Conrad Black’s “Richard Nixon: A Life in Full” was published in 2007 and is the longest one-volume Nixon biography in my library. Black is a former newspaper magnate and the author of “FDR: Champion of Freedom.” In 2007 he was convicted of obstruction of justice and mail fraud in connection with his Canadian media business.
This well-researched biography of Richard Nixon is comprehensive and extremely thorough. But with 1,059 pages of text it is not for the timid or faint of heart. And while it does cover Nixon’s entire life, the emphasis is clearly on his presidency. A mere thirty-three pages sweep Nixon from his birth to law school, but about 500 pages are devoted to Nixon’s 5+ years in the White House.
Black’s writing style is dense, erudite and serious…but never particularly colorful. This is not a lively or engaging “fly on the wall” view of Nixon’s life. Instead, it is a studious and often incredibly detailed history of Nixon and his times. Context is never lacking and this often seems more a political history book than a biography.
Much about “Richard Nixon: A Life in Full” is praiseworthy – particularly for serious students of history seeking broad and detailed exposure to Nixon and his era. This book is nothing short of encyclopedic and Black’s ability to weave an enormous amount of history into the narrative of Nixon’s life is impressive.
Black quickly proves an astute observer and a clever analyst. Rather than reviewing actions in isolation, nearly every important decision Nixon made is carefully examined within the framework of world events – excepting, of course, actions Nixon undertook simply as a result of his psychological neuroses.
There are many excellent individual moments as well. Black provides a superb review of Vice President Nixon’s Far East trip in 1953 and the description of his failed 1960 presidential campaign is well told. In addition, the examination of Nixon’s relationship with Henry Kissinger is both revealing and insightful. But the book’s best chapter is its last. Here the author follows Nixon from resignation to death – observing Nixon’s efforts to rescue his reputation and thoughtfully evaluating his evolving political legacy.
But for all its merits, Black’s biography possesses a number of significant weaknesses. Its length, due to an enormous volume of embedded context, will scare away many potential readers and wear down others who begin the book despite its heft. For all but the exceptionally enlightened, the author’s tendency to exhaustively describe events will obscure the “big picture.”
Perhaps more unfortunate is that Black almost never provides the reader an overview of where the narrative is headed. Rare are the moments when the text foreshadows future events, provides a glimpse at how the story will evolve or connects Nixon’s past to his future.
In addition, many readers will object to Black’s penchant for injecting opinion into the narrative. He frequently provides unsolicited advice to historical figures (Nixon most frequently) offering guidance on what should have been done differently in order to achieve some objective. This “wisdom” almost always feels gratuitous.
Finally, this biography often feels far too sympathetic toward its subject. While the book – taken as a whole – is reasonably well-balanced there are numerous individual moments when Black demonstrates his underlying affinity for Nixon. And while Black is quite critical of his subject’s most glaring failures, it is fair to note that he recently affirmed his view of Nixon as “one of the most successful presidents in the country’s history.”
Overall, Conrad Black’s “Richard Nixon: A Life in Full” is notable for its exhaustive coverage of Nixon and his era if not its fluid, colorful style. Most readers will walk away from this biography enlightened but without the sense of really knowing Nixon. In spite of the author’s fondness for his subject and the density of the narrative, this biography contains countless nuggets of wisdom and insight. It is unfortunate they require so much effort to uncover.
Overall rating: 3½ stars