Life of a com­plex and con­se­quen­tial pres­i­dent

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By John R. Coyne Jr. John R. Coyne Jr., a for­mer White House speech­writer, is co-au­thor of “Strictly Right: Wil­liam F. Buck­ley Jr. and the Amer­i­can Con­ser­va­tive Move­ment” (Wi­ley).

RICHARD NIXON: THE LIFE By John A. Farrell Dou­ble­day, $35, 737 pages

John A. Farrell, au­thor of two well­re­ceived bi­ogra­phies — one of Clarence Dar­row, the other of Tip O’Neill — has writ­ten a com­pact but com­pre­hen­sive one-vol­ume bi­og­ra­phy of per­haps the most com­plex and con­se­quen­tial pres­i­dent in our na­tion’s re­cent his­tory. Af­ter five years of work, the re­sult is im­pres­sive — strongly writ­ten, deeply re­searched and rich in anec­dote.

As a for­mer Nixon speech­writer, I see an overem­pha­sis on the dark side. But that may be in­evitable. As the his­to­rian Mar­garet MacMil­lan once wrote, “Even his­to­ri­ans who dis­ap­prove of psy­chohis­tory finds them­selves tempted ir­re­sistibly when it comes to Richard Nixon.” And no mat­ter friend, foe or ob­jec­tive his­to­rian (if there is such a thing), there’s cer­tainly an abun­dance of ma­te­rial to be tempted by.

Mr. Farrell in­tro­duces his sub­ject at the end of World War II, a young naval of­fi­cer, “not a bad-look­ing guy in his dress blues,” and a po­ten­tially valu­able po­lit­i­cal prop­erty. We move quickly through his career, from the early anti-com­mu­nist days, to the Se­nate and the ex­po­sure of Al­ger Hiss as a Soviet spy — then na­tional fame, a place on the Repub­li­can ticket as Dwight Eisen­hower’s run­ning mate.

There’s the Checker’s speech, the un­suc­cess­ful pres­i­den­tial run in 1960, the squeaker in 1968, the com­plex Viet­nam peace ini­tia­tives, and the land­slide in 1972. Mr. Farrell brings fresh in­sights to many of th­ese fa­mil­iar events, de­feats and tri­umphs, among them the SALT Treaty with the Soviet Union and the trip to China.

The China trip, a rare in­stance of a states­man­like vi­sion-shap­ing re­al­ity, may have rep­re­sented the high point of Richard Nixon’s pres­i­dency. On Feb. 17 in Shang­hai, writes John Farrell, Nixon hailed the visit as “‘the week that changed the world.’ It was, if any­thing, an un­der­state­ment.”

Mean­while, back in Wash­ing­ton, var­i­ous ir­reg­u­lar op­er­a­tives like G. Gor­don Liddy, Howard Hunt and a crew of oddly matched mis­fits were get­ting edgy. They’d been in­volved in a se­ries of mis­fires, cul­mi­nat­ing in the bun­gled bur­glary of the DNC head­quar­ters at the Water­gate, and they wanted money and cover. And so the search for scape­goats be­gan, as did the cover-up, in­volv­ing the pres­i­dent’s top ad­vis­ers, the Jus­tice Depart­ment, the FBI (where Mark Felt, iden­ti­fied by Bob Wood­ward as Deep Throat, worked) and the CIA, among others.

Mean­while, writes Mr. Farrell, “down in the White House base­ment, in the closet be­low the stairs, a tech­ni­cian re­moved the June 23 reel from the hid­den tape recorder and care­fully marked it, and its in­crim­i­nat­ing con­ver­sa­tion, for preser­va­tion.”

“One day they’d call it ‘the smok­ing gun.’ ”

From then on, it’s a tale of the tapes, hit­ting the low point in July, when White House aide Alexan­der But­ter­field told Water­gate in­ves­ti­ga­tors about the voice-ac­ti­vated White House tap­ing sys­tem. With that, although the rear-guard re­sis­tance would drag on for an­other year, it be­came just a mat­ter of time.

There was still one way out. Be­fore the tapes be­came ev­i­dence, Pat Buchanan and Water­gate coun­sel Fred Buzhardt urged him to de­stroy them. “They had not yet been sub­poe­naed. And though Nixon faced a par­ti­san Congress, no Se­nate would con­vict a pres­i­dent for de­stroy­ing his per­sonal records.” But for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons — many of them as odd as the rea­sons that led to the in­stal­la­tion of the sys­tem — the pres­i­dent de­cided in­stead to gam­ble by in­vok­ing ex­ec­u­tive priv­i­lege. He lost.

Then sud­denly, in Au­gust, it was over. He re­signed, and in a deeply felt and per­sonal speech said good­bye to his staff, with “words as wise as any ever spo­ken in that great old house. Rich in self-knowl­edge, pur­chased at a price: ‘Al­ways re­mem­ber, others may hate you — but those who hate you don’t win un­less you hate them, and then you de­stroy your­self.’ ”

Many in the au­di­ence, among them Ben Stein and of course the pres­i­dent’s won­der­ful wife and daugh­ters, whom Mr. Farrell al­ways treats with re­spect, were cry­ing. Then the he­li­copter, a fi­nal flash­ing grin, a cam­paign-style wave, and the old vic­tory sign. And he was gone.

Mr. Farrell wraps it up with an ac­count of Richard Nixon’s suc­cess­ful post-po­lit­i­cal career. He died on April 22, 1994, and his daugh­ters chose the epi­taph to be carved into his tomb­stone, the words coming from his first in­au­gu­ral speech: “The great­est honor his­tory can be­stow is the ti­tle of peace­maker.”

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