Life of a complex and consequential president
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.”