The Age of Nixon: A study in cultural power
Zero Books, 2012
ISBN-10: 1846949432, ISBN-13: 978-1846949432, 295 pages
Carl Freedman is Professor of English at Louisiana State University and has written on Marxist critical thinking, film and US electoral politics.
Given this, the book is wide ranging in its references and use of theory. It gives detailed information on key figures and events in politics and economics and there is a substantial section on how the American Republican President, Richard Nixon, has been represented by novelists, film-makers and other artists.
The book should appeal to both academics and all those with a liking for dead President-bashing. Freedman, writing from the left, has a very low opinion of Nixon, but at the same time finds him intensely interesting and is impressed by his leadership skills in a time of crisis.
Many of us are too young to recall the late 1960s: The assassinations of both John Kennedy and Martin Luther King; the backdrop of the Vietnam war which split Western society into those prepared to back a bloody war against communism and those who were not; Americans building bomb shelters in their gardens to counter a perceived threat of nuclear attack, and race riots.
We could google ‘Vietnam’ or ‘Richard Nixon’ but will not, from this, realise the very strong feelings aroused by communism, the racism of the time and the nature of American sentiments of the age. As a literature professor, Freedman can get this across. Freedman was very aware of the age of Nixon and it has spurred him to research the age thoroughly, especially Nixon, and the result is a highly detailed historical book, evocative of the era.
Freedman claims his book is not primarily about Nixon, but about the nature of American culture and that much can be illuminated about this by looking at the period of power held by the Richard Nixon, in the late 1960s and 1970s. Here, I shall concentrate on the complex character of Nixon.
Freedman describes Nixon as ‘cold, penetrating, analytical’ and his ‘success based on sheer studiousness… intrinsic intelligence’ (p.119).
Nixon rose to power against the odds. He was not a very good speaker and had no warmth about him. Although he is generally held not to have been a good speaker, his early speech, the ‘Checkers speech’ in 1952, is an exception and is held to one of the all time great political speeches. It brought recognition. Freedman argues that it doesn’t reflect well on the US culture that Americans loved it and that it drew deep sympathy and support for Nixon as a politician. Freedman analyses the speech in terms of Nietzschean ‘ressentiment’. This is morality based on self-sacrifice and self-denial which is ‘slave morality’ and is the epitome of unfreedom, as opposed to the freedom Nietzsche urged us to understand as being that of the superman, who rises above the social belief system and creates his own values. Nietzsche is said to have held that Christian morality, along with the humility that goes with it, is hatred of all that is free and noble, and Freedman shows that the Checkers speech was a ‘masterpiece of ressentiment’ (p.85). The speech was sentimental and an example of self-abasement. In this most famous political speech, Nixon referred to his dog (named Checkers, hence the name of the speech) and the fact that his wife didn’t own a fur coat. He proudly played up a poverty stricken background, thus displaying, according to Freedman, what Nietzsche would have taken to be Christian moralistic arrogance. Sympathy for Nixon peeked after the Checkers speech. Nixon had tapped in to the sentimentality of the American people.
In chapter 3, the book turns to further psychological aspects of Nixon and Americans, when Freedman looks at Nixon’s character in relation to American society. To further illuminate Nixon’s character, Freedman draws on the Marxian idea of the petit bourgeoisie, again Nietzschean ressentiment (as above), and Freud’s concept of the anal-erotic character. Freedman acknowledges that Nixonites might find the latter analysis highly offensive, but it is justified by his fitting interpretation. To Freedman, middle America was also petit bourgeois and anally erotic during the Nixon period. This seems harsh, but there are tones of humour in the book.
Nixon was ambitious, hard-working and is shown to have pursued his own ends even if this meant betraying friends (Freedman wonders if Nixon actually HAD friends) and associates. Although he seemed to possess no obvious personal appeal, such was the force of support behind him that in 1968 it was found that people voted for Nixon himself rather than the policies of the Republican party. This seems inexplicable without cultural interpretation. The core population of America was supposedly united in ressentiment.
Freedman suggests that America is unlikely to give rise to the morally free superman because of the conservative nature of Americans themselves, as well as the generally conservative nature of culture itself.
Culture is conservative because it is embedded socially and is difficult to change. In this sense, culture is contrasted with politics, economics, science and the military. We can more readily change the political atmosphere by voting for another party, we can change economic policies easily in the light of knowledge, and science has a certain autonomy given that it is driven by bodies of researchers and is propelled by new techniques.
Culture can’t rapidly change and Nixon’s attitudes appealed to those who feared change in a time of great change within small elements of American culture: This was racial equality, suspicion of anti-communist sentiments of American politicians, the rise of the hippie culture and the increasing acceptance of homosexuality. In his 1968 campaign Nixon was so against this sort of cultural change that he seems to have won on what Freedman calls an ‘anti-nigger’ policy. For me, today, this is staggering. Freedman claims that there is still racism in parts of America, but it is not overt. It is rather hypocritical, but this is an advance.
What is amazing is that these small cultural changes came at a time when Nixon was in power as a conservative Republican. For Freedman, though, racial equality, the acceptance of homosexuality, etc , are mere elements of culture and American culture was, and remains, fundamentally conservative. It was not rebellion against the conservative Republican, because the small cultural changes were calls for freedom. Nixon didn’t facilitate this, and many found his character abhorrent.
Nixon’s background was classical Marxian petit bourgeoisie. His parents were shop keepers, and were fairly successful. Nixon claimed throughout his political career that he had personally experienced poverty and Freedman claims that this was a lie — like so many of his public statements. Freedman goes on to say that it was the sort of lie that showed ‘gross ingratitude’ to his parents, who worked hard to ‘shield their sons from poverty’ (p.72). Given that Nixon was a teenager during the depression, and Freedman claims that tramps turned up on Nixon’s doorstep because his mother was a soft touch, it wouldn’t really seem to be a lie that Nixon had personally experienced poverty; it was just the poverty of others. It must have impacted on him.
Nonetheless, he was extremely intelligent. He won a full scholarship to Harvard, but this was at a time when the family had huge medical bills to care for Nixon’s sick brother, so Nixon went to a local college. Nixon later claimed that he didn’t really care about this, and commentators have claimed that this is a lie too. ‘How could any smart, hard-working, ambitious young man not care?’ (p.73).
As Nixon was petit-bourgeoisie he apparently disliked the poor as well as the rich, and may not have been telling another lie here. Nixon’s class fell between the rich and poor. Freedman says that Nixon felt ‘intense hatred’ for the poor and this was publicly expressed, although not in the Checkers speech. Falling between two classes, the petit bourgeoisie felt they were classless and so possessed a universal moral attitude. This would explain the power of the Checkers speech. Nixon tapped into the ordinariness of the middle man. The consequences of being petit bourgeois would seem to go hand in hand with an attitude of ressentiment. Yet Nixon was the President.
The traits of the Freudian anal erotic are orderliness, parsimony and obstinacy. These are traits are arguably to be found in profusion in the petit bourgeoisie and middle America. Parsimony came out in Nixon’s private life as he accumulated wealth without spending it. Obstinacy is to be expected in a politician because we expect a steadiness in views and policy. Orderliness is seen in his studious analytical personality.
Whilst the anal erotic charge seems highly derogatory, Freedman is also fair to Nixon at times. In applying Freudian theory he admits that analysis is a therapeutic practice and sometimes the analyst won’t attain full understanding of a patient, so to glean information from books, newspapers and television seems to him ‘imprudent’ (p.95). So he looks at our ordinary understanding of this Freudian concept and what was publicly known about Nixon in the light of American culture and his discussion is highly persuasive as well as outrageous, especially in these times when Freud is held to be wrong about the influence of sexuality in human development.
Nixon was anti-communist, against negroes human rights, hippies and homosexuality and was anti-Catholic. Privately it seems he was he was anti-semitic, although publicly he had some valued Jewish advisers.
Although culturally conservative, and morally a bigot, as a politician Nixon has been described as a liberal; Nixon’s politics were quite at odds with what we hear of his views and personality. He was the only President to seriously enforce desegregation in schools. He also ‘lavishly’ funded a program called ‘war on cancer’ and introduced the Clean Air Act of 1970. He was the first President to visit China. He ended the Vietnam war. He earned respect of non-Republicans. Freedman says that during Nixon’s term, more was spent on domestic social programs than on the military. Nixon often referred to himself to as a liberal and commentators have held him to be so. But this yet again denigrates him according to Freedman’s thought.
‘For liberalism, of its very nature abhors all dogma, all fixed convictions, all first principles, all absolutes… liberalism demands that everything must be questioned but that no definite conclusions can be drawn’ (p.151). There is a search for truth but it leads nowhere. The liberal policy is argued to be empty and to lead to nowhere, responding to cultural change with no fixed policy. Nixon is characterised to act upon these lines personally.
As a person Nixon seemed to have fixed convictions but as a politician he was culturally involved. When Nixon delivered the Checkers speech, he bent to the nature of the American people, he went on to hear the voice of cultural change and his own bigotry didn’t affect his policies. He was both corrupt and great. He put an end to the Vietnam war and was the first US President to reach out to China. He was both bigot and visionary.
The psychological study in this book is fascinating. What we see in Nixon is a person able to rise above personal bigotry when it comes to leadership, though indulging in it when it seemed politically necessary. Perhaps as a liberal he was ’empty’, but perhaps he was going with the flow. What we seem to find is that there is no formula for great leadership. It can emanate from a personality who is not ‘great’ but rather despicable.
The book is so richly informed by theory and history that a book review cannot do it justice.
It is a thoroughly American book. Throughout, Freedman assumes we are already familiar with quite a lot of American history as he makes reference to events without fully explicating what these events were. In the first chapter he mentions Watergate, but doesn’t detail it. Even I know this led to his forced resignation in the 1970s, but many young non-Americans won’t possess the background knowledge. This won’t actually detract from the interest of the book. As a Professor of Literature, Freedman knows how to make an interesting character even more gripping.
© Rachel Browne 2012