Richard Nixon remains one of America’s most intriguing presidents (1969–74). Intelligent, shrewd, and possessing a keen sense of the public mood, Nixon represented the ideal presidential model. His grasp of foreign policy has been unmatched by his successors, and his domestic policies represented the last hurrah of ‘New Deal’ governance. Yet there was also a personal darkness culminating with the Watergate scandal, forcing Nixon to become the only president to resign from office. John A. Farrell successfully reconciles these elements in Richard Nixon: The life, crafting a lively narrative that encapsulates Nixon’s contradictory aspects, while providing groundbreaking research that has eluded previous historians.
Nixon’s rise to power was meteoric. Growing up in Yorba Linda, California, his upbringing was tinged with tragedy, including the premature deaths of two of his brothers. Nixon was determined to escape his impoverished world. His entrance into Whittier College provided both his education and hints of the politician to come. Alienated from the élitist Franklin Society, Nixon organised the rivals, Orthogonians, who ‘made a virtue of their rank as plebs ... and displayed a laudable blindness to class, ethnicity, and race’. They gave Nixon a platform in campus politics, and foreshadowed his later resentments of élites.
After naval service during World War II, Nixon parlayed his military record into campaigning for political office. Farrell outlines the controversies in Nixon’s early victories, against Jerry Voorhis for the House of Representatives in 1946 and Helen Douglas for the Senate in 1950. Nixon proposed placing spies in the Voorhis campaign, and denigrated Douglas’s ‘Communist sympathies’. Nixon had already gained a national reputation investigating State Department official Alger Hiss’s alleged spying for the Soviet Union. Nixon’s defeat of Douglas (using the spectre of communism) saw him chosen by Republican kingmakers as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate in 1952. But he faced a serious challenge: focus on a fund allegedly funnelling bribes from donors. Threatened with removal from the ticket, Nixon organised a televised broadcast known now as the ‘Checkers Speech.’ Outlining his tax situation and family finances, Nixon bared himself to the public, culminating in the declaration that his daughters had been gifted a dog (Checkers) by a donor, and that they were not going to return it. These disclosures, combined with middle-American values, worked and Nixon became one of the youngest vice presidents in US history, ideally positioned for a presidential run in 1960.
Nixon’s presidential race against John F. Kennedy broke new ground, with the first televised debates between candidates. These proved the power of image over substance, particularly in the first, where a physically ill Nixon floundered visually against the tanned, youthful Kennedy. The 1960 election was one of the closest races in US history. Farrell outlines the accusations of voter fraud in Illinois and Texas, arguing that Kennedy possibly stole the election. The election marked Nixon deeply. In his memoirs RN (1977), he vowed ‘never again [to] enter an election at a disadvantage by being vulnerable ... on the level of political tactics’.
The 1960s were wilderness years for Nixon. After failing to win California’s governorship in 1962, he gave a press conference announcing his retirement from politics with the famous line: ‘You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.’ Yet Nixon remained determined. The 1966 congressional elections saw him barnstorming the country for the GOP, building favours that allowed him to capture the nomination for the presidential nomination in 1968.
Farrell’s account of this election breaks important new ground, and has been praised by leading Nixon scholars. With the Tet Offensive reinforcing the cost of war to news viewers at home, Lyndon Johnson announced in March 1968 he would not run for re-election and that he would devote his efforts to pursuing peace. Had peace been achieved prior to the election, it would have guaranteed the victory of the Democratic nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. There has long been speculation that Nixon pursued back channels to sabotage the government’s talks with the North Vietnamese, promising a better deal once he was president. Farrell has found the smoking gun, a document from Nixon urging aide H.R. Haldeman to throw a ‘monkey wrench’ into the proceedings. As historian Tim Naftali argues, this removes Nixon’s ‘fig leaf of plausible deniability’. In time, the undercutting of Johnson’s peace efforts may well rank above Watergate in historical criticisms of Nixon’s presidency.
Nixon’s victory did not lead to the ‘peace with honour’ he had promised. The war widened into Cambodia, paving the way for the rise of Pol Pot and the killing fields. Nixon’s 1972 re-election saw him win one of US history’s biggest landslides, but his campaign’s dirty tricks would prove politically fatal. Concern about leaks led to Nixon forming a group of aides who engaged in a range of dirty tactics against opponents, notably the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. Initially dismissed as a ‘third-rate burglary’, the scandal engulfed the administration, forcing Nixon to resign in August 1974. These scandals ran parallel to Nixon’s greatest foreign policy triumphs: grand breakthroughs with the USSR and China. But Watergate proved his undoing. Farrell’s tone moves from political thriller to forensic examination as he describes the missteps of Nixon and his aides, including the taping of the Oval Office itself, which revealed a president who was profane, anti-Semitic, and paranoid during the Watergate hearings.
As with most Nixon biographies, Farrell finishes quickly after Nixon’s resignation. Yet Nixon remained influential, advising his successors and writing numerous books, including his bestselling memoirs. Farrell has written a brilliant narrative about one of the most complex individuals to occupy the presidency, whose term mixed high achievement with skullduggery. The sabotage of the 1968 peace talks, the Red-baiting and Watergate run alongside the opening of relations with China and the USSR. Nixon remains one of the most environmentally progressive presidents, with The Clean Air and Water Acts, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency to his name. While racial profanities were captured on tape in the Oval Office, Nixon showed a deep commitment to affirmative action. These contradictions prompted Gore Vidal to write: ‘In Nixon we observe our faults larger than life. But we can also ... see in this huge, dusty mirror our virtues as well.’ Farrell ends on an elegiac note, describing Nixon’s death in 1994:
His daughters chose his epitaph, to be carved into his tombstone, there in ... Yorba Linda. It is a line from his first inaugural address. ‘The greatest honour history can bestow is the title of peacemaker,’ it says. He had come so long a way, chasing the whistles of trains in the night, and never so far at all.
Farrell has successfully reconciled the different aspects of Nixon, presenting a president almost Shakespearean in his dimensions, in a volume that will remain an important part of the Nixon canon.