THE MOST IMPORTANT TAKEAWAY from John A. Farrell’s splendid new biography, Richard Nixon: The Life, is that Richard Nixon is not the gateway to understanding Donald Trump.
Nixon’s life is a Greek tragedy about a terribly flawed and damaged protagonist who rises to power only to bring about his own destruction; Trump is more of a comedy, a bit like Molière’s Tartuffe — a blockheaded master at the mercy of his wily servants and scheming counselors who just happen to be rather evil.
If Richard Nixon: The Life had been published a year earlier, we might have had a reasoned, nuanced debate about the book’s merits and discussed its stunning revelations, such as Nixon at the depth of his dirty tricks during the Vietnam War, waging a backchannel campaign to sabotage the Paris Peace Talks in an effort to sink the 1968 presidential campaign of Democrat Hubert Humphrey. (Nixon disavowed the allegations during his lifetime, but Farrell found the smoking gun in the notes of H. R. “Bob” Haldeman.)
Trump’s bombastic pronouncements and unhinged tweet-storms have forced us to view the world through orange-colored glasses. Trump’s presidency is still in its difficult infancy, but the daily turbulence from the White House and the incendiary statements and volatile temperament of its occupant have invited almost universal comparison to the embattled last days of Richard Nixon and his inner circle of unsavory enablers.
Parallels between the two have been outlined by former Nixon aide John Dean, who has called Trump “more Nixonian than Nixon.” And even Trump has invoked Nixon in making the baseless claim that President Obama engaged in a “Nixon/Watergate” plot to “tapp” Trump’s phones. The future 37th president also went full Trump when he snarled at reporters in 1962: “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
Yet Trump is precisely the sort of wealthy East Coast silver-spoon billionaire Nixon would despise, having endured a nightmarish childhood of grinding, stoic poverty in rural Southern California and seeing two of his brothers die — one at the age of seven from encephalitis and the other at 23 of tuberculosis. Dismissed as Dick from the wrong side of Whittier (and yes, there was one), Nixon suffered a lifetime of painful social snubs and slights that left his ego raw and throbbing. Even near the end, he was furious with then-President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton for not attending Pat Nixon’s funeral in 1993.
At his best, Nixon looked forward to an idealized future that was perhaps unattainable, and his methods were often vicious and reprehensible. Trump, at his best, looks backward to a simplified, nostalgic past that never existed — a superficial, glitzy history rewritten with a gold Sharpie. Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and championed what have become the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, three bêtes noires of Trump and his supporters.
An oddly alluring figure for writers, Nixon was a brilliant but wounded man, a moody, bookish, studious introvert who recognized his faults all too clearly and fought desperately to overcome them while frequently succumbing to his darkest nature. Beginning in 1960 with Bela Kornitzer’s overtly sympathetic The Real Nixon, and including a detour at Frank DeHart’s bizarre 1979 cult book Traumatic Nixon, the 37th president has been the subject of volumes by himself and members of his disgraced inner circle, as well as countless biographies, including a three-volume sprawler by Stephen Ambrose. It is telling that Ambrose began work on Volume One (The Education of a Politician) after initially resisting the project, saying, “I had never admired the man and did not want to write about him.” But he began Volume Three (Ruin and Recovery) by saying: “I have loved writing this book.” Nixon may be conniving and corrupt, with a seething desire just below the surface to lash out at his perceived enemies — but he is rarely boring.
Farrell opens with Navy Lieutenant Commander Richard M. Nixon at the age of 32, married to the former Pat Ryan, casting about for a job as he is about to be discharged from the service after World War II and facing an unappetizing future as an undistinguished small-town lawyer.
As in all heroic tales, Nixon was summoned to his calling; he answered a Republican SOS for someone to make a sacrificial run in California’s 1946 congressional race against a seemingly invulnerable opponent, Democratic Representative Jerry Voorhis. In an upset that would form the template for much of his political life, Nixon won (and won dirty) with the help of men like Murray Chotiner, who engineered the beginning of the sleazy tricks. From then on, the die was cast: victory at any cost, whether it was ferreting out communists with the House Un-American Activities Committee or painting Helen Gahagan Douglas as a Red in the 1950 Senate race. All would foreshadow Nixon’s downfall.
In Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman says that when he wrote the screenplay for the 1976 film All the President’s Men, Americans were tired of Nixon and Watergate, so he filled the script with traps and surprises: “[W]hat I wanted was to have people suddenly looking at each other and thinking, ‘Hey, maybe I better pay attention, there’s stuff here I hadn’t heard about.’”
This has also been Farrell’s approach: take the Richard Nixon whom people think they know, and show that they don’t know him at all. The pick-and-shovel work is evident in the book’s 136 pages of endnotes and bibliography. (Disclaimer: I helped Farrell with his research on the book.)
It is no small feat to humanize Richard Nixon, but Farrell does it. A particularly good example is his treatment of the infamous “Checkers speech,” in which Nixon addressed the nation from a closed stage at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood on September 23, 1952. Under fire for allegations of a political slush fund, Nixon fought to remain on the Republican presidential ticket in 30 minutes of live television that have become a landmark at the crossroads of political and broadcasting history.
The Los Angeles Times and its political kingmaker Kyle Palmer portrayed the speech as a masterful and courageous response. One story noted that “Americans throughout the nation were weeping” at his defense and mobilizing to support the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket. In Golden Dreams (2009), Kevin Starr calls it “a tour de force of spontaneous self-defense by an embattled candidate seemingly beyond hope.”
Farrell’s version of the speech lifts the curtain on Nixon with all his frailties: furious at the lack of support from Republican leaders; abandoned by his genial but emotionally distant running mate, General Dwight Eisenhower; racked with self-doubt and ready to quit; having no one but Pat Nixon and a few key advisors to keep him going. Nixon wasn’t always unreasonable in thinking he had enemies.
Here is Nixon aboard a chartered plane scrawling a note on the back of a postcard to mention a cocker spaniel — named Checkers — given to daughters Tricia and Julie Nixon. And here is Nixon in a daze after getting a last-minute phone call saying that Republican leaders wanted him to conclude his speech by resigning from the presidential race and from the Senate. “Just tell them that I haven’t the slightest idea of what I am going to do, and if they want to find out they’d better listen to the broadcast,” Nixon replied, slamming down the phone.
“I just don’t think I can go through with this one,” he confessed to his wife in the dressing room just before facing the TV camera. Afterward, he buried his face in drapes on the stage, certain that he had failed. “I couldn’t do it,” he said. “It wasn’t any good.”
No, this is not the Nixon that everybody knows.
The real test for Farrell is compressing the events surrounding Watergate — itself a book-length subject — into a few chapters. The Watergate story has a massive number of moving parts, all of them important, that must be assembled into a compelling narrative. Names come flying at the reader, some familiar (Henry Kissinger, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, John Ehrlichman) and some that have faded into history (Jeb Stuart Magruder, Judge John Sirica, Democratic Senator Sam Ervin). Many famous incidents are covered to provide critical context: the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, the burglary at Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, the break-in at the Watergate Hotel, the Saturday Night Massacre, the Senate hearings, the 18-and-a-half-minute gap in a crucial recording of conversations in the Oval Office, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and Deep Throat.
Farrell does a masterful job of storytelling, synchronizing the beginning of what would become Watergate with the marriage of Tricia Nixon and Edward Cox, and intercutting the expanding scandal with Nixon’s trip to China, a treatment that is more like a novel than a biography. Many writers could take lessons in clarity and organization from Farrell’s handling of Watergate. He moves through the story quickly but without sacrificing detail to hold the readers even when they know the outcome.
The story of a life like this requires redemption and rehabilitation after a suitable period of exile from public life. For Nixon, it began with a series of TV interviews with David Frost (1977) and Nixon’s first volume of memoirs (1978).
Shortly before he suffered a fatal stroke in 1994, Nixon ruminated: “As I look back, although it has been a rough ride, it has been worthwhile. I might not want to do it again, but I wouldn’t have missed it […] I have lived for a purpose and for the most part achieved it.” To which we might add: “Said Donald Trump never.”
Note: Harnisch provided Farrell with research for this book via email from the archives of the Los Angeles Times, but the two have never met.