Longtime Washington journalist Evan Thomas' latest book is Being Nixon: A Man Divided, a biography of former president Richard Nixon that was named one of the 10 best nonfiction books of the year by
Time Magazine and was praised as a “fully rounded portrait” by the
New York Times Book Review. Thomas will be in Tucson this weekend for the Tucson Festival of Books. I’ll be moderating a panel the press and the Trump administration at 1 p.m. Sunday, March 12, in the UA Gallagher Theater with Thomas, Maureen Dowd and Joe Conason. Find more info on the Tucson Festival of Books here.
Your subtitle is “A Man Divided” and you talk a lot about the dichotomy with Richard Nixon. He was very shrewd politically, he wanted to do good in the world, but he was also consumed by a darkness in the form of paranoia and fear and an impulse to strike back at his enemies. How did you find this different aspects played out for him?
Well, I’m sorry to say the dark side won. In the end, he did succumb to it. You can hear it on the tapes. But it was a long time coming and he had provocations. I’m sympathetic to him for a lot of reasons. He was a shy, awkward guy. Amazingly shy for politics, when you think about it. He had to overcome a lot just to be in politics at all. The hack cliché is that even paranoids have enemies. He did have enemies. The East Coast press was tough on him. And I think unfairly, at least at first. Nixon was no innocent. There is plenty to criticize her. I don’t absolve him. I think he should have been driven from office. But he wasn’t as bad as he was made out to be, certainly. He was subjected to some dirty tricks himself. In the 1960 election, for instance, the Kennedys played pretty hard.
I was fascinated by some of what you wrote about his post presidency and his efforts to remain in the arena and how the presidents who followed him, starting with Reagan, would welcome his advice, although not necessarily in a public manner.
Eventually. At first, Gerald Ford kept him at arm’s length and Carter kept him at a distance. But he would send these unsolicited memos—and some were obvious—but particularly when he was writing about Russia, Nixon was smart about Russia. He was particularly smart about Russia in the endgame and the collapse of communism. He saw that Boris Yeltsin was a populist hero and Nixon’s populist instincts popped up and he told Clinton to pay attention to Yeltsin. And I think Clinton was grateful about that and paid attention to that.
And he also ended up living in New York amidst some of his longtime critics and had some interesting dinner parties.
I admire Nixon for doing that. It’s easy to make fun of it, because Nixon was just as unctuous as ever. I talked to a Time magazine columnist who went to one of these things and had to use a telephone. Nixon sent him into his study and being a nosy columnist, he saw on Nixon’s desk that Nixon had not only written his talking points for the evening, but also bad jokes. Nixon left nothing to chance. There were lame jokes. That was typical of Nixon and it’s easy to make fun of that. But the very fact that Nixon had these people to dinner and was in the the belly of the beast—he could have just played golf and lived in San Clemente, but he didn’t.
You credit him with creating the modern-day Republican Party by siphoning off disaffected Democrats with the law-and-order themes in his campaigns. Did you see something similar with Donald Trump’s campaign last year?
There’s tremendous overlap there. Nixon, because he himself had suffered at the hands of snobs like me, had a feeling for what it was like to be scorned and mocked and left behind and shunned by elites. And Nixon put that to good advantage in his political career. It is very, very significant that Nixon discovered Roger Ailes. He was a booker for the XX show, daytime TV for housewives, in a suburb of Pennsylvania and Nixon found him and hired him in ’68. Ailes was a genius but it takes a genius to know a genius. And Ailes’ genius, for which he made billions of dollars for Rupert Murdoch, was to attack the liberal media for having a bias. People in my business never want to admit we had a bias. I used to get in trouble for saying on TV occasionally that the media did have a liberal bias. I used to get into hot water with my liberal friends for admitting the truth. Ailes had some problems, but he was a genius and Nixon was able to see that.
Now you have the Trump Democrats. But while Nixon had a strong grasp on international affairs, some of Trump’s critics say he doesn’t have the same knowledge and he’s kind of winging it. There are these questions about the Russian influence, but beyond that, Republicans like John McCain are questioning if Trump is committed to NATO and the European Union and the whole idea of “The West.”
The biggest difference is that Nixon read incessantly. He was shy and so smart, but he didn’t like to talk to human beings, he’d rather read. Trump apparently has read nothing. I think Trump watches TV and doesn’t even like to read briefing papers. Nixon had a very sophisticated world view. He and Kissinger could stay up all night talking. I don’t think Trump does that. Having said that, playing this Russia card—I think Trump may be trying to do intuitively what Nixon did methodically. And I don’t know that Trump is all wrong. People say we have to enemies with Russia. Well, do we, really? But I think Trump does seem to be winging it. It doesn’t seem to be very well thought out.
What do you make of Trump calling the media “the enemy of the American people”?
I think that’s careless. He wants to use the media as a foil. Nixon did this. Remember the nattering nabobs of negativity with Spiro Agnew? This is a page right out of Nixon’s playbook. And it works because it’s fun to hate the press. So I understand from a political point of view and the press walks into Trump’s trap pretty easily by getting too hot and bothered about Trump and they’re playing into Trump’s hand. Having said that, I do think Trump is playing with fire a little bit. Trump seems to be heedless of the Constitution and kind of careless about checks and balances. Trump can sound like a proto-tyrant. You can overdraw these analogies and I don’t want to go too far here but it’s careless. When you say the press is the enemy of the American people, that’s incendiary. That’s not true, for one thing, and I understand the politics, but it’s a little dangerous and it may be dangerous for him. What’s the cliché? You shouldn’t pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel. Picking a fight with the Washington Post and The New York Times was not a good idea for Richard Nixon and it’s maybe not a good idea for Donald Trump.
But the media landscape has changed a lot since Nixon’s day.
That’s a good point, and that’s why these analogies get a little rocky. Technology does change things. The Times and the Post are not the central players that they were. Back in Nixon’s day, 90 percent of the American people had their TV sets on at 6:30 watching three channels. So basically the entire country was getting the same 23 minutes of news. And that news was taken right out of the pages of the Times and the Post. Basically, The New York Times, indirectly, told Americans what to think. That’s just not true now. People get it from all over, including, unfortunately, fake news, Breitbart, all that. The whole fake news thing I find frightening.