Nixon: the Life, by John A. Farrell*****

richardnixonfarrellHistory buffs rejoice; the definitive Nixon biography is here.  John A. Farrell is the renowned biographer of Clarence Darrow. Now he gives us a comprehensive, compelling look at the only US president ever to resign from office under the cloud of imminent impeachment. This is the only Nixon biography that answers the many questions that left Americans—and those around the world that were watching—scratching our heads. Why, why, and why would he do these things? Farrell tells us. I read this book free and in advance, thanks to Net Galley and Doubleday, but it would have been worth paying the full retail price if I’d had to. It’s available to the public now.

Anytime I read nonfiction, I start with the sources. If the author hasn’t verified his information using primary sources, I go no further. Nonfiction is only fact if the author can prove that what he says is true—and I have never seen more meticulous, more thorough source work than what I see here. Every tape in the Nixon library; every memoir, from Nixon’s own, to those of the men that advised him as president, to those written by his family members, to those that opposed him are referenced, and that’s not all. Every set of presidential papers from Eisenhower on forward; the memoirs of LBJ, the president that served before Nixon took office; reminiscences of Brezhnev, leader of Russia ( which at the time was part of the USSR); reminiscences of Chinese leaders that hosted him; every single relevant source has been scoured and referenced in methodical, careful, painstaking detail. Farrell backs up every single fact in his book with multiple, sometimes a dozen excellent sources.

Because he has been so diligent, he’s also been able to take down some myths that were starting to gain a foothold in our national narrative. An example is the assertion that before the Kennedys unleashed their bag of dirty tricks on Nixon’s campaign in 1960, Nixon was a man of sound principle and strong ethics. A good hard look at his political campaigns in California knocks the legs out from under that fledgling bit of lore and knock it outs it out of the nest, and out of the atmosphere. Gone!

Lest I lend the impression that this is a biography useful only to the most careful students of history, folks willing to slog endlessly through excruciating detail, let me make myself perfectly clear: the man writes in a way that is hugely engaging and at times funny enough to leave me gasping for air. Although I taught American history and government for a long time, I also learned a great deal, not just about Nixon and those around him, but bits and pieces of American history that are relevant to the story but that don’t pop up anywhere else.

For those that have wondered why such a clearly intelligent politician, one that would win by a landslide, would hoist his own petard by authoring and authorizing plans to break into the offices of opponents—and their physicians—this is your book. For those that want to know what Nixon knew and when he knew it, this is for you, too.

I find myself mesmerized by the mental snapshots Farrell evokes: a tormented Nixon, still determined not to yield, pounding on the piano late into the night. I hear the clink of ice cubes in the background as Nixon, talking about Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India, suggests that “The Indians need—what they really need—is a mass famine.”

I can see Kissinger and the Pentagon making last minute arrangements to deal with a possible 11th hour military coup before Nixon leaves office. Don’t leave him with the button during those last 24 hours, they figure.

And I picture poor Pat, his long-suffering wife to whom he told nothing, nothing, nothing, packing all through the night before they are to leave the White House…because of course he didn’t tell her they were going home in time to let her pack during normal hours.

The most damning and enlightening facts have to do with Vietnam and particularly, Cambodia. Farrell makes a case that the entire horrific Holocaust there with the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot could have been avoided had Nixon not contacted the Vietnamese ambassador and suggested that he not make a deal with Johnson to end the war.

Whether you are like I am, a person that reads every Watergate memoir that you can obtain free or cheaply, or whether you are a younger person that has never gone into that dark tunnel, this is the book to read. It’s thorough and it’s fair, and what’s more, it’s entertaining.

Get it. Read it. You won’t be sorry!

The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961, by Irwin F. Gellman***

thepresidentandtheapprenticeGellman’s biography covers Nixon’s tenure as Vice President of the USA under President Dwight Eisenhower; he covers the election campaign beforehand as well as the famous “Checkers Speech”. Thank you to Net Galley and Yale University Press for the DRC, which I took in exchange for an honest review.

It is a little bit hard to be sure about this work, because the galley I got was so rough that it was difficult to judge its fluency. I settled on 3 stars rather than 4 stars because I saw some issues with organization, small tidbits that only marginally bore mentioning showed up in multiple chapters.

That said, it’s a good resource for anyone looking to study the Eisenhower administration or Nixon’s early years in government. I learned some things I didn’t know, and I have read my share (and maybe your share too!) of Nixon-related literature. Gellman has done a great job with research, and even offers pictures of primary documents, such as Ike’s notes during Nixon’s famous speech, at the end of the book.

I learned that the USA of that time period was a much more innocent one than that which we live in now. The Checkers Speech is one good example: now it is regarding laughingly as a mawkish bit of theater, but what is not widely publicized anymore is that the American public was asked to respond as to whether he should stay on the ticket, and they flooded the Republican headquarters and media centers with letters that supported him 350 to 1.

Now that it is known that he used public dollars for personal gain as president, I had rather assumed he had done the same during the funding crisis in question, but actually, back then he was guilty of nothing. The donations that were made were a travel fund, because the Nixons didn’t have the money to travel around the country campaigning. Donors pitched in for their air fare, cab fare, and hotels. There was no law regarding campaign spending limits back then; no law was violated.

As vice president, Nixon had more responsibilities, and occupied a position of greater trust, than most who occupied the same position. He was sent overseas, not only as a good will ambassador or ribbon cutter, but to do unpleasant, tricky things, like talking down the heads of state in South Korea and Taiwan. In addition, Ike never cared to do his own dirty work domestically, and so if someone needed to be officially taken apart, there was a good chance Nixon would be tapped for the job. He had an unstoppable work ethic and was unflinchingly loyal.

If Nixon’s vice presidency is of interest to you, get a copy of Gellman’s book. It goes up for sale in late November, so you can also consider it as a holiday gift if someone you know would appreciate it.