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Three kings.

May 22, 2010, 6:32 am

Yesterday I gave my Richard Nixon lecture, which I begin by talking about the tales of two other Richards, quoting this passage from Richard II:

EXTON
Didst thou not mark the king, what words he spake,
‘Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?’
Was it not so?

Servant
These were his very words.

EXTON
‘Have I no friend?’ quoth he: he spake it twice,
And urged it twice together, did he not?

Servant
He did.

EXTON
And speaking it, he wistly look’d on me,
As who should say, ‘I would thou wert the man
That would divorce this terror from my heart;’
Meaning the king at Pomfret. Come, let’s go:
I am the king’s friend, and will rid his foe.

… and following it up with this one, from Richard III:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid …

Both, I think, give us some insight into Richard Nixon. The first neatly illustrates the functioning of “plausible deniability”—kings surround themselves with men willing to carry out their evident wishes, so that even if those wishes are unlawful and indirectly expressed, they become reality. Clearly we have known this since Shakespeare’s day. Yet Nixon’s men thought we didn’t, or shouldn’t, know that “people do things the President wants to do even though it’s wrong.”

And ultimately, Nixon couldn’t maintain the discipline necessary to express his wishes only indirectly. Which is where the second passage comes in. Nixon’s resentments and hangups are copiously on record. He had a fine and of course devious mind, but what moved him were neither arguments nor strategies, but pride, anger, and the desire for revenge.

I don’t normally dwell so much on personality in my historical work. Mainly this is because we don’t usually have enough information to do it properly. Nixon gave us a great gift in this respect; his insistent taping system made his presidency into Real World: The White House, with every sordid and petty passing thought on the record. But also I don’t dwell too much on personality because I think social history has given us powerful tools to express the aggregate wishes and actions of ordinary citizens (and besides, who doesn’t love a good graph).

Yet Nixon’s case reminds us that social history, and social science, provide us with an attenuated account of human motives. Aggregate behavior tends to be comprehensible in the way that individual behavior often isn’t. This book, in my mind, was always about this problem: the power of social science to explain everything but the one critical action that mattered. Psychohistory, back in its vogue, was never terribly persuasive. Yet the more we do the new social, cultural, and political histories, the more we model and apply our theories (and I model, I theorize), the more we lack a really plausible account of human behavior. And there may be no means of getting one into the history of a nation; we may never be able to know our country as we know each other, as we know Nixon, as creatures of quirk and passion, moved by rage, curiosity, impatience, even love.

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