American history, biographies, book reviews, Conrad Black, presidential biographies, Richard Nixon, US Presidents
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
Hey, I enjoy what you do! I actually sent Nixon a wedding invitation and got a White House reply. The marriage ended much like his administration.
During Graduate school I interviewed Ben Bradley. He was coming out of a meeting with Mrs. Graham. That was a hoot. He told me, among other things, that he never knew his sister in law had had an affair with JFK. I think her death is still a cold case.
As a history teacher with a lot I want to read, I value your opinion.
Regards, Robert Galloway
Thanks for your note and even if the marriage didn’t survive the long haul, I sure hope the White House reply to your invitation did! 🙂
At least we know Mr. Black is consistent in his writing (3.5 stars for both of his presidential bios). My guess is his book will counterbalance Wolff’s Fire and Fury. [Personal aside: After an unexpected 4-hour delay at LaGaurdia I opted for a 3.5 hour flight without a book, than purchasing Fire and Fury at an airport outlet. Instead of finishing the book on hand (Lincoln’s Pathfinder by John Bicknell) during the flight, I finished it in the terminal.]
I ran across this podcast about Watergate a few weeks ago (thanks to John Dickerson’s Whistlestop): http://www.slate.com/articles/slate_plus/watergate.html. It is a fascinating look at how the Watergate scandal unfolded.
Consistent indeed! I was amused to see I gave his FDR bio the same rating and as I recall I liked and disliked many of the same aspects of those two biographies.
I believe I ran across Lincoln’s Pathfinder when I was searching for a good biography of John Fremont. (I ultimately selected a different book on him for reasons I can’t quite recall…)
The Chaffin book you selected is the considered the best biography of John Fremont. Mr. Bicknell gives the nod to him in his acknowledgements. Lincoln’s Pathfinder is focused on 1856: the election, Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Sumner, and western migration.
Steve, how did you finish a thousand page book that quickly with a full time job ? ; )
Question for you; did you find any noticeable differences or similarities between Black’s biographies on FDR and Nixon?
I noticed that Black commented frequently throughout the Nixon bio on foreign policy direction and strategy, but doesn’t do as much in the FDR book (probably because he lived though the sixties and seventies himself and has more of an opinion).
I thought Black was very fair-minded in his treatment of Nixon and illustrates RN`s political tenacity and foreign policy achievements. Other reviewers have said the writing is too turgid but I didn’t find it too bad for the most part.
My secret: slow-but-steady. ~60 pages a day. Every day. I don’t wait to read until the mood hits, I just treat it like part-job, part-hobby. Realistically I miss days here or there, but for every one of those I have a day sitting on airplanes for 6 hours or I’ve got a quiet Saturday morning with no competing tasks.
I did think that, overall, Black was quite balanced. But in certain moments (grading Nixon’s vice presidency the most successful ever, noting that he essentially tied JFK in 1960, etc.) his fondness for Nixon felt a bit too passionate.
I found his writing quite straightforward if lacking the sizzle that makes people flock to McCullough, Chernow, etc.
I find Nixon to be an intriguing person and amazing politician. No doubt many hate him but I’m a bit of an admirer so I’m looking to avoid the books that are one sided hatchet jobs. Instead I’m looking for the book that treats Nixon fairly at least and is a comprehensive well written page turner. Hopefully one of the books you have on tap will fill the bill (maybe Farrell) or maybe it will be a combination of books. I appreciate that in your book reviews you can always find something worthy of praise.
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Christopher Saunders said:
Finally got around to starting this one (I’m about 200 pages into its hefty length so far). It’s been very even-handed with Nixon’s early life and I really like Black’s accounts of Nixon’s congressional/Senate campaigns and his machinations to become Eisenhower’s Vice President (nearly as good as Morris’s in this regard). Hopefully it stays consistent throughout.