Monday, February 17, 2014

Pat and Dick, Will Swift

Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage


Will Swift

Category:  Biography; Politics & Washington, D.C.

Synopsis: Swift recounts the Nixon’s courtship and marriage.

Date finished: 14 February 2014

Rating: ***

Before reading this book, I knew Nixon only from history books, grainy television footage of his disastrous presidential debate with Kennedy, and the sound byte “I am not a crook.” The extent of my knowledge was, basically, “Nixon = Watergate.”

Although this book focused on the Nixon’s courtship and marriage, it necessarily included his years in Congress, his unsuccessful presidential bid, and his (nearly) two terms as president. Aside from the Watergate disgrace, I learned that Nixon had made great strides in normalizing relations with the Soviet Union and China. His work in international relations laid the brickwork to future diplomacy. In foreign policy, he was a visionary.

But of course, there was Watergate. You really can’t cut him any slack on that. He did what he did no matter what verbal gymnastics he performed or mental justification he employed to make it seem “no worse than most.” It would seem he never fully admitted his shameful actions, publically or privately. In his resignation speech, he gave his reason for resigning as a lack of political support in Congress to fight the allegations against him. There is a depth of denial there that is almost sinister. Tricky Dick, indeed.

But the book wasn’t really about Dick Nixon’s presidency; it’s about his marriage to his wife Pat. Their marriage was not complicated (though Swift would have us believe it), as their personalities were not complicated. They seemed to be capable of more resentment, denial, and spin than most political families. They seldom discussed things of great personal or political importance, finding avoidance more comfortable. They kept constant watch over how they were perceived by whom and what they could do to engineer support and favor. They molded their images for political gain to such an extent that I sometimes got the impression there was nothing whatsoever under the façade. They seemed downright pitiful.

The problem with this book is that Swift had only enough material for a good ten-page essay, but he stretched it into a full book. It wasn’t necessarily uninteresting (mostly because he also chronicled their political life), but there definitely wasn’t enough depth to their marriage to warrant a book.

I went in to this book giving President Nixon the full benefit of the doubt that he was a good person who made one bad mistake, but I came away thinking he would have done anything to win—win the presidency and win favor. And this, even when the evenhanded biography leaned ever-so-slightly toward Nixon’s favor.

In short, I think this book overreached. As a biography of a politician, it wasn’t bad. As a biography of a marriage, it fell short. Though well-written, it was not the “intimate portrait” that Swift promised.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Probably not.

You might also enjoy:
An American Life by Ronald Reagan
Decision Points by George W. Bush

I read this book for Nonfictionado's Presidents' Day Challenge.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for participating! I've read about Nixon here and there, and very rarely is his relationship with Pat ever emphasized (there is so much more to talk about). How disappointing that this book came up a bit short. Authors, it's okay not to write a book if you don't have enough material for one! I'd rather read a really good longform article online than invest my time in a book that isn't detailed enough to be fleshed out.