American history, biographies, Conrad Black, Evan Thomas, Garry Wills, Herbert Parmet, John Farrell, presidential biographies, Richard Nixon, Richard Reeves, Roger Morris, Stephen Ambrose, Tim Weiner, Tom Wicker
The last two presidents I covered, JFK and LBJ, were nothing if not fascinating. But the next president I’m reading about seems uniquely intriguing.
An awkward, idiosyncratic man who nevertheless became a successful politician, Richard Nixon diligently worked his way into the presidency only to self-destruct in spectacular fashion.
He is the first person whose entire presidency I was alive to witness (though I was far too young to notice). To my generation he is often little more than a caricature – and a curiously nefarious enigma.
I hope the dozen biographies I’m planning to read will explain how this unusual man, with his surly temperament and paranoid insecurities, was successful in politics…and why he was compelled to commit political suicide. But one thing is certain: I won’t be surprised to find him every bit as complex and captivating as his two presidential predecessors.
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I’m starting with Conrad Black’s “Richard Nixon: A Life in Full” which was published in 2007 and has the benefit of being relatively recent and incomparably lengthy (with more than 1,000 pages). I’m hoping it will provide a thorough introduction to Nixon and create a good standard against which other biographies can be judged.
Next I’ll turn to the most recently published comprehensive account of Nixon’s life: John Farrell’s 2017 “Richard Nixon: The Life.” Farrell is the author of a Tip O’Neil biography I plan to read (someday) and this biography of Nixon has received extremely high marks.
Evan Thomas’s “Being Nixon: A Man Divided” is another highly popular, recently published biography of Nixon. Named a “best book of the year” by the Time in 2015, this self-professed political biography is also a penetrating character study. Thomas is the author of a book on Eisenhower I enjoyed so I’m looking forward to his view of Nixon.
Noted liberal journalist Tom Wicker made the “master list” of Nixon’s political opponents so I’m instinctively intrigued by his 1991 “One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream.” This is an examination of Nixon’s character rather than a review of his life and I’m not entirely sure what to expect from this book…
Herbert Parmet’s “Richard Nixon and His America” was published in 1990 and is neither well-read nor particularly well-liked. I’m reading it anyway. Parmet is a noted historian who wrote biographies of John F. Kennedy and George H.W. Bush which I’m reading as part of this journey…so I’ll give this one a chance.
Focused on Nixon’s evolution during the 1960s and 1970s, Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America” was published in 2008 to wide praise. Less a biography of Nixon than a study of his place in American society at a time of dramatic cultural upheaval, this promises to be a unique look at Nixon written by a prolific and accomplished author.
“President Nixon: Alone in the White House” by Richard Reeves was published in 2001 and focuses primarily on Nixon’s first term in office. Reeves is the author of a book on John F. Kennedy which I read and this book on Nixon had earned solid if not exceptional reviews.
The oldest book on Nixon I’m reading is historian Garry Wills’s 1970 “Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man.” Not a conventional biography, it apparently argues that Nixon was essentially a liberal. Publication of this book landed Wills on Nixon’s master list of political opponents so I can’t wait to see what the fuss is about.
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Roger Morris’s exhaustive 1990 “Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of An American Politician” was intended to be the first book in a three-volume series. Its nearly 900 pages of text review Nixon’s life in significant detail to the early 1950s. Unfortunately the rest of the series never materialized. (In this respect I’m reminded of Nigel Hamilton’s fascinating take on JFK’s early years which was also the first book in a series never completed.)
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I finish Nixon with the three-volume series by Stephen Ambrose:
– “Nixon: The Education of a Politician 1913-1962” (Vol 1)
– “Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician 1962-1972” (Vol 2)
– “Nixon: Ruin & Recovery 1973-1990” (Vol 3)
Described to me as a solid and insightful trilogy, Ambrose’s reputation never fully recovered following plagiarism allegations and, later, accusations he “invented” interviews with Dwight Eisenhower. Nevertheless, this is an important work on one of our most controversial presidents so I won’t miss the chance to read this series.
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One book I realize is missing: Tim Weiner’s 2015 “One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon.” Offering the reader an eye-opening look at Nixon’s frenetically paranoid presidency, I’m considering adding this to my follow-up list.