REVIEW: A Perceptive Look at the Two Sides of Richard M. Nixon

Richard Nixon: The Life by John A. Farrell

Doubleday, 563 pp.

By Paul Markowitz

The dilemma in writing any Nixon biography is how to interweave and explain the various characteristics of his personality and the major decisions of his life.  On one hand you have the overachieving idealistic young lawyer with a thirst for knowledge.  On the other hand you have the profane unscrupulous young politician whose vindictiveness toward political opponents had virtually no bounds.  The latter quality would ultimately lead to his political demise.

John Farrell, in his well-researched and thoughtfully written biography, deals with this dichotomy by stressing the duality of Nixon’s upbringing.  His father was a hardscrabble self-made man with limited social status and abrupt manners while his mother was a pious Quaker, simple but virtuous. When you add in the early deaths of his beloved brothers, you have the makings of a complex, ambitious lawyer-politician with fatal flaws.

Nixon’s story begins with him as a bright young man from Whittier, California who could not afford Ivy League schools.  He goes to instead to the nearby and unremarkable Whittier College.  Nixon’s abilities then get him accepted to Duke University Law School.  He gets married, graduates, becomes a navy lieutenant, and returns to Whittier as a young lawyer feeling a few notches below the more successful lawyers working in prestigious New York law firms.

Yet young Nixon is asked by the local Whittier Republican Party to take on the popular Democratic Congressman, Jerry Voorhis.  Using Standard Oil money and the growing anti-Communist feeling in the country, and scandalous slurs on Voorhis’s patriotism, Nixon unseats him.  In this election certain characteristics of Nixon begin to become apparent, both positive and negative: audacity, resilience, resourcefulness, expediency, chronic insecurity, and unapologetic ruthlessness.  As a congressman, he would become an internationalist, supportive of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.  He would also become a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), though he would steer clear of its most abusive practices. 

In 1950 Nixon decided to run for U.S. Senator against Helen Gahagan Douglas.  With the support of the Los Angeles Times he would run another slanderous campaign, often referring to Douglas as the “pink lady.”  With the Cold War raging and the United States facing setbacks in Korea, Nixon’s redbaiting was effective, and he crushed Douglas, garnering 59% of the vote.  As a successful young senator from the important state of California, Nixon would then help Eisenhower get the Republican nomination for President on the first ballot.  Eisenhower returned the favor by asking Nixon to be his Vice President.

The major chapters in Nixon’s vice-presidential and presidential career are well described by Farrell – the Checkers Speech, the Kennedy-Nixon debates and campaign, Nixon’s unsuccessful race against Pat Brown for Governor of California, his successful race for President against Hubert Humphrey, and his annihilation four years later of George McGovern.  Also well-covered are the Kissinger era, the bombing of Cambodia, the eventual end of the Vietnam War, and the Watergate affair that would lead to impeachment proceedings and ultimately Nixon’s resignation.

Some of the lesser-known aspects of Nixon’s life are also well presented.  Nixon was responsible for initiating the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during his presidency and was an early supporter of civil rights.  Later, however, he recounts Nixon’s turning away from civil rights as he embraces the “Southern strategy” of wresting large numbers of white Southerners away from the Democratic Party.  Another little-known but fascinating story: that Nixon, after doing Ike’s grubby work for four years, was asked to step down as Vice President in the second term to become a member of the Cabinet.

What might be most interesting are the new revelations that Farrell unveils in this well-researched biography.  He uncovered that Nixon, while the Republican candidate for president in 1968, personally participated in a secret campaign to scuttle the Vietnam peace talks and thus deprive his Democratic opponents of credit for ending the war – and thus causing the war to continue for four more years.  Nixon also espoused the use of political espionage and sabotage in his campaigns long before Watergate.

This very readable biography gives our darkest President a fair assessment even after retelling some cringe-worthy scenes of Nixonian skulduggery that were nearly Shakespearean in scope.  It explains how the last progressive Republican President transformed himself into a vindictive, unscrupulous, and successful politician.  Farrell concisely describes Nixon’s rise: “Few came so far, so fast, and so alone.”  But the same extraordinary combination of personal qualities that led to our 37th President’s ascent to the top of American government propelled his even more rapid, and ignominious, fall.

Paul Markowitz is a California-based writer.