Money and Vanity: how books work, Nixon edition

Nixon_in_Pres_cabin_of_AFOLast week, we talked about how the pivot on the Trump book might be the product of internal conflict within the Trump campaign, and also about how much money is really in political books.

The moral of the story is that the more things change… well.  You know.

The research for my dissertation on Nixon’s post-presidential books also took a sidestep into Nixon’s campaign book, Six Crises.  Six Crises was a powerful tool in Nixon’s mid-career: it was written while he ran for governor in 1962 after losing the presidency in 1960, and then re-used when he successfully ran for the presidency in 1968.  The point I made in my dissertation and have been making here for a while was that the book worked for the campaign in two ways: making the candidate visible, and making the candidate real and tangible.  What I think is also important (and, again, have been saying for a while) is that at least for Nixon, books weren’t just campaign tools, but actually meant something and mattered to how Nixon saw himself and his career.  Books made him a lot of money, and brought him a lot of publicity, but their production was never separated from Nixon’s self-image—which is to say Nixon’s vanity.

The 1960 election was a close race, and one of the important factors was Kennedy’s 1955 book, Profiles in Courage.  Kennedy’s book was a historical stroll through a selection of US senators who showed ‘courage’, usually in acting against the demonstrated will of their constituents.  JFK’s father also got the Pulitzer Prize committee to award the 1957 prize for biography to Profiles in Courage, regardless of the fact that it hadn’t been nominated.  With that leap in publicity, Kennedy went into the 1960 campaign already gaining on Nixon’s public recognition.  Later, after the race, when consulting with Nixon in the White House, Kennedy had the nerve to recommend writing a book—it was a great way to be taken as an intellectual, he said, although it was an open secret that Kennedy had written very little of Profiles in Courage.  Nixon credits Kennedy as one of the people who inspired him to write Six Crises, and his staff was apparently inspired as well: in July 1962, a memo from Haldeman to Charlie Ferrington noted that Adela Rogers, a novelist and friend of the Nixons, suggested that Profiles in Courage and its use in the 1960 campaign be the model for the use of Six Crises (Box 62, folder 38).*

In 1962, Nixon ran for Governor of California, in part to avoid being drafted to run against Kennedy again in 1964.  November and December 1961, memos flew back and forth between Philip Boyd and Haldeman about the book: both were concerned that it would take attention away from Nixon’s policy plans for the state of California, although it would be useful for highlighting Nixon’s work against communism.  They suggested scrapping the book and working on a series of articles about California (28-3 and 53-13), but Nixon pressed forward and finished Six Crises.

Having written the book, Nixon was concerned to get his fair treatment in the national media: February 23rd, 1962, a letter from Ken McCormick at Doubleday mentions that Nixon wanted to direct his purchase of 1000 copies of Six Crises to stores informing the New York Times Bestseller List (62-24).  Keep in mind, the publication date for Six Crises was March 28th—so this is before it’s even published.  Meanwhile, Nixon also asked for follow-up research from Chuck Lichenstein about his comment that the Book of the Month Club never chose conservative books.  If Lichenstein’s research supported this observation (it didn’t), it would be included in fundraising letters as part of a larger strategy throughout Nixon’s entire career of portraying himself as abused and maligned by the press, the Democrats, and everyone else (62-24).  As if to prove a point, in April, the Nixon for Governor Speakers’ Handbook’s section on ‘endorsements’ was almost entirely made up of favorable quotes from reviews of Six Crises—including from a publication by the Book of the Month Club (64-12).

Beyond drawing attention to Nixon in the national press, the book itself was also widely distributed to people who might matter in the election.  In August 1962, Haldeman asked Reader’s Digest for a Spanish-language reprint of the Caracas chapter to be distributed among Latino/a voters in California (38-28).  Reader’s Digest not only printed the requested Spanish-language pamphlet, but also an extra 100,000 copies of the book in English (38-34).  These were spread among state fairs, Nixon campaign operatives, Republican party operatives, and door-to-door efforts.  Some influential people also ended up on lists to receive autographed copies, and were encouraged to write their friends and encourage them to buy copies as well in a patriotic literary pyramid scheme.

As with many things in politics, one good turn was suspected to be worth another: after Nixon’s successful election to the presidency in 1968, Hobe Lewis, from Funk and Wagnall’s, called to ask for an appointment with the President to discuss their firm’s publishing “any book that the president might consider having written—or writing.”  Funk and Wagnall’s was Reader’s Digest’s publishing house, apparently calling in their good behavior during the Governor’s race in 1962.

But it was not just Nixon’s campaign gratitude that made the Funk and Wagnall’s proposal go over so well.  In December 1968, after the election, Nixon wrote to Arthur Krock to say that he had just visited Eisenhower in the hospital and wanted to mention how much the general had enjoyed Krock’s latest book (6-8).  When Rose Mary Woods sent Nixon a memo in January 1969 passing along Hobe Lewis’ request for a meeting, she mentions that Funk and Wagnall’s had also recently published Krock’s book.  The memo has a check mark in the “yes” box at the bottom of the page (4-5), and the contract was signed September 1st, 1970 (23-8) (I can’t find evidence of this book actually being published, though).  Psychobiographers have had a great time digging into the relationship between Nixon and Eisenhower, taking Eisenhower as a disapproving, distant father figure standing in for Nixon’s cold, distant actual father.  Whatever.  What is safe to say is that publishing through the same firm as the well-respected former president, as well as the well-respected New York Times journalist, obviously meant something to Nixon.

But the campaign’s involvement with books was not limited to Nixon himself.  Gearing up for the 1972 re-election campaign in January 1971, Dwight Chapin sent a memo to Rob Odle and Jeb Magruder lambasting the books the campaign was working on, and in particular, the proposal that the campaign approach Nixon’s daughters, Julie Eisenhower and Tricia Cox, to write a book about their parents.  Chapin calls for “a master plot on all of the books that we have underway, which audience the various books are aimed at, and what it is that we are trying to sell on each of them” in order to “see where our void areas are and…give some thrust to what other books should be generated” (Contested 2-28).  Meanwhile, the campaign was also putting out fires from:

  • an improper contract for a book on Pat Nixon written by Gloria Seeley (23-7)
  • a book commissioned from Victor Lasky, who had run into financial trouble and required a guaranteed purchase of 10,000 hardcover and 50,000 paperbacks to seal a publication deal (the book was later scrapped because it was too dull, Contested 3-15, 7-29, 9-18)
  • a proposed fictionalized account of Nixon’s early life (that Fred Fielding recommended the campaign not get involved with because it seemed unlikely to receive a Pulitzer or a Book of the Month Club pick, 21-26).

Where the White House withdrew its imprimatur from the fictionalized volume over its quality, however, it also withdrew its visible blessing from a proposed book by Edith Efron about media bias against Nixon in the 1968 election in order to avoid damaging the book’s credibility (Contested 1-20), although they considered bulk-buying the book to throw it onto the NYT Bestseller list (Contested 1-9).

None of this is meant as a one-to-one comparison to Nixon–I think the Nixon/Clinton and Nixon/Trump comparisons running around are fascinating, but not often useful.  It does highlight some things: because I’m an idiot, it never occurred to me that campaigns might link up with other authors or bulk-buy books beyond memoirs and biographies, so that’s a nice reminder.  Do I think the Trump campaign is organized enough to be doing this in any particularly useful way? No: anti-Clinton books have and will proceed just fine without the Trump camp stamp.  Do I think the Clinton campaign is really doing this either? No: Trump is his own walking opposition research folder, and his own worst enemy on publicity.

What is actually useful is the reminder that campaign books are neither pure political tools nor pure artifacts of self-creation and vanity.  It’s the power of the medium itself that lets campaign books fill both functions.

*The numbers in parentheses here refer to Nixon Library documents, which you can peruse at your leisure (they’re great fun—lots of hidden gems of staffers snarking off at each other and sheet music for Nixon campaign fight songs).

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