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‘Richard Nixon: The Life’ review: John A. Farrell’s presidential biography drops a bombshell

Richard Nixon in front of a family portrait

Richard Nixon in front of a family portrait in his office during the 1968 presidential election campaign. Credit: Popperfoto / Getty Images

RICHARD NIXON: The Life, by John A. Farrell. Doubleday, 737 pp., $35.

When Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon attended Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s funeral in Cairo in 1981, U.S. Senator Bob Dole quipped that the three former presidents standing together reminded him of the three monkeys from the Japanese shrine at Toshogu: “See no evil. Hear no evil. And evil.”

John A. Farrell, in his new book, “Richard Nixon: The Life,” sidesteps the question of whether Nixon actually was evil. But he quotes James Farmer, the civil rights activist, as saying that Nixon was such a “political animal” that he was “neither moral nor immoral, but was amoral.”

“Richard Nixon” is an insightful and engaging biography. The biggest bombshell is Farrell’s finding that Nixon tried to sabotage Lyndon Johnson’s attempts to end the Vietnam War, prolonging the fighting for political gain. There has been much speculation about this in the past, and Nixon always denied it. But Farrell found a note in the papers of Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman saying that Nixon told him they needed to have intermediaries keep working to persuade the South Vietnamese not to agree to a peace deal before the 1968 election. The notes show how “Nixon personally directed the skullduggery — conducting negotiations with a foreign country in violation of U.S. law,” Farrell writes.

Whether Nixon’s intervention changed anything isn’t certain, because the South Vietnamese weren’t anxious to agree to the proposed peace terms to begin with. But Farrell argues that with more than 300 American troops being killed every week in the fighting, it might have been worse than anything Nixon did during Watergate.

So much written about Nixon includes the words “disgraced former president” that many don’t remember, as Farrell shows, that he was once considered a “progressive” Republican whose administration created the Environmental Protection Agency, passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, mandated the Title IX provision that provides college sports opportunities for women, greatly expanded funding for the arts, created Meals on Wheels and desegregated more schools than any previous administration.

Farrell, who was born in Huntington and attended Holy Family High School, covered Washington as a reporter for The Denver Post and The Boston Globe. He’s also the author of acclaimed biographies of Clarence Darrow and Tip O’Neill. There’s no avoiding the fact that with Nixon he’s plowing much familiar ground, but he does it vividly, shedding yet more light on one of our darkest presidencies.

The Nixon described by Farrell was bright but socially awkward; a skilled debater but inept at small talk; a talented pianist but not much of an athlete. He was a benchwarmer on the Whittier College football team and a virgin until he was in his late 20s. He was a loving but detached and often absent husband and father. He had little interest in food — his basic lunch was a scoop of cottage cheese over a ring of canned pineapple and a glass of milk — and had trouble with liquor, sometimes becoming angry and paranoid after two drinks and sloshed after three. He was unusually vindictive for a Quaker.

During his first campaign for Congress from California in 1946, he pandered to the worst instincts of voters by using innuendo to suggest that the Democratic incumbent, Jerry Voorhis, was a Communist stooge. As Farrell writes: “By selectively dicing the public record, Dick made Jerry seem what he was not . . . an unsavory radical and an ineffective legislator.” He did it again in his race for the U.S. Senate against Helen Gahagan Douglas, whom he termed “the Pink Lady.” She in turn called him “Tricky Dick” — a label that stuck.

No one is elected president without public strengths, and Farrell makes clear that Nixon had many, particularly as a campaigner. But the secret taping system that he installed in the Oval Office also captured his obscenities, childish tantrums, vindictive threats, sexual innuendo, paranoid rantings, political scheming and racial and ethnic slurs. Most Americans were appalled by what they read after the courts ordered transcripts released, but Harlem’s Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel said that he loved them because “they destroy the myth of white superiority.”

Just before Nixon fled Washington because of the break-ins, burglaries, wiretaps, tax evasions and political dirty tricks that were leading to certain impeachment, he was told by Henry Kissinger: “History will treat you well.”

“It depends who writes the history,” Nixon replied.

In all, Nixon wrote a dozen books, some of them quite good if rather self-serving. But none of them were as honest, balanced or revealing as Farrell’s.

Anthony Marro is a former Newsday reporter and editor who covered the Watergate hearings.


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