When Richard Nixon assaulted the reporters last week, his cries brought down around him the walls he had been building for sixteen years. So thoroughly did he demolish his castle that ABC Television News--which, after all, is now run by James Haggerty--could title its post-election study of the former Vice-President, former Senator, former everything, "The Political Obituary of Richard M. Nixon."
Nixon's valedictory had a little of the quality of a suicide note; it was as if, after a career filled with speeches marred by flubs, sottises, and gaffes, he had made the decision to go for broke with one statement of nothing but unreason and cloudy error. Nixon, the old one, the new one, was always in those slips of the tongue; Nixon's nature was to make mistakes, not speeches. And in the final hours of the last defeat, Nixon chose to leave the stage in his own face and his own clothes.
One always suspected Nixon was at bottom that uncontrolled, desperate figure who damned the press for doing him in. But all through his career, one was never altogether sure. The longer Nixon was in public life, the less one knew him. The very character of Nixon's discourse last Wednesday stamped him forever as washed-up; in those fifteen minutes he at last exhausted himself, confronted and killed the demon that kept him going for sixteen years. It is not that Nixon is dead; it is that he could no longer conceivably be of interest or use to anybody.
The real Nixon was the man who sat biding his time in the crowded House chamber during the years just after the war: an unknown Congressman who had taken what seemed the most promising route to Washington, sitting and waiting for a chance to come his way. When it came, he took it, boldly and without a second thought, like the hero of a perverse version of the American success story. The victim of his success, Alger Hiss, was not simply being kind on that television show when he said of Nixon, "He was responding to a situation in this country, an ugly period, an ugly time, and riding it rather than actually creating it, I think. If it hadn't been Mr. Nixon, perhaps someone else would have tried to jump into the same situation and benefit by it." But all this should lead not to a single condemnation of Richard Nixon, but to questioning the American Dream when it relates to politics.
Richard Nixon's collapse shows again that there really is more to politics than a talent, or even a genius for opportunism. Richard Nixon went into red-hunting because at that time there was a boom in that brand of politics; if the boom had come in storm windows, then he would have sold storm windows.
But he became an anachronism not merely because, as it were, the market had dried up, but because he discovered too late--when he couldn't get out, when he had to ride the course to the very end, and destroy himself--that politics is much more than merchandising. The "new Nixon" was not the antithesis of the old one; he was the old one who had somehow realized he was wildly, fantastically out of his depth. Things kept changing, but he found himself unable to. He shifted direction, backed and filled so frantically not out of calculation, but because he was staggering under an impossible load.
Nixon's performance at his last press conference was in addition something of an apology; for by blaming everybody, he could only be blaming himself. But his sin was of presumption, not slander. Hiss's apparently generous statement on television Sunday night was really a sad assent to this judgment. He and Nixon's other victims fell to a desperate incompetent; for Nixon never understood politics until it had found him out.