He’s Richard Nixon and you’re not

Richard Nixon: The Life
by John A. Farrell

So long as his former sycophants roam the earth, Americans will need new Richard Nixon bios. Roger Stone, he with the face tattoo of the thirty-seventh president, pops up in headlines. Nixon himself is still around, living up to the elder statesman title that the Beltway press couldn’t wait to bestow after reporters got invitations to lavish Chinese meals at Dick’s Manhattan home in the eighties. “People ought to be able to see a doctor when they need it,” he tweeted last week before the House passed a health care bill that in the 1920s would not have saved the life of his beloved baby brother Arthur. “I’ve believed that all my life. Certainly all my public life.” When not hitting these compassionate notes, Nixon returned to form, spraying cluster bombs of truth.

But of course Nixon is dead, and @dick_nixon is played by Justin Sherin, indulging the better angels of the president’s wit, for Richard Nixon had none. As John Dean remarked, he would have spent all night scribbling drafts of his 140-character responses on his damn yellow pad. Poisoned by neuroses, debilitated by social awkwardness, Nixon would not have bared a thing on Twitter. John A. Farrell’s new biography tells Nixonheads little that we didn’t learn from Anthony Summers’ formidable The Arrogance of Power, in which readers learned the extent of Nixon’s addictions to pills, drink, and vituperativeness. Bolstered by interviews with survivors like the nonagenarian George Schultz, Richard Nixon: The Life reckons with the domestic legacy of his administration and the unprecedented insistence with which a president continued a foreign war for the sake of a decomposing Cold War ethos sheathed in Nixon’s determination to prove wrong the cowards and the cocksuckers and the ungrateful student shits. Superpower hubris and toxic masculinity – one couldn’t imagine two deadlier elements working in tandem. Nixon, as usual, defied convention.

Straightforward and only occasionally suckered by Nixon’s admittedly bewildering pivots, Farrell’s biography is most instructive in two areas. First, as I alluded to above, the credulity of the press corps that the president loathed but on which he relied as an essential component of his success. The convulsions of 1968 provoked even so jaundiced an observer as Huter Thompson to muse, “I came away convinced that Richard Nixon has on elf the best minds in politics…The ‘new Nixon’ is more relaxed, wiser, more mellow” (he published a corrective twenty-five years later, as if in penance). Putative liberals, muttering darkly about the militancy of sandaled youth, were prepared to set their principles aflame. “It is better that Mr. Nixon should have the full authority if repression should become necessary in order to restore peace and tranquility at home,” Walter Lippmann wrote with his unsurpassed talent for turgidity; he would live long enough to learn of Tom Huston and Charles Colson‘s expert massaging of Nixon’s authoritarian sentimentality about order.

The second most fascinating set of facts concerns the Nixon administration’s posture toward civil rights. Before ending his career as a mellifluous and uncommonly erudite senator who was nevertheless immune to heterodoxy, Daniel Moynihan was among the many palace intellectuals kept on retainer by the White House. Fairly or unfairly, the term “benign neglect” regarding what was then called the Negro Question clouds his reputation, in part because benign neglect defined Nixon’s public posture at a time when black Americans might have wanted reassurance that their president was committed to desegregating schools, and not merely because the Supreme Court, patience exhausted, had given the South a series of ultimata. By putting integration into the hands of John Mitchell’s Justice Department instead of HEW, Nixon was signaling to racists like Strom Thurmond that he would move as slowly as the courts allowed. “The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quite the Democrats and become Republicans,” aide Kevin Phillips told a reporter.

But integration happened anyway. Schultz lead local advisory committees in southern states, in part comprised of white and black citizens, dedicated to finding ways to co-exist. Sometimes these meetings took place in the Roosevelt Room; Nixon himself would make cameos, calling on their patriotism. The numbers startle: only 186,000 black children attended desegregated schools in the South before 1969; by that autumn 600,000 entered integrated schools, and two million more by the end of 1970. Funds available for enforcement, Farrell writes, leapt from $75 million to $2.6 billion. “It will be harmful politically,” Farrell quotes Nixon telling John Ehrlichman, “but it will help the students so we’ll do it.” The president sought no credit, a move less magnanimous than it looks: he wanted Thurmond in his corner and that ever present wedge between labor and minorities, the two most stalwart Democratic voting blocs. “His efforts to fulfill the nation’s obligations to black Americans, while simultaneously securing the votes of disgruntled ethnic voters and white southerners, offer a prism through which to watch convictions meld with calculation,” Farrell mildly concludes. A prism also through which to view what a sewer looks like. “I have the greatest affection for [blacks],” the man whom Gore Vidal called the Sage of Whitier told Ehrlichman and the president’s Christian Scientist chief of staff H.R. Haldeman,” but I know they ain’t going to make it for five hundred years. The Mexicans are a different cup of tea. They have a heritage. At the present time they steal…but they do have some concept of family life, at least.”

This from the man who in college protested against the racism of student clubs, led the Eisenhower White House’s floor efforts to pass the 1957 Civil Rights Act, and counted Jackie Robinson as a personal friend until, disgusted, Robinson could stand no more. The depredations to which he would subject White House staff of earnest conservatives and gruesome would-be thugs with hard-ons for mob tactics fill the rest of Farrell’s book. In 2017 Americans know Watergate as shorthand for a scandal illegal enough to force a president’s resignation, but Watergate was a culmination, not an aberration. Once Nixon demanded the end of leaks to the press and ordered the firebombing of the Brookings Institute – the latter a remark, to use a Joan Didion locution, may or may not have made in jest, who can tell – it was inevitable that a crew led by a former spook and a creep with a fetish for fascist kitsch would break into Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in 1972. Thanks to the persistence of the “war” on drugs, we are still living with Nixon’s “law and order” legacy. About the Nixon campaign’s interference with the Johnson administration’s peace negotiations with North Vietnam the world has finally found its smoking gun as it were, and “cynicism” is too mild a term for his and Henry Kissinger’s concluding the war in such a manner that South Vietnam’s collapse was inevitable but would happen after an election year.

Presidents with complex legacies demand second or in Nixon’s case fifth or sixth looks; we want presidents whose accomplishments are commensurate with our histori-political moments. Thus, Ronald Reagan looked like a shrewd compromiser on taxes during the Obama-Boehner budget talks of 2011, and LBJ, helped by yet another volume in Robert Caro’s biography, an even bolder enabler of the welfare state than Franklin Roosevelt in 2012. Farrell notes the Nixon administration’s interest in occupational safety, the environment, climate change, and universal health care – incidentals in which the president showed little interest beside signing them. He approaches these achievements with something like awe. Republican presidents still dwelled in the shadows of FDR’s New Deal; the public still clung to its belief in bold government action. Farrell’ s enthusiasm for his subject occasionally produces a few gross passages: an early Nixon campaign aide who “went through wives like the men replaced they lawn mowers,” and, on the same page, about Murray Chotiner, “If Nixon wanted meat, Murray was his butcher.”

“Those on the right can do what those on the left talk about,” Nixon crowed to Mao during the historic trip to China in February 1972. Only the fury pursuing effete snob Alger Hiss (who was, after all, probably guilty of treason) could have gotten away it, goes the conventional wisdom. But Nixon’s maxim cuts in other ways: the left dreams about punishing centrist apostates; about turning the screws on the right; about being merciless. The right does them. From 1946 until 1994, when he was as abject demanding that Bill Clinton recognize his foreign policy mastery as he was pledging the martyred Pat Nixon’s troth, he nudged and finally shoved the right into becoming as malevolent, cunning, and stupid as himself. Farrell stops short of issuing this judgment, but his gruesome narrative is a bill of indictment. “Watch what we do, not what we say,” John Mitchell said to reporters at the dawn of the age of post-Aquarius. He was right.

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