What lies beneath

Well, the break didn’t last long, as it turns out. Two reasons. First, I took care of two distracting  issues that I had been pondering for a long time, one by sharing confidences with a friend, the other by taking action regarding a community to which I had belonged.  (Yeah, I’m all about the safe havens — when it comes to sharing who I really am.  With those I don’t trust, I share little and am guarded in how I engage.)  I’m feeling the relief of having done two things I had been contemplating for a long, long time.   And yeah, @NewMSI totally got it on my leaving the community. 

Lots of good people but I had to leave them behind. (Well, not all.  So grateful to see some of them show up at Facebook, on Twitter, and here on the blog after I unsubscribed yesterday.)

Second, John H. Taylor put up a great post at The Episconixonian about “Perlsteinland.”  I largely see the issues as he does.  I’ve been studying them both from a professional and a personal perspective for a while.  As an Independent and a former Republican, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why the GOP of which I felt a member in the 1960s, 1970s, and much of the 1980s no longer felt like home for me in 1989.  We now-homeless Nixon Republicans can be difficult to figure out.  Templates aren’t going to work.

Fox News Republicanism, what Roger Ailes’s network conveys, feels deeply insecure to me.  (I’ve previously argued that to take another former Nixon aide, a David Gergen-guided Fox would have turned out differently than the Ailes one.   Question is, of course, if there would have been a market for that.)  There’s an reliance on an emotional “make me feel valued” nanny state that I can’t figure out.  It’s definitely worthy of study but not easy to sort out.  Sure, there’s correspondence in the presidential libraries from voters.  But it represents a self selecting sample.  Just as do online comments for the Bush and Obama periods. 

For me, my move away from the GOP at the end of the Reagan presidency shows in the way I changed in how I viewed some of the red meat speeches Patrick J. Buchanan wrote for Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.  As an undergraduate, I cheered him on.  As an adult, I changed my mind.  I came to believe that the speeches hurt the Nixon administration more than they helped, long term. 

I supported Nixon as a high school student.  So did my sister.  (Yeah, the image is from a paper from senior year.)  But then, I also was a member of The Richard III Society!  (Explanation of my support for the two Richards here.)  As were my parents, I was part of the foreign policy leg of the three legged stool that made up Republicanism during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.  (Fiscal conservatives and social conservatives made up the other two). 

OK, so let’s go anecdotal for a few minutes, for what it’s worth.  To this day, my mother votes GOP but says things such as “if the deficit is such a problem, I don’t see why they can’t raise taxes as well as cut spending” and “I just never think about the Second Amendment or those culture war issues when I vote.” 

Mom rarely watches Fox News Channel.  She doesn’t understand Glenn Beck’s popularity.  (Beck’s ratings have been slipping, however, and he will leave FNC when his contract expires.)  She gets her news and commentary from reading The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Washington Times, and from watching ABC Nightly News.  People such as Mom supported Nixon to the end. (I did, too—my letters in the White House Central Files at NARA’s Nixon Presidential Library show that).  Why?  Cold War foreign policy.

I enjoyed reading Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland but found he over did linkage of Richard Nixon’s actions during the 1960s to resentments he developed while young.  Sure, Nixon had resentments.  No doubt about that.  I listened to some 2,000 hours of Nixon’s 3,700 hours of secret tape recordings for disclosure review during my 14-year career at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  I also worked with textual collections that reflected the internal workings of the White House, policy formulation, and how members of the public reacted to Nixon.  (To date, no historian has drawn on the richness of the latter files, which are easy to overlook.) 

Issues of temperament loom large here.  In a well-known article, “Caring for your Introvert,” Jonathan Rauch wrote in The Atlantic

“With their endless appetite for talk and attention, extroverts also dominate social life, so they tend to set expectations. In our extrovertist society, being outgoing is considered normal and therefore desirable, a mark of happiness, confidence, leadership. Extroverts are seen as bighearted, vibrant, warm, empathic. ‘People person’ is a compliment. Introverts are described with words like ‘guarded,’ ‘loner,’ ‘reserved,’ ‘taciturn,’ ‘self-contained,’ ‘private’—narrow, ungenerous words, words that suggest emotional parsimony and smallness of personality. Female introverts, I suspect, must suffer especially. In certain circles, particularly in the Midwest, a man can still sometimes get away with being what they used to call a strong and silent type; introverted women, lacking that alternative, are even more likely than men to be perceived as timid, withdrawn, haughty.”

Rauch adds, correctly in my view, that while introverts can understand extroverts, “Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion.”   Not surprisingly, Rauch correctly places Nixon among our few introvert presidents.

 John Taylor, who was closer to him than most aides in the presidency or the post-presidency, has said that Nixon was one of our most deeply introverted presidents.  I agree.  Very much a man of his times, too.  I can’t presume to explain what he was all about.  You have to make your way  carefully through some of what John calls “big guy BS” and to consider whom he was addressing, what was going on, and the extent to which participants in the conversation were posturing or not.  The Nixonian combination of occasional bias and resentment with what records show to be consistent kindness and consideration to and patience with low-level subordinates is hard for me to sort out.  And then there are those famous descriptions of him as being like a multi-layered cake or a multi-faceted prism, which tastes or looks different depending on which layer or side you encounter. 

Which leads me to make a quick detour.  What will future researchers make of our online identities? As Jill Hurst-Wahl noted in 2009, “Web 2.0 has changed how we present ourselves, so that who we are isn’t just who we are in the flesh, but who we are online. Some of us really think long and hard about how to move our ‘selves’ into the online world. We want to ‘be online’ in a way that reflects authentically who we are in real life.”

Jill explained, “I could lose my positive reputation at any moment. I need to be mindful of my real life and online identities, and the information that circulates about me. I know that whatever I place online may be used or misused by others, but that it is a risk that I need to take. It is a glass house that could fracture with the toss of a stone.”  True enough.  What is interesting is how the spontaneous nature of social media sometimes reflects the same things I once saw in Nixon’s “Annotated News Summary” in the White House Special Files collection.  Visceral reactions.

I tend to tamp them down.  Not everyone does.  (Well, I am a Fed.  And I’ve had Inspectors General sicced on me.  Whatev.)  Some of that is just how differently people roll on the Interwebs.  I’ve tested the waters in some forums that I’ve walked away from, based on first impressions and how people reacted to me.  Sometimes I hang in for a while, sometimes I pivot and walk out.  Go all King of the Hill or use snarky professional or gender based putdowns of me when I show up and I’m likely to say, “nah, this is gonna be too tough for ya.  Outa here.” 

Amazingly, the most difficult online appearance I ever made resulted in an exquisitely pitch perfect welcome.  Heh. Luckily for Tim Naftali.  My most robust defense of Tim?  “Jew counting (let’s go there).”  John Taylor’s?  “Hissing and Moaning. ” Yeah, I know.  My “robust” is gentle compared to John’s great piece (w00t)!)

So, yeah, I’m pretty calculated in my online life.  No one who followed my posts in the archivists’ forum to which I subscribed from about 1998 until yesterday should be surprised at what I say in my blog posts.  On the listserv, I never took policy positions (nope, Fedland precludes that) but made my contempt for right or left wing Manicheanism pretty clear.  More gray in the palettes, please.  I spool out some stuff here at Nixonara but stay silent about other matters.  I very much pick and choose.

As I once noted in the archivists’ forum, I always know I’m writing for the record, that I’m creating electronic footprints.  I reveal my real self only to a handful of people.  That doesn’t mean I project perfectionism.  Yeah, I try to follow the straight and narrow, especially at work.  But I’m all too human.  I make my share of mistakes, for sure.  Some of them are OK to reveal, others too personal to do so, except to one or two people.

In management science, we’ve moved away from “Father Knows Best” to “own your weaknesses, it’s not as if people don’t see them, anyway.”  (I especially like the way this executive explains the value of the latter approach.)  I’ve argued that historians should own their impairments or work to leave them out.  See “Historians:  Own Your Feelings or Leave Them Out” at the History News Network.  Kudos to HNN for accepting that one for publication.)  Impairment is a term of art in the audit world, yep, right.  Impairments can be professional or personal. 

One of the things I like about the “Tears for Fears” videos from the 1980s is the way they include some mistakes.  As when a paper airplane hits Roland Orzabal in the eye in the sequences where he and Curt Smith stride purposefully forward while being bombarded with them.  Or the keyboardist twice flubs the book catch and just grins before finally making it.  

   

That’s pretty much how I approach history, too.  Balance, assessing what the subjects did well and what they did not–including, Richard Nixon, of course.  Not tilting towards exceptionalism or deconstruction.  That’s one reason why, as does John Taylor, I think the completion of NARA’s processing of the tapes (projected for 2012) will place before historians a treasure trove of information about Nixon’s policy making.

His personal side, not so much.  Nixon didn’t share that much about himself even in his very interesting memoirs.    Few political memoirs are that revealing.  I’m drawn to introspective, reflective people.  Why do you think I like Roland Orzabal’s music so much [grin]?  Roland has a very  interesting background.  You won’t find all the clues to what made Nixon tick on his tapes.  Orzabal (singing “I Believe,” at left–with an open reel tape recorder)?  Oh, yeah.  A lot.  So, no, an absolutist approach to matters Nixonian isn’t going to work.  Gotta leave some wiggle room.  Won’t lose points from me if you do.

I get that there are elements in the modern GOP that wallow in victimology or use grievance and resentment as motivators .  One reason why I am Independent, not GOP.  But as does John, I don’t think you can lay the start of the culture wars so clearly to the way Nixon campaigned and governed.   The Vietnam War looms large, of course.  (Sense of national emasculation for some?  I don’t know.  Wrong person to ask if you’re looking for how people voted.  I wore the “Tell it Hanoi” buttons as an undergraduate but later came to wonder if Nixon would have embroiled us in a land war in Southeast Asia, had he won, as he nearly did, in 1960.) 

Nixon was a moderate and a pragmatist.  He was not a conservative.  Nor were all his supporters.  Did some Nixon voters later vote for Reagan and become Fox News fans?  Absolutely.  Yet there also were people such as my Mom.  There’s a lot in the mix.  As with all issues Nixonian, working through the motives and objectives requires discernment. 

Needless to say, I await with interest what Perlstein does with the question in his future work.

3 responses to “What lies beneath

  1. John H. Taylor

    Wonderful post! Thank you. More later — 7th graders own me today.

  2. Lucky 7th graders!

  3. Pingback: Rick Perlstein and the Nixon Myth « The Crolian Progressive

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