A sturdy study of the man ranked at the bottom of many historians’ lists of presidents.
Richard Nixon (1913-1994) was nothing if not complicated. As journalist and biographer Farrell (Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned, 2011, etc.) observes, he defied all expectations by ordering the foundation of the Environmental Protection Agency and promulgating numerous pieces of related legislation that today have earned him second place only to Theodore Roosevelt on the environmentalists’ thumbs-up roster of Republican presidents. Yet he also “vetoed the Clean Water Act, which he claimed was too costly.” Congress overrode him, yet even today Nixon is given credit for that law. He has been so well-studied that Farrell cannot help but cover familiar ground, and so he does: for instance, the ugly conduct of the red-baiting campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas, of course, and the spectacularly fraught 1960 presidential race against John F. Kennedy. Yet there and elsewhere, Farrell teases lesser-known matters into view. Nixon blamed the Republican establishment for his loss in the latter race, for instance, but insightfully so, saying that the party had failed to gain the high ground in matters of civil rights. “I could have become president,” he said. “I needed only 5 percent more votes in the Negro areas.” That they failed to deliver was but one more betrayal, and though the author doesn’t go deep into psychobiography, he cannot help but note that Nixon was a sensitive man with a long memory for slights, as when Dwight Eisenhower suggested that he be not vice president but a Cabinet member in his second term. That is one of many news items that Farrell offers, from a fascinating aside on how it was Gerald Ford who replaced Spiro Agnew to how the taping system that brought Nixon down came to be discovered in the first place.
Full of fresh, endlessly revealing insights into Nixon’s political career, less on the matter of his character, refreshingly, than on the events that accompanied and resulted from it.