How it took a novelist to make Richard Nixon seem human.
There is one major character in the ensemble who is not middle-aged: the shrewd, wasp-tongued dowager of Washington society, the elderly Alice Roosevelt Longworth, playing precisely the role that Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, plays in Downton Abbey—part solon, part superannuated mean girl. Mrs. Longworth was the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, the wife of Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth, and the mistress of Senator William Borah. Not only did this make her a real expert on how a bill becomes a law, but having been born in the sausage factory and lived on the packing floor her whole life, she is a woman who is surprised by nothing and no one. And having been a failure at something important—motherhood—she brings a surprising gimlet-eyed mercy to the shortcomings of others, or at least to those others in whom she recognizes a remedial virtue. There is a moment in the novel when she visits Nixon shortly after his resignation, and she offers him some unsentimental encouragement by reminding him of the time, shortly after he became vice president, when her daughter committed suicide and he served as pallbearer at the funeral. She tells him,
“I saw the look on your face when you were carrying that wretched girl’s coffin. You understood the ghastliness of it all, and you knew how to deny it, too. I realized that you could do that with anything, always finding another layer of make-up to put over the tears.”
“Is that a compliment?”
“No, it’s a fact. If I let myself be swallowed by one personality, you hid yourself behind dozens of them, one ‘new Nixon’ after another.”
Nixon carrying a casket in the rain; Nixon picking up his wife and twirling her around at what he thought was an unobserved moment of joy on Air Force One; Nixon ordering the band to play all night at a White House party for returning POWs; Nixon enjoying a drink and a sail and the swelling bombastic chords of “Victory at Sea”—Mallon presents us with a human Nixon, and asks us to look at him without preconceptions. He turns out to be that somewhat aloof and distant neighbor who, once you get to know him, turns out to have more soul than you, in your arrogance, ever imagined. If you’re like me, you finish this book and wonder what Richard Nixon did to deserve the more than four decades of scorn and snark we’ve heaped upon him—except pull himself up from nothing, raise a family, pursue his dreams, and be the best damn liberal president this country has had since FDR.
Ah, clever Mallon! In keeping us out of the Oval Office, in restricting us to the upstairs rooms, we never quite see the hatred and paranoia and mania for control that were more than a small part of Richard Nixon. These were things that consumed him, and that, in the final analysis, left him without the sanctuary of goodwill in which Ronald Reagan hid after Iran-Contra and to which Bill Clinton repaired after Monica. But we don’t really need another book to remind us of that. The great reward in reading this wise and thoughtful and subtle novel is that it reminds us that our leaders are only human beings. This is something we tend to forget—foolishly, when they’re on their way up, and cruelly, when they’re on their way out.
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