Saturday, August 17, 2013

"I am not a book!" (Six Crises by Richard M. Nixon)

Look What I Found is an occasional series on books I've hunted-and-gathered at garage sales, used bookstores, estate sales, and the occasional pilfering from a friend's bookshelf when his back is turned.  I have a particular fondness for U.S. novels written between 1896 and 1931.  If I sniff a book and it makes me sneeze, I'm bound to fall in love.

First of all, hat tip to my friend and Spokane freelance writer Kevin Taylor for the title of this blog post after seeing a picture I posted on Facebook.  Kevin's wit was rapier-sharp this morning, whereas mine was butter-knife dull.

Perhaps I was flatlining this A.M. because after setting off on our Garage Sale Expedition, and plugging the address into our (Not-So-)Smartphone's GPS for 1139 W. Steel in Butte, this is where Jean and I ended up:

Crickets.  Sagebrush.  A wrong left turn.

There were certainly no lawyer's bookcases, stamp collections, or books (the magnets which drew my attention to the classified ad) at this location.  Stupid Smartphone.

We turned around and headed back toward Butte--Oh, did I mention we'd driven three miles out of town to the Rocker exit, took Brown's Gulch Road up past the landfill, sailed blithely and ignorantly past the posted NO TRESPASSING signs, and turned down a two-track road with storm-scoured ruts which looked like they wanted to murder our tires?  I didn't?  Well, that's exactly where the non-garage sale was located.

After much stabbing at the Smartphone with screen-cracking fury and internal kicking-of-self for not remembering that Steel Street--like most streets in Butte--followed a logical pattern, I realized it was located near Aluminum, Platinum, and Iron.  Well, duh.

As we walked up to the garage sale (the actual one, with milling early-birders, sad-looking Christmas decorations and a solitary--not plural--lawyer's bookcase with an overinflated pricetag), I passed three large bedsheets spread across the lawn.  And on those bedsheets were....boxes of books.  Radar Ping!

Most of the books were of 1970s vintage and I bypassed them (I mean, how many copies of Roots could I possibly own?).  But then I saw what I'll call the Nixon box.  Or, more precisely the Nixon-Kennedy box.  Packed tight and spine-up I saw several political books authored by dudes with names like Schlesinger, Manchester and Halberstam.  And then I zoomed in on one olive-drab spine of a Cardinal paperback with the words "Six Crises  *  Richard M. Nixon."

Who better to write about crises than Tricky Dick? I thought.  I paid 25 cents to rescue Mr. Nixon from his bedsheet-on-a-lawn embarrassment and brought him home with me.

Six Crises was written in 1962, quite possibly as a kick-in-the-nuts response to JFK's bestselling, Pulitzer-Prize-winning Profiles in Courage.  Six-Second History Lesson: In 1960, while finishing his second term as vice president, Nixon ran against Senator John F. Kennedy as the Republican nominee for President.  Nixon forgot to shave before going on one of his televised debates with Kennedy and he lost by a thin margin.  Better luck next time, Dick.  Oh, and by the way, Gillette would like you to appear in their next ad.

So, what are Nixon's six crises? Here are the thumbnails, courtesy of Wikipedia:

The Alger Hiss case: In which Nixon used the 1948 House Un-American Activities Committee hearings to boost his career by lambasting Alger Hiss, a high-ranking United States Department of State official, as a communist spy for the Soviet Union.

The Fund Crisis: In 1952, as a member of the United States Senate, Nixon was the vice-presidential running mate of Republican presidential nominee Dwight Eisenhower.  After he was accused during the campaign of having an improper political fund, Nixon saved his political career and his spot on Eisenhower's ticket by making a nationally televised speech, commonly known as the "Checkers speech," in which he denied the charges and famously stated he would not be giving back one gift his family had received: a little dog named Checkers.

Eisenhower's heart attack: In 1955, while Nixon was vice president, Eisenhower suffered a serious heart attack.  Nixon then briefly slid into the driver's seat and took the steering wheel of the nation.

Venezuela attack: In 1958, while on a tour of Venezuela, Nixon and his wife Pat were attacked by a rock-throwing mob.

The "Kitchen Debate": In 1959, while still vice president, Nixon traveled to Moscow to engage in a debate with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.  The debate took place in a mock kitchen that was intended to show Soviet citizens how ordinary American families lived.

The 1960 Presidential campaign: The aforementioned defeat.  Could we say Kennedy won by a close shave?

In his introduction to Six Crises, Nixon writes: "The last thing I ever intended or expected to do after the 1960 election was to write a book."  And yet, BOOM!, there it is less than two years later.  Out of habit, Nixon prevaricates from the very first sentence.  He claims to have taken pen to paper only at the urging of three people: Mamie Eisenhower, Adela Rogers St. Johns, and Kennedy, with whom Nixon shares this touching Oval Office scene:
In April, I visited President Kennedy for the first time since he had taken office.  When I told him I was considering the possibility of joining the "literary" ranks, of which he himself is so distinguished a member, he expressed the thought that every public man should write a book at some time in his life, both for the mental discipline and because it tends to elevate him in popular esteem to the respected status of an "intellectual."
I imagine it would be almost impossible to read Six Crises without the filter of Watergate and, in my case, the mental casting of Anthony Hopkins as the jowly liar.  Irony abounds, even in passages like this, which Nixon no doubt thought he was writing with sincerity and for-the-ages fervor:
      We are all tempted to stay on the sidelines, to live like vegetables, to concentrate all our efforts on living at greater leisure, living longer, and leaving behind a bigger estate.  But meeting crises involves creativity.  It engages all a man's talents.  When he looks back on life, he has to answer the question: did he live up to his capabilities as fully as he could?  Or were only part of his abilities ever called into action?
      One man may have opportunities that others do not.  But what counts is whether the individual used what chances he had.  Did he risk all when the stakes were such that he might win or lose all?
See what I mean?  Irony.  The same kind of irony that leaves a man who once held the highest office in the land sitting in a cardboard box protected from a dewy lawn by a bedsheet and whose "literary" words were bought for a quarter by a grouchy man who'd started off the morning by taking so many wrong turns.