I recently finishing listening to the audiobook of Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas. I like reading biographies of past leaders for the lessons on leadership they provide, and the life of Richard Nixon is particularly rich in such lessons. In fact, because such a rich historical record exists of recent political figures, they can be scrutinized to an extent that is rarely possible for their business counterparts. What better moment to learn from their example than when you have just started in your job, before you have heavy responsibilities similar to those that made them stumble or represented the crucible of their leadership?
Ever since I listened to, rather than read, Robert Caro's The Passage of Power (LBJ volume 4) read by Grover Gardner, I have particularly liked to get heavy historical tomes as audiobooks for my car drives. While excellent, Being Nixon doesn't quite rise to Caro's LBJ books, through no fault of the author. In contrast with LBJ - a clear doer and a masterful politician who enjoyed human interactions - Nixon during the Presidency was quick to feel wronged by his treatment in the press, even after triumphs such as the trip to China. His brooding gets a little repetitive after a while, although of course this played a key role in Watergate and his subsequent downfall. But Being Nixon also provides spellbinding accounts of Nixon's youth and rise to power, and the end of his presidency. While the book is less gripping in the middle, it remains a very worthwhile read.
It is well-known by now that Nixon suffered from a deep sense of outsider-ness, social awkwardness and a feeling of isolation from the establishment. His downfall was brought about by his lack of self-awareness and his failure to ask hard questions from his staff. He shied away from difficult conversations to a spectacular extent throughout his presidency. (He could also be evasive with good news: Henry Kissinger at first didn't know if a convoluted conversation with Nixon meant he had been offered a post in the cabinet.) Regarding Watergate, according to the book it seems that he had no specific prior knowledge of the break-in but created a culture in which his subordinates thought that was what he wanted, and then failed to realize the mess he had gotten himself in.
Nixon's refusal to understand the gravity of his situation while the Watergate scandal was gaining momentum gave me pause. How do people lose so much touch with reality? How do they not see they're going to hit a wall? How do they not see they contributed to that culture in the way they behave with their underlings and the actions they take (such as installing a secret recording system in the Oval Office)?
I didn't know that part of the reason why he indulged in "dirty tricks" was that the Kennedys themselves had indulged in those at his expense during the 1960 campaign and deeply wounded him, so he felt it was fair game to do the same. I also hadn't realized that Nixon's relationship with Kissinger was as complicated as it was, although it makes sense in hindsight when you think of how hard Kissinger has tried to position himself as an intellectual in the limelight rather than an adviser in the shadow. Finally, I was pleasantly surprised at the close relationships he seemed to enjoy with his family.
In the end, although he had some accomplishments during his presidency such as the opening to China, Nixon's inner wounds were his downfall. Too much outsider-ness led in his case to a feeling that others (like the Kennedys and the press) were out to get him, which brought out the worst in him. He is a sobering tale of what happens in a rags-to-riches story gone wrong.