Supplemental: The theme of confusion in elite life!


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."

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."
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” 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?


  1. Brodie incomprehensible?

    Sounds like a case for ZonKed... or KaoZ or whatever that talking douchebag we can't dispose of is calling itself!

    1. Thank heavens your collected intellectual work keeps KZ balanced. Plus, as they say in Semi-famous Blog Commentators School, "a douchebag a day keeps new insults at bay."

    2. Yes!

      Please critique our douchebag trolls in a more intellectually rigorous manner next time.

    3. I be pleased if some of those defending TDH were merely capable of demonstrating they weren't horse's asses.

    4. I'm guessing that he calls himself Jeffrey Dowling. Check out some of his "shear" goodness at 11:51P below. It's some of his best work to date.

    5. What an original thought deadrat. Thanks for shearing.

    6. Reading "Nixonland", we occasionally tried to recall where we were at some particular time—and we wondered why the events described didn’t drive us all crazy. And then, of course, we remembered: They did! Especially if you lived through this era, we strongly recommend Perlstein’s book.

      By the way: Where were you when "Hee Haw" debuted? We were taking the waters of Cape Cod, in the early summer of 1969. In 1998, we described this seminal moment as part of a cover story for the (inevitably, now-defunct) Capital Style magazine. In 1998, why would Capital Style have cared about that? Simple! We had made the discovery, with great delight, with a young man from the Nashville area—a man the press corps would spend 1999 and 2000 deriding as “a creature of Washington.”

    7. 9:43, where did that come from? Surely that wasn't Somerby praising Cape Cod before Viera ruined it? And Perlstein?

  2. A bad book and an equally bad review equals "Professor Brodie’s book still plays a role in our lives."

    No, Bob. It just recently began playing a role in yours. It became the most far fetched thread you could attach to your obssession with the
    2000 election loss of your college chum Al Gore.

    1. So, you do think it is defensible to apply mind-reading and psychobabble-type interpretations to the clothing choices of today's candidates, their hairstyles, their choices of hobbies (such as dressage)? Are you seriously arguing it is fair to claim that Nixon cheated because he was trying to assuage guilt over the deaths of his brothers, and that he felt bested by JFK as a brother-surrogated who he was then also driven to symbolically kill by beating him in an election? Do you think his father really kicked him or do you think his choice of language was symbolic of inner struggles.

      If you object to Somerby's criticism of this kind of interpretation, you open the door to all of this nonsense. Do you really mean to be defending it?

      I think you shoul think through your attacks on Somerby so you don't inadvertently wind up taking an indefensible position. It was like on the Daily Show the other night, where the interviewer said "If you name your operation Project Normandy and your goal is to repell invaders, doesn't that make you like the Nazi's?"

    2. "If you object to Somerby's criticism of this kind of interpretation, you open the door to all of this nonsense."

      I shudder to think how many deaths will be blamed on me thirty three years hence by a blogger as intelligent and important as Bob Somerby because of the doors I opened.

    3. Maybe they're identifying with the Englishmen trying to prevent the Norman Conquest in 1066.

    4. No, 1:05. No matter how much lipstick you put on these troll pigs, their tyranny is much like Hitler's defense of occupied Europe.

    5. Those who enabled the likes of George W. Bush do indeed bear responsibility for massive death.

    6. Godwin's Law. You lose.

  3. Regardless of how old the book is, it's striking that something so bad got a positive review. Did Lehmann-Haupt really not see how silly much of the book was? Did he intend to write a positive review because of the author's reputation? Did Nixon-hatred blind him to the book's faults? Did the Times instruct him to write a positive review?

    And last question: Are current New York Times book reviews a unreliable as this one?

    1. Lots of bad things get good reviews, even from good critics, David, so you can rest easy tonight.

      In fact, the late film critic Roger Ebert was once asked if he would like to take back any review. He replied, "I am no longer absolutely certain that 'Thorougly Modern Millie' deserved four stars."

      Now concerning your burning question of how reliable Times book reviews are, based on this 33-year-old review of a book you obviously haven't read or were even familiar with before Bob became obsessed about it, allow me to tell you how reviews work.

      They are one person's opinion. Yes, it is supposed to be a person with some level of competence, but it is still one person's opinion. And like even Ebert, they can be wrong at least on occasion.

      So if you want a book review that you can take for Gospel because you don't want to read the book yourself and form your own opinion, you will continue to walk through life ill informed.

    2. Thanks for the link. It is an interesting review.

    3. Yes. It took BS Bob six years to express a totally reversed opinion on Perlstein's "Nixonland". Lehmann-Haupt came across another Nixon biography six years after Brodie's and
      wrote a review which could accurately be described as "high praise" and in doing so demonstrated some further disdain for Brodie's book.

    4. "Thoroughly Modern Millie", intended as a metaphor for the sexual revolution and emerging feminism rampant when it was released, was highly praised by elite liberal reviewerslike Ebert. Little did they know it helped contribute to the backlash which elected Nixon, proving liberal elites do not know how to persuade voters.

      That said, were it to be reviewed today by the Salonista descendants of Ebert many would drop the "S" bomb on it. A few would add the "R" bomb for its debasement of people of color for the stereotyping of fine character actors Jack Soo and Pat Morita as "Asian 1" and "Asian 2."

      In the coming weeks we shall explore how the film began the descent of Mary Tyler Moore from portraying the fine type of devoted housewife in "The Dick Van Dyke Show" to her feminist man-hating Mary Richards, which paved the way for Murphy Brown, and the glorification of unwed motherhood through which liberals destroyed the black community and gave rise to

      Can we talk? It was comments about unwed motherhood glorified in Murphy Brown, rather than his problems spelling vegetables, which led to the demise of Dan Quayle and emboldened the press to more outrageous heights attacking another Vice President.

      And don't forget the role Mary Richards played in spawning Ivy League girls to believe they had a place in the newsroom
      right out of college. Ted Baxter was just a first salvo against the coming FOX team of anchors who sometimes display warm genuine humanity.

    5. Rob Petrie, hero of the Dick Van Dyke Show, was a veteran of the Second World War. I.e. he was a member of the Greatest Generation.

    6. Walter and David were excellent filters. But keep in mind, with his close ties to NASA, Walter never informed America one of our space pioneers, JR Ewing, was harboring middle eastern terrorists while in Florida flight training.

    7. Yes indeed. "Thoroughly Modern Millie" is the most influential film of the past 50 years, and the dead of Iraq scream.

      Do not forget it spawned a 2002 Broadway musical which won a bunch of Tonys. That proves how influential it was in changing the entire course of both American and world history.

  4. If you know nothing about Freudian theory, the Oedipal theme of patricide sounds crazy too. I don't think Brodie is required to explain psychoanalytic analysis to the uninformed. Somerby is clearly uneducated in it. If I said the idea of quarks sounds so strange as to be crazy, people would know I was ignorant. This is the same thing. It shows a lack of respect to blame others for gaps in your own education.

    1. Freudian theory is bullshit. Physics is solid gold.

  5. Which ones were the groaners in this post?

    1. Have you ever heard Bob explain what happened to his late brother?

    2. Lehmann-Haupt. I groan every time I read the name. But it is easy to see why, with a name like that, Somerby would confuse him with someone elite.

  6. Guess even Dave doesn't want to discuss an old book about Nixon any more.

    "It points administrators away from an emphasis on 'changing victim behavior.'"

    Yes indeed. If only victims knew how to behave, we wouldn't have this problem, would we?

  7. If victims knew how to protect themselves, we would have less of this problem. Isn't that a goal worth pursuing?

    One blogger compared this to being mugged. Obviously, the mugger is entirely at fault, Nevertheless, potential victims ought behave in ways that make them less likely to be mugged.

  8. Anybody who doesn't take precautions to avoid getting mugged or raped is a blithering idiot. One precaution against either crime: stay sober!

  9. So if your daughter didn't take these "precautions" and still got raped, I'm sure you'd be right in front of the judge pleading for a reduced sentence for her rapist. After all, wasn't all his fault, was it?

  10. Perhaps 11:57 is confused over the word "should". It can denote a moral action or a practical action. From a moral POV, a man shouldn't take advantage of a drunk woman. From a practical POV, a woman should avoid getting drunk.

  11. And from a practical standpoint. a university official shouldn't lecture just one gender about getting drunk.

  12. Here's a clue for you David. Not all the victims of campus rape were drunk.

  13. Once again, David in Cal proves he, like Fawn Brodie and Bob Somerby, delights in finding a factoid and intepreting it to mean far much more than it does.

    The grant program lists several things which are "out of scope" for a program which funds "comprehensive" activites including:

    "• Projects that focus primarily on alcohol and substance abuse;
    • Activities that focus primarily on sexual harassment;
    • Education or prevention programs for elementary and secondary students on sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking;
    • Mandatory self-defense classes, or self-defense classes as the only means of providing prevention and education to students;
    • Theater performances that do not specifically address sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence or stalking; and
    • Developing products and/or materials that are not specifically focused on the dynamics of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking."

    We are sure David in Cal, should he desire to make a different point than the one he made would recognize what the words "primarily focus" mean. But he does not. So he seems to have pretended "primarily focus" is a mandate to exclude entirely. Just like Bob, who gets a "kick" out of selective inclusion and exclusion of things, or Brodie, who gets a "kick" out of "kicking."

  14. And from a practical standpoint. a university official shouldn't lecture just one gender about getting drunk.

    I'd put it slightly differently. A university should lecture both genders about getting drunk.

    AnonymousSeptember 8, 2014 at 2:31 PM -- you have a point. However, I do believe that in this case the government instruction is being taken as a mandate to exclude entirely. The reason I say this is because from what I've read, many universities do entirely exclude warnings about getting drunk. Also, note that Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University was sharply criticized for suggesting as that college women could protect themselves by drinking less.

  15. " . . . because from what I've read, many universities do entirely exclude warnings about getting drunk."

    Without your being able to name any such universities, of course.

    But knowing how well read you are, I'll just take your word that you must have read such nonsense. Somewhere. And you were quick to believe it since it validates your preconceived nincompoopery.

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

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