A new Richard Nixon biography uncovers more murky behaviour by the controversial president, writes Richard Allsop.
Richard Nixon has already been the subject of plenty of biographies, but his controversial career and complex character continue to appeal to new biographers.
The latest is John A Farrell whose biography of Nixon has at least one striking new piece of evidence about his subject. Farrell’s research has confirmed that during the 1968 election campaign Nixon scuttled a Vietnam peace initiative to avoid giving any advantage to the incumbent Democrats.
As the 1968 Presidential Election approached, outgoing President Lyndon Johnson was working on a proposal which would both have enhanced his own legacy and given a sudden boost to the Presidential campaign of Democrat candidate Hubert Humphrey. The deal was that if Johnson stopped all bombing of North Vietnam, the Soviet Union would put pressure on the North Vietnamese regime to engage in meaningful peace talks.
Nixon has long been suspected of sabotaging the talks, something he always denied, but a new-found cache of notes left by Nixon’s closest aide H.R. Haldeman reveals that on 22 October, 1968, Nixon instructed Haldeman to find a way to scuttle the proposal, to ‘monkey wrench’ it in his words, and ensure that there was no ‘October surprise’ to upset Nixon’s narrow lead in the polls. The Nixon campaign team used a number of conduits to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to ensure that he remained intransigent and thus block any hopes of talks.
Farrell argues that these actions at Nixon’s behest were a violation of federal law which prohibits private citizens taking steps which undercut government negotiations with foreign powers. Then there is the moral aspect. Who knows if talks beginning in late 1968 would have produced a peace settlement; but to prevent them happening purely for electoral gain is a further serious stain on Nixon’s career, especially given his own subsequent failure to deliver a satisfactory conclusion across Indochina.
NIXON HAD AN UNUSUAL COMBINATION OF PROFOUND INSECURITY COUPLED WITH AN EXTRAORDINARY ABILITY TO PERFORM WELL ON THE PUBLIC STAGE WHEN THE CHIPS WERE DOWN.
Apart from this new material on the Vietnam War, Farrell’s work outlines all the familiar events in Nixon’s political career from the Alger Hiss case in the 1940s through to his resignation from the Presidency in 1974. Farrell covers most of these well, particularly the lead-up to the Checkers speech in 1952, which saved Nixon’s position as the Vice-Presidential running mate of General Eisenhower. Farrell describes how Nixon had an unusual combination of profound insecurity coupled with an extraordinary ability to perform well on the public stage when the chips were down.
However, ultimately Nixon’s political skills were outweighed by his flaws, for as Republican Senator and 1964 Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater commented, Nixon’s Presidency ‘came as close to destroying America as any man in that office has ever done’.
Goldwater was referring to Nixon’s actions in the Watergate scandal and subsequent attempts to cover it up, but it is easy to understand how Goldwater as an apostle of smaller government would have had little sympathy for his fellow Republican Nixon in many other regards too. Economist Alan Greenspan noted that under Nixon’s stewardship the size of government ‘grew immensely’. Nixon oversaw a massive rise in outlays, along with increasing government control over the economy, most strikingly in his August 1971 announcement of the imposition of wage and price controls.
These retrograde steps were not taken because Nixon was ideologically attached to expanding the welfare state, but because it was easier to go along with the prevailing Keynesian consensus. When there was internal debate within his administration regarding the merits of introducing a generous Family Assistance Plan, one participant queried whether it fitted within their philosophy only to be rebuked by Chief Domestic Adviser John Ehrlichman asking rhetorically: ‘Don’t you realise the president doesn’t have a philosophy?’ A similar view was expressed by civil rights leader James Farmer who felt that in many ways Nixon had the potential to have been a great President except that he had one fatal character flaw – ‘he did not believe in anything’.
THERE IS A SENSE THAT AT EVERY POINT IN HIS CAREER NIXON FELT A NEED TO BEND THE RULES TO SECURE OR MAINTAIN POSITIONS BECAUSE OTHERWISE THE ELITES OR THE MORE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE WOULD BEAT HIM.
To be fair, Nixon was not alone in that era in being a leader on the conservative side of politics presiding over expanding government. It was not until the economic crisis of the mid-1970s that free market ideas began their renaissance. Further, even if Nixon had wanted to undertake some pro-market economic reform, his chances of getting such measures through Congress would have been limited by the fact that when he entered the White House in January 1969, he was the first incoming president since Zachary Taylor in 1849 whose party did not control either house.
Of course, single volume biographies of a figure as complex and significant as Nixon will always have the tendency to feel a bit scant in places. Whereas Robert Caro can devote a whole volume of his biographical tour de force on Lyndon Johnson to LBJ’s initial election to the Senate in 1948, here Farrell allows a single chapter on Nixon’s election to the same body two years later. However, there is enough detail in this chapter, and about his election to Congress four year earlier, to see that the seeds of Nixon’s later downfall were planted very early in his political career.
There is a sense that at every point in his career Nixon felt a need to bend the rules to secure or maintain positions because otherwise the elites or the more beautiful people would beat him. Sometimes, as in the 1960 Presidential election, his opponents bent the rules more successfully than he did.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Nixon’s career is the speed of his rise, from initially standing for Congress without any previous political involvement in 1946 to Vice President by 1952. As Farrell observes, ‘few came so far, so fast, so alone as Richard Nixon’. Henry Kissinger observed after Nixon had taken him on a tour of his childhood haunts that ‘it suddenly struck me that the guiding theme of his discourse was that it had all been accidental’.
Farrell looks back into his subject’s childhood for factors which affected his later character. There is much in that childhood to elicit sympathy, such as the ungainly boy’s struggle for affection from his mother, who did not hide her preference for the more likeable characteristics of his siblings. It was an upbringing which engendered in Nixon a lifetime of despising people from establishment institutions, such as Ivy League universities or the east coast’s elite newspapers, and anyone he thought had had an easier ride than his own. It made him see potential enemies everywhere and made him something of an obsessive, always alert to the next potential threat.
There are occasions when Nixon’s very human features creep through, such spending most of one day working out lists of the greatest baseball players or being late for dinner as he wanted to watch the end of an exciting football game. Nixon could also be personally kind. Farrell lists numerous thoughtful acts which Nixon displayed to people around him. However, he was reluctant to have any of these made public as they might harm his image as a strong leader. One such act involved hosting Jacqueline Kennedy and her two children at the White House in the utmost secrecy. The families shared a joke about how sick they got from the smell of paint during campaigns as hotel managers invariably painted their rooms prior to their arrival, and Nixon subsequently wrote personal notes to both children.
Nixon came to the Presidency during the biggest social revolution of modern times. In 1968, the US experienced assassinations, demonstrations and counter-culture. The rise of the new left seemed inexorable, so anyone with an ounce of conservatism felt the need for someone to mount a principled defence of capitalism and Western values. Nixon seemed like he could be the person for the job, but he proved to be a greater threat to American institutions than many on the left might have been.
For the balance of the 1970s, it looked like the damage Nixon wrought would be long-lasting as the United States suffered through the stopgap stewardship of Gerald Ford and the disastrous presidency of Jimmy Carter. Fortunately, in November 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected President and a brighter world dawned.
The contrast between Nixon and Reagan is striking. Both were hated by the left, but Reagan was secure enough in his own self and his own beliefs to laugh it off and continue his quest to make America a freer and more optimistic society. Nixon had lacked the character or the philosophical depth to do the same.