Fratricide comes to Dick Nixon: In the last few years of her life, Fawn Brodie, who was dying of cancer, wrote a peculiar book.
The book was published in 1981, after Brodie had died. It bore the title Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character.
Brodie’s semi-famous book was extremely strange. Equally strange is the fact that many elite journalists couldn’t tell—and that Professor Brodie’s book still plays a role in our lives.
Next week, we’ll look at the way Rick Perlstein adapted parts of Brodie’s book in his 2008 best-seller, Nixonland. For today, let’s take a final look at the way the New York Times reviewed the book in real time.
The New York Times couldn’t seem to see how strange this book really was. In a favorable review, senior reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt offered special praise for Brodie’s handling of one specific theme—“the theme fratricide in Nixon’s life.”
Can you make any sense of this jumble? We have no idea what this means:
LEHMANN-HAUPT (9/5/81): Eventually, though, we come across a particularly striking example of what makes Professor Brodie different and more challenging as a psychohistorian. She has been discussing the role of accidents in Mr. Nixon's career. This of course brings up the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This in turn raises what Professor Brodie sees as the connected subjects of Fidel Castro and Mr. Nixon's attempts to blame Mr. Kennedy for Ngo Dinh Diem's assassination, which Professor Brodie introduces by writing, somewhat cryptically, ''The Diem story, also essential in illuminating the theme of fratricide in Nixon's life, we shall tell only briefly."We have no idea what that means. “Fratricide” is normally defined as the killing of one’s own brother. In a secondary, metaphorical definition, it may be defined as the killing of one’s own allies or friends.
Fratricide? we wonder. What does the death of Diem have to do with the ''theme of fratricide in Nixon's life?” Then we recall Professor Brodie's early point that Mr. Nixon must have felt enormous guilt about surviving, and even prospering from, the deaths of two of his brothers, Edward and Arthur. And we realize that much of what she has been discussing in apparently neutral terms really has to do with this theme of fratricide.
This point she clinches in her final chapter, ''The Nixon Character,'' when after recalling all the brother-rivals Mr. Nixon has contended with during his career (Gerhart and Hanns Eisler, Alger and Donald Hiss, Fidel and Raul Castro, John and Robert Kennedy), she concludes: ''The pains to which Nixon went to prove that John Kennedy had connived in the assassination of the brothers Diem would seem to have been one more attempt to say, ‘Someone else is guilty, not I."
“Fratricide” doesn’t normally refer to the pursuit of pairs of brothers who constitute someone’s rivals. Meanwhile, it's just as Ldehmann-Haupt asked:
What would the death of Diem have to do with “the theme of fratricide in Nixon’s life?”
Richard Nixon didn’t pursue or assassinate President Diem. As Lehmann-Haupt notes, Brodie says that Nixon hoped to prove that President Kennedy played a role in his assassination.
What would that have to do with “the theme of fratricide in Nixon’s life?” Lehmann-Haupt asks that very question, then fails to answer it.
We could concoct a possible answer to that question, but Brodie never does at any point in her book. Weirdly, Lehmann-Haupt cites this hydra-headed jumble as his main example of what makes Brodie’s book so good!
That jumbled passage by Lehmann-Haupt made no earthly sense. That said, Brodie’s overall treatment of “fratricide” is even more of a jumble.
Brodie’s treatment of the topic takes us right to the edge of Crazytown. For whatever reason, Lehmann-Haupt couldn’t see that fact, or didn’t want to tell.
How crazy is Brodie’s treatment of this theme? Because her book still stalks our history and our journalism, that question is well worth exploring.
Brodie summarizes her findings about fratricide very late in her book. The passage, which is barely coherent, starts like this:
BRODIE (page 506): [B]lame for the more sinister theme of fratricide, running like a lethal shadow through Nixon’s life, should not rest with his parents. It was a development unique to him, which even now leaves me baffled and anguished. It surfaces too often to be accidental. Others have felt it...According to Brodie, she felt “baffled and anguished” in the face of the “sinister theme of fratricide,” which ran “like a lethal shadow through Nixon’s life,” surfacing too often to be accidental.
That did sound like a sinister assessment—and Brodie said she wasn’t alone in reaching it! “Others have felt it,” she wrote, apparently meaning that others have seen the way the theme of fratricide repeatedly surfaces in Nixon’s life.
Others had seen it, not just Brodie. But good God! As we post her full paragraph, check her first example:
BRODIE (page 506): [B]lame for the more sinister theme of fratricide, running like a lethal shadow through Nixon’s life, should not rest with his parents. It was a development unique to him, which even now leaves me baffled and anguished. It surfaces too often to be accidental. Others have felt it. Theodore White, friendly to Nixon in 1972, castigated the liberal press for treating Nixon “as if the brand of Cain were on him.” As we have seen, Nixon’s first act in Congress was not to attack the labor bosses, as he had promised, but to encourage the destruction of two brothers, Gerhart and Hanns Eisler, one a Communist spy, and the other a Communist composer. The second was to attack Alger Hiss, a liar, and also Hiss’s brother Donald, who bore the name of Nixon’s own brother. He started and encouraged the CIA movement to destroy Fidel Castro, and Raul Castro as well.In that highlighted sentence, Brodie presents her first example. Other people had been struck by the sinister theme of fratricide in Richard Nixon’s life!
“Others have felt it too,” she wrote. And then, as her only example, she cited White’s complaint about the way the liberal press castigated Nixon.
In fairness, White did mention Cain, the western world’s first example of someone who killed his brother. But White was speaking metaphorically. He wasn’t saying that journalists claimed that Nixon had actually killed his brother, as Cain had once killed Abel. He was saying that journalists had portrayed Nixon as the world’s most heinous man.
Was it true? Had other people felt the role of fratricide in Nixon’s life? Brodie cited White’s remark, then gave no other examples. As she continued, she went in a different direction, listing three sets of brothers Nixon had supposedly pursued in his public career.
In some ways, Brodie misstated the contents of her own book, as she repeatedly did in this text. Earlier in her book, she had shown Nixon attacking Gerhart Eisler, a Communist spy, in 1948. She hadn’t shown him attacking Hanns Eisler, although she noted that he too had come under general attack and had chosen to leave the country. (For whatever it’s worth, she hadn’t shown Nixon pursuing Donald Hiss, either.)
Whatever! Even if Nixon did pursue those sets of brothers, it wouldn’t be clear how that would mean that “the theme of fratricide” had widely appeared in his life. Cain slew Abel, his own brother. He didn’t try to bring down brothers from the next settlement over.
As we look at the passage we've posted, we have a question: What did Brodie even mean by the term “fratricide?” As she continues on page 506, her use of the term becomes even less clear as she mentions the Kennedy brothers.
(“The assassinations of the two Kennedy brothers were of great import to Nixon’s life, especially the killing of John Kennedy by Oswald, who had earlier talked of killing Nixon,” she writes. That may be true, but how does it establish “the theme of fratricide?”)
What did Brodie even mean by the term “fratricide?” At no point does this become clear. Indeed, way back in her initial chapter, she had launched this theme in complete confusion.
Go ahead! Try to decipher this paragraph, in which Brodie first mentions “the theme of fratricide:”
BRODIE (page 28): The impact of death was of compelling significance for Nixon, beginning with the tragic deaths of his two brothers: Arthur, the fourth son, who died after a brief and somewhat mysterious illness at age seven; and Harold, the eldest and favorite son, who died at thirty [sic] after a five-year battle with tuberculosis. The death of the eldest brother brought Nixon some advantages, and the inevitable survivor’s guilt. The fact that it took the deaths of the two Kennedy brothers—a terrible reactivation of the earlier tragedies—to ensure his own victory in the presidency plagued him, compounding his sense of melancholy in victory. A still more somber theme, running as a counterpoint to the impact of death, is the theme of fratricide. “For Nixon,” one of his White House aides said, “the shortest distance between two points is over four corpses.” This theme, too, began long before Watergate. And overriding all others is the theme of survival, survival without love. This remains the most consistent, the most remarkable, of all the aspects of Nixon’s life.That’s the only time Brodie uses the term “fratricide” until page 496. At that much later point, she weirdly cites the killing of Diem, in the statement Lehmann-Haupt quoted.
That passage from page 28 is an incoherent jumble. Brodie cites the deaths of Nixon’s two brothers, then cites the deaths of two Kennedy brothers. (Harold Nixon was actually 23 when he died.) Completing the hat trick, she tosses in an unexplained quotation about “four corpses.” Intentionally or otherwise, this creates a lot of excitement—and a giant amount of confusion.
Brodie never explains the “four corpses” quotation, although she cites it again, much later in her book. If the statement was actually made—in a 1974 news report, it was attributed to an anonymous Nixon aide—it apparently referred to the sacrificing of Nixon’s top aides in the attempt to survive Watergate.
The sacrificing of Nixon’s aides could be seen as “fratricide” in the secondary, metaphorical sense. But Brodie never tries to explain what she means by the term. On the few occasions when she uses it, she keeps creating more confusion by random references to Nixon’s own brothers and to various other sets of brothers in the world.
The confusion is vast. It’s never clear what Brodie is talking about, or why it has her “baffled and anguished.” And good grief:
With 517 pages to choose from, the New York Times senior reviewer chose this part of Brodie’s book as the principle source of his praise! On balance, he gave the book a favorable review, and Brodie’s handling of “the theme of fratricide in Nixon’s life” was the chunk of the book he most recommended!
Fawn Brodie was dying of cancer when she wrote this book. It’s possible that her intellectual faculties or her emotions had been adversely affected. It’s possible she didn't have time to produce a coherent book.
That said, her famous book is routinely an astonishing mess. But the New York Times senior reviewer apparently couldn’t tell. Many years later, neither could Perlstein, a point we’ll explore next week or in the week after that.
Most remarkably, one of Brodie’s basic treatments of Nixon seems to have transmigrated into the coverage of Candidate Gore in Campaign 2000. The gruesome coverage of that campaign changed the history of the world. It’s stunning to think that one major thread of that gruesome coverage may have been lifted from Brodie’s remarkable book.
Again and again, over and over, Brodie’s high-profile book was a mammoth, astonishing mess. Inquiring minds might want to know:
Why couldn’t the New York Times tell? And why is her volume still with us?