The Talented Mr. Nixon a Historian Puts Richard Nixon in Context

By Altschuler, Glenn C. | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), April 30, 2017 | Go to article overview

The Talented Mr. Nixon a Historian Puts Richard Nixon in Context


Altschuler, Glenn C., Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


As he presided over a Cabinet meeting on Aug. 6, 1974, President Richard Nixon sounded combative. But everyone in the room knew that his resignation was imminent. "All that talent -all those flaws," Caspar Weinberger whispered to James Schlesinger. "No morality," George H.W. Bush said to himself, "Caring for no one and yet doing so much."

Historians have ratified these judgments. In "Richard Nixon: The Life," author John Farrell, the former White House correspondent for the Boston Globe and the author of biographies of Clarence Darrow and "Tip" O'Neill, endorses them as well.

That said, Mr. Farrell has captured and conveyed the essential Nixon in an elegantly written, expertly researched, commanding and compelling rise and fall narrative. His Richard Nixon is the best biography of our 37th president we have, or are likely to have.

Mr. Farrell gives Nixon his due. Acknowledging that Nixon's aim was to reduce the support of working class whites for the Democrats, who held commanding majorities in the House and Senate during his presidency, Mr. Farrell reminds us that Nixon signed landmark environmental legislation, initiated affirmative action policies, and persuaded Southerners to desegregate their public schools. And, of course, the "opening" to "Red China" by the quintessential Cold Warrior was a transformative event in diplomacy.

Mr. Farrell demonstrates, however, that Nixon subordinated just about everything and everybody to his political self-interest. He knew that neither Jerry Voorhis nor Helen Gahagan Douglas, his Democratic opponents in the elections of 1946 and 1950, were Communists. But, he later confessed, he lied about their records because "the important thing is to win."

To win, Mr. Farrell writes, Nixon validated the feelings of millions of Americans that blacks were lazy, ignorant, riot-prone ingrates. In what he deems Nixon's "most reprehensible" act, Mr. Farrell reveals that in 1968 Nixon secretly directed surrogates to sabotage the Vietnam peace (and prolonged the conflict for four years) so that Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate for president, could not get credit for ending the war. …

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