When Richard Nixon was president, he often complained to aides that the press did not understand his warm and generous side. His chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, dutifully appointed “anecdotalists,” members of the staff designated to collect heart-warming stories about the chief executive to be parceled out to the press. The program was a flop. The stories were hokey and even lazy reporters by and large refused to print them.
How to “humanize” oneself is always a difficult for presidents and would-be presidents. The Kennedys, of course, were natural at it. JFK would just let a photographer watch him play with his children or sail a boat, and the country (or so it seemed) would swoon. But for less telegenic and media-savvy men or women, letting down your guard to let voters see the real person can be fraught. There is no easy solution, but the story of Richard Nixon is a particularly vivid cautionary tale.
Mr. Nixon was not in any way easy, loose or relaxed. He wore his tie when he bowled (usually alone), and though he was close to Pat, he refused to be seen holding his wife’s hand, much less kissing her in public. He was painfully awkward at small talk. But he was actually more considerate to staff and to the workers he encountered than most presidents, including JFK. He would always go into the kitchen to thank the cooks and waiters at banquets. He believed in “bucking up” his aides during difficult times and routinely called on sick friends and even strangers who were suffering. (True, he could be clumsy at that, too. When a patrolman tipped over his motorcycle in the motorcade, he rushed to the scene of the accident. Finding the policeman lying on the ground, he inquired, “Do you like your job?”)
When I was writing a biography of Mr. Nixon, I found a surprising light side to the man — a well-concealed tenderness and warmth. He wanted to be an upbeat, enthusiastic leader. True, this side is largely missing from the White House tapes. Too often, talking to his top advisers Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Henry Kissinger, he felt that need to show he was a tough guy. He frequently swore and sometimes ranted. But I found that he was oddly unconvincing, like he was play-acting as a macho man. He was profane, but not naturally like Lyndon Johnson.
Mr. Nixon’s legacy is cursed by his ham-handed attempts to control and manipulate the press in his day and by the extreme rawness of the tapes, which continue to make people wince. Nixon would have been far better off to let it be known that he was who he was: a shy, formal man who loved his family and tried to be nice to the people who worked for him; who often blurted and blustered when he was anxious; but who was more often cool and calm when it mattered (dealing, say, with Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev in a difficult arms control negotiation). Nixon made the mistake of posing — sometimes in the manner of his hero French President Charles de Gaulle, in a mistaken attempt to affect the majestic remoteness of “Le Grand Charles”; other times as a hale-fellow-well-met backslapping pol, which he definitely was not. (He was, however, good at remembering names, an important virtue, bolstered by Nixon’s always-careful preparation).
Mr. Nixon ran an elaborate PR operation out of the White House; indeed, you might say that the modern political spin machine got its start from chief of staff Haldeman, an advertising man in private life who coined the term “news cycle.” He had a good eye for PR talent. He hired some great speech writers, including Ray Price and William Safire, and he discovered a daytime talk show producer named Roger Ailes — who went on to build a global media empire at Fox. But he was too restless and insecure to just be himself, or reveal his kinder self, and he spent far too much time complaining about his “enemies,” in the press and elsewhere. His staff mostly knew to ignore these outbursts — but not always. The result, broadly speaking, was Watergate. No amount of PR could save him then.
The contenders for the GOP nomination do not resemble Richard Nixon (Hillary Rodham Clinton, on the other hand, does share some of Nixon’s resentments). But they could learn from his example to not try to “package” their human side but rather to be honest about their personalities. Jeb Bush, for instance, should not try to hide his natural and endearing dorkiness. Marco Rubio needs not to worry too much about looking “presidential” and instead to let his winsome, almost boyish enthusiasm shine through. You can make a good argument that Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in 2012 because he — or perhaps his handlers — were unwilling to reveal a more human, slightly goofy side to Romney. The modern, ever more intrusive press is going find most of a candidate’s flaws and quirks anyway. Better to be open and honest about who you really are.
• Evan Thomas, a former Newsweek editor, is the author of “Being Nixon: A Man Divided” (Random House).
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."