A sympathetic—unusually so—portrait of the disgraced president by accomplished biographer and historian Thomas (Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World, 2012, etc.).
Richard Nixon is so often the villain that it’s sometimes surprising to be reminded of his real accomplishments, no matter how politically calculating or unwilling, from détente with the Soviet Union to the establishment of the environmental regulations current Republicans are trying to demolish. By the author’s account, Nixon “wanted to be upbeat, to be an optimist,” and some of his struggle can be seen in the Manichaean construct of that optimism versus the brooding darkness and essential solitariness that he embodied. Indeed, as Thomas’ biographical—and sometimes psychobiographical—study builds, it becomes ever more unlikely that Nixon, a loner in the constituency-pleasing game of politics, could ever have succeeded. Score one for Nixon, as Thomas awards him full points for dogged determination. And score sympathy points for Nixon’s ability to rise above constant rejection and native moroseness to get as much done as he did, from amassing a small fortune at playing cards to opening the gates of the Forbidden City. Even so, like H.W. Brands’ recent Reagan, Thomas’ account is by no means uncritical. Though even paranoiacs have enemies, Nixon specialized in being “ever alert to put-downs,” whether from the media or from those born into wealth and power. Though evenhanded throughout, Thomas sometimes risks being taken for one of the Pat Buchanan school of apologists: “The facts of Watergate, as they dribbled out, were bad enough, but an inflamed press corps did not stop at the facts”; “He was not paranoid; the press and the ‘Georgetown set’ really were out to get him.”
Even allowing for a little politicking, this is one of the better books on Nixon in the recent crop, worth reading alongside Rick Perlstein’s decidedly less sympathetic Nixonland (2008) and Tim Weiner’s One Man Against the World (2015).