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Food for Thought

“I Gave Them A Sword”

Tim Madigan asks how Machiavellian Richard Nixon really was.

“I gave them a sword and they stuck it in and they twisted it with relish. I guess if I’d been in their position, I’d have done the same thing.”
– Richard Nixon to David Frost, 1977

The year 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Richard Milhous Nixon. Yet, unlike other such anniversaries for former U.S. Presidents, this one has not been much commemorated. No doubt this is due to the fact that, almost twenty years after his death, Nixon remains a controversial figure, with a rather tainted legacy (to say the least), being the only occupant of the Oval Office to have resigned in disgrace.

Nixon spent the two decades after his resignation in an odd sort of netherworld, trying to gain back public respect by traveling, lecturing and authoring a myriad of books and articles. (Luckily for him, having been pardoned by his successor Gerald Ford for any offenses against the United States which he may have committed during his time in office, he didn’t have to hide out from the sheriff.) One of Nixon’s last personal assistants, Monica Crowley, wrote a book describing the final four years of this strange man’s private life, entitled Nixon in Winter: His Final Revelations about Diplomacy, Watergate, and Life Out of the Arena (Random House, 1998). In it, she reveals that Nixon was a voracious reader (and that he had a lot of time to devote to reading since he often had no visitors), and that he dedicated a good deal of attention to classic philosophers. “He read and reread these works,” she writes, “usually by sectioning them according to theme and by underlining important phrases that he could compare with his own political thinking” (p.340). Given the fact that it was Nixon’s abuses of power that led to his downfall, I found this particular passage in Crowley’s book quite fascinating:

“I decided to reread some of Machiavelli’s stuff because he is by far one of the more interesting philosophers.” As we sat in his office on January 14, 1993, Nixon picked up his briefcase and removed a small volume. “The Prince,” he said, waving it in the air. “‘The ends justify the means’ – that’s all most people see in Machiavelli. I’ll bet that’s pretty much all most people are taught about him. That line is, of course, central to his arguments, but his stuff is far more complex than that one thing…”

In fairness to Machiavelli, I should add that it is debatable whether or not he ever really wrote (or intimated) ‘the end justifies the means’; but no doubt the former President is correct in his assertion that that principle is probably what most people would identify with the author of The Prince. Crowley goes on to say of Nixon that:

He viewed The Prince both as a handbook for statesmen and as an analytic work relevant to the modern world. Its lessons clearly resonated with Nixon, who defended even its morally ambiguous assertions. “The critics who go after Machiavelli obviously have never held a goddamned office or tried to run a country. Machiavelli was a diplomat, and he had the experience to write about what he knew. International politics hasn’t changed one iota since he wrote in the early sixteenth century. Not one iota. Sure, the players have changed, but the rules of the game are exactly the same. So, considering that, what the hell is wrong with what he argued?” Nixon asked, counting his next points on his fingers.

“He says that leaders should act decisively as soon as they detect a threat; he says that they should be capable of using cruel and inhumane methods to maintain the state, which we disagree with now, but back then that was necessary to hold the goddamned places together; and he says that appearances are what’s most important. Machiavelli must have foreseen the importance of television! He would have been the first to call [media strategist Roger] Ailes!” (p.346).

There is a certain aptness in Nixon’s advocacy, for 2013 coincidentally also marks the 500th anniversary of Machiavelli’s writing The Prince.

Nixon’s fascination with The Prince does seem quite fitting. Indeed, during his long political career, from serving in the U.S. Congress as both a Congressman and Senator, to his eight years as Vice President under Dwight D. Eisenhower, and his own tortured term in office as President himself, Nixon was often referred to as ‘Machiavellian’, and not in a complimentary way. But it may be that this was inaccurate, for, while he certainly seemed to have a good grasp of Machiavelli’s views on foreign policy, Nixon does not appear to have really understood, or at least did not follow, the main point of The Prince: how to gain and keep political power. Machiavelli, who himself fell from power when the Medici family took over the government of Florence in 1512 (but who, unlike Nixon, ended up spending time in prison after his loss), wrote The Prince in part at least to try to get into the good graces of the Medicis by giving them sage advice on how to maintain the power that they had achieved through force. It would have behooved Nixon to have more carefully read this work before he gained the Presidency rather than after resigning from that office, for it is chock-full of practical strategies for holding onto one’s position of power regardless of the forces allied against you.

To be sure, Nixon was certainly good at Machiavelli’s first topic, how to gain power, and he had an almost uncanny ability to pop back up just when you thought he was out for good. As Jeffrey Frank’s new book Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage (Simon and Schuster, 2013) points out, Nixon was nearly kicked off the ticket as Eisenhower’s running mate in 1952 when a secret fund by his supporters was discovered, but he managed to remain on it by going on television and revealing his complete financial history (as well as immortalizing his dog Checkers in the process). After his defeats in the 1960 Presidential election and the 1962 Gubernatorial election in California, his political career seemed over, but he managed to come back in triumph in the 1968 Presidential election, and won a resounding landslide re-election in 1972. It was never wise to consider him down for the count. In one of the most memorable sketches in Saturday Night Live’s history, ‘Death to Watergate’, Christopher Lee portrayed a vampire hunter who attempts to drive a stake through the heart of Richard Nixon’s memoirs. But Nixon, in Dan Aykroyd’s over-the-top performance, simply starts writing the book again from scratch. The chilling message is that Nixon is the beast that would not die.

Hatred, Lies & Audiotape

It was with the second principle of The Prince – concerned with how to keep power – that Nixon could have used Machiavelli’s help. For instance, although Machiavelli famously stated in Chapter XVII that it is better for a Prince to be feared than to be loved, he clearly held that, all things considered, it’s best to be both feared and loved. Nixon, however, was one of the most unlovable public figures of recent times. Some argued that even his own dog didn’t particularly care for him. His public persona became so reviled that even before the revelations of the Watergate scandal, he often spent much of his time hidden in the White House or his other residences to avoid being jeered at or booed. It is imperative, Machiavelli stresses over and over, for a leader to avoid being hated. “To be brief,” he writes in Chapter XIX, “a Prince has little to fear from conspiracies when his subjects are well disposed towards him, but when they are hostile and hold him in detestation, he has then reason to fear everything and every one.” Hatred provides a strong motivating force to unite one’s enemies against you, and will likely lead to attempts to overthrow you. So by constantly provoking his old enemies and creating new ones through his secretiveness and seeming disregard for niceties, Nixon committed one of Machiavelli’s cardinal sins, by creating a mass of critics dedicated to removing him from power.

In Chapter XVIII, Machiavelli advises the Prince to always be thought of as honest and trustworthy. While of course it’s often expedient not to actually be so, you should never encourage a reputation for being duplicitous, since then your every word will be scrutinized, and you will not be generally respected. The man who became known early in his career as ‘Tricky Dick’, and for whom the admonition ‘Would You Buy a Used Car from This Man?’ stuck to him like glue, never managed this. And one can only imagine what Machiavelli would have thought of a leader who publically announces “I am not a crook.” Talk about damning yourself!

Unable to get people to love him, Nixon isolated himself and surrounded himself with aides who catered to his darkest wishes. Beware flatterers and sycophants, Machiavelli warns, for they will likely only tell you what you want to hear, not what you need to know. Nixon, instead, spent hours with Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, Colson and Dean, rambling on about his bigoted views on race, religion, gender and other matters, as well as discussing illegal operations, expecting them to fervently agree on every point. As if that’s not bad enough, he surreptitiously taped their conversations, thus leading to many of them (unlike himself) serving prison sentences because they had unwittingly incriminated themselves on tape. This was a very un-Machiavellian maneuver. As Nixon so memorably phrased it in the opening quote, he gave his enemies the sword they used to destroy him. Surely, above all else, Machiavelli – let alone Roger Ailes – would have advised him to never tape yourself committing a crime, especially when you don’t have ultimate control over those tapes. Always anticipate what your enemies are likely to do and forestall them, Machiavelli stresses: don’t ever give them the upper hand – or a sword, for that matter.

Whenever I teach a course on Political Philosophy I usually have my friend Richard M. Rosenbaum come to lecture to my class. It’s good, I tell my students, to have someone talk to them who (unlike me) actually knows what goes on behind the scenes in the world of politics. A long-time advisor and confidant to such Republican stalwarts as Nelson Rockefeller (for whom he served as right-hand man and chief political advisor during his time as Governor of New York and Vice President of the United States), Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, Rosenbaum has also served in many political capacities and branches of power, including State Supreme Court Justice, and Chairman of the New York State Republican Party. He knew Richard Nixon and respected his intelligence, but not his astuteness. Dick has written his own primer for politicians, entitled No Room for Democracy: The Triumph of Ego Over Common Sense (RIT Press, 2008), in which he gives what he calls ‘Advice from an Old Lion (Who Still Has His Teeth)’, including this time-honored maxim: “Never write when a word will suffice. Never speak when a nod will suffice” (p.256). He might have added, NEVER tape yourself doing anything incriminating.

Although Richard Nixon was not a very successful Machiavellian, surely there was an associate of his who both understood and put into practice much of the Florentine’s wisdom. Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, not only survived the whirlwind of Watergate, he emerged even stronger from the debacle of the Nixon resignation, and has remained near the seat of power ever since. Ninety years old and still going strong, Henry Kissinger, the astute courtier and diplomat, deserves the appellation ‘the Modern Machiavelli’ much more than does his fallen Prince, Richard Nixon.

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2013

Tim Madigan is a U.S. Editor of Philosophy Now. He teaches Philosophy at St John Fisher College, Rochester, New York.

• Tim would like to thank Bob Sansone, who studied Political Philosophy with him this year, for pointing out the dual anniversaries mentioned above.

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