone who assaulted him when he was an adult; and 3) Nixon’s famous statement about “not having Dick Nixon to kick around any more.”
Once you know about the “letter,” does any of that suggest to you that Frank Nixon kicked his sons? After this very peculiar start, Brodie continues along in a similar vein, quoting a handful of remarks about people getting (metaphorically) kicked, random remarks drawn from Nixon’s decades in public life.
After this handful of pointless quotations, Brodie voiced her conclusion. As almost anyone can see, this is crazy/peculiar:
BRODIE (page 45): Whether Frank Nixon kicked his son or not is not as certain as that Nixon felt himself to be kicked around by his father. That the idea of kicking came easily to Frank Nixon his son made clear in Six Crises. After listening to his “Checkers” speech, Nixon wrote that Frank Nixon had observed, “It looks to me as if the Democrats have given themselves a good kick in the seat of the pants,” and when Pat learned of his she remarked, “it sounded just like him.”With that, Brodie ended this section of her chapter. Somehow, she had deduced that it was certain “that Nixon felt himself to be kicked around by his father.” (And yes, that’s what her language says.) She further said it wasn’t as certain that Frank Nixon kicked his kids.
(For her final bit of evidence, she quoted a pointless remark Nixon’s father made in 1952. When Pat Nixon heard about the remark, she said it sounded just like him!)
Judged as a matter of scholarship, that passage is deranged. Brodie never presents any reason for raising her question at all. In reams of oral history about Nixon’s childhood, no one ever said or suggested that Frank Nixon kicked his sons.
Brodie simply invented the question, pulling it out of thin air.
Once the question had been raised, she set off on one of her chains of reasoning. In a rational world, her account of that “letter” is an act of literary fraud. Her use of Nixon’s famous statement from 1962 is, essentially, crazy.
This passage spans pages 44 and 45 of Brodie's book. It is essentially crazy. Indeed, the passage was so strange that even the New York Times was able to see the problem. In his review of Brodie’s book, senior reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt started with excerpts from this passage:
LEHMANN-HAUPT (9/21/81): The late Fawn M. Brodie was something of a psychohistorian—or so one would have to conclude from passages in the two books that she published prior to the present one, ''The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton'' and the controversial ''Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History.''Lehmann-Haupt was too polite to mention the way Brodie steamed the letter shut. But even the Times was able to see the weirdness of this passage.
So there were almost bound to be in her final biographical study, ''Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character,'' at least a few of those psychoanalytic passages that make a reader flinch with their simplistic presumptuousness. For example: ''Did Frank Nixon kick his sons? The theme of kicking, and of being kicked, appears early in Nixon's life, and surfaces repeatedly.''
''His statement to the press in 1962, after the defeat by Pat Brown, became famous: 'You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around any more.' Less widely known were private comments such as 'We'll kick their toes off in 1968.' and 'Kick the weirdos and beardos on the college campuses.' ''
''Whether Frank Nixon kicked his son or not is not as certain as that Nixon felt himself to be kicked around by his father.''
Even then, readers were told that it was one of “a few” passages “that make a reader flinch.” In fact, Brodie’s book spills with ludicrous chains of reasoning. They’re found on virtually every page; they dominate the book.
On Saturday, we’ll show you the ridiculous way Brodie explored “the theme of fratricide” in Nixon’s life. Tomorrow, though, we’ll show you more of the reasoning from that Times review.
It’s stunning to think that a book this strange continues to play a role in our lives. But in real time, the New York Times couldn’t see, or wasn’t willing to say, how odd this book really was. And in 2008, a widely-praised contemporary writer was taking Brodie’s weird presentations and embellishing them a bit more.
Can we humans reason at all? Is our reasoning really a set of cartoons? Is it cartoons all the way down?
Next week, we’ll show you the cartoonized portraits Perlstein drew in Chapter Two of his widely-praised book. From there, we’ll move to Brodie’s possible role in the coverage of Campaign 2000.
Brodie’s book was fundamentally nuts. Are we humans able to tell?