Saturday, August 05, 2017

Review of John Farrell's Richard Nixon: The Life

John Farrell's Richard Nixon: The Life is a snappily written and well-documented biography. The tone can move toward disbelief and sarcasm here and there, but given the record of unethical, illegal, and downright stupid actions, that can perhaps be forgiven.

The main attraction of the book is that Farrell does a tremendous job getting at the emotion, especially through the use of recorded interviews, notes, and the like regarding key moments. The Checkers speech was preceded by intense frustration and tension, with everyone wondering whether it would end with his announced resignation as VP candidate. The Pentagon Papers, which should've been a hit to LBJ and JFK, made him furious and so he lashed out. Watergate, of course, led to despair. There are a lot of great quotes, often related to Nixon's utter amorality or his extreme discomfort with other human beings.

That emotional side also helps you see Nixon's gradual emotional decline. By the time he was president, it took almost nothing to set him off. Indeed, he knew he would give orders that shouldn't be carried out. He admitted it, which itself is insane for a president. But when you're surrounded by ideologues like Charles Colson, those orders will sometimes be followed. And he'll hire crazier people like Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy. Farrell argues that Nixon hoped J. Edgar Hoover would do the dirty work, as he had periodically done for past presidents, but when he refused Nixon had to find his own people.

As I read, I realized there was no mention of previous biographies until the end, no explanation of what niche this book fills. Not until the acknowledgments do we learn that he liked the past biographies but wrote it to include more sources (like oral histories, which help capture the emotion) and to be an accessible one-volume biography for people to read for the 50th anniversary of his 1968 election. Fair enough.


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