New bio: Why Richard Nixon matters in the Trump era
Richard Nixon has fascinated Americans, biographers and historians for the last 70 years, and, thanks to author John A. Farrell and his new book Richard Nixon: The Life (Doubleday, 752 pp., ***½ out of four stars), that fascination will last for at least a few more years.
The fundamentals of Nixon's life are well known to most Americans older than 50: the humble beginnings in Southern California; the tragic deaths of two brothers from tuberculosis; the hounding of suspected communists in Congress; the red-baiting of his political opponents; his eight years as President Dwight Eisenhower's vice president; the narrow 1960 election loss to John F. Kennedy; his comeback in 1968; triumphs in Beijing and Moscow; and his ultimate humiliation in the Watergate scandal, followed by resignation from the presidency and exile.
That's a lot of material to pack into one volume, even one that weighs in at 750 pages, but Farrell does it while providing revelations and insights along the way.
"Sensitive as he was, and as insecure and easily bruised as he was, and brooding and self-centered and self-contained as he was, Nixon could not shrug off their criticism," Farrell writes of Nixon's political opponents. "It wounded him, and he lashed back. The vicious cycle lasted all his life."
Nixon's psychological makeup led him to conceal his big dreams, lest some member of whatever establishment he distrusted at the time — liberals, Eastern elitists, the military or the foreign policy bureaucracy — try to stop him. Farrell shows how that inferiority complex propelled Nixon forward.
It brought some of Nixon's towering successes, such as the opening of relations with China and a nuclear arms deal with the Soviet Union, and fed some of his worst acts.
Farrell devastatingly shows how Nixon sabotaged the 1968 peace talks in Paris to end the Vietnam War by using Chinese-American activist Anna Chennault, a staunch anti-communist, as a conduit between his presidential campaign and the South Vietnamese government.
The author uncovered notes by H.R. Haldeman, a key campaign aide and later his White House chief of staff, that showed that candidate Nixon authorized him to wreck the deal, because Nixon was worried that success in Paris would tilt the 1968 election to his opponent, Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
"Given the lives and human suffering at stake, and the internal discord that was ripping the United States apart, it is hard not to conclude that, of all of Richard Nixon's actions in a lifetime of politics, this was the most reprehensible," Farrell writes.
This timely biography shows why so many people are drawing comparisons between Nixon and President Trump when it comes to presidential policies and resentments against elites.
Richard Nixon: The Life falters only when it feels rushed. Near its end, a lot of details fly by fast and furiously.
A reader who is not steeped in decades' worth of Nixon lore will find this an extremely valuable introduction to the life and times of one of our most consequential presidents. Farrell gives us a Nixon rich in both character flaws and great accomplishments, the latter fueled by his transformational vision. It's a worthy look at a fascinating president.
Ray Locker is the Washington enterprise editor of USA TODAY and author of Nixon's Gamble: How a President's Own Secret Government Destroyed His Administration.