The ghost of Richard Nixon seems to be hovering over our political moment, with paranoia once again gripping the West Wing and talk of wiretapping commanding column inches. But for all the comparisons between Nixon and Donald Trump—a fondness for ranting about perceived enemies, a distaste for norms and niceties, a collection of morally grotesque top advisers—Nixon and Trump are also different in crucial ways. In his new book on the 37th president of the United States, Richard Nixon: The Life, John A. Farrell tells Nixon’s life story in a single volume. The book is full of harsh assessments of—and fresh reporting on—Nixon’s dirty tricks. But Farrell also does his best to humanize Nixon for readers and explain the origins of the former president’s inner demons.
I spoke by phone with Farrell, who has also written books about Clarence Darrow and Tip O’Neill. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the two warring sides of Nixon, his strange relationship with JFK, and the similarities between the Nixon tapes and a certain person’s late-night tweets.
Isaac Chotiner: What did you find most surprising about spending so much time with Richard Nixon, so to speak?
John A. Farrell: I think I was surprised at how much empathy I developed for him along the way. I think biographers grow sympathetic for all their characters. Nixon was somebody that I knew more than as a caricature, but I didn’t know thoroughly well. I knew about the Checkers speech. I had some thoughts about his upbringing. But I didn’t really know until I got into the weeds about what a tortured, driven guy he was and how sometimes he’d try to do well, and yet this self-destructive flaw always undermined him in the end. I guess there are some people like Hitler and Mussolini that you couldn’t write a book about with empathy. I included everything tough about Nixon in the book, and yet I also tried to show him as a tortured human being.
One paradox of your book is that Nixon is simultaneously extremely dishonest and extremely sincere.
I’m not a psychologist, but I was struck by the fact that the two sides of him seemed to mirror the two sides of his parents. His father was really an unlikable person. He was a blowhard. He worked his family to the bone. He used to hire Dick’s cousins to help out in the family stores, and then he would leave dimes on the windowsill so that when they were cleaning, they would come across the dimes, and he would test them to make sure they weren’t cheating him. That’s the kind of guy he was. He once refused to carry groceries for an eight-month-pregnant woman who lived across the street because he was feuding with them over something. Just a real rough guy and a crude sort of populist as well.
His mother came from progressive Republicans who admired Teddy Roosevelt, Robert La Follette, Woodrow Wilson. The western Quakers were different from the eastern Quakers but still had that Quaker tradition of pacifism and brotherhood. But she was a little bit weird in her own way, in that she was something like JFK’s mother, a religious zealot who would retreat into her closet to pray. The most famous remark that Nixon ever said about her was, “My mother never told me that she loved me, nor did she have to because I knew.” And that was typical Nixon to always add the qualifier that undermined the first part of the sentence.
So I think that you had these two warring sides in him, and his own personality had equal parts of this dreamy Quaker vision to do something great and look great in the eyes of his mom, and at the same time, the lessons that he had learned from his father. There was a great anecdote that I didn’t put in the book of Nixon campaigning in ’68, and a Secret Service guy walking down the aisle of the airplane, and there is Nixon pounding his hand into the armrest of his chair saying, “Got to be tougher. Got to be tougher. Got to be tougher.” So that’s my armchair psychology.
People tend to see Nixon as growing increasingly paranoid. How do you think his presidency might’ve been different if he had been elected in 1960?
He certainly had those elements within him, but the 1960 loss, where he firmly believed the election had been stolen from him by LBJ and JFK, really persuaded him that he couldn’t be out-cheated again. I got very few comments from the Nixon family. I spent a day with his brother Ed [Nixon], and I had some email exchanges with Julie [Nixon Eisenhower]. But one thing that Julie confirmed for me was that after 1960, her dad was terribly wounded and just resolved that he would never do it again.
The Nixon that ran in 1960 was a very different person. Although all three times he ran for president he was the moderate candidate, he was a centrist. In 1960, he was on the cover of Time magazine, the man in the gray flannel suit, the young World War II veteran just as much as Jack Kennedy. I think that his relationship with Jack Kennedy made that effect all the more painful because he really liked and admired Kennedy, and Kennedy liked and admired him. I think Nixon felt that there should have been more loyalty from the Kennedy side during that election, that some of the rough stuff that they played on him was beyond the bounds of good friendship. That was the great split between the two of them from that point on.
What was the new information that you were able to report, which feels oddly relevant now, about what happened in 1968 with the Nixon campaign and the Paris peace talks?
It’s a tragic story in American history because Lyndon Johnson sincerely believed he had a chance to bring South Vietnam and North Vietnam together in meaningful negotiation. The Soviets had assured him that summer that they would force the North Vietnamese to be acquiescent because the Soviets wanted Hubert Humphrey elected. They never wanted their archenemy Nixon in office. So LBJ saw that he had this opportunity, and he worked very hard. The records from the Johnson Presidential Library are heartbreaking because you can see that they hated this war; it had turned into a terribly wasteful, destructive thing, and they really wanted to get it done before Johnson left office because he felt that if he left it as an open wound, it would really undermine his legacy.
And kill lots of people.
Yeah. They planned for this bombing halt, and Henry Kissinger picked up news of it. Others picked up word of it in Washington, and they told the Nixon campaign. And Nixon, afraid that he was going to be the victim of a dirty trick and that Johnson was acting only out of political motives, got Anna Chennault, who was an old China lobby hand, to go to the South Vietnamese and say, “Hold off. We’re going to win. Our guy’s going to win, and you’ll get a better deal if Nixon wins.” Like I said, bits of this were leaked by the Johnson forces because he was tapping the South Vietnamese Embassy and the presidential palace in Saigon, but most of it was sealed up quite efficiently by Johnson because he thought it would be very destructive to the world war effort if this all came out. And because he didn’t know that Nixon was personally involved. He thought it might’ve just been Chennault acting on her own. Drew Pearson wrote a column within two to three weeks after the 1968 election that the South Vietnamese had contacts with somebody in the Nixon campaign.
Nixon, in a famous telephone conversation with Johnson, says, “No, I would never do such a thing.” In the David Frost interviews, Nixon said, “I would never have done something like that.” So his personal involvement was always sort of the last piece of the puzzle for historians. And I managed to come across notes from Bob Haldeman, his former chief of staff, from the ’68 campaign in which Nixon says to Haldeman, “Keep Anna Chennault working on the South Vietnamese. Any other way that we can monkey wrench it, we need to stop these negotiations from being fruitful.” So I added that little piece of the puzzle, which was Nixon’s direct involvement, and I make the argument in the book that of all the things he did in Watergate, this could’ve been the most reprehensible because of the great number of lives that were at stake.
You can’t make the argument that if Nixon hadn’t done this, there would’ve been peace in the fall of 1968, given how stubborn the North and the South turned out to be. That’s probably not a winning argument. But as a biographer, you can look at Nixon and you can make a judgment on his moral character by what he was willing to risk in doing this for the expedient reason of trying to get elected. Once he got in, he was determined he was not going to be the first American president to lose a war. He felt the nation would never stand for that. William Bundy, the Democratic foreign policy wizard, wrote a book about Nixonian foreign policy in which he made the argument that because of the Chennault affair, President Thieu in Saigon had something to hold over Nixon’s head, so Nixon was sort of bound by this secret and couldn’t make any dramatic moves for peace. He had to support Thieu to the very end.
Did Nixon grow in office in any way?
I wouldn’t say he grew in office. I would say that he learned very quickly. He was a very bright man, and he had done a lot of study. His first six months, the sort of the honeymoon he had, there’s lots of naïve memos flying back and forth about bringing light and goodness and only flashes of the paranoia. Something like four weeks into his presidency, somebody writes him a note that says, “Boy, you’re really getting great press.” And he writes back and says, “They’re just setting us up for the fall. The blow is going to come soon.”
Of course, he lived in very contentious times, and by the end of that first year, he was in full conflict mode. He had already sent Spiro Agnew out, and he had determined that he was going to polarize the country with his silent majority on one side and the left on the other, and he was going to fight it out, and he would win. So, yes, he did change, but I’m not sure that he grew in the office. I just think that he went more and more into the constant political battler and warrior and lost some of his own illusions very quickly.
Nixon is someone who has a pretty uniformly low reputation now, but Henry Kissinger, who many people see as his most important Cabinet member and adviser, in some circles still has a very exalted reputation. What do you think about Kissinger?
First of all, he’s a wonderful writer. His memoirs are fantastic. Second of all, he was the most obsequious of all the courtiers. He was constantly saying, “Oh, yes, Mr. President, history will validate you,” while feeding Nixon’s paranoia in cases like the Pakistan-Indian War or the Pentagon Papers. He had a very destructive effect on Nixon’s psyche.
But there’s no denying that in the big foreign policy triumph of the arms deals with the Soviet Union and carrying out the execution of Nixon’s strategy with China that Kissinger was potentially an indispensable tool of the president. Nixon himself could not, I don’t think, have carried out the mechanics of both those breakthroughs. Although it was Nixon who had the insights that the Soviet Union and China had their hands around each other’s necks, and now is a good time to try some triangular diplomacy, it was with constant talking with Kissinger that he chewed things over, refined the strategy, and then dispatched Kissinger to be the person who went to Beijing and handled the negotiations.
The mechanics of the China opening had some pretty horrific consequences, which included supporting Pakistan’s genocidal war on what is now Bangladesh, because the Pakistani military regime helped him with China.
I would say that we’re too close to it now even, but maybe in 100 years, people are going to look back, historians will look back, and they well say Nixon had this opportunity with China. Were the extra 20,000 Americans who died in Vietnam and the millions of Asians who died in both those wars worth it, considering that it did help to start to break up the Cold War and that the world had 50 years of relative peace with no repetition of the great world wars that marred the 20th century? They may just decide that this was realpolitik and brilliant on Nixon’s behalf. But those of us who remember the Vietnamese, those people who remember what happened in Cambodia and do the reading about what happened in East Pakistan, I think that we still have to make some sort of critique of it now. That these were real human beings who bled and died because of these decisions.
I’ll move on, but I always thought there was something slightly rich about giving credit to Nixon for opening China when it was politicians like Nixon who had prevented China from being opened up, because of their extreme anti-communism.
Nixon, like his dad, really didn’t have any very fixed ideological course politically. Pat Buchanan wrote a very famous memo saying that the Nixon administration was neither fish nor fowl. It was more like a buffet where you could walk down and pick ideologically what you liked. I think that’s true. Nixon was supremely expedient, never more so than in civil rights, where he went from being very close to Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s to abandoning King in 1960 when King was arrested in Georgia and the Kennedys interceded, to developing the Southern strategy in 1968 and deliberately polarizing the country over race during his presidency.
That must have pleased Pat Buchanan, and speaking of things that please Pat Buchanan, let’s turn to Trump. I finished your book thinking they had extremely different personalities. Do you agree?
Nixon had an entirely different background than Trump. Trump grew up the rich man’s son and went to military school. Nixon grew up in really hardscrabble California. Nixon read books. Nixon wrote books.
John, Trump has written many books.
[Laughs.] Nixon was a serious foreign policy student and served eight years as vice president and revered the president that he served under, no matter how complicated the relationship was. He came to the office with skills. He came to the office with understanding. Though it eventually broke down, the staff that Bob Haldeman set up were skilled, and they certainly were more organized and far more competent than what you have right now. I can’t imagine Nixon tolerating someone like [Steve] Bannon or the screw-up like the health care fiasco.
Trump is the more childish, self-indulgent type. But I must say that the 4 a.m. tweets remind me of Nixon’s mutterings on the tapes. But, no, I don’t think that the two men are alike. I think that what is making everybody shake their heads is like just the large number of coincidences that are causing everybody to say, “Wow, let’s look back at Nixon.” You’ve got the demonstrations, the eavesdropping, the firing of an attorney general. In that regard, yes, there’s a comparison to be made, and Trump definitely borrowed some of the rhetoric from the ’68 campaign.
Trump does seem more like a Mussolini figure that is hard to sympathize with.
I don’t believe that he’s really evil. I see him more as like a P.T. Barnum type. He doesn’t know what he stands for, and that’s the danger with him. I think Nixon always had a crafty plan in the back of his mind, and he was famous for chewing over them endlessly with his aides. You don’t see Trump doing that. You see Trump sitting there watching Fox and Friends and then jetting off to Florida.
If humanity survives long enough for you to write a humanizing Trump biography, we can do this again?