Saturday, September 10, 2016

In the Arena by Richard M. Nixon (Book Review #43 of 2016)


In the Arena: A Memory of Victory, Defeat, and Renewal
This was Richard Nixon's eighth book, published in 1990, and I was surprised at how some of his advice and philosophy would be applicable today. His thoughts on leadership are find Some of it is good, some of it is disappointing, and some of it is unnecessary. I think some of the Nixon White House tapes that have been released publicly since this book show that Nixon wasn't completely honest with himself in his memories.

Nixon begins recounting the night before he left the Oval Office; he had trouble sleeping. His family had opposed his resignation. Ruth Graham (wife of Billy Graham) had put a banner behind an airplane supporting him (Nixon tapes later revealed that the Grahams initially thought the whole Watergate scandal was a "communist plot." Graham's autobiography, Just As I Am, expresses regret for his unreserved support for Nixon as the tapes revealed his heart). Nixon does not express guilt for disgracing the Presidency so much as disappointment at the media pressure on him to resign. He denies ordering the Watergate break-in and notes that wiretaps did not require warrants at the time (a point that is admittedly overlooked in the media today).

Nixon trumpets his fiscal conservativism-- he gave up Secret Service protection after the Presidency to save taxpayer money.

He mentions his popular 1980 book on foreign policy, which I should read. He was and remains an optimist on China, believing that capitalism would lead to more political opening and more freedom-- if slowly.

Nixon was a Quaker and believed his faith should be intensely private. He avoided injecting religion into his speeches and was not a fan of the Moral Majority movement of the 1980s. But he notes his White House worship services were somehow controversial and drew the ire of the media.

He mentions his visits with the USSR, the fate of Kruschev, his thoughts on Gorbachev's reforms and more about the enigma that is Russia. This leads to some thoughts on alcohol, when it was served on foreign trips and when it wasn't, and what that signaled. He had advice about alcohol for political leaders-- it's not for everybody, but helpful to some, everyone is different.

President Nixon expresses his thoughts on the benefits of pressure and tension to improve performance, perhaps he was ahead of the modern psychologists who write books on this today. An example of pressure for him was the "Checker's speech" in which he successfully deflected criticisms that he basically accepted bribes. The Alger Hiss case was a huge career risk at the time, he's glad he took it.

"The key to effective leadership is pragmatic idealism" - an idea that is completely missing from the Republican party's candidate and the RNC in 2016.

Mr. Nixon spends time praising Pat Nixon.

Most cogent are President Nixon's thoughts on war and peace. Virtually every aggressor in history says that peace is his goal, but peace on his terms. There is a real peace, and then there is the "perfect peace." He criticizes liberals who want peace at all costs or those who argue that greataer understanding and even trade between countries will eliminate war (maybe he anticipates Thomas Friedman's "McDonald's theory" here). Trade cannot produce peace, but it can create incentives for countries to work together so they can reap the benefits. Learning to live with our differences, rather than dying for them, is what produces lasting peace-- not greater understanding of eachother in and of itself.

Nixon closes the book with an encouragement for the reader to take risks. No risk, no growth, and no reward.

In all, I give this book 3.5 stars. It is a good read and historically interesting. The leadership and psychology bits hold up well and are basically repeated by people writing books today who don't read books written longer than 20 years ago. But the lack of introspection and plea of "not guilty!" about his last days in office are pretty bad.

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