American history, best biographies, biographies, book reviews, Conrad Black, Evan Thomas, Garry Wills, Herbert Parmet, John Farrell, presidential biographies, Richard Nixon, Richard Reeves, Rick Perlstein, Roger Morris, Stephen Ambrose, Tom Wicker, US Presidents
Five months, twelve biographies, 8,200 pages…and one insufferably inscrutable politician.
For all the differences between Nixon and LBJ, I was surprised to find that in many ways Richard Nixon was his Democratic predecessor’s Republican doppelgänger.
Both men were born into very modest circumstances, both were exceptionally driven, both possessed larger-than-life personalities and both used every possible means to amass and wield political power.
But where I found the sociable if crude Lyndon Johnson an intriguingly fascinating character, I found the awkwardly introverted Richard Nixon distressingly irreconcilable and perplexing. The more time I spent with Nixon, the more impressed I became at his political success…and depressed that he never managed to outrun his demons.
* * *
I began my campaign through Nixon’s life with nine single-volume books and I finished with Stephen Ambrose’s renowned three-volume series.
* Conrad Black’s “Richard Nixon: A Life in Full” was published in 2007 and, with 1,059 pages, is the longest of the single-volume biographies I read. The same year this biography was published, Black was convicted for obstruction of justice and fraud charges in connection with his Canadian media empire. Readers can be excused for wondering whether there is a connection between Black’s personal challenges and the excessive sympathy he shows his subject. While this biography is often impressively detailed and undeniably enlightening, it lacks a colorful narrative, fails to fully uncover Nixon’s character and gives too wide a berth to his most egregious flaws — 3½ stars (Full review here)
* Published in 2017, John Farrell’s “Richard Nixon: The Life” is the most recently-published of my Nixon biographies – and is my favorite. Balanced, lucid and consistently captivating, this 558-page biography proved familiar and yet somehow fresh. While there are some new insights here, most of the narrative will be recognizable to Nixon-era aficionados. But because it is so well written – cogent, clever and generally quite convincing – it is a welcome additional to the large body of work covering this prickly politician – 4 stars (Full review here)
* “Being Nixon: A Man Divided” was written by Evan Thomas (author of “Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World” which I enjoyed). Published in 2015, this book sometimes feels like a biography…and sometimes like a character study. Nixon’s pre-presidency is covered too quickly (and without enough nuance) while coverage of his presidency seems less like a serious survey than a collection of clever anecdotes and revelations. This is not the perfect introduction to Nixon, but it is a solid second or third book for someone seeking a slightly deeper dive on Nixon – 3½ stars (Full review here)
* Published in 1991, “One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream” by Tom Wicker was one of the earliest scholarly studies of Nixon’s life. Wicker appeared on Nixon’s master list of Nixon’s political opponents, so one might suspect that bias infuses the narrative. Fortunately this is not the case and his book exhibits a tendency to see Nixon’s best, rather than worst, characteristics. But instead of being a comprehensive study of his life – or his presidency – this book draws attention to what the author believes are Nixon’s most underrated domestic achievements. In the end, Wicker’s book serves best as a supplemental study of Nixon rather than as useful introduction to the man and his life – 3¼ stars (Full review here)
* “Richard Nixon and His America” by historian Herbert Parmet was published in 1990. Another of the early serious studies of Nixon, this biography focuses on Nixon’s ascent…but not his fall. Unfortunately, this book’s narrative is often hard to follow, it leaves numerous important moments in Nixon’s life unobserved and consistently fails to engage the reader. It is likely to appeal only to serious students of Nixon or readers who enjoy Schlesinger-style political treatises – 2½ stars (Full review here)
* Next I read “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America” published in 2008 and authored by Rick Perlstein. I quickly discovered this is more a cultural / social history of the US than a biography of Nixon. But I wasn’t at all disappointed at having read this book; it proved well-written, intriguing and thought-provoking. It might be the perfect “final” book to read about Nixon and his era – Not Rated (Full review here)
* Richard Reeves’s “President Nixon: Alone in the White House” was published in 2001 and, despite being neither a comprehensive biography nor even a thorough study of Nixon’s presidency, proved one of my favorite books on Nixon. Focused primarily on Nixon’s first term in office, this book captures his life during these years as though the author was in the room at nearly every moment…but still leaves much about Nixon’s character and personality unexplored. But what it does focus on is keenly captured and thoroughly fascinating. A must-read for anyone already familiar with Nixon – 4 stars (Full review here)
* Several long-time readers of this site steered me to Garry Wills’s “Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man.” Published in 1970 (only a year into Nixon’s first term), this book is not a biography at all…it is more a sophisticated, clever commentary on the political and social fabric of Nixon’s era. Many readers will find it unapproachable and tough to finish; others will revel in its wisdom and reflections – Not Rated (Full review here)
* “Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of An American Politician” by Roger Morris was published in 1990 and was intended to be the first installment in a three-volume series. Tragically, none of the ensuing volumes ever materialized. But this hefty 866-page biography explores the first forty years of Nixon’s life in exquisitely perceptive, if not always colorful, detail. This volume should have been a bit shorter and could have been more eloquent. But what really strikes after reading this book is imaging our collective loss that Morris never finished the series – 4 stars (Full review here)
* * *
I concluded with Stephen Ambrose’s three-volume series:
* “Nixon: The Education of a Politician 1913-1962” (Vol 1) was published in 1987 and provides a straightforward, balanced and interesting introduction to Richard Nixon. Covering Nixon’s life up through his unsuccessful attempt to become California’s governor in 1962, it is far less detailed than Roger Morris’s book, but is solid (though not exceptional) in nearly every way – 3¾ stars (Full review here)
* “Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician 1962-1972” (Vol 2) was published in 1989 and runs through Nixon’s re-election to a second term as president. Like the first volume, this book demonstrates remarkable balance, careful organization and an uncommonly unpretentious and readable style. It lacks the dazzling prose of the very best presidential biographies, but proves itself a meritorious introduction to Nixon’s presidency – 4 stars (Full review here)
* “Nixon: Ruin & Recovery 1973-1990” (Vol 3) was published in 1991…three years before Nixon’s death. Nevertheless, nearly everything of consequence in Nixon’s life is captured and anyone who has read the first two volumes in this series will recognize Ambrose’s writing style. Also familiar is the concerted effort the author makes to maintain a rigorously balanced perspective of his subject; Nixon’s participation in the Watergate cover-up is almost entirely forgiven. Still, this volume represents a satisfying conclusion to a very good (but not quite great) series – 4 stars (Full review here)
* * *
Best Biography of Richard Nixon: “Richard Nixon: The Life” by John Farrell
Honorable Mention: “President Nixon: Alone in the White House” by Richard Reeves
Honorable Mention: “Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of An American Politician” by Roger Morris
Outstanding series on Richard Nixon: Stephen Ambrose’s 3-volume series
Follow-up items: Frequent visitors to this site have suggested several possible follow-up books. Among them: Jonathan Aitken’s “Nixon: A Life,” Douglas Schoen’s “The Nixon Effect: How Richard Nixon’s Presidency Fundamentally Changed American Politics,” Anthony Summer’s “The Arrogance of Power: Nixon and Watergate” and Tim Weiner’s “One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon.”
Christopher Saunders said:
Thanks for all the time you put into these reviews! I think you’ve hit all the obvious titles so far as biographies go; you could skip Aitken and Summers’ books in my opinion and not miss much. Weiner’s book is okay; haven’t read Schoen. Most of the other titles I’d recommend are either Watergate-specific or specialist studies (which fall outside the blog’s purview). Looking forward to Ford!
That’s great feedback – thanks. Given the number of things on my follow-up list it’s helpful to hear what’s worth reading and what’s worth “deferring”…!
J. Jensen said:
I would definitely recommend Schoen’s. I always find it fascinating when authors committed to one party write about members of another (and we know in advance the author’s predilections). Not all are successful, but occasionally some authors are able to produce even handed and somewhat objective analysis of president’s from “the other party.” Schoen, having worked for over 30 years on campaigns to help get Democrats elected, has produced an excellent work on the impact of Nixon’s presidency on our country, both for better and worse.
Rick Perlstein said:
Gary Schantz said:
I will Farrell’s book to my list of Nixon books. My goal is have three good books on every president and I have utilized your lists in putting together my lists. Thanks.
AARON MILLION said:
I definitely agree with Mr. Saunders re: the Aitken and Summers books. Neither are unbiased and neither are good.
…I guess that makes the decision pretty easy! I gotten a great deal of email feedback that Aitken’s bio is essentially a hagiography and while I’ve gotten less feedback on Anthony Summers’s book it has all suggested the book is little more than a smear-job. Oh well.
Gary Schantz said:
Let me chime in here…I know that some books tend to lean in one direction or another. However, I think that’s a good thing because it gives the reader a wider perspective of the subject if the reader takes the time to read several books. It doesn’t mean that I necessarily believe one author over another but I like varying POVs. If you just read favorable books then they all read like George Washington bios where everything is great with minor mentions of flaws.
I do agree that multiple perspectives on one biographical subject are helpful when the reader is able to read multiple biographies per president. In fact, seeing someone from a variety of perspectives is one of the unexpected benefits I’ve discovered from reading several bios per president.
The danger, I think, in reading “biased” or “one-sided” presidential biographies is heightened for someone who is choosing to read just one biography per president and who inadvertently stumbles upon one that doesn’t present a complete (or fair) picture of the president.
When it comes to my ever-expanding follow-up list, however, I’m probably going to prioritize biographies which are thoughtful (even if somewhat one-sided) over those that ruthlessly push an agenda. But if I live long enough I’m going to get to them all! 🙂
Murray D Skelton said:
I agree totally with your Black opinion.
Seems Black feels if he is “nice” to Nixon perhaps someone else will write nicely about his own criminal behaviors.
Brad McKim said:
I’m relatively new to your site still so maybe this is answered elsewhere on the site. Do you not read autobiographies? Nixon’s is worth reading. It didn’t make me a bigger fan of his but I thought it was interesting….
I haven’t started reading memoirs or autobiographies yet – I wanted to stick to third-party perspectives to start with. But now that I’ve almost finished with Round 1, I’ll start working them into my schedule (Grant’s memoirs will probably be the first I’ll read).
Gary Schantz said:
It is quite a possible that anyone can read one book on every president but to read so many is quite a feat. Imagining that you have gained quite an education, I wonder at this point if you might have even considered throwing your own hat into the ring and write a book yourself.
Just a drive by comment, hope and pray you receive my small word of gratitude for having successfully reminded me to take a second look at Garry Wills’ Nixon Agonistes. I could say much about my interest in Nixon at the moment but instead perhaps it will suffice to say your post urged me to take a second look at a book I now see is a good candidate to read next.
In other words, thanks a lot and I wish that if this finds you, it finds you to be well.
Not too sincerely I hope,
So many questions have been raised about Ambrose, particularly his work on Ike. I’d feel the need to double check anything he says at this point.
I’m inclined to agree. Sad, really, but once a historian loses his or her reputation, there’s really nothing much left. I enjoy reading fiction, but not when perusing a presidential biography… I truly wish Ambrose had remained center-of-fairway because I really appreciated the work he seemed to be doing early on.
Reading Smith’s bio of Eisenhower, he was fairly detailed about areas where he thought Ambrose might be fabricating. Particularly where he cited his interviews with Eisenhower. He calculated how many hours it must have taken to get so much information and then checked Ike’s meticulous calendar and discovered he had only spent a small fraction of the time with Eisenhower. Therefore, when Ambrose made a claim with a footnote to his interviews that conflicted with other sources, Smith would go with the latter as the more likely correct version of events.
Christopher Saunders said:
Ambrose is generally balanced for the first two volumes on Nixon but the third tries way too hard to excuse or downplay Watergate for my taste. I really think he was riding the wave of Nixon revisionism common at the time he wrote it (late ’80s/early ’90s) and didn’t think to challenge or examine it all too closely. And yeah, the plagiarism and fabrications in his other work makes his work hard to take at face value, anyway.