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New biography humanizes Nixon while revealing his ‘most reprehensible’ act

May 2, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
In what ways is Richard Nixon still with us in our political culture? John Farrell, author of "Richard Nixon: The Life," joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss Nixon’s Dickensian childhood and how it influenced his polarized politics, his mix of idealism and inclination toward dark intrigue, as well as the revelation that Nixon helped sabotage the Paris peace talks to end the Vietnam War.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a new look at one of the most controversial American presidents in modern history and a man of many contradictions.

Jeffrey Brown has this latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

JEFFREY BROWN: Few presidents, we read early is a new biography of Richard Nixon, came so far, so fast, so alone, and, we can add, few fell so far, so fast, so alone.

More than that, as “Richard Nixon: The Life” makes clear, so much of his political legacy continues to permeate today.

Author John A. Farrell joins me now.

And welcome to you.

JOHN A. FARRELL, Author, “Richard Nixon: The Life”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me start there for some broad context.

In what fundamental way is Richard Nixon still with us in our political culture?

JOHN A. FARRELL: Nixon practiced what I call the politics of grievance.

He came from a very unfortunate background, almost a Dickensian childhood, with a mean father, a very frosty mother, poverty and sickness in the household. And he had that ability to identify in his audiences, in the electorate their own resentments, and to tap them.

And he didn’t realize until the end, the famous speech where he talks about hate destroying yourself, how dangerous that was. And, by then, this sort of politics of deliberate polarization that he pioneered had taken root.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was so interesting to me to see the younger Nixon, even in his first time running, where you get the mix of the kind of sincere ambition to serve, but already a lot of the tricks, the bad side of Nixon, it was there from the beginning.

JOHN A. FARRELL: Yes, it’s one of the things I found was that Nixon, throughout his life, was always using yellow pads and making lists, and then crossing out as he went.

So, he comes home from war in 1946, and like lots of the younger veterans, having seen the sacrifices that were made, they wanted to improve their world. They wanted to make sure those sacrifices weren’t in vain. And that’s where that idealism that you talked about came from.

But, young congressional candidate, there was also this dark side already. And he was running against a fellow named Jerry Voorhis in 1946. And in one of these yellow lists, as I went down ticking them off, you know, get volunteers, put ads in newspapers, and there at the bottom was the instruction, put spies in Voorhis camp.

JEFFREY BROWN: Put spies …

JOHN A. FARRELL: Put spies in his camp.

So, right from the beginning, he had that inclination towards intrigue.

JEFFREY BROWN: One bit of news that you make in this book is confirming his role in sabotaging the Paris peace talks, right, the attempt to end the Vietnam War.


JEFFREY BROWN: He didn’t want his Democratic opponents to get credit for ending the war.

JOHN A. FARRELL: That’s right.

Lyndon Johnson desperately wanted to end the war before he left office. And in October 1968, he announced a bombing halt to bring the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese to the table.

And Nixon got wind of it, and dispatched a woman named Anna Chennault, who was one of his aides in his campaign, to approach the South Vietnamese and say, drag your heels, scuttle the talks, and you will get a better deal when I’m elected.

And he denied it all his life. He denied it in one of the taped conversations that you can hear at the Lyndon Johnson Library. He denied it directly.

But I was able to find the little, tiny jigsaw piece that, again, one of those yellow legal pad notes, this time from his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman.

JEFFREY BROWN: You end up calling this his most reprehensible act.

JOHN A. FARRELL: I think it was.

Because of the number of lives that were at stake, for a presidential candidate to do this, I thought, was really awful, whereas, in Watergate, like the bumper stickers always said, nobody died in Watergate. Certainly, our political system was tarnished.

But so many lives in the next four years, next five years, if you count Cambodia and the Vietnamese boat people, almost genocide in Cambodia, and if the war could have been ended in ’68, what a difference it would have been.

JEFFREY BROWN: Here’s a man who’s been written a lot about. How do you go about writing a new biography, and making it fresh? Where do you look?


There’s a great advantage of being there 40 years later, because a lot of people have died. And , privacy restrictions are lifted. A lot of the national security restrictions on documents are worked through, and the stuff is released.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, throughout, it is this strange mix of insecure, very human man, with a very ruthless politician.

There is sincerity on the one hand, mixed with this kind of cunning. You humanized him, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: You lived with him a long time. How did you come to see him?


I developed sympathy for him. I was a young teenager during the 1960s and early ’70s, when he was in office. And he was a villain. But when — your biography, inevitably, you open windows into souls of people, and you explore how awful his childhood was, and you begin to get this empathy for the person.

And then you have to balance it with a cool analysis of how Nixon behaved as a politician. So, there’s a lot of really bad stuff in the book about Nixon, but I also hope that there’s a more humane approach to him as this sort of tortured individual.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, thin-skinned, media-hating. Soon as your book came out, there were some obvious comparisons …

JOHN A. FARRELL: Yes, us as the enemy.


JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, to our current, our new president, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: But how far do you make the comparison? Where does it end?

JOHN A. FARRELL: While they both seem to have resentments growing out of their childhood and a need for public acclaim, the difference is of the two men’s personalities is very stark.

Nixon was an intellectual. He not only read books. He actually wrote books and he was — had a basic reverence, despite what he did in Watergate, for the institution of the presidency. When he lied, he expected that you would believe him, whereas, Trump, I get the idea sometimes it’s the actual blatant lie that he doesn’t want you to believe. He’s just sort of rubbing it in your face.

So, those are, I think, major differences between the two of them. But they did both practice what I was talking about, that politics of identifying in individuals or identifying in the voters resentments of race and class, and capitalizing on them.

JEFFREY BROWN: The new book is “Richard Nixon: The Life.”

John Farrell, thank you very much.

JOHN A. FARRELL: My pleasure. Thank you.