How often did Nixon get spanked: More than thirty years later, Fawn Brodie’s psychobiography of Richard Nixon remains a fascinating read.
We refer to Brodie’s 1981 book, Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character. For background, see yesterday's post.
The book is fascinating because of Brodie’s relentlessly fractured logic. Beyond that, it’s fascinating because the New York Times couldn’t see, in real time, how remarkably strange the book was.
But then, neither could Rick Perlstein! In 2008, he made the book a primary source for a major part of his widely-discussed best-seller, Nixonland. Often, he embellished Brodie’s factual claims and judgments, which were already odd.
Meanwhile, one of Brodie’s peculiar judgments seems to have transmigrated, lock stock and barrel, into the coverage of Candidate Gore in Campaign 2000. We refer to a psychiatric theme which was often directed at Gore. (We’ll explore the theme next week.)
Brodie’s book is remarkably strange—and it’s had a strangely long life. For today, let’s start to consider what we mean when we criticize Brodie’s chains of reasoning.
Let’s consider a basic question: How often did Nixon get spanked when he was a child? Tomorrow, we’ll move to a related question: Quoting Brodie, “Did Frank Nixon kick his sons?”
Did Nixon get spanked when he was a child? Ignore whatever thoughts you may have about the salience of the question. Let’s consider the simple logic of Brodie’s discussion.
In Chapter 3, “The Punishing Father,” Brodie explored the way Nixon and his brothers were punished as children. After an unflattering story about Frank Nixon’s temper, Brodie offered an overview of the frequency with which his sons were punished, including a quote from Nixon himself:
BRODIE (page 40): Hannah Nixon did her best to give the impression that Richard did not need punishment. Her husband, she said, “would not hesitate using the strap or the rod on the boys when they did wrong, although I do not remember that he ever spanked Richard.” But Nixon told [one associate], “I got the strap,” and to [a British journalist] he said, “My father would spank us sometimes, my mother never.” That he was punished less than his brothers, though, Nixon made clear:Brodie gets one basic point right. In that passage, Nixon does say that he was punished less than his brothers. He also seems to explain why he was punished less often:
“Dad played no favorites with us. However, when you got into mischief, you had to be pretty convincing to avoid punishment. I used to tell my brothers not to argue with him...Dad was very strict and expected to be obeyed under all circumstances. He had a hot temper, and I learned very early that the only way to deal with him was to abide by the rules he laid down. Otherwise I would probably have felt the touch of the ruler or the strap as my brothers did.”
According to Nixon, he learned that you had to obey the rules his father laid down. In the quoted passage, Nixon seems to be saying that his brothers broke the rules more often.
It seems abundantly clear that this is what Nixon was saying in that passage. But look at the way Brodie interprets the passage as she continues (Brodie’s italics):
BRODIE (continuing directly): In learning how to be pretty convincing to avoid punishment, young Richard got his first taste of power over his father. But he also learned that a boy who is cleverer than others in deceiving to avoid punishment may be despised by them for his very success. We get some hint of this in a story told by Nixon’s mother. When Richard, age 12, was living with his relatives in Lindsay, his uncle caught him throwing corn about with his two cousins instead of cutting it and storing it in the crib. Beeson took the stick to his own sons but did not touch Richard, who protested, “But Uncle Harold, I was throwing that corn too.”Truly, that is strange. (From there, Brodie continues in a new direction.)
Punishment, as long as it is not brutal, is acceptable for children if they know the parental rules, and if there is consistency in application...
For starters, Brodie seems to think that Nixon said that he learned to avoid punishment by being convincing in his arguments with his father. In this way, she says, he got his first taste of power over his father.
That seems to be largely the opposite of what Nixon actually said. In the quoted passage, Nixon seems to say that it was very hard to win an argument with his father. For that reason, he concluded that you shouldn’t argue with him, that you had to abide by his rules.
Brodie’s initial assessment is puzzling—but as she continued, her confusion seemed to get much worse. She describes an incident in which Nixon volunteered to be punished on an equal basis with his two cousins. But for some reason, she seems to think that this anecdote shows that Nixon “learned that a boy who is cleverer than others in deceiving to avoid punishment may be despised by them for his very success” (our italics).
Nixon isn’t “deceiving to avoid punishment” in the anecdote Brodie relates. He is doing the opposite—he’s volunteering to receive the same punishment as his cousins. Nor does any part of this passage explain why anyone would have despised Nixon for the reason Brodie sketches. At no point in this passage does Nixon ever “deceive to avoid punishment.”
Everyone can get confused on occasion. But chains of reasoning of this type dominate Brodie’s book. We’ve never seen a political book which was so full of bungled logic and evidence.
These chains of bungling aren’t restricted to minor anecdotal matters. Brodie’s major themes and characterizations are dominated by these types of bungled logic. For that reason, we find it amazing that the New York Times gave the book a largely favorable review back in 1981—and that Perlstein took and embellished its conclusions almost thirty years later, producing absurdly cartoonish portraits of Nixon as a child and of both his parents.
Can we humans reason at all? Brodie’s book is making us wonder, as we discussed in yesterday’s post.
Tomorrow, we’ll move ahead to the ridiculous way Brodie raised and discussed that question: “Did Frank Nixon kick his sons?” By Saturday, we’ll be exploring Brodie’s thoroughly puzzling treatment of “the theme of fratricide” in Nixon’s life, which, she said near the end of her book, had her “baffled and anguished.”
Brodie’s book is remarkably strange. Why couldn’t Perlstein tell?