“Being Nixon: A Man Divided” by Evan Thomas was published in 2015. Thomas was a writer and editor for over three decades at Newsweek and Time Magazine and served as visiting professor at Harvard and Princeton. He is the author of nine books including “Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World” which I read and enjoyed.
This ostensibly comprehensive, full-length biography is the product of significant research and is consistently fluent, fluid and eminently readable. And it proves far more balanced than I expected given its reputation for being too sympathetic to Nixon.
One question which proves difficult to unravel is whether this book intends to serve as a biography or a character study. During its early pages it feels firmly like the latter – exploring Nixon’s thoughts and actions and analyzing his personality. As the narrative approaches his presidency, though, it seems to morph into a biography. But it never seems fully devoted to either cause.
As a result, while it is consistently interesting and thought-provoking, “Being Nixon” reads like a collection of engaging short-stories that hold together somewhat loosely – many with a “psychoanalytical” feel and others which convey serious history (fortunately from an approachable, rather than painfully pedantic, perspective).
Nixon’s pre-presidency receives about one-third of the book’s 531 pages. These fifty-six years fly by far too quickly and many moments are covered with little or no depth. Readers hoping to learn much about Nixon’s House, Senate or Vice Presidential years, for instance, will be disappointed, and his unsuccessful 1960 presidential campaign fails to receive the penetrating coverage it deserves.
Nixon’s five-and-a-half years in the White House are reviewed with more intensity although this portion of the book never feels like a particularly serious survey of his presidency. Instead, these twenty chapters provide a steady stream of fascinating anecdotes, quips, stories and revelations that capture the reader’s attention but never completely satisfy. And because Thomas tends to bounce quickly from topic to topic, discussions frequently feel unfinished or disappointingly perfunctory.
Readers familiar with the basics of Nixon’s life will find much of this book valuable. Several events such as Nixon’s early morning presidential pilgrimage to the Lincoln Memorial, his relationship with Henry Kissinger and his interaction with his family are particularly revealing.
And despite most historians’ disdain for psycho-biography, Thomas’s exploration of Nixon’s psyche and mental motivations is keenly perceptive, at best, and thought-provoking at the very least. In addition, this book’s fluent, extremely readable style makes it a far easier read than its length would suggest. Finally, while I generally find “Acknowledgements” sections an after-thought, Thomas’s proves uncommonly substantive.
Overall, Evan Thomas’s “Being Nixon: A Man Divided” is neither a traditional biography nor a dedicated character study. Instead, it is a well-written, well-researched review of Nixon’s life with an emphasis on his personality and motives. While not an ideal introduction to the 37th president, it provides broad (if not uniformly deep) historical coverage and is most rewarding as a supplementary book for anyone interested in seeing this tragic figure from a unique perspective.
Overall rating: 3½ stars