Although their miseries are self-inflicted, the rest of us still have grounds to pity biographers of Richard Nixon. Imagine the hours spent combing through archives crammed with mendacity and illegality, the days parsing letters and diary entries dealing with the moral black hole that was the country's slouching, muttering 37th President, and worst of all, the months of listening to the Nixon tapes: “Sheer flesh-crawling repulsion,” wrote columnist Joe Alsop after hearing just a sample; “the back room of a second-rate advertising agency in a suburb of hell.”
The bald historical record must grant some accomplishments to President Nixon, albeit meager ones. He enforced the desegregation of Southern schools, however unevenly and unwillingly; he made some inroads in reforming health care on the corporate level; he established the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; he established cautious detente relationships with China and the Soviet Union. But laid against all such achievements, running underneath them, sucking them down below view time and again, are those tapes, those inescapable tapes. In any sane world, they should make hagiographies of Nixon taxonomically impossible.
And yet hagiographies appear with clockwork regularity. Conrad Black's 2007 book "Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full," is surely the longest modern example, and Evan Thomas's 2015 "Being Nixon: A Man Divided" is perhaps the most eloquent. All such books start out promising a candid and objective look at the only US president to resign from office, and all devolve into just the kind of special pleading and blame-displacing that were the hallmarks of everything Nixon ever did in his public life. All such books inevitably run afoul of what Adlai Stevenson referred to as “Nixonland”: “a land of slander and scare; the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling, pushing, shoving; the land of smash and grab and anything to win.”
Expert biographer John Farrell (whose 2001 "Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century" stands as one of the great political lives of recent decades) is the latest writer to enter Nixonland, and his superb new book Richard Nixon: The Life is the result, a big, highly detailed study that covers Nixon's upbringing, his experiences during World War II, his time in Congress hunting Communists, his years spent as vice president to Dwight Eisenhower, his first term as President and his landslide re-election, his downfall as a result of his obstructing justice during the Watergate scandal (about that obstruction, Boston writer George V. Higgins famously wrote in his acidic 1974 book "The Friends of Richard Nixon," “The people who said it could not prove it, and the people who could have proven it were busy helping him do it”), and his long retirement years spent penning anodyne memoirs and courting influence with sitting presidents.
Farrell tries to be fair to the man, including on one of the central questions of the scandal that defined him: What did the president know about the break-ins at the Watergate complex in 1972, and when did he know it? “Taken in its entirety, the historical record – months of hearings, thousands of documents, 4,000 hours of White House tape recordings – speaks to the conclusion that Nixon did not know beforehand about the break-ins at the DNC,” Farrell concludes. “In the taped conversations, he sounds genuinely baffled.”
And yet, as Farrell himself notes, the Watergate tapes, “with their crudity and cruelties, interred Nixon's image as an upright, righteous son of the heartland.” On those tapes can clearly be heard, for hour after endless hour, the growling, vicious voice of a man who would do anything, stoop to anything, without a single scruple. Time and again on those tapes, Nixon's closest aides – no paragons of virtue – are audibly stunned by the grasping venality of their boss. “Never forget the press is the enemy,” Nixon drilled into his aides at the very time when he was breaking and suborning the law. “The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy.”
Farrell's book is the smartest and most insightful (and wittiest – there are many passages of pin-point deadpan humor in these pages, and they're much appreciated) biography of Nixon since Jonathan Aitken's excellent 1994 "Nixon: A Life." But even this smart author often tries to burnish the reputation of his subject. When writing about Nixon's farewell to his White House staff, for instance, Farrell writes, “And in the end came words as wise as any spoken in the great old house. Rich in self-knowledge, purchased at a price: 'Always remember, others may hate you – but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.' ”
And yet, there are those tapes. Brimming with hatred. There are the interviews and transcripts of post-White House Nixon. Seething with hatred. And there's the ultimate impression even of Farrell's own balanced and sympathetic biography of the man. Tangled and warped and clotted with hatred. This is the most formidable attempt yet made to put Richard Nixon in perspective. But some reputations can't be salvaged.