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!

Blind Ambition, by John Dean*****

blindambitionJohn Dean was counsel to the president during the Nixon administration, and was the first to testify against all of the Watergate conspirators, including Nixon and including himself, a bold but necessary decision that led to Nixon’s resignation—done to avoid imminent impeachment—and Dean’s imprisonment. Dean’s story is a real page turner, and Nixon-Watergate buffs as well as those that are curious about this time period should read this book. I read the hard copy version, for which I paid full jacket price, shortly after its release, and when I saw that my friends at Open Road Media and Net Galley were re-releasing it digitally, I climbed on board right away. This title is available for sale today, December 20, 2016.

Dean was a young lawyer whose career rose rapidly. When Nixon found out that men employed by the Committee to Re-Elect the President had been arrested for the burglary of the Democratic Party National Headquarters, which was housed in the Watergate Hotel, he quickly became enmeshed in a plan to bury the whole thing. Once he realized (belatedly) that he and his closest advisors had made themselves vulnerable to criminal charges, he had Haldeman, his right hand man, reach into the White House legal staff to find an attorney that could serve as an intermediary so that none of them would need to have illegal conversations with each other. Dean was sometimes called upon as a problem solver, but more often he was essentially the messenger between the president and his closest advisors. Nixon’s thinking here was that everything that passed through Dean would be covered by client-attorney privilege. When this turned out to have no legal basis and heads were going to roll, Dean learned that his own head would be among those served up on a platter by the administration in its effort to save itself. He chose to strike first by testifying against everyone involved in the conspiracy to obstruct justice, and eventually this included President Richard Nixon.

 

Those old enough to recall having watched Dean testify on television will be interested in the back story here. Dean has a phalanx of his own attorneys, but he decides to appear at the microphone without them; they are among the faces in the back on the TV footage. He also chose to speak in a dead monotone, because the information he was transmitting was itself very dramatic, and he had already been represented as a squealer in some media sources. Instead, he chose to portray himself as a small man, slightly balding, with his horn rimmed glasses and his notes, sitting alone in front of a microphone in order to bravely announce the truth to the Senate and the world.  And it’s effective. See what you think:

 

 

When I first read this book I was not long out of high school, and I met the text with snarky disapproval, based more on the very idea that a man as young as Dean could choose to affiliate himself with the Republican Party during the time the Vietnam War raged than on the skill with which the book was written. This time I come to it as an adult with a lot more experience related to writing, and my reaction is completely different.  Dean writes his story like a legal thriller. It’s fascinating and enormously compelling.  I find that what I think of Dean morally and politically is irrelevant when I rate this text; the writing is first rate. Most interesting of all is the way he is able to inject wry humor into the series of events that ended his legal career and sent him to jail. His sentence is not long, though, and much of it is spent in a relatively gentle confinement. He becomes a college professor and writer later in life, which he still is today.

 

Those that have real depth of interest will also be interested in a later book, The Nixon Defense, written once all the Nixon tapes were released to the public:

 

https://seattlebookmamablog.org/2014/09/01/the-nixon-defense-what-he-knew-and-when-he-knew-it-by-john-dean/

 

Both are riveting, and highly recommended.

Grant, by Jean Edward Smith*****

grantWhat, another one? Yes friends, every time I find a noteworthy biography of Grant, it leads me to another. This is not a recent release; I found it on an annual pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books in my old hometown, Portland, Oregon. I always swing through the American Civil War shelves of their history section, and I make a pass through the military history area as well. I found this treasure, originally published in 2001 when I was too busy to read much of anything. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer; A New York Times and American Library Association Notable Book; and Publishers Weekly Book of the Year. But in choosing a thick, meaty biography such as this one—it weighs in at 781 pages, of which 628 are text, and the rest end-notes and index—I always skip to the back of the book and skim the sources. If a writer quotes other secondary texts at length, I know I can skip the book in my hand and search instead for those the writer has quoted. But Smith quotes primary documents, dusty letters, memos, and military records for which I would have to load my wide self into the car and drive around the country to various libraries in out of the way places. Source material like Smith’s is promising, so I bought a gently used copy for my own collection and brought it on home. And unlike the DRC’s I so frequently read at a feverish pace in order to review them by a particular date, I took my time with this one, knowing that if I only read a few pages each day and then reflected on them before moving on, I would retain more.

Usually the best place to read about a famous person is to read their own account. Grant’s autobiography was, at one time in US history, the second most commonly book owned by ordinary families. He was so deeply loved that many homes held two books: the Bible, and Grant’s memoir. That says a lot. And I did read that memoir quite awhile ago, and it was great. I recommend it. However, there are areas where we need an outside party to discuss things. For one thing, Grant was exceptionally modest. It takes an outsider to tell the full extent of his remarkable achievements, which Grant tended to soft-pedal. Also, alcoholism was not considered a disease during Grant’s lifetime, and his memoir simply makes no note whatsoever of his struggles with it; he doesn’t tell us about his early problems with it, or when he quit, and so he also doesn’t defend himself against later charges by enemies at times when most scholars say he was likely dry as a bone. And finally, of course, Grant was unable to tell us how the nation would respond to his death. So for those with a deep and abiding interest, it’s worth it to read multiple histories in which he is largely figured, as well as multiple biographies.

The fact that I had read a handful of Grant biographies in addition to Grant’s autobiography, yet came away with this volume studded with sticky notes marking new information as well as new insights and perspectives on known information is a good indication that Smith’s biography has met the gold standard.

We start with Grant’s childhood and his early gift for working with even the most difficult horses. Grant was physically quite compact, even by the standards of the day, about five feet five, weighing not more than 120 pounds. In another life, he could have been a jockey, but the purpose his life served gave us so much more. His education at West Point was not part of an initial plan toward a military career; his family could not afford to send him to college, and Grant sought higher education. A connected friend of his father’s got him into West Point, which charges no tuition but requires a period of service after graduation; until war broke out, his plan was to become a professor of mathematics, at which he excelled.

The war with Mexico is where he first saw service, and his job as quartermaster taught him a thing or two about priorities. Although many biographers say that Grant had no head for business, Smith argues that his early misfortunes in business were flukes for which outside causes were really to blame. As quartermaster, Grant succeeded in actually turning a profit for the army by buying flour, baking enough bread with it to feed the army and also sell to the local Mexican populace, with whom he kept friendly relations, and so Uncle Sam was able to feed his troops at bargain prices, since Grant put the profit back into food purchases and did not have to requisition the amount of other food ordinarily required. While in Texas and Mexico, he grew to greatly admire his commanding officer, General Zachary Taylor, whose understated, unpretentious manner and friendly relationships with those he commanded Grant would later emulate.

Smith carries us through all of Grant’s major battles, including Donaldson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and The Wilderness. He argues convincingly that Grant was never corrupted, but that those that would overturn the victory for African-Americans gained by the Civil War by denying them suffrage went out of their way to smear Grant’s reputation. Grant was also somewhat naïve when it came to politics. Surely he had had to deal with military politics—struggles for control between generals and generals, between generals and bureaucrats—but he did not understand initially how limited the executive power is, and how much Congress can undermine a president.

Grant had not wanted to become president, had in fact hoped to return to the beautiful West Coast after the war, but Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln as president after his assassination, so brutally and intentionally set about dismantling Lincoln’s legacy that he felt compelled to run. He was nominated by his party unopposed, never even attended the nominating convention, and won the general election by a landslide.

The American people loved him. I myself feel he was our last truly progressive president, and although Smith never makes such a flat assertion as mine, he gives me plenty of documentation to back it with, should I ever again find myself in a position where it’s called for.

This tome is not for the novice. If the reader is new to the American Civil War, I recommend James McPherson’s Pulitzer winning Battle Cry of Freedom, which is lengthy, comprehensive, and fascinating. For those looking for less of a time commitment, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, well researched historical fiction which also won the Pulitzer, is excellent. If you like it and want more, his son Jeff has continued the series one battle at a time, and I have yet to find a book he’s written that is not worth your time and money. All of these titles are reviewed on my blog.

For those that know the basics of the Civil War but are interested in learning more about Grant himself, this biography is the best I have read to date apart from his autobiography, which is also excellent.

Highly recommended to those with a strong interest; basic knowledge of the American Civil War; and college level literacy skills and stamina. Brilliant work.

U.S. Grant and the American Military Tradition, by Bruce Catton****

usgrantandtheamericanmilThis brass-tacks biography of US Grant, who served as America’s finest Civil War general and also two terms as US president, was originally written for young adults. Now it is something of an anomaly, and yet not a bad read for the right audience. Thank you, thank you to Open Road Integrated Media and to Net Galley for providing me with the DRC. This book will be for sale in digital format November 3.

Reading this nifty little book reminded me—not entirely happily—of how much sturdier literacy in the United States stood during the 1950’s, when this biography was originally written, compared to now. True, it was a less egalitarian, less inclusive school house that could throw this level of reading at its teenagers, and that is a different debate for a different day. Right now, I just have to tell you that Catton’s boiled-down biography is going to be over the heads of most high school students. In addition, there are a couple of slang terms no longer in use that may confuse the reader. I understood one of them—and I was born in the late ‘50’s—but another phrase left me scratching my head. My two fields, when teaching, were literature and US history, primarily the American Civil War and government, so if I don’t get it, then high school kids will miss some of it also. The book could be used for honors students, most likely, but is no longer ideally suited to high school students.

However, I can see its use today for community college students, and also for adults who are not doing research and don’t care to see Mr. Catton’s sources or argue his perspective. He takes a few enormously controversial aspects of Grant’s life and makes his own pronouncements, some bold, some bland, with absolutely not one shred of evidence to back them up, apart from his own excellent reputation, and so scholars in the field are more likely to find his Civil War trilogies more satisfying than this little nugget. But for the history buff who just wants a thumbnail sketch, one book and we’re finished thanks, this could be it. It is certainly less of a meal than Grant’s own memoir; also, unlike Grant’s inarguably excellent memoir, Catton addresses the rumors about Grant and liquor that Grant himself refused to even discuss.

Catton focuses primarily on the Civil War years, which I believe is the right way to remember the man, but he also talks about the setting into which Grant was born, and in a relatively short amount of text provides us with the lifestyle and expectation of the average American farmer, which is what the vast majority of Americans were at that time. He carries us through Grant’s time at West Point, then through the wars with Mexico.

He takes apart and casts aside, brick by brick, the nasty allegations that Grant’s detractors made then and in contemporary times, and shines an authoritative light on them. What about Grant and the booze? Was Grant really a bad businessman who lost his own money and that of other people? Was he really Grant-the-butcher, as a brief but ugly period in revisionism charged, willing to plow willy-nilly into any and every battle regardless of the number of soldiers’ lives lost? What about his presidency, and the scandal that clouded it?

Grant is one of my heroes, and I appreciate the way Catton defends him here. I particularly was interested in his very convincing defense of Grant as businessman. I found Catton slightly abrasive in his tone toward Grant’s defense of the rights of African-Americans during Reconstruction; it was clearly this, rather than anything else, that caused the glow of his wartime glory to dim, because the Klan and Southern white reactionaries were absolutely hell-bent on creating a stratified society in which the Black man did not have equal rights to those of Caucasians, and one determined U.S. president was not able to stem that tide. That’s really what Grant was up against, and what tarnished his reputation. Catton feels he should have been more, um, “flexible”. I personally am pleased that he was willing to ride his principles to hell and back if need be…and that was about what happened.

I find it so sad, so ironic that the vast overload of expensive cigars sent to General Grant by patriotic admirers are what most likely lead to his death; throat cancer checked him out of this world only 48 hours after his memoir was completed.

Although there are no citations for the facts provided in the text, there is a nice little index that will prove useful to students.

Recommended for adults at the community college level, and to history buffs who just want to read one relatively simple biography of Grant.

Being Nixon: A Man Divided, by Evan Thomas ****

beingnixonSuddenly, everyone is writing Nixon biographies; it’s a Watergate junkie’s dream come true! Here Thomas does his best to take us inside Nixon’s skin and tell us what motivated some of the decidedly strange things he did. It makes for highly engaging reading. 3.75 stars get rounded up to 4, along with my thanks to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC. This book is available for sale now.

When I signed on for this galley, I imagined that perhaps Thomas had a background in psychology or psychiatry and was going to take a stab at diagnosing a mental illness that might explain what in the world Nixon was thinking when he did the things he did; if he’d had different meds, would things have shaken out differently? But that isn’t what this book is about. Instead, it is a glimpse at Nixon’s life, including his early childhood and adolescence, postulating that childhood experiences may have shaped the politician Nixon became.

To this, I will admit that I said, “Psssh. Right. Whatever.”

Because it’s a plain and simple fact that many presidents had lives that were scarred by events as bad or worse than what Nixon experienced, and most of them still managed to do their jobs without coming within a hair’s breadth of impeachment. So I don’t buy that theory.

Nevertheless, there are so many interesting tidbits and stories in this memoir that even if the reader doesn’t buy the overall thesis, it’s a compelling read. The conversational narrative kept me rolling along, and every time I found an opinion I thought was baloney, I made a note of it and kept going. I would have continued reading even if I didn’t have an obligation to the publisher, because it really is fascinating stuff.

Imagine, for instance, a solitary candidate with a love for classical music, sitting all by himself in his hotel suite, with the 1812 Overture blasting away, with his arms furiously directing an unseen orchestra. Just one aide saw this, and Thomas ferreted the incident out and presented it here. I doubt you’ll find these tidbits anywhere else!

In addition, few other biographers have managed any insights into what went on in the Nixon residence. I often wondered about Pat, Tricia, and Julie. When he showed up to home, did he storm in and turn the coffee table over? Get quietly drunk? Blame his family for all his ills? Drawing heavily on the memoirs written by family members that I am unlikely to ever read, Thomas gives us a little voyeuristic peek behind the curtains, and I found it intriguing indeed.

When it comes to Watergate, Thomas holds Nixon responsible for what he did, for the greater part, but I rolled my eyes at the repeated claim that if he hadn’t been too shy to socialize with the staff, with the Washington socialites who invited him to dinners, and so forth, maybe he would not have become so isolated…if his childhood hadn’t been so poor, and if his father hadn’t kept him home from his Yale scholarship because there was no money for dorm fees…if…if…if…

I felt much more certain that the author’s research, which is mostly done via secondary sources and the Nixon family’s memoirs, including heavy use of Nixon’s own (RN), was based on fact when he dealt directly with Nixon’s personal life. Although various quotes by the Watergate conspirators were interesting, some are more believable than others. I found one fact in this bio that directly conflicts with that of biographer Tim Weiner, and it has to do with the choice of Spiro Agnew as a running mate. Thomas cites reasons personal and political; Weiner documents that the choice was bought and paid for by Greek financial interests. Here, I believe Weiner. It’s just one directly conflicting fact, but when I found it, just as a humble reviewer rather than as a researcher, it called other things into question, which is where ¼ star fell off this review.

The author thanks a number of people in his after-notes. I always read those, because you can pick up little things lost elsewhere. He especially thanks the man that told him to beware the various items found in the prodigious memoirs by “that old thespian”, Richard Nixon, who was a student actor before he went into politics. It was strong advice.

In perusing this biography, I realized two things. The first is that the reason Nixon had so little domestic policy, and the reason the country moved so smoothly without him during the tortuous period prior to his departure, is because he didn’t have much of a tool kit to start with. The author notes that although Nixon has gained a sinister reputation as an evil, sneaking genius, in fact there were areas in which he really wasn’t all that smart, and this was one of them. He focused on three things: foreign policy, in which he was better equipped to carry out the wishes of the bourgeoisie than most presidents have been; running for office again and when that was done, honing his legacy, about which enough has been said; and of course, revenge, revenge, revenge.

The second thing I realized is that the reason he was virtually cast out of office in a situation in which other presidents might have been able to pull their chestnuts out of the fire, had to do with the fact that he believed himself, as US president, to be more powerful than the ruling bourgeoisie. He misjudged the relationship of power between himself and those that rule us quietly, usually in an unseen way. In attempting to yank the broadcasting license of CBS as part of a personal vendetta against the owner of the Washington Post, he took on a sector of the ruling rich, and he made of himself an object lesson.

By my count, this was my twelfth Nixon biography, though I may have read and forgot about some others. It’s neither the best nor the worst, but for those fascinated with Nixon’s rise and fall, and with Watergate, it should go on the to-read list. It’s just too good to miss!

One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, by Tim Weiner*****

onemanagainsttheworldQuestion: What do an old typewriter, a copy machine, Scotch tape, and a razor blade share in common?

Answer: They were all tools used by White House employee Howard Hunt, at President Richard Nixon’s request, to forge a cable that would make (dead) President JFK appear to have ordered the assassination of South Vietnamese President Diem.

My, my, my. The things you can learn once you start digging. This is by no means the most important part of the Nixon story as told by veteran political writer Tim Weiner, nor even the most humorous, in a grim, gallows sense; it’s just a small sample of the bizarre, the paranoid, and above all, the crooked, reprehensible deeds committed by Nixon and his creepy co-conspirators during his administration. And by now I am already supposed to have told you that I read this book free, thanks to Net Galley and Henry Holt Company.

So, can we find a way to go back and make it look like I told you during the first paragraph, like I was supposed to? And for God’s sake, don’t tell anyone.

How much will it cost to keep this thing quiet?

I was just a kid during Nixon’s first term. But as young as I was, I have to tell you, dear reader, that the times were so polarized, so politicized (not unlike the time in which we now find ourselves) that issues like Civil Rights and the Vietnam War could not be relegated to the more traditional venues, such as the evening news or the newspaper. As soon as someone opened the newspaper, or turned on the television, or started to talk about something they had seen on the news, everyone within hearing range erupted in one direction or another. It happened at home; it happened at school; and it probably happened in workplaces. Even if I hadn’t been so fascinated, there was no getting away from it.

During the time Nixon was in office, most of the media criticism of his behavior was initially soft-pedaled out of respect for his office. It took awhile before anyone in the journalistic community used the word “lie”, for example. The words I heard were “discrepancies” and “evasions”. And all of us, kids and adults alike, were stunned by the number of times the words “expletive deleted” were used.

The fact that President Nixon referred to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as “black of course…dumb as hell” was redacted until after Marshall’s death. The horror.

All that was a long time ago, of course, and Weiner is unfettered by any of the above considerations. His story is remarkably complete yet succinct, and oh so darkly funny. Even though others in my household do not share my absorption in things Nixon-related, I can’t get through more than three pages of this book without having to stop and repeat something on the page to whoever is walking through the room. For example, after having invaded Cambodia without the consent of Congress, and in direct violation of every US and international military law on the books, Nixon announced the invasion to the American people on television thusly:

“This is not an invasion of Cambodia.”

One more thing: Nixon’s cover up; the vast number of dead people, mostly young, who should have emerged alive and unhurt rather than killed against their will in an unjust war; the outrageous wrongdoings that unfolded in our capital and that were paid for with our tax dollars; and the outright theft of Federal monies for personal gain…the parallels that shake out between Nixon and Stalin, whose biography I reviewed two weeks ago, are disquieting.

And that much really isn’t funny.

Weiner, whose journalistic pedigree to date may make him America’s finest living political writer, does an outstanding job of eloquently stating what needs to be said and its significance without tossing in a lot of arcane trivia to muddy the water. Unlike most that have written about Watergate, he had no role in the crimes that took place and has no personal ax to grind. So if you want to just read everything that gets printed about Watergate, as I have so far, then read this along with everything else. But if you weren’t around during this time in American history and want to read one—and just one—book about Watergate and Richard Nixon’s resignation, then let this be it.

At the end of the book is a treasure trove of web links that will take the reader to primary resources, very valuable to those doing research.

Read it for your own political education, or look at it as grim, terrible humor, whichever suits you. For me, I guess it was some of each. But if you want to avoid stepping into the abyss, whether here in the USA or in whatever nation you call home, you’re better off being aware of what took place in the past.

Because it’s better to be watching, participating, and engaging in honest dialogue, and better to back your statements with actions that demonstrate integrity, than it is to hide in the fucking basement and scheme against enemies, real or imagined. Honest social and political discourse carried out as citizens of the world are what keep the rest of us from going down that rabbit hole.

Weiner’s masterpiece will be available starting July 21, but it’s probably best to order your copy now. So much of the future depends on what we know of the past.