We don’t have Dick Nixon to kick around any more, but what we do have are his writings. He published nearly a dozen books, all but one of them after his resignation from the Oval Office. Among the presidents, only Jimmy Carter, Theodore Roosevelt, and Herbert Hoover were more prolific in their publishing efforts. Nixon’s first book, Six Crises, appeared in the aftermath of his defeat in the 1960 presidential campaign against John F. Kennedy.
The book provides a first-person account of six major events in Nixon’s life, events that at the time were front-page news, often with Nixon at the center.
- The Alger Hiss Case — In 1948, Nixon served as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during its investigation of Time magazine editor Whittaker Chambers and his ties to communism. Nixon played a key role in questioning Alger Hiss, a State Department official named by Chambers and eventually convicted as a spy (the actual charge was perjury).
- The “Checkers” Speech — During the 1952 Eisenhower campaign, the media reported on a “secret fund” used by VP candidate Nixon. This chapter presents the key events, including the live TV speech Nixon gave to defend his innocence.
- President Eisenhower’s Heart Attack — Eisenhower had a heart attack during his first term, and Nixon began to take seriously the expression “one heartbeat from the presidency.”
- Visit to Caracas, Venezuela — As part of a South American tour, Richard and Pat Nixon visited Venezuela, which was undergoing a fight for its political identity. While there, angry mobs and communist agitators attacked Nixon’s car, nearly turning it over and setting it on fire with the Nixons still inside.
- The Kitchen Debates — Vice President Nixon visited Moscow in July of 1959, and clashed with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the kitchen of a demonstration model American home set up at a cultural exposition.
- The 1960 Presidential Campaign — Consuming nearly one-third of the book, the final chapter gives Nixon’s view of his recent defeat in his 1960 presidential campaign against Kennedy.
Although the book uses “crises” to tie the sections together, the text is really a memoir of Nixon’s political life. And while the focus is on himself as politician, he does play the role of model historian, filling in details for an audience interested in the background for the sound bites and brief images that appeared on their black-and-white televisions.
Reading the book post-Watergate is somewhat bizarre. In several places, Nixon stresses the importance of integrity, character, and transparency in government, things he struggled with in the aftermath of his own public scandal. But a decade before those events, Nixon is honest and concerned about the public perception of activities at the highest levels of government.
As Vice President, Nixon was in contact with the most powerful and important people in the world. He never misses and opportunity to name-drop, and it’s not always clear if he is in historian mode or fame mode. But there is no doubt that he did pass through several events that were key to building up the American life we experience today. Although he refers to them as “crises,” Nixon accentuates the positive, reflecting on how each event made him, and America, stronger.