Nixon’s First Cover-Up: The Religious Life of a Quaker President
Reviewed by Robert Dockhorn
In the wake of the Watergate scandal and the resignation in disgrace of President Richard Milhous Nixon, many Friends have sought to distance Quakerism from his reputation. H. Larry Ingle’s friend Chuck Fager, a journalist who has no fear of delving into Quaker embarrassments, leaned on him to explore this particularly sad chapter in the history of our faith tradition. The result is Nixon’s First Cover-Up, and Fager is one of the people to whom Ingle dedicates this book. Without this impetus, one wonders whether a study on this subject would ever have been written by anyone. We can be glad that it was, as it is instructive in multiple ways about the Quaker image and role in the public arena.
Nixon grew up in East Whittier Friends Church in California, and his mother, Hannah Milhous Nixon, was a devout Friend. What Nixon experienced there was not worship based on silence, but the programmed worship of evangelical Quakerism. Ingle notes that, like the testimonies of Friends elsewhere, the Book of Discipline of California Yearly Meeting (to which East Whittier belonged) unambiguously held to the biblical command to “love your enemies.”
Ingle also writes that Jessamyn West—author of The Friendly Persuasion, the story of a family struggling to uphold its pacifism during the Civil War, which was made into a major Hollywood film in 1956—was a relative of the Nixons and also a member of East Whittier. West based her story on the experiences of the Milhous clan.
Despite this background, as an adult Nixon kept Quakerism at arm’s length. He later wrote that asking for an exemption from the military “never crossed my mind.” Occasionally in his political career, he would make reference to his Quaker roots and suggest that they were important to him. After scrutinizing the record, Ingle found such claims to be essentially duplicitous, which leads him to the charge of cover-up that is highlighted in the title of this book. Ingle claims that there is no record of Nixon ever attending an unprogrammed meeting, and after 1967, when Billy Graham presided at the funeral for Hannah, “Nixon never again attended a Quaker gathering of any kind.”
Ingle describes how various Quaker individuals and major organizations made offers to Nixon to work with him. Lewis Hoskins, then executive secretary of American Friends Service Committee, kept Nixon posted on his organization’s views on the Middle East, and the two men were on a first-name basis. Earlham College professor D. Elton Trueblood came up with the idea of a “National Monthly Meeting of Friends” for people like Nixon in public life who could not normally attend meetings—an idea that didn’t go anywhere. And Ingle reports that Richmond P. Miller, field secretary of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, wrote “a laudatory article” for Friends Journal before the 1956 election on Nixon’s candidacy. But by and large, Nixon kept Friends at arm’s length. They were doomed to failure because—as Nixon later explained to a personal assistant—he saw the role of religious folk to be to influence individual morality, not to intervene in politics.
In U.S. politics, often religion is kept out of sight, which, Ingle writes, “speaks profoundly of religion’s irrelevancy in our society.” When it emerged during Nixon’s career—for instance, when John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, ran against him in the 1960 Presidential race—Nixon urged that it be disregarded. Some observers have concluded that this failure to appeal to anti-Catholic sentiment cost Nixon the election. But, as Ingle points out, Nixon had his own reasons for his stance: when confronting the militarist campaign of Kennedy, Nixon didn’t want the electorate to pay too much attention to his own Quaker heritage with its pacifist links.
Oddly, in contrast to Kennedy’s aggressive stance in the Presidential debates of that fall—remember the “missile gap”—even Nixon, the consummate anti-Communist (Ingle delves into his encounter with Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss), looked like a peace candidate. Nixon was worried about this image to the point that, when a Friends Peace Pilgrimage to Washington was scheduled for the weekend before the election, a Nixon aide prevailed upon its leaders to have the pilgrimage postponed until the weekend after the election.
Nixon held a strongly negative view of human nature and emphasized the primacy of military force. He was a leading proponent of the domino theory and a strong supporter of the war in Vietnam. Yet he would lift up from time to time his dream of a “structure of peace” and demonstrate his willingness to take risks, such as with his trip to Communist China.
The forces of paranoia and grandiosity in Nixon’s personality (as he told David Frost after his resignation: “If the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.”) in the end destroyed his career. Ingle sees Nixon’s central flaw as the absence of an anchor in the Quaker, or in any, faith community. Ingle labels Nixon a “ranter,” one who self-defines one’s religion.
These are just some highlights from Nixon’s First Cover-Up. In this book Ingle provides rich detail and valuable perspective about this troubling Quaker politician, and along the way leads the reader into surreal byways of an epic, woeful, even operatic story. For me, it leaves an unanswered question: Could a person who holds true to core Friends values ever succeed as the leader of a modern state?