The tragedy of Nixon’s presidency: a brilliant mind that went too far.
‘Never forget, the press is the enemy,” lectured the president of the United States.
It was Dec. 14, 1972 — right after Richard Nixon’s reelection and just before his negotiation of peace in Vietnam. Surrounded by his aides, he bared his animosities. “The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. Professors are the enemy. Write that on the blackboard 100 times and never forget it.”
Nixon’s shadow looms longer and darker than ever. As the current occupant of the White House demonizes the political and intellectual establishment, he harvests the grievances planted by his disgraced predecessor. Donald Trump’s campaign even resuscitated some of Nixon’s signature phrases: “The Silent Majority Stands With Trump,” read one popular poster, while the candidate bellowed for “law and order.”
Yet it would be simplistic to render Nixon as just a founding father of Trumpism. From the late 1940s through the mid-1970s, he helped steer the course of the Cold War and the evolution of the Republican Party. In “Richard Nixon: The Life,” John A. Farrell narrates this story with punch and insight.
A stack of good books about Nixon could reach the ceiling, but Farrell has written the best one-volume, cradle-to-grave biography that we could expect about such a famously elusive subject. By employing recently released government documents and oral histories, he adds layers of understanding to a complex man and his dastardly decisions.
Farrell avoids one conventional assumption: that Nixon was always Tricky Dick, a tortured schemer who mastered the dark arts of politics. He does follow the trail of liberal derision throughout Nixon’s life, but he sticks close to the man, depicting not only his anxieties and anger, but also his sincerity and self-discipline. That approach helps explain Nixon’s resonance in American politics over nearly three decades.
The biography illuminates a man of sharp mind and soaring ambition. Farrell sympathizes with a boy who thought he was hard to love and compensated with an iron will. He understands Nixon’s frustrations with the lack of respect for his accomplishments. But in the end, this portrait is more damning. His Nixon is doomed by his own insecurities, destroyed by his own treachery, damned by his own words.
Nixon’s dazzling rise exposed the rifts in Cold War America. As a freshman congressman, his audacious investigation of Alger Hiss stirred conservative passions about communist spies and their liberal enablers. In California’s 1950 Senate race, he smeared Helen Gahagan Douglas with “pink sheets” suggesting her communist-inspired voting record.
With his 1952 “Checkers” speech, Nixon painted himself as a man of the striving middle class, as well as a victim of the elitist press. It preserved his spot on Dwight Eisenhower’s ticket, even as it disgusted his critics. Foreshadowing his later success, Nixon won political battles by summoning cultural resentments.
Yet his own resentments festered. The vice president could stand toe-to-toe with Nikita Khrushchev, but Eisenhower’s praise or belittlement might reduce him to blubbering tears. When he lost the 1960 presidential election to John F. Kennedy and the 1962 race for California governor to Edmund “Pat” Brown, he moaned about the press treatment. Politics favored those with comfortable charisma. To succeed, he had to struggle.
That sense of persecution fed Nixon’s penchant for chicanery. Farrell’s deep research exposes new evidence of this tendency. In his first campaign, the 1946 congressional race against incumbent Jerry Voorhis, Nixon’s personal notes included a plan to “set up . . . spies” in his opponent’s camp.
During the 1968 presidential election, amid his hard-fought comeback onto the national scene, Nixon almost certainly helped derail a peace settlement in Vietnam, which would have helped his Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey. Anna Chennault of the China Lobby, communicating with the Nixon campaign, urged South Vietnam to thwart negotiations until after the election. Farrell uncovers new archival evidence that suggests Nixon’s direct knowledge and encouragement of this scheme.
Farrell sees tragic promise in the Nixon presidency. Despite a progressive record on issues such as the environment and workplace safety, Nixon endured abuse from both liberals and conservatives. His administration advanced school desegregation but forfeited moral authority on race with a manufactured “war on drugs” and cynical appeals to the Silent Majority.
Similarly, Nixon’s earth-shattering visit to China and arms limitation treaties with the Soviet Union illustrated his vision in world affairs. But Vietnam haunted him. Rather than cut his losses on a war inherited from Democratic presidents, he prolonged the conflict, seeking a “decent interval” before the fall of South Vietnam. The war intensified his paranoia. With the 1972 election looming, he indulged his worst instincts for self-doubt and dirty tricks.
The Watergate saga may be familiar, but Farrell dramatically situates Nixon in time and place, illuminating his political circumstances and emotional state with each wiretapping, burglary, payoff, investigation and coverup. Farrell condemns the larger corruption of American institutions such as the FBI and the CIA, but the president bears personal responsibility. The voice-activated recording system in the Oval Office provided the smoking gun that forced Nixon’s embarrassing resignation in August 1974.
The White House tapes also shrink Nixon’s reputation. They reveal him at his worst, as a skulking liar. He puffs with false confidence, shrivels with self-pity, spews hateful opinions of Jews and blacks, and entertains a host of underhanded plots. His words expose a man who sowed the wind of political division and reaped the whirlwind of his enemies.
On the final day of his historic visit to China, Nixon reflected with Zhou Enlai on a career filled with conquests and crises. “I found that I had learned more from defeats than from victories,” he wrote in his diary. “And that all I wanted was a life in which I had just one more victory than defeat.” He instead suffered one more defeat. He stained his reputation and that of the presidency. As Farrell’s outstanding biography reminds us, the consequences have endured. They remain toxic.
Richard Nixon, writes John A. Farrell, harbored great ambitions and deep resentments.
RICHARD NIXON The Life By John A. Farrell Doubleday. 737 pp. $35