Making Up The Truth

PrintPrintEmailEmail

All of this is suspect. Rauh says that he and his client were both confident before she wrote her letter that jail was not a real possibility; her expressed willingness to plead the Fifth Amendment once the congressmen denied her written request ensured that. Nor was Hellman by any means the first witness to offer partial cooperation with the committee. Nor did anyone else present in the crowded hearing room see or hear the enthusiastic civil libertarian in the press gallery—who begins to shout at a dramatically opportune point in Hellman’s chronicle, just as her interrogators are questioning her about her membership in the Party and she is giving answers that an uninterrupted reader might have found ambiguous. (Wright also argues persuasively that despite Hellman’s frequent denials, her exquisite conscience did not dissuade her from remaining a Stalinist virtually all her life—unforgiving, unrepentant, and clandestine.)

“Lying,” said Oscar Wilde, “the telling of beautiful, untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.” It is one thing to recast facts to create fiction; that’s what playwrights do for a living after all. But surely it is another to invent and arrange facts so that they reflect especially well on their creator, as Hellman did, and then present them as history. In doing that, she betrayed both past and present, all in the interest of accomplishing what had evidently become by the end of her life the highest aim of her dramatic art—to keep herself, the Heroine, always at center stage.

Lillian Hellman would seem to have had very little in common with Richard Nixon; certainly, they were rarely, if ever, to be found on the same side of any political question. But they did share two things: an attitude toward the truth that can at best be called cavalier, and an air of fraudulent piety that made their deceit all the more difficult to endure for those who disapproved of them.

Nixon has always been the man a good many Americans love to hate, and there are few modern Presidents whose early careers remain so vi/id in our minds: the vicious California campaigns against Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas, the Alger Hiss case, the Checkers Speech, the Vice-Presidency under Elsenhower, successive defeats by JFK and Pat Brown, the apparently inexhaustible series of new Nixons that always turned out to be identical with the old.

At first glance, Richard Nixon and Lillian Hellman would seem to have little in common.

We know what Nixon did. What we want to know is why he did it: what elements went into the formation of that curiously divided personality, what caused his genuine strengths to be fatally undercut by rage and fear and an inability to tell the truth even when lying was not needed.

In her last book, Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character (1981), the late Fawn M. Brodie sought to follow the roots of the conflicts that divided Nixon all the way back to the place where common sense dictates such things are usually to be found: his childhood. Hers was a rich, provocative study, elegantly written and full of imaginative insights, but marred, I thought, by a hostility toward her subject so unrelenting that it made it hard for her to distinguish between great and inconsequential sins.

Stephen E. Ambrose’s new book, Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913–1962, is the most thorough and objective account yet published of Nixon’s early years. Everything is here in crisp, chronological order. But Ambrose’s portrait of Nixon the human being is curiously blurred. The author’s reluctance to be caught in the psychobiographical trap that Brodie fell into is understandable, but in seeking to avoid it, he circles too far from our central concerns. The dispiriting facts of Nixon’s all-important boyhood are duly laid before us, but Ambrose seems uncomfortable with even the most uncontroversial musing about what those facts might mean. Nixon’s younger brother, Arthur, for example, died suddenly when Richard was twelve, a trauma that other biographers have suggested must have affected him profoundly. Ambrose announces confidently that it did not. The deaths of siblings were more common then than they are nowadays, he explains, and therefore Richard “could not have felt that God had singled out the Nixon family for special punishment.” This is simply nonsense (by the same logic, survivors of concentration camps “could not” feel guilt because death had been so common there), and Ambrose suggests no other factors that would help explain the unconscious self-loathing that seems always to have accompanied Nixon’s relentless drive to succeed. Largely because the family crucible from which Nixon emerged is allowed to simmer unexamined, Ambrose finally leaves us once again with the old Nixon.

In a passage quoted in the Brodie book, Nixon himself obliquely suggested something of the seductive danger inherent in building personal success upon prevarication: “So you are lean and mean and resourceful,” he mused to a close aide after he had been driven from the White House, “and you continue to walk on the edge of the precipice because over the years you become fascinated by how close to the edge you can walk without losing your balance.” Both he and Lillian Hellman led their lives that way; the reputations of both finally fell victim to it.