As history looks back on American presidents, the 37th – Richard Nixon – has the sad distinction as the only one who stepped down from office, faced as he was with almost certain impeachment over the Watergate scandal.
His downfall began when a team of five burglars broke into the Watergate Hotel offices of the Democratic National Committee on June 17, 1972, to wiretap phones and make off with documents. They were caught red-handed and arrested. In the ensuing cover-up, Nixon denied any involvement by members of his re-election committee and by himself, famously stating: “I am not a crook.”
Nixon founded his career on such “dirty tricks,” yet he had many shining moments – the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the signing into law of the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. He opened diplomatic relations with China, ended the war in Vietnam, fostered health-care and welfare reforms, and pushed the desegregation of schools in the South.
The question still haunting historians is how to explain the tragic contradiction that defined his political career. Many critics agree that the best attempt so far is John A. Farrell’s “Richard Nixon: The Life,” the Bee Book Club’s choice for April (Doubleday, $35, 752 pages).
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Farrell is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Congress, the Supreme Court and every presidential campaign from 1980 through 2012. He’s currently a contributing editor to Politico magazine and served as Washington bureau chief for the Denver Post and as the White House correspondent for the Boston Globe. His two previous biographies scrutinize the lives of lawyer Clarence Darrow and speaker of the house Tip O’Neill.
“The Nixon book tells everything bad about him – his anti-Semitism, his craven nature, his paranoia,” Farrell said about the biography, which took nearly seven years to research and write. “I held back nothing, but I tried to portray him as a person and show how he became the man he was. There aren’t many people you write a biography about and not find something of value in them.”
The Nixon saga is a familiar one to baby boomers but is largely new ground to generations that followed. “I aimed it at millennials especially, because two-thirds of the American population wasn’t alive or living in this country when Nixon resigned (on Aug. 9, 1974). They know him pretty much as a caricature from ‘The Simpsons’ or a bad guy (in ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’). I’ve spoken on college campuses, and the students have a great curiosity about Nixon. They want to know if he was worse or better than Trump.”
But the book also appeals to hardcore history fans. Following the 558 pages of narrative are 123 pages of end notes, which add context to the ever-fascinating story.
“I didn’t want a book where the narrative was interrupted by the debates that history buffs and Nixon fans and foes (would bring up),” Farrell said. “So I followed the narrative with mini-essays (embedded) in the end notes. Hopefully, the book can be read two ways – by people who are coming to Nixon for the first time, and by the buffs who may find something new in the end notes.”
Nixon vs. Trump
The inevitable question: What parallels exist between the Nixon White House and the Trump administration?
“In just 45 days, we’ve had all the events that happened in the Nixon years,” Farrell said. “We’ve had the ‘press is the enemy’ line, the firing of an attorney general, massive protests in the streets of Washington, D.C., talk about eavesdropping and wiretapping, and a press secretary who gets ridiculed by the media.
“It certainly looks like (the Trump administration) is behaving just like Nixon and his men did in (post-Watergate) 1973, in that they have something they’re trying to hide,” he said. “Somebody said to me the other day, ‘This is like Nixon on speed dating.’
“The big difference between Trump and Nixon is that Trump has a Republican Congress,” he said. “So I think he’ll be able to dodge a truly probing inquiry like the Senate Watergate Committee. The only way I expect him to get into any lasting trouble is if his popularly slips so far down that the Republicans who are worried about getting re-elected will sidle away from him.”
The ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Nixons
“Going back and forth on Nixon is like watching a really good tennis game,” Farrell said. “If you meet people who knew him back then, there is a definite protectiveness of this dweeby loner who was torn by his inner demons but on his better days tried to do good. He was indeed the victim of a liberal press. In the 1950s and ’60s (the media) treated him the way Fox News treated Barack Obama, which was pretty awful. That’s the case for Nixon.”
On the other hand, the phrase Farrell repeats in the book is “and yet.” “As in, ‘He was really bad, and yet …’ ‘He was really good, and yet …’ (For instance) he came back from (diplomatic meetings) in China and called for the massive bombing of North Vietnam. He said, ‘Don’t worry about the slopover,’ which was the euphemism they used for civilian casualties.”
Nixon could sometimes show his sensitive side, though, Farrell said. “(Then-U.S. Sen.) Bob Dole used to say that Nixon was the only person in Washington who always reached out with his left hand to shake Dole’s left hand, because Dole had been hideously wounded in World War II and couldn’t use his right arm.”
But, tellingly, “Dole also had the greatest wisecrack ever about Nixon. (President Ronald Reagan) had asked (still-living former presidents) Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Nixon to attend (Egyptian president) Anwar Sadat’s funeral. Dole saw them (posing together at their departure) and said, ‘There they are – hear no evil, see no evil, and evil.’ ”
‘Monkey wrench’ revealed
One of many reveals in the book is Farrell’s discovery of handwritten notes among the papers of Nixon aide (and later chief of staff) H.R. Haldeman. They tie Nixon and his campaign team to an attempt to secretly “monkey wrench” the 1968 peace negotiations between Lyndon Johnson’s White House and South Vietnamese leaders.
The notes prove that “Nixon personally directed the skullduggery, conducting negotiations with a foreign country (during a war) in violation of U.S. law,” Farrell writes.
At the time, Republican Nixon was battling Democrat Hubert Humphrey in the presidential race, while incumbent Johnson was trying to lay a foundation for peace talks. Fearing a successful step toward ending the Vietnam War would hurt his shot at the White House, Nixon encouraged Haldeman to find ways to sabotage the talks.
“Drew Pearson broke the story as a rumor in his ‘Washington Merry-Go-Round’ column,” Farrell said. The veteran insider wrote that the Nixon campaign had reached out to Saigon and told them to resist Johnson’s offer of a bombing halt of North Vietnam and to hold out for better terms if Nixon was elected, Farrell said.
Johnson was trying to end the war before leaving office and also wanted to promote Humphrey’s campaign. “The Soviet Union wanted to promote Humphrey’s campaign too, because they didn’t want that bastard Nixon in the White House. So they were pressuring North Vietnam to come to the table,” Farrell said.
When Nixon learned of the strategy, “He thought it was another dirty trick being played against him, so he decided ‘An eye for an eye’ – a tragedy of history,” Farrell continued. “He had (Nixon fundraiser and pro-nationalist China lobbyist) Anna Chennault approach the South Vietnamese and tell them to drag their feet, which they did.”
“Keep Anna Chennault working on” South Vietnam, Haldeman wrote in his notes as he listened to Nixon’s directives. “Any other way to monkey wrench it? Anything RN can do.”
Johnson was outraged when he learned of Nixon’s plot, calling it treason. But there was no hard evidence to prove the crime, so Johnson kept quiet and put the South Vietnamese embassy and the presidential palace in Saigon under surveillance, Farrell said.
“Johnson called Nixon and confronted him, and Nixon said, ‘I would never do such a thing.’ (Years later) he denied it again in the David Frost interviews. Though Johnson went ahead with the bombing halt, there were no peace talks before the election.”
The Haldeman notes “clearly show Nixon was not only cognizant (of the plot), he was actually issuing the orders,” Farrell said. “Everybody knew this finagling was going on, but Nixon’s denial had stood the test of time.”
There are those who argue that North and South Vietnam were not ready to meet in Paris in 1968, so the “monkey wrench” plot really had no effect, Farrell said.
“They have a point, but as a biographer I have to look at the moral character of my subject and ask, ‘What kind of man would “monkey wrench” a prospect for peace just to make sure he got elected?’ Given what happened – 2 million Cambodian deaths, 1 million Vietnamese deaths and 20,000 more American deaths – this really was more reprehensible than anything he did with Watergate.”
The root cause
At the heart of it, Nixon the career politician was a product of Nixon the child, Farrell pointed out. He grew up in poverty on a failing lemon farm in Yorba Linda. His father was abusive, his mother distant. Two of his brothers died in childhood. In a sense, he perceived his life as a series of betrayals.
“As (presidential aide) Bryce Harlow said, ‘He went up the wall of life with his claws,’ ” Farrell said. “(Nixon national security adviser) Henry Kissinger once said, ‘What would this man have been if someone had loved him?’ And (Nixon Cabinet member) Elliot Richardson replied, ‘He would never have been president.’
“It was his driving anger that gave him his initiative,” Farrell added.
As for Nixon’s culpability in the Watergate break-in, Farrell said, “Nixon did not order the break-in – he caused it. Which is the most succinct way of saying he created this atmosphere in the White House – ‘We need more bugging!’ – and gave vent to his paranoia to (Nixon special counsel) Charles Colson, who put together the team that did the break-in.”
Farrell pointed out that Nixon was “too busy with China, Vietnam and Russia” to have orchestrated the crime. “If you listen to the tapes, he says things to Haldeman like, ‘Did you know about it?’ And Haldeman says, ‘Well, we knew something was going on.’ ”
Did Farrell’s research include talking with Nixon’s two daughters, Julie Nixon Eisenhower and Tricia Nixon Cox?
“The Coxes didn’t talk to me, and neither did Kissinger. But Julie agreed to answer some select emails. I asked her something like, ‘What was the cause of his turn toward the dark side?’ She said it was right after the 1960 election (when he lost to John Kennedy), when he resolved he would ‘never be outcheated again.’ ”
If Farrell could ask Richard Nixon one question, what would it be?
“Other than, ‘Why didn’t you burn the tapes?’ ” he said. “No, I would say: ‘Very few people in your position rose so high and fell so far. You’re a smart guy and a student of history – what should the rest of us watch out for?’ ”
Sacramento Bee Book Club
John A. Farrell will appear for The Sacramento Bee Book Club at 6 p.m Wednesday, April 26, in The Hive at The Sacramento Bee, 2100 Q St., Sacramento. He will be in conversation with Jack Ohman, the Sacramento Bee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist.
Tickets to the event are $20 for seven-day-a-week subscribers, $10 for students and $25 for general admission. Buy tickets online at www.sacbee.com/events. Doors open at 5:15 p.m. Parking is free. Barnes & Noble will be on-site, selling “Richard Nixon: The Life” for 30 percent off the list price (Doubleday, $35, 752 pages).
All proceeds benefit The Bee’s News In Education program, bringing news and information to more than 20,000 students in the region.
“Richard Nixon: The Life” also will be offered for a 30 percent discount through April 26 at these bookstores: in the Sacramento area at the five Barnes & Nobles, Avid Reader at the Tower, Underground Books, Time Tested Books and Sac State’s Hornet Bookstore; in Davis at Avid Reader; in El Dorado Hills at Face in a Book; and in Grass Valley at The Bookseller.