Nixon's First Cover-up

The Religious Life of a Quaker President

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H. Larry Ingle
  • Columbia, MO: 
    University of Missouri Press
    , April
     2015.
     288 pages.
     $50.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780826220424.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Richard Milhous Nixon. The name of the 37th President of the United States is evocative, suggesting at once the failures of the Vietnam War, the national embarrassment of Watergate, and the final expression of conservative Republican politics before the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan and the Religious Right. Author H. Larry Ingle does not shy away from the more sordid aspects of Nixon’s life—public or otherwise—in his biography of the ex-President, but he does seek to reconcile the collective memory of Nixon as America’s disgraced Commander-in-Chief with a detail typically relegated to the dustbin of trivia: Nixon was a confessing Quaker.

Nixon was not, Ingle is quick to point out, the type of Quaker likely to sit silently in a circle among other Friends on a Sunday morning, though Nixon was perfectly happy to allow this misconception to stand in for his actual religious practice and its history during his politically active years. Ingle argues that Nixon used Quakerism as a tool to conceal his actual religiosity, and to avoid tying his hands through public identification with any other sort of creedal commitment. Nixon presented Quakerism as promoting privacy and a reticence to speak about spiritual matters, something that, according to Ingle, is not only untrue, but is at odds with Nixon’s Quaker practice during his early life. Nixon came of age in a Quaker community centered around East Whittier Friends Church and Whittier College in Southern California. These Quakers had come to California in the 1880s from the Midwest, and they brought with them a form of Quakerism more evangelical in tone than the Quakerism of the Northeast. Programmed Quakers, as they are known, are more likely to utilize a fixed liturgy involving the singing of hymns, the preaching of a sermon, and the careful avoidance of the “plain language” employed by un-programmed Quakers.

In detailing this Quaker history, Ingle is attempting to provide a corrective to presidential historians, such as Stephen Ambrose, who have either misconstrued Nixon’s Quakerism or ignored it entirely. Ingle deploys this description of programmed Quakers—cast through the lens of a history of East Whittier Friends and of the adolescent Nixon—to help explain Nixon’s rejection of pacifism, his animosity towards communism, his ability to form a seemingly-close friendship with Billy Graham, and his desire to distance himself from other Quakers, such as Elton Trueblood or the members of the left-leaning American Friends Service Committee.

This is not to suggest that Nixon was not religious, however, or that he was somehow secretly a secularist in disguise. Ingle likens Nixon to a 17th century ranter in his desire to use the experience of his early religious life to craft an idiosyncratic, institution-averse religious sensibility. Though the metaphor of Nixon as ranter is not completely inaccurate in its description of his religiosity, it is also one of the chief missteps in Ingle’s otherwise commendable history. The analogy simply does not stick: ranterism is too distant from the subject, too ill-defined in the text, and too underutilized as a descriptive tool. As a result, it obscures rather than illuminates the portrait of Nixon that Ingle is attempting to create.

The other weakness of Ingle’s text is that, in his efforts to avoid psychologizing Nixon, he also avoids overt engagement with the elements of existing historiography that he feels have inadequately addressed Nixon’s religion. Nixon has figured tangentially into a number of recent works in the field of American religious history, typically in the context of his relationship with Billy Graham or of the effects of the so-called Southern Strategy. Ingle’s work has the capacity to serve as a fruitful intervention here, shifting Nixon from the ancillary position of a power-hungry enabler of Graham’s darker side or as a race-baiting opportunist, to a figure whose religious life is complex in its own right and deserving of a separate spotlight. By refusing to name names, so to speak, Ingle’s work loses some of the power it might otherwise have had.

Despite these problems, Nixon’s First Cover-Up is worthy of scholarly time and attention. By highlighting Nixon’s religious life and its evolution over time, Ingle is able to provide depth and dimension to the person and character of one of America’s most villainized public figures. Ingle’s work does not ultimately have the power to salvage Nixon’s reputation, but it does have the potential to instate Nixon’s Quakerism as a necessary part element of engagement with him as a subject. Historians of American religion in the 20th century would be well served to take note.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Adam Sweatman is a Ph.D. student at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

H. Larry Ingle is the author of Quakers in Conflict: The Hicksite Reformation and First Among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism. Retired from the History Department of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, he lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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