Evan Thomas

Biographers Grapple with the Many Facets of Nixon

In a preview of the BIO Conference panel “Three Ways of Looking at a Subject: Richard Nixon, moderator John A. Farrell explores the presidential subject with two of the panelists.

Lincoln, we know. The Roosevelts, we get. Of Kennedy, we probably know too much. But the roster of American presidents still presents a few white whales for biographers to chase—chief executives whose lives don’t yield characterization easily. Jefferson has been called a sphinx. Reagan opaque. And then there is Richard Nixon.

The challenge in writing a life of Nixon is not a shortage of material; it’s partly that there is so much: millions of documents and thousands of hours of tape recordings; archives chock-full of videotape from the Vietnam War and Watergate; countless newspaper articles and columns and books about the Tricky Dick of the 1950s, the various New Nixons that ran for president, and the tragic chief executive who went to China, signed an arms deal with the Soviet Union, won a landslide re-election, and resigned in disgrace. The vast sea of material makes fishing for Nixon an arduous task. So does his personality, which aide H. R. Haldeman compared to a piece of quartz, with its many, many facets.

Compounding the difficulty is the polarizing nature of the man, and of his times. For most of his political career, often deliberately, he divided the citizenry into those that loved Nixon, and them that hated him with unyielding passion. He came on the scene as an ally of Joe McCarthy. He implied that Harry Truman was a traitor, and was throughout an unforgiving partisan hatchet man. “If the dry rot of corruption and Communism, which has eaten deep into our body politic during the past seven years, can only be chopped out with a hatchet, let’s call for a hatchet,” he said, campaigning, in 1952.

And his enemies—the liberals, academics, Democrats and journalists who Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew attacked as impudent snobs and effete intellectuals—gave as good as they got.

“The American lower middle class in the person of this man moved to engrave into the history of the United States, as the voice of America, its own faltering spirit, its self-pity and its envy…its whole peevish, resentful whine,” the liberal New York columnist Murray Kempton wrote.

For the upcoming BIO conference in Richmond, three recent Nixon biographers—Evan Thomas, Being Nixon; Jeffrey Frank, Ike and Dick; and Irwin Gellman, The Contender and The President and the Apprentice—will join me on a Saturday afternoon panel, and talk about our turns as Captain Ahab. I quizzed two of them about the hunt last month.

Q: What special challenge does a polarizing figure like Nixon present? Is the historic record accurate, or does it reflect the political bias about Nixon from his era? How do you navigate these shoals?
Jeffrey Frank: The challenge is not to start off regarding him as a ‘polarizing’ figure, but rather to try to see him plainly—to let his life and times guide.
Evan Thomas: I worked for The Washington Post for 24 years, and…Nixon was the devil—an evil figure, corrupter of the Constitution, Tricky Dick. That is pretty much the view that has taken hold in the public generally, certainly in the so-called liberal establishment.
The Watergate era record makes Nixon look like a madman. The fuller record is more complex.
His reputation and standing will never escape Watergate, nor should it. But I wanted to humanize him. I tried to look at Nixon from the inside out. To understand his own sense of outsider-ness. To see what it was like, literally, to be Nixon.
“I can’t pretend to know with anything approaching certainty what Nixon was really feeling and thinking. I’m not sure Nixon himself did. He was, as far as I could tell from the record he left, remarkably un-self aware. He brooded constantly—about his enemies—and he felt deep insecurity. But he did not know his own weaknesses, not in a way he could control.
I once asked (Nixon aide) Brent Scowcroft if Nixon could see himself. No, answered Scowcroft, “but sometimes, I think, he took a peek.” That sounds about right to me.

Q: Is there a difference in how the generations of Americans view Nixon?
Jeffrey Frank: I’ve found that the Boomers still pretty much loathe him, although some try to see his better side. The Millennials see him as a cartoon —the Evil President, a little comic, too.

Q: After publication, did you find critics and readers open to your interpretation, or were they bound by their own political viewpoint?
Jeffrey Frank: I wondered whether some would see me as too sympathetic to Nixon, but in fact I think most were pretty open to what I was doing—not to sound pompous but trying to be, ahem, fair and balanced.
Evan Thomas: A mixed or somewhat forgiving picture of Nixon is not going to satisfy the large population of Nixon haters, especially those whose careers have been wrapped up in the view of Nixon as Monster. Since those same people were likely to review my book, I feared I would take my lumps, and I did. But I never had so much fun writing a book.”

Q: What are you hoping to learn from the other members of our panel?
Jeffrey Frank: I’m interested in hearing how the picture of Nixon began to change as other biographers drew closer to him—learning more about him, good and bad. Did he become more a “rounded” figure, and therefore more interesting, or did he simply seem to remain an unwavering partisan, and therefore increasingly tedious? Or a little of both?

John A. Farrell’s single-volume biography of Nixon will be published early next year.

Branch Keynote Talk and Biographers in Conversation Highlight BIO Conference

Almost 200 established and aspiring biographers immersed themselves in their craft at the Sixth Annual Biographers International Organization Conference, held June 6 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Amidst the various panel sessions, attendees also saw Taylor Branch receive the 2015 BIO Award. Branch is best known for his trilogy about Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, known collectively as America in the King Years.

BIO President Brian Jay Jones presents the 2015 BIO Award to Taylor Branch.

BIO President Brian Jay Jones presents the 2015 BIO Award to Taylor Branch.

The Accidental Biographer
In his keynote address, Branch called himself an accidental and partial biographer, as he used the life of King and others to tell the story of the civil rights movement, which he called “the last great uprising of citizens’ idealism that really changed the direction of history.” Branch wanted to better understand the movement and address what he saw as problems with the existing books on it: They were “analytical and abstract” with an emphasis on interpretation. Branch wanted to “feel its power, which for me was personal and quite deep.”

But before and while immersing himself in what would become a 24-year endeavor to better understand and then write about the movement and its makers, Branch worked as journalist, ghost wrote the memoirs of Watergate figure John Dean and basketball star Bill Russell, and spent hours recording the thoughts of an old friend who just happened to become US president: Bill Clinton. Branch recounted some of the recording sessions that would form the basis of Branch’s The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President. Clinton wanted to document the history of his presidency as it unfolded, and his sessions with Branch remained secret through the president’s two terms. For Branch, the sessions gave him the chance “to get the fullest record that historians will one day have” of what daily life was like for Clinton in the White House.

Clinton and Branch had worked together in Texas during George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, and they often discussed political idealism. Branch thought he “had a better chance to influence [US politics] toward integrity as a writer than in politics.” With his King books, he explored the citizens’ idealism he saw in the civil rights movement, the reaction to it, and its lasting effects. He said, “The civil rights movement set things in motion that are still benefiting our country today, including same-sex marriage…. The civil rights movement forced people to break down their emotional barriers against dealing with what equal citizenship really means in everyday life.”

Branch chose to depict the movement in as personal a way as possible, to fight the urge in the United States to “reinterpret history wherever race relations are involved.” As an example, he cited the textbooks he read growing up in Atlanta, which taught that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. Many history books, Branch believes, deal with what a culture is comfortable talking about. Telling the personal stories of the people of the civil rights movement in a narrative history, Branch hoped, would preserve some of the uncomfortable facets of race relations in the United States, thus providing a more accurate history.

brinkleythomasThomas and Brinkley in Conversation
The conference events kicked off in the morning with a plenary breakfast session called “The Art and Craft of Biography: Evan Thomas and Douglas Brinkley in Conversation.” Between them, the two have authored biographies on a wide range of figures who helped shaped the twentieth century, from presidents to Walter Cronkite. They engaged in an easy dialogue as they explored some of the challenges they’ve faced during their careers.

For Brinkley, one challenge came when writing about Rosa Parks. When she made her historic refusal to leave her bus seat, about a dozen or so people rode with her. But when Brinkley did his research, he interviewed 55 people who claimed to be on the bus that day. “Everybody in Montgomery was on Rosa Parks’s bus,” he joked. “I had no idea who to trust.” Brinkley also had personal access to his subject and saw firsthand her willingness to help others, something that made writing the Parks book “probably the most moving personal biography” he’s done.

Following that observation, Evan Thomas said he had just finished a biography of Richard Nixon, and the president “was not a Rosa Parks.” But Thomas did come to appreciate how hard it was to be Richard Nixon, who was socially awkward and “a powerfully lonely guy.” Nixon’s experiences intersected with the life of another of Brinkley’s subjects, Walter Cronkite. CBS News played a big part in bringing Watergate to the public’s attention, and Nixon wanted to “get” Cronkite, who personally liked Nixon. Cronkite also interacted with another of Thomas’s subjects, Robert F. Kennedy. The newsman, Brinkley said, crossed the line of journalistic ethics when he urged Kennedy to run for president in 1968 because of the morass in Vietnam.

Another topic Brinkley and Thomas covered was how to get the biography subject’s family on board, which can be hard when relatives, especially children, want to preserve their loved one’s image, and their truthfulness might be suspect. Thomas also mentioned the difficulty at times of sorting out key details from extraneous facts—“I wish I had a magic formula to help you figure out what’s important and what isn’t.” Another concern for biographers today: plagiarism, or the accusation of it. One strategy, Thomas said, is to footnote extensively and acknowledge the work of experts in the foreword. Brinkley cited a slightly different problem, of anecdotes that get passed along as truth but without sources to back them up. He relies on double sources when possible to verify information.

After discussing some of the nuts and bolts of the craft, Brinkley ended the session on a loftier and inspiring note. He called biography “the most indispensable art form because in America, we live by individuals… that’s how we process history, through people.”

 

Enjoying the preconference reception, from left to right, are Kate Buford, Barbara Burkhardt, Robin Rausch, Abigail Santamaria, and Sarah Dorsey.

Enjoying the preconference reception, from left to right, are Kate Buford, Barbara Burkhardt, Robin Rausch, Abigail Santamaria, and Sarah Dorsey.

Preconference Events
While Saturday, June 6, saw most of the conference’s events and festivities, on Friday some attendees explored the Library of Congress on private tours. In the evening, BIO members gathered at the Georgetown home of board member Kitty Kelley, where Thomas Mann, formerly of the Library of Congress, received BIO’s Biblio Award. Established in 2012, the award recognizes a librarian or archivist who has made an exceptional contribution to the craft of biography. Mann retired from the Library in January 2015 after 33 years of service.

Also at the reception, board member Will Swift announced that Jonathan Segal will receive BIO’s Editorial Excellence Award this November. Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Carl Bernstein will present the award and the evening’s events will also include a panel discussion. Look for more details on this event in upcoming issues of TBC.

Compleat Biographer Conference Preview III: Conversations with Two Panelists

Jim Elledge

Jim Elledge is the author of Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy: The Tragic Life of An Outsider Artist, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for gay memoir/biography and for the Publishing Triangle nonfiction award. A published poet, Elledge is a professor of English at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. At the BIO conference, he will join Cassandra Langer, Barry Werth, and Brian Halley on the panel “Twice Marginalized: The Challenges of Writing About Little-Known Gay and Lesbian Subjects.”

TBC: The bizarre works of self-taught artist and unpublished novelist Henry Darger (1892-1973) have inspired both fascination and horror. What made you decide to write his biography?

Jim Elledge: Another poet had told me about Darger’s work. Doing the initial research on the Internet, I was appalled by what I was reading. It was all very negative about Darger himself. So I was very interested to see what my reaction would be to the paintings. The first time I saw them, at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, I was overwhelmed by the beautiful color and what he was able to do without having any real background in art, but I also did not feel the images I was seeing indicated anything close to his being a pedophile or serial killer, as some had thought.

When I saw the little figures in Darger’s paintings—the little girls with penises, chased by adult men and captured and crucified and strangled—it struck me that it was perhaps some kind of representation of gay boys. I had done some research into gay life in the 1800s for two other books that I published, and I realized from that research that gay men had historically used hermaphroditic figures to represent themselves. They saw the figures as a physical representation of the idea they had come up with to explain their orientation—a female soul in a man’s body, attracted to men as heterosexual women are.

Initially, I thought I’d write an essay and then some kind of critical book, and then I realized I knew nothing about art. So what was left was a biography.

TBC: How did you cope with what must have been a dearth of documentation of the life of a man who was institutionalized as a youth and spent his adult life working at menial jobs and living in a single room?

JE: There really isn’t a huge amount of material, simply because he was from a very poverty-stricken background. He was just a kid who had been, like many kids of that time, tossed out and ignored or abused. So what I had to do was look at what there was.

He wrote an autobiography that has never been published. There are many details in it that helped a lot, though he was very coy and hinted a lot about stuff. I read it so many times that I started seeing where he was hedging and seeing patterns in his writing that for me opened up a lot of possibilities.

I also had to look at what other boys of his approximate age in Chicago at the same time were up to. There’s a lot of sociological material that talks about what boys typically did in those days and the kind of trouble they got into. What he was hinting about was what other boys were going through at the same time, in that particular neighborhood, in similar types of institutions. I found so much that really connected with Darger, and given what he said in the autobiography, it seemed correct to put the two together.

When you have someone like Darger and you have this huge mystery—what do those figures mean?—there’s no way to discover it through the paintings themselves. The paintings certainly don’t tell us he was also a novelist. There are lots of clues in the novels about his sexuality.

I found the key to the torture of the children in the first novel. That was an important way of validating what I was doing. I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing initially, and then I found this and I said, yes, this is the way it’s got to be.

Evan Thomas

Biographers know that dealing with a subject’s family requires the negotiation skills of a trained diplomat, but that it can also be extraordinarily rewarding. The “Getting the Family on Board” panel at this year’s BIO conference will benefit from the experience of veteran biographer and historian Evan Thomas, whose most recent book is Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World. Evan was kind enough to answer some questions from Beverly Gray, moderator of the panel.

Beverly Gray: As a biographer and historian, you’ve covered a wide range of subjects: naval heroes, presidents, spies, politicians. How do you choose your topics? Can you identify a common thread that ties together your eight major book projects?

Evan Thomas: I am very interested in the rise (and fall) of American power after World War II and the role of political and social establishments. I am also interested in war—as the ultimate test of men (and sometimes women) and as the source of so much heroism and folly.

BG: In researching Robert F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower, you’ve have to deal with two important presidential families. Were there special challenges in seeking information from the famously self-protective Kennedys?

ET: The Kennedys do present a challenge, but not an insuperable one. The key is patience and appealing to their self-interest.

BG: In the Acknowledgments of your Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World, you especially praise Ike’s granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower, calling her an “able historian.” In your opinion, what makes an able historian? And how did Susan’s insights contribute to your book?

ET: Susan Eisenhower has the unusual ability to step back from her family and see her grandfather with some detachment. That is not to say that she doesn’t care about his place in history—she has led the opposition to the Frank Gehry-designed Eisenhower Memorial. But she is not kneejerk and she has written enough history to appreciate the difficulties and duties of historians. She was immensely helpful in getting her late father, John, to talk to me.

BG: When researching a biography, how (and when) do you approach your subject’s family? Have you devised any personal rules for working successfully with family members?

ET: The best rule is to not hide the ball, to tell them early on what you are up to and—in most cases—to show them the manuscript so there are no surprises at the end. This does not mean ceding control over the product, but rather trying to build trust by full disclosure.

BG: Have you ever been in situations where you’ve had to coax a family member into speaking honestly and for the record? Have you ever had to offer specific concessions to someone who’s fearful about dishonoring a relative’s reputation?

ET: I have always tried to be mindful of their feelings and to not gratuitously inflict pain. With patience and understanding, you can usually find ways to print virtually everything.

BG: You will be sharing this panel with presidential historian Will Swift, whose new book explores the marriage of Pat and Dick Nixon, as well as Brian Jay Jones, author of Jim Henson: The Biography. What do you look forward to learning from these two biographers?

ET: I hope to learn a lot from them about how to deal with the families!