Richard Nixon: The life
By John A. Farrell
Not another biography of the disgraced former president, surely? After all, few historical figures have been as analysed and profiled, examined and investigated, as the 37th president of the United States.
From Stephen Ambrose’s three volumes, to offerings from his (many) critics, such as Stanley Kutler and Anthony Summers, as well as more sympathetic tomes from Conrad Black and Jonathan Aitken, Nixon’s deep complexities, strengths and flaws have provided almost unlimited material for biographers and historians for decades. So, with that in mind do we really need yet another biography to roll out of the printing presses? Well, actually, yes.
John Farrell is one of America’s premier biographers and journalists. His decision to turn his pen to Nixon’s life – from humble beginnings in rural California to his death in 1994 – has resulted in not only some bombshell revelations, but also a deeply nuanced, fair and highly readable account of an extraordinary life and times.
Farrell – who spent five years on the project – has been able to call upon a rich treasure trove of recently released documents and oral histories from friends, foes, and family members. These accounts underpin a narrative that, while detailed, never flags. Thanks to Farrell’s storytelling prowess, the reader is effortlessly transported through Nixon’s childhood, his experiences in the Pacific during the Second World War, his career in Congress, his time in the White House and on to his resignation and subsequent efforts to rehabilitate himself.
Across these pages, the full tapestry of Nixon’s tortured character emerges into the light. A man whose fragile ego rubs up against a pathological determination to win at all costs, where a preference for solitude runs contrary to his craving for the visibility of life in the Oval Office.
These contradictions also play out in his record of achievement in government. It is often forgotten that Nixon had a pretty progressive record as President. From accelerating school desegregation to creating the Environmental Protection Agency, not to mention establishing detente (of sorts) with China and the Soviet Union, he left a trail of positive impact in his wake.
Such achievements, though, have been largely obscured by the long shadow of Watergate and his resignation for obstructing justice. Farrell’s depiction of Watergate is masterly. He compresses a huge amount of insight and revelation into a few chapters, portraying it as the inevitable result of a career rooted in deep political skulduggery and an obsession with destroying enemies, both real and perceived.
Nixon is also remembered for Vietnam, a war he inherited from the Democrats but one that truly enveloped his presidency. Here, Farrell reveals that fearful of giving the Democrats an electoral boost, Nixon had sought to sabotage President Johnson’s 1968 peace initiative to bring the war to an early end. This treachery, long suspected but never proven, was confirmed by Farrell’s discovery of a note from Howard “Bob” Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, who recorded his order to “monkey-wrench” the plan. A more visible reminder of Nixon’s dark side is impossible to imagine.
No doubt further Nixon biographies will appear in the future. Perhaps that’s inevitable – his life clearly exerts something of a magnetic allure to historians and biographers – but it is hard to envision one that does a better job in capturing Nixon the man, the politician, and the president.
Farrell has produced a fine piece of work, and one that, with the holiday season approaching, would make an ideal gift for anyone interested in the history of 20th Century America.