Saturday, June 10, 2017
Richard Nixon: The Life Hardcover – March 28, 2017 by John A. Farrell ( Doubleday)
The life and career of the thirty-seventh president of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, is the stuff of legend. He rose from meager beginnings to the height of power. In that sense, his life is a classically American story. It is also a complex one given Nixon’s perplexing personality. Trying to tackle this topic in one volume is an exceptionally difficult undertaking. John A. Farrell does an impressive job, giving his readers an honest and human understanding of Nixon in the highly readable "Richard Nixon: The Life" (Doubleday, 2017).
Farrell brings a good number of skills to this project. He was the Washington bureau chief for The Denver Post and the White House correspondent for The Boston Globe. He has written two other biographies of Clarence Darrow and Tip O’Neal. His research is impressive. He has made use of many new primary sources that have become available in recent years, including Nixon’s grand jury testimony in the Alger Hiss and Watergate cases, H.R. Haldeman’s diary, Henry Kissinger’s papers, and—most of all—the White House tapes. His endnotes take up 122 pages and have long commentaries on source material, making them something like one of those "The Making of…" documentaries that are part of the extras feature on many DVDs.
In telling the story of Richard Nixon’s life, most biographers look for the origins of his complex personality. Many see his family as either a strength or a liability in his growth and development. Farrell is no different, but he offers a nuanced presentation. He sees Nixon’s personality as the product of his two parents. From his father Frank, he inherited his resentment of those who came to success easily with little effort. From his mother Hannah came his sense of idealism and warmth. Those last two attributes are not ones people commonly associated with Nixon, but Farrell develops this part of his personality quite well throughout the text.
The best example probably comes in the area of race and civil rights. In 1960 Nixon garnered roughly a third of the African-American vote in the presidential election, which was the largest percentage for a Republican candidate in the post-war era. Eight years later he got less than half that number. In one sense, that represented a significant electoral victory, given the disastrous Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964, but Nixon saw it as a betrayal. He resented this abandonment and made efforts to woo white southern voters in 1972 with rhetoric that was contrived and confrontational.
While Nixon was his father’s son, he also was his mother’s boy. He had no interest in being on the wrong side of history. He had been the only national politician in the 1950s who was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, better known simply as the NAACP. During his first term in office, the civil rights enforcement division within the Department of Justice saw its budget jump from $75 million to $2.6 billion. Nixon brought leaders from southern states to the Oval Office where they were told the law is the law. Farrell quotes Attorney General John Mitchell telling a group of civil rights workers: “You will be better advised to watch what we do instead of what we say.” He was right. Within two years the majority of southern black students were attending desegregated schools. Nixon and his administration made sure that the courts, civil rights groups and New Deal liberals took the blunt of white southern anger.
Farrell also argues that the most significant event in Nixon’s life was the death of his two brothers. This argument makes sense, but is hardly new. Film director Oliver Stone made it in his film "Nixon" (1995), but he added the deaths of John and Robert Kennedy to that list. (Adding the Kennedy's tells you more about Stone than it does about Nixon). That motion picture, though, was a fictional venue and Farrell backs up his argument with evidence, showing how the deaths of Harold and Arthur Nixon loosened but did not destroy their brother’s religions faith.
To be sure, Nixon was close with John F. Kennedy for a time. They were probably even real friends. It also seems that the relationship mattered more to Nixon. Kennedy and his brother Robert began attacking Nixon indirectly, ruining the credibility of important Nixon subordinates long before the 1960 presidential election. Nixon appears not to have noticed what they were doing, and went out of his way to avoid hurting Kennedy in the 1958 mid-term elections, when he was up for re-election to the U.S. Senate. Farrell observes that Jacqueline Kennedy’s note to Nixon after her husband’s assassination speaks to their former friendship, and warned him to enjoy life regardless of his political victories and defeats.
Farrell makes good use of the Nixon tapes. With this source material there is a danger in getting too enthralled with listening to actual Oval Office conversations, and sometimes the power of spoken English does not translate well onto the written page. Farrell manages to use them well, giving his readers a sense of their intimacy without getting lost in the details. He also notes that while Nixon disliked the media, he had good reason. He was the subject of a good deal of negative and unfair coverage early in his career. He also largely dismisses the role of The Washington Post in advancing the Watergate story. What impact it did have was largely the work of Mark Felt, the number two man in the Federal Bureau of Investigations, who leaked information to Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. They dubbed him “deep throat.” Felt had his own bureaucratic agenda in play. He was trying to protect the integrity of the FBI and undermine the acting director, a political appointee, in an effort to become the director himself.
No book is perfect. The coverage of Nixon’s early life is more detailed than his presidency, which is a bit surprising. His post-White House life is covered in 24 pages, which seems too brief. In the end, though, people who think they know Nixon will learn stuff they did not know. That is no small thing.