Rick Perlstein’s Nixon doll: Was Richard Nixon already crazy when he was seven years old?
Rick Perlstein pretty much gives that impression in the second chapter of Nixonland, his 2008 best-seller.
(For a fascinating reading experience, see “Chapter Two/The Orthogonian,” pages 20-43. Prepare to study hard.)
The chapter presents an overview of Nixon’s earlier years, from his birth on through the Checkers speech. It starts with a peculiar portrait of Yorba Linda, “the godforsaken little burg” where Nixon spent his childhood, doing a series of “dirty jobs.”
Perlstein starts with that highly peculiar, highly unflattering portrait of Yorba Linda. He follows with a somewhat peculiar, highly unflattering portrait of Nixon’s father.
A highly peculiar, highly unflattering portrait of Nixon’s mother appears a bit later on. But at that point, Perlstein offers this highly peculiar portrait of Nixon as a child:
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.”We’re always surprised when writers attack a politician's behavior at ages like 7 or 10. In the case of Candidate Gore, the age of demonization was once lowered to age 6, as we’ll note in a later post. (We mention this to help you picture where these intellectual practices lead.)
He contained his raging ambition in the discipline of debate...
Was Nixon already driven by rage at the age of 7? That’s what we seem to be told in that highly peculiar passage—a passage which also announces the death of the west. When major writers feel empowered to write in such ludicrous ways—when no one bats an eye if they do—our most basic intellectual norms are plainly being discarded.
Was Nixon already “raging for what he could not have or control” by the age of 7? Perlstein doesn’t provide a source for this implied claim, so we searched on “pollywogs” to see what we could find.
Success! As part of the Richard M. Nixon Oral History Project conducted in the early 1970s by Cal State Fullerton, we found an interview with Gerald Shaw. Shaw was the “victim” of Nixon’s 7-year-old rage, the fellow who “bore the scar for life.”
Struggling to control his emotions, Nixon’s victim told the story to researcher Jeff Jones. The designations of “laughter” appear in the official transcript:
JONES (6/3/70): Could you tell me something about the red bridge, please?...You know, the bridge that you used to cross to the Nixons’ house?All too plainly, the victim was still in pain from his encounter with young Nixon’s rage. Moments later, he offered his capsule account of Richard Nixon, age 7 and thereabouts:
SHAW: Oh, yes. Oh, that was an old rickety rascal, man! (laughter) That was an old beat-up thing. If you made it across that thing, why, you were quite lucky! There used to be a bunch of pollywogs that were down there in the corner of it, and we used to play with those things. One day when we were playing down there—do you want me to tell you about that?
JONES: Yes, yes.
SHAW: One day when we were playing down there, I went down and got a jar full of pollywogs. He didn’t like that and he wanted them himself. He was a little bit on the temperamental side that day, apparently. So he had this hatcher in his hand, and it’s a good thing that it didn’t have a sharp head because he hit me on the head with the blunt end of it! I have a scar on my head to this day to show for it. (laughter) But other than that, why, it just shows that everyone has a temper. But he’s controllable.
JONES: Who was the person that hit you?
SHAW: Richard Nixon, himself!
JONES: Oh wow, that’s pretty good! (laughter)
SHAW: One day when we were going to grow up, he said that he was going to be Vice-President. Then I said, “Well then I am going to be President.” Well he made both and I didn’t make either one. (laughter)
JONES: What kind of person did Richard Nixon seem to be when he lived in Yorba Linda?At the start of the interview, Shaw had defined his relationship with Nixon this way: “During our course of childhood, why, we were quite friendly with each other and used to play with each other quite a bit, and we had quite a good relationship as young kids.” The lengthy interview records the details of their friendship and their play over a number of years.
SHAW: Oh, he was a real nice boy, real good. I mean, everybody liked him and he was real likable child, as far as I can recall.
At any rate, that was Shaw’s view of Richard Nixon, age 7 and beyond. But what would he know? He was there!
In the paragraph we’ve posted, Perlstein goes on to characterize a letter Nixon wrote in the voice of a dog when he was age 10, and a letter he wrote to the Los Angeles Times seeking (needed) employment at age 11. Perlstein characterizes each of these documents in the most unflattering possible way, helping us see that, even in these early years, Nixon “ever felt unfairly put upon” and was willing to “grovel to elevate his station in life.”
It’s hard to know just what to say about such absurd and ugly interpretations, except perhaps to say this:
Such work can’t sensibly be viewed as journalism or as scholarship. Also this: When journalists and historians feel free to novelize in such cartoonish ways, we're looking right square at the death of the west! We all stand to be victims!
Next week, we’ll consider that highly peculiar passage a bit more. We’ll also look at Perlstein’s description of Yorba Linda, the “godforsaken little burg” in which the young demon pursued his succession of “dirty jobs.”
As we do, we’ll ask ourselves where such writing comes from, and where a nation which tolerates such work is likely to be headed.
Perlstein was playing with dolls in that passage. Nine years earlier, a major journalist had played with his Al Gore doll, describing Gore’s revealing conduct at the age of 6.
Perlstein plays with dolls throughout Chapter Two. What does such childishness mean?