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Fisher, D.J. (1999). Richard Nixon: A Psychobiography by Vamik D. Volkan, Norman Itzowitz, and Andrew W. Dod: New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, 208 pp., $27.50.. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 47(1):285-289.

(1999). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 47(1):285-289

Richard Nixon: A Psychobiography by Vamik D. Volkan, Norman Itzowitz, and Andrew W. Dod: New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, 208 pp., $27.50.

Review by:
David James Fisher

This psychobiographical portrait of Richard Nixon is intended to be developmental, psychoanalytic, and nonjudgmental. Neither partisan nor debunking, it comes at a particularly opportune moment, given America's current political situation, in which another personally flawed president, even having weathered impeachment hearings, faces paralysis of his administration and the erosion of his moral authority.

The authors have written an interpretive essay rather than a full-fledged biographical or psychohistorical study; they bring no new factual information, nor have they combed the archives. Departing from previous attempts at a psychoanalytic understanding of Nixon, they instead investigate his mind by introducing a diagnostic and dynamic conception of his “narcissistic personality organization.” Borrowing from the clinical contributions of Kohut and Kernberg, and building on the methodological model of Volkan and Itzowitz's 1984 work on Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the authors attempt to resolve the ambiguities of Nixon's career from an exploration of his “excessive narcissism,” a perspective designed to clarify his strengths and weaknesses as a leader.

It is methodologically difficult, often impossible, to document the first year of an individual's life—even when that person is alive and reclining on one's couch. The authors put together a “construction” of Nixon's early childhood, in addition to a number of plausible “guesses,” to arrive at the psychological truth of his inner world. They base their conjectures on contemporary psychoanalytic concepts drawn from infant development studies, Winnicottian notions of the mother-child dyad, and clinical perspectives elaborated to treat narcissistic grandiosity and rage. For evidence, the authors draw primarily on the secondary literature on Nixon; occasionally they cite testimony from a playmate. There is no direct documentation from Hannah Nixon, his mother, and nothing from Nixon himself—hardly surprising, given infantile amnesia and Nixon's relative lack of psychological-mindedness. One potentially rich source of information—the White House tapes—appears not to be used or interpreted. This is a pity, given the random quality of the tapes, Nixon's candor and vulgarity in them, and the opportunity they offer to trace Nixon's free associations and fantasies.

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