Perfect candor wasn't Richard Nixon's strong suit. But he spoke the gospel truth when he described himself as "an introvert in an extrovert's profession." He was one of the most successful political campaigners of the 20th century: winning election to both houses of Congress, serving two terms as Dwight Eisenhower's vice president, and twice winning the White House in his own right — the second time by a 49-state landslide.
Nixon spent decades in the public eye, and was indefatigable in pursuit of votes. Yet rarely has a politician seemed less suited for the political life. When he resigned the presidency, 40 years ago next week, everyone knew why he was ending his career in politics. But why did someone so solitary, so ill at ease with people, embark on that career in the first place?
For that matter, why does any introvert go into politics, a profession dominated by extroverts? Nixon's personality has been dissected by countless armchair psychoanalysts; much is made of the insecurities and resentments that drove him to win. But those inner demons could have propelled him in some other arena — law or academia or business. The lure of politics is the lure of power.
Nixon's desire for power ultimately led to the scandal that brought down his presidency. But it began with a more idealistic quest for historical significance. In his high school and college years, he hung above his bed a picture of Abraham Lincoln on which his grandmother, quoting Longfellow, had written: "Lives of great men oft remind us/ We can make our lives sublime." It was through politics that he would seek to leave his own mark on history. However his impact may ultimately be judged, there was something touching, even inspiring, about the young Nixon's willingness to endure the privation and distress inherent in seeking public office.
For John F. Kennedy, the pursuit of the presidency meant years of hiding the physical agonies of his numerous ailments — Addison's disease, colitis, ulcers, allergies, and the near-crippling pain of degenerative back problems. For Nixon it meant living with a different kind of misery — the forced bonhomie and small talk that he hated, the endless campaign stops and meetings with new people, the demand for ever more self-exposure from one who was only comfortable in solitude.