Richard Nixon’s name is often invoked, but what we hear, for the most part, is not history. Rather it is incantation, much like watching a medieval morality play, where every character has his place, and Nixon’s is Evil. Given this, John Farrell’s 2017 biography performs two services. The first is to go behind the stage and show Nixon in all his lost complexity. The second is to show how the destruction of Nixon has been used as the template in attempts to similarly destroy Donald Trump. For people like me, who did not live through the Nixon years and only know of him through the malevolent mumblings of senile Baby Boomers, lost in their delicious opium dreams of youth and JFK, this book is therefore most enlightening, both of the past and the present.
Nixon was an American archetype—the wholly self-made man. Maybe there are some such in political life today, but I can’t think of any. Nixon was not privileged in any way; every single thing he got in his life he earned by the sweat of his brow. Born in California in 1913, in rural Yorba Linda, back when California was the land of opportunity, he had a hardscrabble upbringing. His family wasn’t desperately poor, and his mother’s family had some stature in the town, but his father was a difficult man who failed at farming and took up running a gas station and grocery store, eking out a modest living from the family working around the clock. Nixon thus had a reasonable, if fairly tough, childhood, made tragic by that two of Nixon’s four brothers died young—his idolized older brother Harold, of drawn-out tuberculosis, and his adored younger brother Arnold, of meningitis.
Thus, between circumstance and inborn personality, Nixon became a tightly wound, tightly controlled boy, serious and driven. Naturally, he resented those to whom things came easy. He was very, very smart (and talented in other ways, including musically). But he couldn’t go away to the Ivy League for college, even though he could have gotten an academic scholarship—his parents couldn’t pay room and board, and they needed him at home helping with the store. So he went to local Whittier College, which he enjoyed, and which grounded him in California, but left him looking for, and hyper-sensitive to, the sneers of Ivy League types who looked down on him (most famously, Alger Hiss, who when he thought he was going to get away with his crimes publicly sneered at Nixon’s attending Whittier).
Nixon, like most young men, matured in college. And he managed to then get a scholarship at Duke Law School, then new, matriculating in 1934, where he scrimped and worked odd jobs to get by, and still graduated third in his class (back before class ranking disappeared, killed by asinine federal “privacy” laws and a false egalitarianism). In both places, he showed his kindly side that has been forgotten, or rather suppressed in the interests of the morality play. “At law school he befriended a disabled young man, put him on his ticket in a student election, and carried him up granite steps to class.” There are many such stories, as well as stories of Nixon’s refusal to countenance racism, integrating teams and clubs of which he was a member. In 1946, in his first California campaign, “he accepted an honorary membership in a local NAACP chapter—no small gesture in an election where . . . the Ku Klux Klan was burning crosses in Los Angeles.” At a time the Democrats were mostly overtly racist, and many Republicans not much better, Nixon was consistently not. Doubtless many more examples of Nixon’s virtue have been lost to history. If Nixon had been a Kennedy, or any kind of Democrat, all these stories would be well-known, and recited endlessly to burnish his image. As is its, very few people know a single one of these stories. They are forgotten, or rather memory-holed.
But even as a top graduate, Nixon got no offers from Wall Street law firms (who, as they now like to forget, were until the 1970s only hiring the right type of people, meaning no Jews or African Americans, or unpolished California bumpkins), reinforcing his feeling of being an outsider. So he took a job as a generalist lawyer at a Whittier law firm. He was unhappy, as any young man would be who, seeming like he was on the road to success, instead at age twenty-four, looked like he had failed to launch. Still, he moved on with life, pursuing, in his stolid and determined way, Patricia Ryan, marrying her in 1940. Despite his Quaker background (though his own belief had lapsed into a vague Deism, where it stayed), and that he could have avoided the draft through various deferments, he enlisted and was made a naval officer. By 1943 he was serving in the South Pacific. “By all accounts, he served ably and was popular with his men.” Nixon insisted on being sent to the front lines, and was repeatedly in danger of death (from shelling, mostly—he wasn’t a Marine, killing Japanese in the jungle). He made it home safely, and, encouraged by local backers, began his political career.
Nixon won his first election, in 1946. He ran as a progressive Republican against an incumbent Democrat, Jerry Voorhis, at a time when the Democrats, led by Harry Truman, were riding high. Voorhis was an easy target for Nixon’s body blows, in part because he “had chosen sanctimony as a form of self-identity,” fond of disquisitions on obscure monetary theories and out of touch with the young families rapidly filling the Whittier area. Plus, he was too close to Communists in labor unions, though he wasn’t a Communist himself. Nixon and his advisors didn’t care to make that distinction, setting Nixon’s future approach to all his early elections, and slaughtered Voorhis both in debates and in the election.
The freshman Congressman and Pat moved to Washington, D.C., where he became friends with another freshman Representative, John F. Kennedy. He discovered the need to balance among his constituents, and between them and what he thought best for the country. Marked as a comer, he was picked to be on a group to tour Europe deciding whether the Marshall Plan was a good idea. This was formative; Europe was, as Churchill said, “a rubble-heap, a charnel house,” and the tour showed Nixon, close-up, both the ruin of war and the evil, and growing power, of Communism. Nixon was appointed to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, HUAC, whose job was to investigate Communist infiltration of American institutions. Such infiltration was deep and wide, both in the government and in cultural institutions, notably Hollywood. HUAC was already perceived as the enemy by mainstream American liberals (themselves often thickly intertwined with Communism), who sniffed at the déclassé Congressmen who served on it, and caricatured them as clowns (which, to be fair, some of them were). Nixon was the opposite of a clown, though—he strove to be fair and lawyerly, not to use HUAC as a propaganda mouthpiece, at least at first.
Today, like Nixon, HUAC gets a bad rap, and filthy Stalinists like Dalton Trumbo, justly punished by the Committee, are celebrated (including by a 2015 movie, where the actor hagiographically portraying Trumbo, Bryan Cranston, was, as surely as water will wet us, given many awards). The reality is that those attacked by HUAC as Communists mostly, or all, actually were Communists, and deserved far more punishment than they got. Which wasn’t much—those in government often lost their jobs, which was good, but those outside government, on the so-called Hollywood blacklist, kept working incognito and then, a few years later, roared to prominence on the back of their pseudo-victim status, never apologizing or changing their evil views one bit, while the real heroes, those who accused the guilty, like Elia Kazan, were persecuted for the rest of their lives. It is not only in the modern era that the entertainment media is the witting and willing handmaiden of evil.
Farrell covers Nixon’s exposure of the Communist spy Alger Hiss competently and fairly, including Nixon’s own simultaneous relentless self-promotion (nobody ever said Richard Nixon wasn’t nakedly ambitious) and the vitriol directed at him and Whittaker Chambers. Even today, there are a few crazy people who think Hiss wasn’t guilty; Farrell isn’t one of them. Still, his exposure of Hiss sealed Nixon’s fate, because the Establishment, top to bottom, took an attack on Hiss as an attack on them by this upstart man from rural California with dirt under his fingernails. In particular, the press, whose line was set by anti-anti-Communists and therefore was strongly supportive of Hiss, raged against Nixon for humiliating and exposing them when he proved Hiss’s guilt. Nixon, to the press, was no longer a young, up-and-coming former soldier with progressive Republican views, he was a threat to the right people, a “primitive” who threatened the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal, and decades of left-wing dominance. After all, the American Left never had any objection to Communism, any more then than now. There were, and are, no enemies to the Left. Hiss’s flaw, to American liberals, was getting caught, not spying for Russia.
Thus, early on, Nixon learned what he later, as President, lectured his team. “Never forget, the press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. Professors are the enemy. Write that on the blackboard 100 times and never forget it.” Nothing has changed in fifty years, except that the ability of those enemies to control and direct the country has increased greatly.
Quickly moving up the greasy pole, Nixon defeated Helen Gahagan Douglas for Senate, in 1950. He successfully painted her as soft on Communism, which she was, even if Nixon exaggerated, among other things calling her the “Pink Lady” and distributing pink flyers listing her agreements with Communists. It was gutter politics, though par for any political contest. To this day, nastiness in politics, even if wholly truthful, is only a “smear” when someone on the Right does it, and “whistleblowing” or “calls for justice” if someone on the Left does it, a rule enforced by the Left’s control of the press that decides what news is and what is news. Nixon would not, as he was, have been nicknamed “Tricky Dick” if he were a Democrat. But Nixon won mostly because he campaign relentlessly, driving from town to town and speaking from an open car, and also because he had charisma, and Douglas didn’t.
Defeating Douglas compounded Nixon’s sins in the eyes of the Establishment. As Farrell notes, “Nixon had [now] vanquished three bannerets of New Deal Nobility. The left now identified him ‘as a menace to liberalism.’ ” Nixon’s multitudinous enemies made no attempt to hide their hate, and Nixon, insecure and brooding, repaid them in kind, though he lacked their power, so all he could do was respond, not set the tone or agenda. He was socially denigrated in Washington and relentlessly savaged in the press, by men then of great power, like Averell Harriman and Joseph Alsop. Still, Nixon’s star was on the rise. Or perhaps star is too refined a metaphor—he was more like a rhinoceros set on reaching a goal, using his horn and carapace to plow his way forward against opponents of lesser determination, while at the same time being strangely insecure and often privately maudlin. Pushing himself forward, and leveraging California’s rapidly growing importance on the national political scene, he played a critical role in the 1952 Republican national convention, helping Eisenhower defeat both Taft and the Republican-in-name-only Earl Warren. Partially in response, and partially nearly randomly, Eisenhower named Nixon his candidate for Vice President.
The Nixons swung into yet more campaigning (something Pat hated, but loyally did), at the same time Nixon’s enemies strove ever harder to destroy him. Their latest dodge was trying to crucify him for a common and not illegal practice of the time, maintaining a fund, to pay job expenses beyond those paid for by the government, consisting of donations from rich friends. At first, when the attacks in the press, organized and coordinated by the Left, got started, Nixon barely noticed—after all, having such a fund was perfectly legal, and he had always been entirely open about the fund. He did not reckon with the ability of the press to create fake scandals out of nothing by the simple mechanism of repeated lying and questioning his “propriety,” the weasel language of those who have no actual wrongdoing of which to accuse someone. CBS Radio, for example, said “Never in the history of American politics has such as situation arisen. The furor . . . has spread across the country.” The furor was created from whole cloth, deliberately, by organizations such as CBS. That is, the furor was about nothing at all, other than an attempt at personal destruction. The reader is not overly surprised to learn, once again, that fake news generated by the Left has a very long, though not distinguished, pedigree.
Eisenhower, a political trimmer if there ever was one, nearly dumped Nixon from the ticket, but wanted Nixon to resign, which he refused to do. Instead, he went on national TV, and gave one of his most famous speeches, the “Checkers” speech, named after the dog given to his family by a donor that he said he was going to keep. The speech, a combination of defense and attack on his enemies, was a wild success among the deplorables, and Nixon’s enemies had to flee the field. Nixon’s enemies at the time, unable to respond to Nixon’s devastation of them, whined that the speech was “schmaltzy,” “fake,” and “corny.” Farrell seems to agree. I wondered. So I watched it, on YouTube (modernity does have something to recommend it). It is an unbelievably good and powerful speech and those adjectives are simply desperate lies. More fake news, I guess.
But the piling on by both his enemies and his supposed friends, and the realization for the umpteenth time that he had few friends among the powerful in any walk of life, hugely reinforced Nixon’s insecurity and persecution complexes—and with good reason. As they say, it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you. Longer term, and aside from Nixon, the near success of this smear campaign set the pattern for decades of similar organized campaigns, taking any Republican who dared to actually act, rather than just speak, conservative and either manufacturing a “scandal” out of whole cloth or simply repeating the false claim that scandals surround him, while deliberately hiding far worse activities of any Democrat (or properly subservient Republican).
As Vice President, however, Nixon at least flourished in his favorite role, man of international affairs. He was happiest, politically and probably personally, when outside America. Among other places, he represented his nation while touring Asia and South America (facing down violent Communist-organized anti-American attacks in Venezuela) and meeting substantively with the powerful across the globe. Eisenhower’s major health problems highlighted that Nixon was one heart attack away from the Presidency, leading the calculating Eisenhower and his Establishment coterie to consider replacing Nixon for his reelection campaign. But as usual Nixon refused to cooperate in attempts to take him down, and Eisenhower decided it would harm more than hurt him to force the issue, so Nixon was reelected Vice President again in 1956. In his second term, he continued his role as foreign policy tip of the spear, famously confronting Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow, and in general serving as loyal soldier to Eisenhower.
But his ambition hadn’t cooled. Conquering Nelson Rockefeller, Nixon managed to be nominated in the 1960 election, and then lost an extremely close election to his old (no longer) friend John Kennedy. Eisenhower’s lack of support for Nixon (unsurprising since he was the original model of the John McCain type of Republican, eager to backstab any actual conservative and curry favor with his perceived betters on the Left), combined with massive voter fraud in key areas, and “fawning press support” of Kennedy, “which, as any sentient being recognized, had skewed their reporting in favor of Kennedy,” all made the difference between winning and losing, but rather than carp or further contest the matter, though he could have, Nixon conceded. He wasn’t happy about it, and this defeat resulting from betrayal, fraud, and double-standards unsurprisingly further exacerbated the defects in his personality, most of all an obsessive tendency to hate.
So Nixon read and wrote, and waited for the future to arrive. As so often, the future veered from its apparent course. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination brought Nixon back to the public eye, and in 1968 he was nominated again (over the strenuous efforts of left-leaning Republicans, including George Romney—apparently the Romney family has been betraying conservatives for at least fifty years). He won, pretty easily. Much of his first term was taken up with foreign policy; Nixon had little interest in domestic policy, and failed to grasp the essence of the cultural warfare being waged by the Left from the early 1960s onward. When he did think about domestic politics, he focused on the superficialities—the dirty hippies, the demands for “rights,” the drugs. Failing to make the effect-and-cause connection between the degradation he despised and left-wing social policies, in the domestic sphere he massively expanded welfare, as well as the administrative state, laying the foundation and the first masonry courses on today’s monstrosity that rules us all without accountability. That was all a distraction to Nixon, though. He wanted to be a great man, and that meant triumph in foreign policy.
He chased that triumph, working on improving America’s relationships with the Soviet Union and with China, in both cases with the help of Henry Kissinger, trying always to balance carrot and stick. He vacillated on how to approach the Vietnam War, torn again between a morality-based approach and one of realpolitik. And, like other Presidents, but probably on a lesser scale than many, he engaged in, through subordinates while mostly preserving plausible deniability, a variety of dirty tricks, such as bribery, wiretappings and political burglaries. Hence Watergate, the stage setting for Nixon’s role in the morality play.
Farrell spends an adequate, but not excessive, amount of time on Watergate. As everyone knows, the coverup is what killed Nixon. Well, actually, it was his enemies who killed Nixon—similar activity by Lyndon Johnson would never even have reached the public eye, and if it had, there would have been no consequences. But Nixon didn’t help with his Henry II routine, ranting at his subordinates (who, shades of Trump, often had to ignore his more insane demands), arranging for hush money, and other kneejerk, ill-considered behavior. Still, he won reelection in 1972, even though the mostly manufactured scandal was percolating. It exploded into full flower soon after his second term began.
How did Nixon’s enemies manage to use Watergate, a minor and bumbling event of which Nixon had no knowledge originally, to destroy Nixon? At the highest level of analysis, because there were too many of them, and he did not have enough people on his side. Sheer will can only take a man so far; the rhinoceros can be brought down by a large enough swarm of hyenas. Massive swathes of all of America’s powerful had always hated Nixon, and they would stop at nothing to get him. Republicans were on the back foot, in part because of Vietnam, in pat because they failed to grasp how the Left was destroying America, plodding along with business as usual, and would not rise to Nixon’s defense. Nor had he cultivated Republicans in Congress; he ignored them while working on hoped-for foreign policy triumphs, ever so often pausing to command them to do something. Nixon never grasped, like Sulla did, that rewarding your friends is just as important as punishing your enemies.
Beyond simple team dynamics, though, the main sword Nixon’s enemies used was subversion of the justice system, and it is here where we see the parallels to the attempt to destroy Trump most clearly. It is often forgotten, like so much about this era, that Watergate was, at its core, a set of judicial proceedings. It is forgotten because Nixon was pardoned by Gerald Ford and therefore avoided further persecution. But he was the exception: dozens of men went to jail as the result of a massive witch hunt, a whirlwind where a Democratic Party dominated by a new crop of leftist Congressmen (and Congresswomen, like Bella Abzug) created the 1970s analog to Robert Mueller’s “get Trump” team, the Watergate Special Prosecution Force.
As with Mueller, only partisans devoted to the destruction of the target were hired. (Full disclosure: I resent Mueller, not only because he is a golem of the Deep State, but because one of his most prominent attack dogs was the boyfriend of a woman I asked out years ago, and she said no when I asked, being bizarrely unwilling to immediately dump him for me.) “Eight of the dozen senior attorneys on the WSPF . . . had worked for RFK when he was attorney general.” Nixon’s attackers, high on their own supply, even compared themselves to heroic doomed warriors from the Iliad. The press eagerly worked hand-in-glove with the Pharisees. “Time magazine had forty Watergate-related covers. The three major television networks planned gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Watergate committee hearings, and PBS followed up with taped prime-time shows at night.”
Farrell is very clear about the resulting gross violations of the rule of law. “In a frenzy like Watergate, perspective was abandoned. . . . Watergate defendants were dispatched to prison by a process that denied them a called-for change of venue, bent the rules of evidence, and was tainted by ex parte communications between the judge and partisan prosecutors.” As Mueller did with Trump, the actual supposed focus of the investigation was immediately expanded to anything that might reach their enemies. “[The WSPF] . . . combed through Nixon’s income taxes, real estate purchases, and financial dealings.” At least, unlike Mueller, the WSPF had a few actual crimes to investigate, but, like Mueller, focused on process crimes originating from its own investigation, and to trivia such as supposedly illegal campaign contributions, dragging on until 1977 in order to damage Republicans as much as possible. Inevitably, it went after Republicans not involved with Nixon at all but posing a possible brake on leftist desires; the New York Times 1977 article on the WSPF’s disbanding notes that “The [WSPF’s chief prosecutor’s] last publicized action was his decision to investigate accusations of campaign law violations against President Ford during the 1976 Presidential campaign.”
The single worst example of this corruption was the activity of John Sirica, a federal district judge in the District of Columbia, assigned to the case of the Watergate burglars. Racked with delusions of grandeur, not bright and eager to be praised by those whose good opinion he craved, Sirica adopted the role of a prosecutor, in ways that seem unbelievable to me, and I worked for a federal judge once upon a time, so I have a pretty good grasp of federal criminal law and judicial process. Not only did he engage in ex parte communications to assist Nixon’s enemies, he announced that he was giving “provisional sentences,” something of which I have never heard and which appears to be simply a terroristic threat, of forty years to Nixon’s aides implicated in Watergate, unless they gave up their Fifth Amendment rights and helped get Nixon. Sirica operated a total kangaroo court, yet is celebrated as a hero, including being named Man of the Year by Time, because he did what his masters commanded.
Deserted by everyone, and not having helped himself through his own inconsistent and obfuscatory responses, Nixon resigned in 1974. But the memory of how he had been destroyed has remained fresh among the Left, and that explains their unhinged behavior during the past two years, and why they cannot accept that Trump has beaten them down, as Nixon beat them down in the Hiss years. No doubt they will redouble their efforts, as they did after Hiss; if Trump had more discipline, or any at all, his victory would be more likely. But I’m still putting my money on Trump, since what the Left has missed is that modern tools allow direct communication to the masses, and the deplorables to communicate among themselves (despite ever more desperate attempts at censorship), and thus the parallel with Nixon is a very incomplete parallel. (One might object that Nixon did, in fact, do illegal things, and Trump has not, which is true, but irrelevant, since the Left is totally indifferent to truth and justice, and only interested in the goal, power.) All this is a degradation of the Republic, however, no doubt.
Although Nixon the character occupies the role of Evil in the morality play written by the Left and continuously promulgated by their all-powerful media machine, Nixon the man slipped out of that shell in the final years of his life, becoming a type of elder statesmen. People who express surprise at this don’t understand the narrative that the Left has manufactured for us. Nixon’s post-Presidential life is the arc for all successful conservatives. For decades, any conservative has been viciously and continuously attacked during his time in power (or during his attempt to gain power), always compared to some combination of Hitler and Scrooge. When he is no longer in power, or fails to gain power, he is then favorably compared to those who come after him, as a set piece of propaganda. Thus with Nixon, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, Bob Dole, and many more. (I doubt if Trump will get this treatment, because he represents an existential threat to the Left, as none of those men did.) This treatment is carefully calibrated with the living—any such figure who toadies to the Left is rewarded with sweet praise and laudation, in proportion to his obeisance, as are his family who survives him, useful as secondary tools.
Nothing goes on forever, so this cycle will not either. Unfortunately, since men who seek power learn from the past, the most likely short term result is the rise of someone who has the discipline that Trump lacks, yet appeals to baser instincts. That’s not going to be fun for anyone. But at least we’ll know who to blame.