Tuesday, August 17, 2010


A review of Conrad Black’s A Life in Full: Richard M. Nixon (2007)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Conrad Black's biography of President Richard Nixon is an incredible book. We tend to look at people, things, and events retroactively basing the past on the affairs and knowledge of the present. This is especially true with President Richard Nixon, the only president in U.S. History to have resigned his office and leave in absolute disgrace. Even presidents who are overwhelmingly voted out of office do not leave so tainted. Yet, Nixon was not incompetent; in fact, he was extremely intelligent and capable person. In many ways Nixon was very good president, he was extremely effective despite having an opposition Congress; his foreign policy achievements were amazing and has one of the best environmental records of any president. Then there is Watergate, the 'cancer' that doomed a presidency. After Watergate people's view on Nixon not only changed for the present but the past. The 'Checkers Speech' in 1952, went from Nixon successfully defending himself from a smear to one he 'got away' with. In the Nixon/Douglas 1950 Senate election, people remember Nixon's 'hateful' attacks on Helen Gahagan Douglas, but Douglas's attacks on Nixon are forgotten, including the fact that Douglas was the first one in that campaign to go dirty. Alger Hiss must have been innocent. If Nixon was revealed to have cheated on third-grade assignment, it might be said that particular cheating incident was sign of things to come. Black, however, chooses to show Nixon as someone who started out as an honest public servant and transformed into a man who would obstruct justice for political ends.

Black begins with Nixon’s ancestry, which is typical with biographies, then going through his childhood growing up in California where he was heavily involved in his local Quaker community. He grew up in a strong Republican household, although he was a personal admirer of President Woodrow Wilson. Nixon would serve his country in the United States Navy in World War II, and he would also get married and start a family.

(The Nixon clan)

Nixon goes up like a rocket in his political career. He begins by defeating a popular incumbent named Jerry Voorhis to earn a seat in the United States House of Representatives. He would serve for two terms earning a reputation as a strong Anti-Communist, but not a crazy like Senator McCarthy. In 1950 he ran against Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas for the California Senate seat, in what was one of the most attack filled campaigns in history, and won.

(Congressman Jerry Voorhis)

(Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas)

Nixon would be crucial to securing the California delegation of the 1952 Republican Convention to Eisenhower. This would earn him a spot on the ticket. Nixon would redefine the vice presidency, making it a major office that would represent the United States on important assignments and fill in for the president when needed.

(Ike and Nixon)

“Nixon's inestimable services in bringing the Republican Party out of isolationism and reaction and ending the McCarthy era, and the undoubted value of some of his foreign travel, have been recounted and have no precedent in the prior history of the vice presidency. He conducted most of the administration's reelection campaign of 1956, and he performed impeccably when Eisenhower's indispositions required him to be more or less an acting president. Nixon effectively succeeded Walter Bedell Smith as 'Ike's prat boy,' the designated assistant in charge of the dirty work. Nixon performed these odious and thankless tasks admirably, even when Eisenhower sawed off the limbs he had sent him out on, especially the more spirited attacks on Democrats. Eisenhower rewarded Nixon's loyalty, discretion, efficiency, and suppression of his own dissent with an uneven pattern of appreciation and aloofness.” p.426

(Nixon as Vice President)

Black goes over the colossal errors in judgment that Nixon made over the election of 1960. Although, Black's analysis is good, I have to take issue with his claim that Nixon was at a disadvantage because of Kennedy's Catholicism. Kennedy was clearly at the disadvantage and Black's own critique of Nixon campaign even supports this more than undermines it. The years in which Nixon plotted his comeback are well covered by Black in the following chapters.

(Kennedy and Nixon)

In the chaotic year of 1968, Richard Nixon would emerge as the Republican Nominee for the second time in his life. This time Nixon was facing Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had also lost against Kennedy in 1960 in the Democratic primaries. It was the first time since 1800 that a sitting vice president ran for president against one of his predecessors*. Nixon would be the more aggressive and victorious candidate; he was able to position himself as the sensible alternative to both Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace, the Dixiecrat candidate. He was not going to turn the clock back to segregation but he was against some of the more unpopular ideas such as busing. Nixon would win the White House and take office on January 20, 1969, the same day he would left if all had went as planned in 1960.

(Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey)

Nixon would go on to have an incredible first term as president. Desegregation would increase dramatically in the South, the economy was in good shape, and there would be incredible achievements in foreign policy. Nixon would re-establish a diplomatic relationship with China and introduce triangle diplomacy in dealing with the great Communist powers. Although, there were sour points during the first term, such as the increase in the Vietnam War with its expansion into Cambodia**. I also have some issue with the way Black discusses the situation in Chile. Although he is right to point out that Salvadore Allenee was hardly hero of democracy, he does tend to sweep Pinochet's atrocities under a rug.

(Nixon as President)

Nixon would go on to be triumphantly reelected in 1972 over Senator George McGovern. Senator McGovern would be humiliated in the election as Barry Goldwater was eight years prior, securing Nixon for a second term.

(Senator George McGovern)

“Richard Nixon was now only the tenth person to win two consecutive contested elections to the presidency of the United States. He was a widely admired and even popular figure, and he had the satisfaction of knowing that he had, by any measurement, been a very effective president. He was a personally sensitive, and often generous man, and he understood the loyalty of the White House staff. But his somber and morose nature took possession of him, especially when it would have seemed that he had a right and a reason to celebrate. He cheered up in crises, was let down by victory, and the few things that excited him caused him childlike pleasure. His best friend was a man with whom he exchanged few words, and his love of solitude was extreme, especially for one of the most energetic and durable politicians in the country's history. All these factors made his achievements as a public man the more remarkable. Very strange things were about to happen, but Richard Nixon was already a very considerable president and statesman.” p.845

Then his presidency came tumbling down, the Watergate conspiracy would change forever the way the nation viewed its government. The fact that Nixon was dumb enough to record everything helped assure his downfall. Black chronicles the tragedy that would be taught in every civics class for generations to come. The only drawback is the author of this work is currently in prison and he has a strong present bias against the judicial system and prosecutors in general. He constantly lets the reader know his personnel feelings about modern grand juries, prosecution practices, and deal-making for testimony.

“Of course the Democrats and some of the media were guilty of hypocrisy. Arthur Schlesinger and Henry Steele Commager, distinguished but partisan historians, revered the strong presidencies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, and John F. Kennedy, but found Nixon, facing a hostile Congress, 'imperial.' As Nixon pointed out in a memo to Halderman, Kennedy had impounded more funds, installed more wiretaps, and engaged in more illegal surveillance than he had; and Truman had pushed the theory of executive privilege beyond anything he had done. Bobby Kennedy had bugged the Kennedy's own vice president, Lyndon Johnson, who duplicated that liberty with his vice president, Hubert Humphrey. But they had not meddled in criminal prosecutions as Nixon was doing, especially not prosecutions involving their own staff and campaign workers.” p.874

Nixon infamously resigns his office and leaves the capital. Black covers the drama of the early Ford Administration that dealt with the pardon that President Ford gave Nixon. The rest of the book deals with Nixon's post-presidency, that would involve some more comebacks and a new legacy.

(President Gerald Ford)

I highly recommend this book. It is a great and detailed look into the life of one of our most complicated presidents, Richard M. Nixon. Despite his personnel flaws, Conrad Black, is an extremely talented historian with a brilliant narrative.

*In 1800, Vice President Thomas Jefferson challenged his own president, John Adams. President Adams had served as vice president under George Washington.

** The expansion would be stopped, not by the President, but a resurgent Congress.

{Videos taken from YouTube}

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