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Richard Nixon: the Life sheds light on all the president’s demons

John A Farrell’s wonderful biography of the controverial American leader is brimming with wince-inducing vignettes.

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

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist