The Ballad of Richard Milhous Nixon

Paul Constant

December 28, 2015

“With respect, I’m as good a man as Kennedy,” Vice President Richard Nixon tells Dwight Eisenhower. But his boss is having none of it. Ike spits back:

“You’re a climbing little rat. The way you went after Hiss, the way you’ve got on TV and spilled your guts, the way you begged for it. You’re bent, Dick. You were by a long way the sorriest son of a bitch I could get for the job.”

These sentences were never spoken by Nixon or Eisenhower, of course. They’re from Austin Grossman’s novel Crooked, a fictionalized autobiography of Nixon. Eisenhower probably never laid his distaste for Nixon so plain in real life, but that distaste was very real. Anyone who has read biographies of Nixon knows that the two men had a very uneasy relationship: Ike was the distant patrician figure, and Nixon was the adoring son, always trying (and eternally failing) to make dad happy.

But the fictionalized Ike pretty much nails the real-life Nixon in that quote; he was “a climbing little rat,” one who happened to climb higher than most in history, but one who committed the cardinal sin of revealing himself as a rat along the way. Elsewhere in Crooked, Nixon himself admits it:

I endorsed Senator McCarthy’s efforts while stopping just short of McCarthyite excess and avoiding his uncomfortable, nakedly self-destructive presence. I pretended to like him and then carefully leaked my distaste for him to a reporter at the New York Times. I had an intuition and a timing for this kind of manipulative nastiness.

Again, Nixon would never write these sentences. His sense of self-delusion was too strong; even though Nixon was smart enough to realize that he was dirtying himself with his collusion with the rabid anti-communist crowd, he was also vain enough to half-heartedly convince himself that he was doing the just, patriotic thing. But the honest statement of subtext, the clear admission of those things nobody would ever speak aloud in real life, is why some of us read fiction — or at least it’s why some of us read fiction some of the time.

Perhaps because of that unrecognizable honesty, Grossman’s Nixon doesn’t really sound like Nixon. Crooked isn’t narrated by the Nixon of history — if you want to see Nixon’s fictionalized voice employed in all its ugly, hilarious weight, visit the timeline of Dick_Nixon, a Twitter genius who comments on the world straight-facedly through Nixon — though Grossman cleverly weaves in an (unsatisfying) explanation for that later in the book. This is a Nixon who doubts, who wavers, who demonstrates a sharp self-awareness of a kind that the real Nixon never revealed.

It’s hard to imagine Nixon being this candid about his own ignorance:

When you get to Washington you feel triumphant. You’ve won an election and a place in the political elite. And then you realize that everyone else there won an election, too, because that is how people get to Washington. And that Washington itself is a new and different game, and the skills that won you that election have nothing to do with the skills you need now.

Though sometimes Grossman nails the hilarious, pragmatic bastard that the history books have revealed:

In September an article accused me of taking donations from a group of rich people. Which, on its face, struck me as slightly comical—from who else was a presidential candidate meant to receive money?

Grossman’s intent here isn’t emulation; he’s interested in extrapolation. Specifically, Crooked is a sci-fi fantasy novel. In it, a fictionalized Richard Nixon explains his secret history to the reader. It seems that the presidency of the United States has been fighting a war with the supernatural underworld for centuries. These are dark, Lovecraftian forces, the kind of unfathomable creatures slipping around in the shadows that, if exposed to the clear light of day, could render you completely insane.

Early on in Crooked, Nixon falls in with some communist spies, and gradually the sordid and ensorcelled history of the Cold War becomes clearer to him. Once nuclear weapons were invented, humanity immediately decided to harness a more terrible power. Unlike the clear reason of science, these darker forces weren’t so easily understood or contained. Dwight Eisenhower is portrayed as a kind of wizard-president, a high priest who commits dark Satanic ceremonies in the Oval Office in an effort to assassinate his Soviet rivals. It’s not a matter of the darkness versus the light; it’s more about the most visible people in history trying to control the force of a mighty-but-invisible river.

But wait: a fictionalized account of an American president fighting dark, supernatural forces. Haven’t you heard this one before?

The works of Seth Grahame-Smith make me deeply uncomfortable. For years, I couldn’t articulate why I found Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter distasteful, until finally a tweet passed through my feed — a months-old tweet I can’t find anymore, to my shame, a retweet by one of the thousand people I follow — that made it clear. With Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, you have a modern white man reworking one of the first books written by a woman that was widely accepted as part of the western canon. He inserted his own inferior prose into the original novel, adding “cool” zombie accoutrements and basically ruining the original text. It’s another entry in a long history of white guys interfering with art by and about women.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is a slightly different case, but it’s still unpleasant: a white guy retells the Lincoln biography by shoving the freeing of the slaves rudely into the background and forcing a modern vampire-slaying narrative into the foreground, ostensibly because it’s cooler. The two books are very different, but they are of a piece. Smith was praised as the vanguard of a new remix culture, but really, both his novels were part of a much longer, and more shameful tradition: a white man rewriting history and culture to his liking, at the expense of the stories of minorities and women.

Nixon is a(n incredibly complex and nuanced) villain of history, so there’s less moral dilemma in Grossman’s mucking about with his story than Grahame-Smith’s reimagination of Lincoln. But the threat is still there; the world doesn’t need another blithe reconstruction of events in order to squeeze in yet another unexceptional genre thriller.

Happily, that’s not where Grossman’s interest lies. Crooked isn’t about recasting Nixon as a hero, or avoiding the ugly controversies of history. Instead, it’s another way of explaining history. A brilliant young politician gets a taste of an exotic power. He’s shocked and horrified and aroused by the experience. Against his own better judgment, he pursues the power, trying to understand it and harness it. But it comes at a terrible price, and it eats at his soul, and the higher he climbs, the dirtier he gets, the higher the price gets, the more innocence is destroyed. Viewed through a cynical lens, this could be the biography of any president in history.

While Grahame-Smith wasn’t interested in using his vampire story to amplify any part of Abraham Lincoln’s character, Grossman has clearly done his research on Nixon. What’s more, he has compassion for Nixon, even as he acknowledges his horrendous flaws. As a character study, Crooked isn’t a sidebar to Nixon’s story. Instead, it clarifies Nixon’s story, making the horror palpable. It’s unabashedly fiction, but it feels more true than many of the impeccably researched Nixon biographies you’ll read.

Books in this review:
  • Crooked
    by Austin Grossman
    Mulholland Books
    July 27, 2015
    368 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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