Book | Richard Nixon: The Life | John A. Farrell
Richard Nixon remains a relevant political figure. Much of our present distrust of politicians, and culture wars between right and left, can be traced back to his era. His story reminds us that we need to keep a watchful eye on both what politicians do and why.
Nixon was intriguing and perplexing, an introvert in an extrovert’s game. He once said that politics would be fine if one didn’t have to deal with people. As has been well documented (ironically), his social awkwardness and fear of confrontation created an insular, secretive culture in the White House, which eventually brought him down.
It is tempting to compare Trump to Nixon, but Nixon was a more multifaceted, Shakespearean character. As a recent t-shirt slogan puts it, ‘Nixon is tragedy, Trump is farce’.
But both cultivated the ‘silent majority’ (Nixon’s term) that elected them, resentment against those above and below them – liberal elites and the poor and minorities.
They share ambition, which is not unusual for politicians, but many noticed Nixon’s amorality. Although he did more than most US presidents for the environment, race relations and, especially, the thawing of Cold War hostilities, these things seem to have been pursued not for their own sake, but for the sake of Nixon’s image, and to get ahead of real and imagined enemies. Of course, many darker things were done for the same reasons.
John Farrell’s new biography aims to be the definitive biography, but there is no such thing, because of Nixon’s complexities, and the differing opinions he inspires. One journalist wrote at the time of Watergate that Nixon will be ‘forever a mystery’. But Farrell tells the story well, partly because he makes use of new material that, among other things, shows just how Machiavellian Nixon was.
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