Nixon's Rules to Rule By

Nixon's Ten Commandments of Statecraft: His Guiding Principles of Leadership and Negotiation

by James Humes

(Scribner, 1997, 192 pp., $20)

In the Bible, the Decalogue or Ten Commandments (cf. Ex 20:1-17; Dt 5:6-21), are primarily concerned with apodictic law, not legal judgments. As such, they function as normative guidelines for human behavior rather than as juridical judgments applicable only in specific legal cases. In contemporary understanding, the word referred to connotes the ability to exercise power or authority, more or less independent of any moral implication.

It is of great interest that former President Richard Nixon (1969-74) had developed rules and regulations related to the use of power in the secular world. Nixon never labeled these rules his 10 commandments. That was the work of James Humes, a Nixon family friend, speech writer to four presidents, and author of Confessions of a White House Ghostwriter, and The Wit and Wisdom of Winston Churchill.

On Humes's 60th birthday, Ed and Tricia Nixon Cox gave the author a laminated card they found in a drawer at the Nixon home in Saddle River, N.J., after the former president's death. An introductory paragraph on the card summarizes Nixon's geopolitical perspective: “A president needs a global view, a sense of proportion and a keen sense of the possible. He needs to know how power operates and he must have the will to use it.”

In Nixon's Ten Commandments of Statecraft: His Guiding Principles of Leadership and Negotiation, Humes gives a distillation of the president's experience conducting foreign policy. Except for the 10th commandment (Never Lose Faith), none of the others is expressly concerned with religion or morality—and even the last can be interpreted as never losing faith in oneself or one's cause.

In these rules, there is an almost Machiavellian (or, more correctly, a Metternichian, or even Kissingerian) approach to using power to obtain one's ends. Humes allows each of the 10 commandments of statecraft its own chapter. Each chapter is divided into two main sections. The first section contains an illustration of the particular commandment under review from Nixon's political career. The second section of each chapter offers an example that either reinforces the rule under discussion or provides an example of the commandment's violation. The second examples are taken from a wide variety of historical instances.

Illustrating the first commandment, “Always be prepared to negotiate, but never negotiate without being prepared,” Humes employs Nixon's extemporaneous debate with Krushchev during the famous Kitchen Debate in Moscow in which then Vice-President Nixon outdebated the Communist Party chief. The second section discusses British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's preparations for meeting President Franklin D. Roosevelt in August 1941 on the U.S. cruiser Augusta. Churchill's extensive preparation down to the smallest detail (e.g., choosing FDR's favorite hymn and psalms for worship services) would go a long way to making American intervention in World War II more acceptable to the American people.

Nixon's third commandment, “Always remember that convenants should be openly agreed to, but privately negotiated,” is illustrated by the various extremely subtle signals that the United States and China exchanged through various foreign emissaries climaxing with Henry Kissinger's stomachache that got him out of Pakistan into China without being followed by any journalists prior to Nixon's visit in February 1972.

Even though they are not directly religious, Nixon's commandments, especially the later ones, challenge us—as they challenged Nixon—to see a connection between ourselves and other people, and between ourselves and what we acknowledge as divine. This connection, in our Christian faith, is not based on the exercise of power, but on love. Perhaps one can see why during the Prayer of the Faithful at Mass, we often pray that our political leaders exercise their ministry of service to all peoples. Living out our Christian faith in whatever vocation we are called to not only challenges us but also enables us to leave the world a better place. Sadly, Nixon did not always practice what he preached.

Father Pius Murray CSS, is a professor of Old Testament and library director at Pope John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass.