Published in 2017, John Farrell’s “Richard Nixon: The Life” is the most recent comprehensive, single-volume biography of Nixon. Farrell is a former White House correspondent for The Boston Globe and The Denver Post and is the author of award-winning biographies of Massachusetts congressman Tip O’Neill and attorney Clarence Darrow.
This 558-paged biography proves balanced, lucid and consistently captivating. It begins with Nixon’s run for Congress in 1945 before back-tracking briefly to review his early life. In more-or-less chronological fashion, the book proceeds through his Senatorial career, his service as vice president, his “wilderness” years, his now-infamous presidency and his fascinating two-decade retirement.
In a world well-stocked with Nixon biographies, Farrell’s claim-to-fame involves his discovery of notes penned by Nixon’s chief of staff that show Nixon sabotaged LBJ’s peace initiative with North Vietnam in 1968 for political gain. But beyond that notable revelation, Farrell provides other fresh insights…and he saturates the narrative with clever quips and brilliant one-liners.
Farrell describes Nixon’s wilderness years more colorfully than I have seen elsewhere and his examination of Nixon’s efforts to enhance America’s relationship with China is excellent. Also included is a particularly thoughtful review of civil rights issues during the course of Nixon’s political career, and Farrell is able to distill the complicated decades-long conflict in Vietnam to its most comprehensible essence.
But the best aspect of this biography is probably its review of Watergate. Farrell moves through this sordid tale efficiently, providing just enough detail to inform a Nixon-era novice while providing an engrossing narrative for readers already familiar with this political tragedy. These sixty or so pages are refreshingly clear, cogent and convincing.
Although some readers have proclaimed this the new “definitive” biography of Nixon, it has its share of flaws. In the interest of efficiency much of Nixon’s life is covered too quickly. His first three decades, for instance, only receive about forty pages of coverage – not nearly enough to fully examine these critical years when his character was being forged.
Other important moments are considered with comparative haste or only modest scrutiny: the Checkers speech, his vice presidential trip to Asia and his Cabinet selection as president-elect, to name a few. In addition, Farrell’s inclusion of historical context is rather uneven. At times this book seems to be more history than biography while at others times context is almost entirely lacking.
But the most disappointing aspect of this biography for some will be that despite its compelling insights, revealing quotes and keen observations, Nixon remains stubbornly enigmatic. Farrell’s reluctance to psychoanalyze the man will please purists but leave others searching for a better sense for the origin and evolution of Nixon’s pernicious personality.
Overall, “Richard Nixon: The Life” is a mostly-familiar story which proves nicely balanced and quite well-told. Readers familiar with Nixon’s life are likely to find just enough fresh insights and good writing to justify “one more” Nixon biography while readers new to Nixon will find Farrell’s biography a terrific introduction to this oddly fascinating and sadly self-destructive politician.
Overall rating: 4 stars