The most striking thing about John A. Farrell’s Richard Nixon: The Life is how evenhanded a biography it is.
Picture yourself nearly half a century in the future — in 2061 — and imagine you are reading an even-handed biography of Donald Trump. It’s startling to conceive of such a thing, given the intensely high emotions that the 45th President of the United States elicits from his supporters and opponents.
In 43 years, could emotions cool enough that a biographer could write about Trump and his presidency with dispassion?
That’s what Farrell has done with Nixon in a book published last year, 43 years after Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace for the Watergate break-in of the Democratic National Committee and a host of other dirty tricks and, most of all, for the democracy-threatening attempt to cover-up all those democracy-threatening shenanigans.
Farrell was a college student in 1974 when Nixon left office, and it would be impossible for a reader of this book to have much of a sense of where Farrell stood in that very divisive moment in American history.
Perhaps the question is whether any biography of Nixon should be even-handed.
But, before I get into that, I want to look at Farrell’s ambition to tell the story of Nixon’s quite tumultuous life in a single volume — in 558 pages of text.
The 37th U.S. President was an epic Shakespearean figure in American and world history.
As Farrell makes clear, his initiatives on the world stage, reaching out to China and the Soviet Union, changed the course of events in ways that ripple down to our era. In many of his domestic decisions and policies, he looks, from today’s vantage, as a very liberal chief executive, in sharp contrast to the conservative hardline ferocity we’ve come to expect from Republicans.
His political career was marked by skyrocketing success and precipitous plummets. Through the force of opportunities, circumstances, skills and a street-tough’s brutishness as a campaigner, Nixon quickly rose — over a 14-year period — from Congressman to Senator to Vice President to nearly successful presidential candidate.
Yet, throughout much of that time, he saw himself as beleaguered by those who criticized his campaign tactics and his anti-Communist zeal. His eight years as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Vice President were a purgatory in which Nixon felt ignored, unappreciated and unloved.
His narrow loss in 1960 to John F. Kennedy was followed two years later by a disastrous California gubernatorial race. Nonetheless, six years after that, he was elected president. Then, during his re-election campaign, came the Watergate break-in, and, ultimately, midway through his second term, his resignation.
Lot of ground to cover
That’s a lot of ground to cover.
For Harry Truman, an important but lesser figure than Nixon, David McCullough packs the life story into 992 pages of text.
For his biography of Winston Churchill, William Manchester produced three books, the last one with a co-author. Stephen Ambrose devoted two volumes to the life of Eisenhower — and three for Nixon’s life.
The behemoth of all American political biographies — in literary quality and simple poundage — is Robert Caro’s examination of Lyndon Johnson which stands at four books and 2,825 pages of text (not counting notes). And that doesn’t include the scheduled fifth book that will cover the bulk of LBJ’s presidency.
Farrell’s aim with his 558 pages is to hit all the high points, using anecdotes as he’s able. Still, in comparison to Manchester, Ambrose and Caro, and even McCullough’s Truman, his Richard Nixon seems rather lean.
An organizing principle
Nothing wrong with that. Many very good shorter biographies have been written about world figures. Those, however, tend to have something of a point of view — a perspective that functions as an organizing principle.
Take Abraham Lincoln, for instance. There are simple ways of doing a shorter biography by focusing on one or another aspect of his life — Lincoln and politics, say, or Lincoln and the news media, or Lincoln as a trial lawyer, or Lincoln the writer, or Lincoln the war leader.
Another approach is to look at an aspect of him as a person — Lincoln and his family, Lincoln and his psychological demons, Lincoln’s ambition.
Over the decades, each generation reinterprets Lincoln in the context of its own preoccupations, and so a short biography of him might emphasize his leadership or his deviousness or his idealism or his weakness. In 2000, for example, the late African-American scholar Lerone Bennett Jr. published Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream which asserted that the 16th President was racist and, as the title suggests, was forced by circumstance to set into motion the emancipation of the nation’s slaves.
Synthesize, analyze, explain
Farrell’s Richard Nixon doesn’t use any of these strategies and takes a “just the facts, ma’am” approach to telling Nixon’s story, a method that’s understandable given the author’s earlier career as a journalist.
Still, should a biography of Nixon limit itself to “just the facts”? Does evenhandedness, in an odd but real way, knock the subject askew for the reader?
My sense is that a biographer’s job is to synthesize as much material from a subject’s life as possible, analyze all that data and then explain the subject as the biographer has come to understand the individual.
Throughout Richard Nixon, Farrell seems to step away from that responsibility. There are often interesting insights into Nixon’s ideas, methods, personality and psyche that come from this person or that person. Often, there is a he-said/he-said dynamic going on.
Nowhere does Farrell step in and let the reader know: This is how I have come to understand Nixon.
Indeed, he seems to bend over backwards to avoid the operatic quality of the story of Nixon’s life and his role as a symbol for good and ill and his fall from grace in continuous acts of self-destruction.
We’re not talking about Tip O’Neill, here, or William McKinley. This is Richard Nixon.
The goods the reader expects
One quirk in Farrell’s evenhandedness in his writing of Richard Nixon is that, when it comes to the Watergate dirty tricks and men who ordered them and carried them out, all that balanced and impartial reporting goes out the window. Suddenly, he’s writing about the men as buffoons and the activities as comically wrongheaded.
Sure, they can be portrayed that way. But not in a book that is so otherwise labored in its evenness.
How is it that Farrell can take a clear stand on the stupidity and ridiculousness of the dirty tricks and the tricksters, but not take a clear stand on what made Nixon tick?
Richard Nixon is a fine book in laying out the life of the president — like an extra-long encyclopedia entry.
But, for my money, it fails to provide the goods the reader expects.
Think of it: In 2061, would an even-handed biography of Donald Trump accurately mirror his presidency and impact on the United States?
Patrick T. Reardon