There may be no more difficult, or intriguing, subject for a political biography than Richard Nixon. His rise was meteoric: from the U.S. House of Representatives in 1947-1950; the U.S. Senate, 1950-1953; and then on to vice presidency from 1953-1961. Few political stars have climbed so rapidly. After that swath of victories, he was defeated in campaigns for the presidency, and the governorship of California. And then, against all odds and expectations, he returned to national prominence as the victor in the presidential elections of 1968 and 1972. Two years later, he resigned during the Watergate scandal.
Many books have been written about Nixon, including several by him. Most fall short in one way or another—usually because of their inability to reconcile his complex personality. John A. Farrell’s Richard Nixon: The Life stands out among the oeuvre, not just for its careful research and enlightened analysis, but for its fundamental fairness—a challenging quality to maintain in any approach to such a divisive figure.
Nixon’s political legacy, as Farrell shows, is remarkably complex. A man of humble origins, he earned a reputation as a bareknuckle political fighter early on, stopping at almost nothing to undermine and destroy his opponents. At the same time, he was an honest hard worker, who regularly rose above his limitations by virtue of focus and dedication. And while he later came to be thought of as a man without political principles, Nixon built his career upon a seemingly idealistic dual crusade for the American common man/communist hater.
Expediency determined many of Nixon’s actions, especially as he grew into a seasoned politician. Still, he was not averse to taking political risks in favor of causes, such as civil rights, in which he believed. Fundamentally, though, he was geared for one purpose: to pursue, and to hold, high political office. But Nixon was anything but complacent once he had achieved that goal. Few presidents have been more active not just in the pursuit, but the exercise of power.
As an anti-communist crusader in the 1950s, Nixon benefited from the work of House Un-American Activities Committee and the Red-baiting rampages of Senator Joseph McCarthy. His tireless and successful pursuit of the spy Alger Hiss marked a key moment in Nixon’s political career. He was able to slither away from a too-close association with McCarthy, his colleagues—and instead—advance his cache. And, though the national media very quickly settled into a hate-hate relationship with Nixon–he was never really embraced by President Dwight D. Eisenhower—Nixon’s vice presidential behavior was–on the whole exemplary–and he came very close to winning the presidential election of 1960 against his former friend John F. Kennedy.
In 1968, Nixon rode to victory on a tide of blue-collar patriotism and resentment against economic dislocation, disorder, and social change. As president, he was cordially hated by the media and almost everyone on the political left and some on the right. The remarkable thing is that even as Nixon acted ruthlessly in Vietnam, his domestic policy was humanitarian. Far from dismantling Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, he strengthened it in many respects. Nixon was also among the most pro-environmentalist of all the American presidents.
As he achieved arguably the greatest triumph of his presidency, however—the rapprochement with China in 1972—Nixon unknowingly kicked off his demise. Farrell’s study of Watergate shows a close engagement with Nixon as a human being, and a broad understanding of the arc of presidential power in the post-World War II era. In many respects, his ruthless and amoral use of presidential power followed a pattern set by his predecessors, from Roosevelt to Truman; Eisenhower to Kennedy; Johnson. During Watergate and its associated scandals, however, there was a reckless clumsiness that seems to suggest that Nixon expected—even sought—his self-destruction.
John A. Farrell does not pretend to dispassionate objectivity. And rightfully so. No clinical analysis of Nixon, even if it were possible, could ring true. The key element of this biography’s success is simple human compassion—surely the single most vital factor in the proper study of history. Farrell is far from sympathetic in his appraisal of Nixon’s often cynical amorality; but he also recognizes and admires his subject’s struggles to overcome adversity, as well as his undoubtable talents and many achievements. Ultimately, the reader will come to see in Richard Nixon all the elements of a Shakespearean tragedy, and come to wonder many times through the course of this superb biography: “if only . . .”
Edward G. Lengel is Senior Director of Programs for the National World War II Museum’s Institute for the Study of War and Democracy in New Orleans, Louisiana.