Supplemental: Examining Brodie’s chains!


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:

“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.”
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:

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.”

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...
Truly, that is strange. (From there, Brodie continues in a new direction.)

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?


  1. One time I got in trouble with my cousins too, and my uncle punished them and not me. Why? It's because he did not think it was his PLACE to punish me, it was my parents. And I did get a talking to about it from them.

    And you're right Bob-- Nixon merely said obey the rules. He didn't say be sneaky. Big difference.

    I think Nixon's problem in life was that, PR wise, he wasn't slick enough! Compared to nowadays his antics were small potatoes.

    He also governed as a liberal (bringing back the OPA!) but let's not complicate things for Perlstein and Co.

    1. Except for the polywog/hatchet incident at the wretched ditch
      he led an exemplary life. He, Pat, and Manolo are sorely missed.

    2. One time I got in trouble with my cousins and my uncle would have made me marry them but they was twins and there was laws against it.

    3. Yeah uh-huh. No doubt.

      I believe one of Nixon's relations said the hatchet story was b.s.

      Oh, those Perlstein fans. They just can't stand criticism.

    4. Never liked Perlstein. Without Clarence Clemons he will really suck.

  2. I am sure Perlstein knew Brodie's book was strange. But the very influential Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times put that publication's seal of approval one her work and he was a young hisorian with many footnotes to fill so he probably winked at himself in the mirrors and said "What the hell? Why the F*^k not?"

    Plus there was the whole transmigration of the chains thing. When that happens the liberal mind melts.

    1. What an incredible mind reader. You ought to join the circus instead of pontificating in a combox.

    2. Actually mind reading is most profitable and best enjoyed in a theatrical setting. You probably have not really been to a circus.

  3. How did Nixon know his Dad never took the strap to his mother?

  4. These were damn fine "groaners" Bob. I hope you find more than just a week's worth.

    1. If he continues to plagiarize Tom C. Huston's review in the 2008 American Spectator, he should have no problems filling out the month.

    2. Wow. You guys get paid to hassle Somerby?

      I'm curious what the impulse is here. The psycho-history approach to Nixon deserves scrutiny, and I'm glad Bob's doing it.

      Criticism of Perlstein too is necessary. He's been getting a free ride from the media, to the point where he even gets credited for the insights of others (a la Gary Wills).

      Perlstein's revisionism gets annoying. Nothing wrong with debunking falsehoods and sentimentalities of the era, but he starts to get perverse at times.

      Anyone else notice btw that his "70s" book party in NYC last month saw him wearing clothes that weren't 70s? apparently it was a costume party, and what he wore came straight out of about 1967 or so. Big difference.

    3. Nasty charge, got a link? Here's one to a Tom Charles Huston review of Nixonland that appeared in the American Spectator in 2008 but there's nothing in it that Somerby plagiarizes in this post. Huston does cite the "god-forsaken little berg in that state with so many scores of god-forsaken little bergs" quote Somerby referenced in an earlier post. Do you think Huston was first person to interpret the tone Perlstein was taking was taking in that passage as a negative one and therefore the reviewer should be recognized as having some sort of priority over that conclusion?

    4. Since I started this little thread I am glad you guys enjoyed Bob's work on Brodie so much you switched to commenting on a different book.

      Perlstein's work is only six years old. Huston's review, unlike Bob's, was timely. At least both are more recent than the unfortunate election which Mr. Gore won at the ballot box despite the vicious war the press waged against him on issues I am sure many voters found compelling.

    5. Thirty three years after its publication Fawn Brodie's book on Nixon is as dead a topic as she is an author.

      I am pretty sure Somerby plagiarizes nobody but himself, which others mistake for repetiveness.

      And Perslstein showing up at his own 70's party in clothes three years too early reminds one of Bob showing up at his own blog with a book review six years too late.

    6. What it reminds ME of is a guy who can't get his 70s straight.

      Which I guess ... doesn't matter?

  5. Brodie was dying of cancer, as was widely known among historians. No one was going to give her last book a bad review. Plus, Nixon was widely disliked. Even if the evidence didn't hang together there was sympathy for her conclusions about him.

  6. OMB (This is a test of the BOB Broadcasting System. This is just a test)

    Here is a test for BOBfans.

    In this series BOB tells us Fawn Brodie is an important psychobiographer, a respected academic who has authored numerous such biographies.

    The one on Nixon is strange because of fractured logic.

    Bob tells us what Brodie "seems" to think about Nixon being spanked by his Dad. Then he tells us what she "seems" to say about that is the opposite of what Nixon seems to say.

    Bob tells us what Nixon "seems" to say about being spanked by his Dad.

    Bob's deductions of what "seems" to have been thought or said are based on direct quotes, one from Brodie and one from Nixon.

    Why do you need to be told what "seems" to have been said when a you can read for yourself?

    Why would Nixon say "when you got into mischief, you had to be pretty convincing to avoid punishment" if, in fact Nixon had not succeeded in being "pretty convincing" and had avoided punishment after getting into mischief?

    If you were to pick between someone who had been an active and, at least commercially, successful psychobiographer and historian interpreting a statement, and a blogger telling you what "seems" to have been thought and said, whose judgement might you be inclined to favor?

    This test is not, never has been, and will never even "seem" to be a test in one of those recurring dreams Rachel Maddow has.

    1. "better to remain silent than to remove all doubt."

    2. 12:21 allows us to continue our speculation.

    3. Give it up. Fawn Brodie was deeply suspect.

      She also wasn't liked very well by students at UCLA. She used to read her notes instead of lecturing and would pawn off the class discussions to the TA's, which was NOT par for the course in that once-excellent history dept.

      You Bob bashers spend so much time doing it that I'm wondering just who's behind you.


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