Richard Nixon spent the winter of 1943 in the tropical Solomon Islands, playing a part in the famous fight for Guadalcanal as an officer in Forth Pacific Air Transport Command. He had lobbied his superiors for a perch on the front line, requesting a role in the Air Combat Intelligence unit. Granted his wish, the recent law school graduate was to see his share of the horrors of war, once stumbling upon a burned-out bomber and never forgetting the sight of a wedding ring on the charred remains of its pilot. One night, he huddled in a foxhole as Japanese artillery destroyed the temporary hut that he had been calling home. On another, he woke in shock as an eight-inch poisonous centipede crawled upon him in his hideout. “Nick”, as Nixon was known in the army, flung it off only for it to land on one of his comrades, who was bitten and rushed to field hospital in excruciating pain.
Just two years earlier, young Dick Nixon had been leaving the cinema in Whittier, the small rural town in southern California where he had been raised, with his young wife, Thelma (better known as “Pat”), when he learned the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The couple had met in an amateur dramatics club in 1938. For the shy and fumbling Nixon, it was love at first sight followed by a dogged pursuit. Even though Pat refused to think of her suitor romantically, he would volunteer as her chauffeur, even driving her to dates with other men. The same combination of messianism and masochism was to be the driving force for his political life, leading him to ecstatic moments of V-shaped triumph but also despair and seemingly incurable feelings of inadequacy.
John A Farrell’s wonderful biography of America’s most controversial 20th-century president is brimming with such wince-inducing vignettes, woven into a sharply observed but refreshingly uncensorious assessment. Nixon was not without a certain idealism in his desire to bring the world to more peaceful habits, or to strike a blow for the man of humble origin in a country dominated by puffed-up elites. The problem was his willingness to stoop to the meanest act of skulduggery in pursuit of these goals. Here was a tragic, troubled and talented figure with whom it is possible to feel empathy at one minute and then disgust the next. “This man had real demons,” noted his successor Gerald Ford, while Henry Kissinger, his secretary of state, remarked on his apparently unshakable determination to live out a Greek tragedy.
Farrell is not the first Nixon biographer to point out that many of his subject’s oddities can be traced to childhood. Nixon was born in January 1913, the second of five brothers and the son of a down-and-out lemon farmer and a local Quaker girl. His father was mean-spirited and heavy-handed, while young Richard was a “mamma’s boy” who viewed himself as hard to love. “He had a fastidiousness about him,” noted his cousin, who would babysit for the Nixon children; “He was not… the one you wanted to cuddle, though he may have longed for it.” The death of two of his brothers at a young age left deeper scars still; family members recalled seeing him physically and mentally crushed but unable to articulate his grief, save for a single cry of anguished despair.
Nixon lost his faith in God, but began to see politics as a vehicle for a different type of idealism, and had an unlikely admiration for Woodrow Wilson, as well as – being a Quaker – a genuine abhorrence of war. Even as he ordered the dropping of more bombs on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos than had landed on Germany in the entire course of the Second World War, he spoke of his dreams of peace 25 years hence, and creating a planet safe for his grandchildren.
Politics brought out the best and worst of Nixon, from the moment of his first campaign for Congress in 1946. At one level, it provided an outlet for his unusual drive and determination to elevate himself in life. At another, he showed glimpses of the willingness to do almost anything to win, including the use of spies and other dirty tricks in the course of the campaign. Nixon incessantly wrote lists on yellow legal writing pads, which leaves Farrell an incriminating evidence trail of a sometimes manic and often petty-minded man.
Once elected, Nixon was to gain a reputation as an unreconstructed ideologue in his pursuit of Communists on the House Un-American Activities Committee, which blazed the trail for Senator Joseph McCarthy. Yet, in terms of the broader Republican firmament, he was something of a moderate on most issues and showed a willingness to take a stand on his conscience rather than always play to the gallery.
As a freshman Congressman, he struck up a friendship with a 29-year-old Democrat from Massachusetts called John F Kennedy, with whom he shared a passion for international affairs. As Nixon said of his counterpart and later rival, “He was shy… but it was a shyness born of an instinct that guarded privacy and concealed emotions. I understood these qualities because I shared them.” He was selected to join the bipartisan Herter Mission, sent to Europe to investigate the likely impact of the Marshall Plan. Nixon was convinced and decided to support the hugely expensive scheme, in defiance of many more-senior Republican colleagues.
Following an ugly state campaign in California, in which he defeated the Democrat incumbent Helen Gahagan Douglas, Nixon upgraded himself to a seat in the Senate in 1950. To win as a Republican in California, he adopted a comparatively progressive stance on healthcare and civil rights. This was not simply an act and he appears to have been genuinely sympathetic to the civil rights movement. An aide recalled seeing his eyes wet with tears when the lights were switched on following the screening of a film about the plight of black Americans. Martin Luther King attributed “absolute sincerity” to him on the issue as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice-president from 1953. That was, at least, until the 1960 presidential election campaign when Nixon was the nominee himself and failed to intervene following King’s arrest and imprisonment for a sit-in protest. King turned against him, judging Nixon to be a “moral coward” when the real test came.
Remaining as vice-president until 1961, Nixon served a valuable apprenticeship, particularly on foreign policy. But he also became increasingly resentful of Eisenhower as the major obstacle to his progress; and even as the president’s health began to fail, Eisenhower never saw Nixon as his rightful heir. When Nixon’s moment came in 1960, he suffered in the exposed glare of colour television, looking puffy and pallid under the studio lights. Defeat to the telegenic JFK came down to fewer than a million votes. But as Farrell describes, it was an “emotional disaster”, almost on a par with the death of his mother in 1967. As Kennedy put it, “Nixon must always be thinking about who he is. That is a strain. I can be myself.”
The legendary brooding and explosions of temper became more frequent and intense, along with the grievance narrative that was the handmaid of frustrated ambition. The best-laid plans for redemption were made during his wilderness years and followed through with immense political judgement. But victory in 1968 brought no inner peace. As president, he combined the most ambitious acts of statesmanship – such as the opening to China – with the most remarkable pedantry and obsessiveness. He issued his staff detailed instructions on the giving of tips in restaurants.
Farrell does not provide us with an unknown Nixon or offer a new interpretation of his presidency but his tradecraft as a biographer is stunningly good, based on years of hunting for new evidence, and he provides us with the fullest picture of the man to date.
In domestic affairs, President Nixon could be a “shape-shifter”, veering from progressive impulses on the ghettos and environment to racist rants and conspiracy theories. With little time for relaxation or family, the Oval Office became a war bunker. “Hit them in the guts,” he would say of his enemies, no matter how small the dispute. “I don’t give a goddam about repression,” he once told Kissinger.
The enveloping sense of cabin fever in the lead up to Watergate is told with great narrative skill, aided by the incriminating transcripts of the recordings that Nixon never thought would be made public. By the autumn of 1971, says Farrell, “it was hard to find a White House aide with a political portfolio who wasn’t involved in a dirty tricks campaign, and inevitably they began to tumble over each other”. Whether or not he personally ordered the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in 1972 is beside the point. Either way, Watergate was of Nixon’s own making.
John Bew is author of “Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee” (Riverrrun)
Richard Nixon: the Life
John A Farrell
Scribe, 752pp, £30
This article appears in the 29 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world