President Richard M. Nixon: Psychohistory and Psychological Profile

About the psychohistory or psychological profile of President of the United States Richard M. Nixon.


Richard's father, Frank Nixon, was a bitter, violent, and unpleasant man who was disliked by most of his Whittier neighbors. He would often chase customers out of the family store with his noisy bad-tempered arguments on political subjects. Having failed at nearly everything he tried-as a carpenter, lemon rancher, trolley operator, and service station manager-he often took out his frustrations on his 5 sons. It is reported that Richard, the 2nd oldest, submitted to these beatings "without a whimper." During his early years, the boy's only shelter in his unhappy and poverty-ridden home was his mother-a woman described by all who knew her as "a Quaker saint." She responded to her grim life and her difficult marriage with quiet resignation and iron self-control. "I have never heard her complain," her minister remembered. "I have never heard her criticize anyone." Young Richard wanted to achieve the same kind of self-control, and his rhetoric throughout his political career has emphasized the virtues of discipline, self-mastery, and "keeping cool." "The best test of a man," he once said, "is not how well he does the things he likes, but how well he does the things he doesn't like." The fact that Richard could never fully conquer himself and live up to his mother's teachings was a source of a most painful sense of self-hate and worthlessness. His violent temper-identified in his mind with a hated father figure-was one aspect of his own personality that he could never accept. Accordingly, whenever Nixon began losing control, he had to assure himself-and everyone else-that he was actually keeping cool. Note, for instance, his fervent denials in Six Crises that he ever lost his temper at Khrushchev or Kennedy. Also note his insistence at his "Last Press Conference" that "I do not say this in any bitterness..." when everyone in the country could see how bitter he was. Nixon, in short, was still trying desperately to be the kind of person who would please his mother-but knew, subconsciously at least, that he was bound to fail. His only resolution for this conflict was to talk like Hannah-mouthing platitudes about peace, gentleness, and restraint-even while he acted like Frank-bitterly and violently battling the enemies he saw everywhere.

When Richard was 3 years old, he nearly died after cracking his skull in a fall from a carriage. When he was 4, he contracted pneumonia and once more lay close to death. Then, just before he reached adolescence, 2 of his brothers died-the oldest, Harold, after a long bout with tuberculosis, and the youngest, Arthur, as an unexpected victim of tubercular meningitis. These experiences only deepened Richard's sense of guilt and unworthiness. His older brother had been his main competitor for his mother's love and attention, and now, with that rival gone, Richard felt responsible for his death. Hannah Nixon herself sensed the pattern clearly. "I think that Richard may have felt a kind of guilt," she wrote, "that Harold and Arthur were dead and he was alive." The only way to overcome that guilt was to succeed-to prove to everyone that he deserved to survive, to remain alive while 2 idealized brothers had departed. In the words of political scientist James David Barber: "His political life-which is nearly his whole life-is a punishing one. At most he derives from it a grim satisfaction in endurance....Nixon exerts extraordinary energies on a life which brings him back extraordinary hardships."

But those hardships were necessary if Nixon was to keep his balance. Unless his successes were tempered by failure and humiliation, he lived in unbearable tension-the tension of a man who feels that things are going "too well" and believes that he is winning triumphs that he doesn't deserve. In 1952, after his nomination for the Vice-Presidency at the age of 39, he left himself politically vulnerable by continuing to accept money from the "Nixon fund." In 1960, when he was running well ahead of Kennedy in the polls, he invited disaster by agreeing to televised debates. In 1972, while winning one of history's greatest landslides, he provided for his own undoing by his incredible mishandling of Watergate. Along with his fierce desire to win respect, to prove his strength at the expense of his enemies came a desperate need to expose himself, to demonstrate his own unworthiness, to show the world that beneath the carefully composed mask of cool professionalism and self control stood a vulnerable, painfully human man, as petty and bitter as Frank Nixon. How else can one explain Nixon's incredible "Last Press Conference"-an orgy of self-exposure and public humiliation? How else can one explain his careful commitment to putting on tape even those private conversations that he knew would discredit him?

Nixon's entire career was built around what he calls "the exquisite agony" of crisis. Time and again, he deliberately placed himself in high-risk situations-the Hiss case, the "Checkers" speech, the dangerous visit to Caracas as Vice-President, the debates with Kennedy, the California governor's race-yet each time he managed to survive and went away with deeper suspicious about his own unworthiness. From the beginning, he seemed to sense that he would ultimately fail. Most comfortable playing the role of a pious martyr-a role echoing his "saintly" mother-Nixon found politics, from the beginning, ideally suited to his psyche's needs. It permitted him the "exquisite agony" of destroying himself in public, while blaming the entire process on his invisible "enemies." As Hannah Nixon recalled, while her son was serving as Vice-President: "I've often wished that Richard and his brothers had not been burdened with the hardships they had to endure as boys; they should have had more fun."

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