Thoroughly Researched Biography Tapping Recently Available Sources

Until Donald Trump, no one in American presidential politics had come so far, so fast, and so alone in exploiting the politics of grievance as Richard Nixon.

John Farrell’s biography is very thoroughly researched and has gained notoriety because at the Nixon library Farrell discovered notes from Nixon aide Bob Haldeman, contemporaneous to the 1968 election. Haldeman’s notes substantiated the rumor that, through an intermediary, Nixon reached out to South Vietnamese President Thieu to scuttle South Vietnamese participation in President Johnson’s peace initiative. The message: South Vietnam could get a better deal once he, Nixon, was President. Nixon’s goal was to eliminate any chance that his opponent, Hubert Humphrey, would benefit from the prospect of US withdrawal from Vietnam. More than 20,000 American soldiers died as US combat participation in the war extended from 1968 until Nixon left office in 1974.

Farrell is at his best in describing the events leading to the Checkers speech which dissuaded Eisenhower from dropping Nixon as his running mate in 1952. In his first term of office, according to the author, Ike did not feel that Nixon was growing in terms of perspective (“He lacked the grandness of vision and spirit to unite a great country”) but at the same time Ike cynically used Nixon for tactical offense so that as president he could stay above the fray.

The author reminds us of all the disgusting characters that formed the political culture of the 1950s and 1960s. These included Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohen, George Wallace and the southern power brokers such as Strom Thurmond and Richard Russell. America was roiled by the assassinations of JFK, Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the race riots of the inner cities, and the polarization of opinion regarding the Vietnam War. The dirty tricks of Nixon’s House and Senate campaigns were by no means the exclusive purview of Richard Nixon. Indeed the author notes the vote counts in Chicago and Texas which may have illegally tipped victory to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election and which likely persuaded Nixon that no one would ever again outdo him in employing dirty tricks to win.

Farrell highlights one difference between the postwar period of Richard Nixon and our current political environment: Victory over Nazi Germany and Japan in World War II showed Nixon’s generation what government could do. With the end of the war, the US population doubled with the baby boom and there was great demand for the expansion of government services. Farrell makes the point that Nixon believed in government, and that he was more progressive than Kennedy on Civil Rights in 1955. The government social safety net was expanded under Nixon’s presidency, including tax reform for low income individuals, increased aid for education, and a 20% hike in Social Security payments. The problem with right-wingers, Nixon said, was that, “they have a totally hard-hearted attitude where human problems and any compassion is concerned.”

Nixon was an excellent student of the mood of the electorate and in 1968 was able to reach out to the conformist middle and working class which had become disillusioned with Democrats who took their traditional supporters for granted. Farrell says that Nixon won the “gut vote” — a precursor of what Trump did in 2016.

Nixon was an introvert in an extroverted profession. As president, he used Bob Haldeman and John Erlichman to wall himself off not only from confrontation, which he hated, but even from one-on-one interactions which made him uncomfortable.

The President was given to angry outbursts and ill-advised orders, which his top advisors (Kissinger, Laird, Haldeman) learned to ignore. “Bomb Damascus” didn’t mean that he intended the order to be carried out.

Unfortunately, as Farrell lays out in a particularly good chapter, “The Road to Watergate”, lower level aides were all too eager to please the President and the Watergate burglary and other dirty tricks went forward with implicit rather than explicit approval. “The way to Presidential favor was to bring a dead mouse to his door,” notes the author.

Will the hubris (or insecurity) that brought down Richard Nixon serve to bring down Donald Trump? Farrell seems to suggest that the answer is no. As the Watergate scandal grew, with damaging testimony from John Dean and others, the public was becoming bored with the “he said, she said” allegations. But then the discovery of the White House tapes changed everything and forced Nixon’s resignation. Whatever emerges from the Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian involvement in the election, it seems unlikely that the special prosecutor will uncover evidence that is so specific, irrefutable, and damning as the Watergate tapes.

This is an excellent biography of the most controversial of presidents, and readers will benefit from John Farrell’s study of primary sources that have only recently become available to Nixon biographers.


Charles G. Salmans

Also, from the NYT’s Book Review: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/29/books/richard-nixon-biography-john-a-farrell.html?_r=0