A further Nixonian note

In a posting yesterday I paired Richard M. Nixon with the poet Frank O’Hara, both of whom have significant anniversaries this year:

A startling juxtaposition of personalities: the awkward, often surly, and fiercely ambitious politician Nixon versus the charming and gregarious poet, with his great gift for friendship.

I went on the embroider some on O’Hara, but didn’t expand on my brief and cautious characterization of Nixon. Into the breach steps distinguished historian David M. Kennedy in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review, in “On the Record: ‘The Nixon Tapes 1971-1972’ and ‘The Nixon Defense’ “, which hits RMN with both barrels.

(Disclosure note: Kennedy and I are both faculty members at Stanford, and we have met, but only briefly at an academic meeting.)

Fairly early in the review Kennedy describes RMN as “scabrous”. Then there’s Kennedy’s conclusion:

after wading through so many of Richard Nixon’s vulgar and contemptuous characterizations of friends and foes alike, as well as his septic rants about Jews and blacks, readers of these volumes may well feel the need for a long shower, where they might reflect on how it came to be that a man whose character was such a combustible compound of principle and pettiness, cunning both grand and base, ambitions lofty as well as loathsome, political acumen and raw prejudice, was ever allowed to ascend to the presidency in the first place.

The world was clearly, it seems to me, a better place for having had Frank O’Hara in it, even if only for his relatively short life. Nixon’s great achievement, on the other hand, seems to have been undermining public confidence in the political process.

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