Richard Nixon’s First Cover-Up: His Quaker Religion
A Review of Nixon’s First Cover-Up. By H. Larry Ingle. University of Missouri Press. 220 pages, cloth. $50.00.
A former Nixon speechwriter-turned newspaper columnist compared Nixon’s personality to a many-layered birthday cake: cut into his persona and there was layer after layer, after layer.
It’s a striking image. But historian Larry Ingle’s new book about Nixon’s religion left me with a very different visual sense: that I had been peering down a deep, dark well, then shining a small but sharp penlight into the depths, hoping to glimpse the reflection of water, but finally seeing only a distant, dry emptiness, with an accumulation of trash, the deposit of endless lies.
And without Ingle’s saying so flatly, I also got nearly as strong a sense from the book that Richard Nixon, the second Quaker president, learned his lying ways first from, of all people, his supposedly “sainted” mother.
What’s the evidence for this?
The “smoking gun,” to borrow a phrase, is the way Hannah Nixon chronically — not once or twice, but over years and years— repeated flat-out falsehoods about her & his “very quiet, intensely private” religion, doing so blithely and on the record to a long succession of reporters and biographers.
This pattern, traced through Ingle’s text, reveals what came to seem more and more like a template for her son’s “mature” practice of habitual, promiscuous prevarication rather than anything resembling any known variety of Quaker piety.
Indeed, it made me wonder if there was anything more to her religion than to his, other than that she showed up more often. (If that be heresy to those survivors of her generation in Whittier, so be it.)
For the Quakerism into which Richard Nixon was born and raised by Hannah and Frank was far from either quiet or private.
It was loud: with strong-lunged preachers who were not reluctant to go for the emotional jugular; plus music: pianos and choirs and lusty hymn-singing. Its theological emphasis was on evangelism, bringing in the unsaved, getting them into the fold, and turning them into missionaries (lay or paid) who went out and gathered in some more.
Then there were periodic revivals, some of which featured a preaching uncle of Nixon’s, one Lewis Hadley, who shouted and skipped his way across the platform in mid-sermon, and was known to throw his hymnbook all the way to the church ceiling with a bang, to drive home his salvation message.
There’s nothing especially unusual or shameful about all this; East Whittier Friends Church was typical of evangelical Quakerism then (and now).
But it’s also small-town and small-time. It’s not so hard to see why Nixon, once he was bound for the national political stage, folded its beliefs into a muffled, minimalist version of Billy Graham’s mass-market, big stage rhetoric, and deflected all inquiries about his church background and views with the claim of its twin fetishes for privacy and silence, both of which were in fact notably absent from it all through his upbringing.
In political terms, this tissue of lies makes perfect, if cynical, sense.
But why did Hannah join in with it so fully? How deeply invested did she become in promoting her son’s rise, and how clearly did she understood, without even needing to be told, how the East Whittier reality was a lamp better off put firmly under a bushel of falsifications in order not to inhibit it? Quite clearly, it seems.
Moreover, there is another, independent witness. The writer Jessamyn West was Nixon’s cousin. My explorations in West’s works (she wrote the bestseller “Friendly Persuasion” and numerous other well-regarded novels and memoirs) were at once valuable background for reading Ingle’s book and, I think, illuminated by it as well.
West also grew up in East Whittier Friends Church. She sat, transfixed, through Lewis Hadley’s revivals (he being her uncle too). She even answered an altar call, coming down the aisle, wanting to be not only saved, but sanctified and thereby completely delivered from any urge to sin; this was evangelical Quaker holiness doctrine, imported from varieties of Methodism.
She made this short trip twice, in fact, because the first one didn’t take (she soon had renewed urges to sin, even if they were pretty penny ante transgressions).
I think I now see more clearly how Jessamyn West was struggling with a major gap between practice and theology in the evangelical Quakerism she knew firsthand. And there are strong suggestions that her cousin Nixon saw the same gaps. But West also heard much about older Quaker traditions, which she absorbed from the tales and spirit of her grandparents, and especially her mother’s tales of pre-California, pre-revival Quakerism on the Indiana prairies.
In any case, after the second failed sanctification effort, West quietly but decisively dumped the East Whittier revivalist version. But she chewed over the older Quakerism throughout her writing career. And in her several memoirs, she comes across to me as being a natural silent Quaker mystic, yet one who had no cultural affinity or comfort with the Philadelphia version of it.
So while West’s lawyer cousin took the darker deposit of his California church tradition with him into politics, West labored through her many books to make some sense of it, amid deep and continuing ambivalence.
I mostly like the published outcome of West’s struggles. That of the political cousin, not so much: that dismal empty well lingers and haunts this reader.
Then there’s Brother Billy Graham, who was almost a co-protagonist in much of the book. Ingle seems admirably fair to him, and remarkably restrained, without being mealy-mouthed.
But what a superficial type Graham turns out to be here. Just a bit better than the Positive-Thinking/Prosperity-Gospel nostrums of Robert Schuller and Norman Vincent Peale.
After the credit due Graham for insisting on holding integrated crusades in the 1950s South, there’s not much more to take note of, from this angle. Through everything he stays close to the halls of power, while keeping the crusade wheels turning, and its associated empire growing. He was the perfect embodiment of the American “civil religion” that took form in the 1950s, with “In God We Trust” stamped on the money and “Under God” added to the Pledge of Allegiance.
It appears Graham was personally above reproach, with no lapses of the flesh or even of excessive opulence; and given the record of so many other fallen evangelical stars, including his odiously demagogic son Franklin, that’s something.
But then, Nixon was evidently a faithful husband and devoted father himself, and settled for being well-off rather than grubbing for millions a la the Clintons.
But still, while escorting Tricia and Julie through adolescence at the Sidwell Friends School, he loosed genocide on Laos, Cambodia and god knows where else, instigated a bloody coup and dictatorship in Chile, and extended the Vietnam war for several unnecessary years, seemingly with hardly a second thought. Not to mention raping the Constitution.
I was not at all surprised to learn that when Watergate burst open, and Nixon’s prospects were sinking, the beleaguered president did not call on Graham for counsel or consolation.
Maybe (a very qualified “maybe”) Nixon had had some real spiritual connection with Graham earlier; but I doubt it. The record as amassed in Ingle’s pages points again and again to political careerism as the deeper tie.
For his part, Graham consciously played political kingmaker for his favorite “Christian” son, working sedulously to get Nixon into high office, and then striving to keep him in — and Graham’s fellow Protestant clergyman (but political liberal) George McGovern out.
In purely religious terms, perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this portrait is how utterly vacuous the religion that Nixon worked so hard to cover up was, at least as deduced from the hints and scraps Ingle ferreted out and compiled from a fifty-year mountain of papers, letters, articles, interviews and books.
And part of my horrified reaction to it all is that of the man who sees his face, or one too much like himself, in this hidden and clouded mirror.
For Nixon’s empty, completely privatized, don’t-mention-it-except-in-the-blandest-of-locally-fashionable-banalities “religion” is all too familiar to a contemporary American Quaker.
Not the exact words, of course. His was a secular political version. For active Quakers, there are other sub-patois, both among evangelicals (including atonement, the lost, the wave of anti-Christian “persecution”, chasing the fleeing Millennials, and don’t forget “trafficking”)
And for liberals, too (with “transformation” at the center of everything these days — but don’t ask about “transformation” from what into what?)
But yes, between the lines, and considered in cultural context, there are many definite resemblances and parallels. Too many.
If there is an exception here — if there’s a ray of hope for Nixonian religious authenticity, it comes in the several sotto voce mentions by Nixon to various confidants-of-the-moment that he very often spent time on his knees in nighttime silent prayer before turning in.
Prayer to Whom or What? Prayer about –?
Who knows? But wouldn’t this indicate there was some religious “there there,” as the unavoidable quote from Gertrude Stein suggests?
Or as the old reporter put it, if you cut through enough of the layers of the Nixon cake, would there be one for God, or Spirit?
Or if you focused the beam of the scholar’s small flashlight sharply enough down that dark Nixonian well, would it detect the glimmer of water — maybe even living water?– at the bottom?
Perhaps. If only Nixon had not been such an inveterate, caught-red-handed-hundreds-of-times, liar liar liar (one mention of the term just doesn’t suffice), one might be seriously tempted to believe these almost whispered quasi-confessionals. But I, for one, was not.
Your mileage may differ, Friend; your flashlight may shine farther. And maybe you won’t spot a mirror at the other end.
Maybe. Read Larry Ingle’s excellent, chilling book, and find out.