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Channeling the Real Richard Nixon

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The following guest post is a Q&A conducted by Marie Arana, co-director of the Library of Congress National Book Festival.

Evan Thomas is one of the most successful nonfiction authors publishing today. He is the author of nine books, among them a great assortment of bestsellers: “The Wise Men” (with Walter Isaacson), “The Man to See,” “Robert Kennedy,” “John Paul Jones,” “The War Lovers,” “Ike’s Bluff,” and now the critically acclaimed “Being Nixon: A Man Divided,” published by Random House this month. Evan has been the Washington Bureau Chief of Newsweek as well as its editor at large. He has won several National Magazine Awards for his probing yet elegant reporting. A marvelous speaker and communicator, he has taught feature writing at both Harvard and Princeton universities. We are delighted that he’ll join us at the National Book Festival to talk about “Being Nixon,” which critics have called “Terrifically engaging!” as well as “a glossy, armchair-ready biography . . . a book in tune with our time.” Evan will be interviewed by the co-chairman of the National Book Festival and the lead sponsor of the event, David M. Rubenstein, at 12:45 p.m. in the Biography Pavilion.

Evan Thomas
Evan Thomas
There is a great deal of literature about Richard Nixon, not least from Nixon himself. What inspired you to dig into the record to recreate him in such full technicolor? Had you perceived a glimmer in Nixon’s persona that perhaps others had neglected to pursue?

I worked for the Washington Post Company for 24 years (ten years as Washington Bureau Chief for Newsweek), where Nixon was regarded as the devil. I think of all those decades of Herblock cartoons, from the early ones of Nixon crawling out of the sewer.
For years, I reflexively shared this cartoonish view of “Tricky Dick.” In 2012, my friend and former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, who had gone on to become executive editor at Random House, suggested that I write a biography of Nixon. I hesitated at first, but I was intrigued by the notion that Nixon, for all his obvious faults, accomplished a great deal. I also know from my years of closely observing powerful men and women that they are rarely as good–or as bad–as they seem. As I read Nixon’s thousand-page memoir, “RN,” I saw–through the self-justifying posturing–glimmers of another Nixon, of a man who wanted to be upbeat and joyful, even if he was doomed by his own resentments.

Nixon has been called “the oddest man ever to occupy the Oval Office.” Would you agree? And yet your book treats him with great equanimity and an even hand. Tell us how you arrived at your neutrality.

H.R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, called Nixon “the weirdest man I ever met.” That makes him sound unfathomable, but he was not. Although Nixon spent years and millions of dollars in legal fees trying to keep his private records and the famous White House tapes out of the public record, by now most (though not all) of his papers and tapes are public at the Nixon Library. It is possible, through his memos and late night notes on his yellow pads, as well as the real-time note-taking of Haldeman and Ehrlichman to know what Nixon was thinking. (For his early years, there are hundreds of oral histories of family and friends at Whittier College and Cal State Fullerton.) Many of the people who worked closely with Nixon are still alive. I interviewed three dozen of them, including his personal aides Dwight Chapin, Steve Bull, and Jack Brennan and his memoir ghost-writer Frank Gannon. I cannot pretend to know Nixon’s inner most thoughts. But from the record it is possible to get a feel for what it was like to be Nixon. That is the book I wrote. It is not a revisionist defense of Nixon, but rather an attempt to explain what it was like to be this complicated, tortured man.

You’ve been a featured author at the National Book Festival before: in 2010, with “The War Lovers,” in 2013, with “Ike’s Bluff,” and now 2015, with “Being Nixon.” Three books in five years. You are one hard-working man! Can you give us your impressions of the Festival over the years and how you feel about coming home to a radically new venue?

There is no better event for an author than the National Book Festival. I loved being down on the Mall, surrounded by so much history, during my first two appearances. But the Festival’s new venue will bring everyone together in a grand setting with a roof over our heads and air-conditioning! I’m excited to be interviewed by David Rubenstein. I have seen David in action and know to expect a very well-informed, lively (and humorous) interviewer.