The tragedy of Nixon’s pres­i­dency: a bril­liant mind that went too far.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY ARAM GOUDSOUZIAN Aram Goudsouzian is the chair of the depart­ment of his­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Mem­phis. His most re­cent book is “Down to the Cross­roads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Mered­ith March Against Fear.”

‘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

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