John A. Farrell Richard Nixon: The Life

ISBN 13: 9780385537353

Richard Nixon: The Life

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9780385537353: Richard Nixon: The Life

From a prize-winning biographer comes the defining portrait of a man who led America in a time of turmoil and left us a darker age. We live today, John A. Farrell shows, in a world Richard Nixon made.
 
At the end of WWII, navy lieutenant “Nick” Nixon returned from the Pacific and set his cap at Congress, an idealistic dreamer seeking to build a better world. Yet amid the turns of that now-legendary 1946 campaign, Nixon’s finer attributes gave way to unapologetic ruthlessness. The story of that transformation is the stunning overture to John A. Farrell’s magisterial biography of the president who came to embody postwar American resentment and division.
     Within four years of his first victory, Nixon was a U.S. senator; in six, the vice president of the United States of America. “Few came so far, so fast, and so alone,” Farrell writes. Nixon’s sins as a candidate were legion; and in one unlawful secret plot, as Farrell reveals here, Nixon acted to prolong the Vietnam War for his own political purposes. Finally elected president in 1969, Nixon packed his staff with bright young men who devised forward-thinking reforms addressing health care, welfare, civil rights, and protection of the environment. It was a fine legacy, but Nixon cared little for it. He aspired to make his mark on the world stage instead, and his 1972 opening to China was the first great crack in the Cold War.
     Nixon had another legacy, too: an America divided and polarized. He was elected to end the war in Vietnam, but his bombing of Cambodia and Laos enraged the antiwar movement. It was Nixon who launched the McCarthy era, who played white against black with a “southern strategy,” and spurred the Silent Majority to despise and distrust the country’s elites. Ever insecure and increasingly paranoid, he persuaded Americans to gnaw, as he did, on grievances—and to look at one another as enemies. Finally, in August 1974, after two years of the mesmerizing intrigue and scandal of Watergate, Nixon became the only president to resign in disgrace.
     Richard Nixon is a gripping and unsparing portrayal of our darkest president. Meticulously researched, brilliantly crafted, and offering fresh revelations, it will be hailed as a master work.

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About the Author:

JOHN A. FARRELL is the author of Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography, and Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century. A longtime journalist, he worked at The Denver Post and at The Boston Globe, where he served as White House correspondent and on the vaunted Spotlight team.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

The Dragon Slayer
 
The United States had throttled its foes with steel. Now it was time to stand down and go home. Navy lieutenant John Renneburg was stationed at the Glenn L. Martin Company aeronautics complex near Baltimore in the summer of 1945. It was a sprawling plant where the firm’s big flying boats were built, then tested on the Chesapeake’s tranquil waters. In a single year at the conflict’s peak, American factories churned out ninety-six thousand warplanes—almost as many as those manufactured by Nazi Germany in seven years of war. The Martin plant was emblematic: one of the largest aviation works in the world, with fifty thousand employees building seaplanes, bombers, and other aircraft.

With victory, the nation faced a vast demobilization. The press brimmed with foreboding about the pain of “reconversion” to a peacetime economy. The army sent out thirty thousand telegrams canceling 95 percent of its orders for artillery, tanks, and other instruments of war. The navy stopped construction on a hundred ships. What the government needed now were regiments of lawyers to settle its contracts. That was Lieutenant Renneburg’s job until new orders arrived. He was going home, just as soon as he could train a replacement.

The man the navy sent was a dark-haired, dark-eyed veteran of the fighting in the Pacific, Lieutenant Richard Nixon. After returning from the Solomon Islands, Nixon had been given a course on federal contracting. He and his wife, Pat, bounced from Washington to Philadelphia to New York and ultimately to Stansbury Manor, a complex of two-story apartment buildings on a cove near the Martin airfield. In this pleasant backwater, he and Renneburg spent their days haggling with the firm’s accountants on behalf of the navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics.
Renneburg found Nixon smart and serious, yet amiable. The work was demanding, “and about the only chance we would have to relax would be when we would walk down to the officers’ mess,” a bit more than a quarter mile away. They spoke about music, for which they were both enthusiasts, and swapped stories about their wartime experiences. Inevitably, the conversation turned to civilian life, Renneburg remembered, and one day “I asked him what he was planning to do.”

It was a warm day, Indian summer. Nixon didn’t really know, he told his colleague as they ambled. The navy had offered him a promotion to commander. The world of business beckoned, and he and Pat were entranced by Manhattan. If nothing else turned up, his law partners had kept his old job open in his little hometown of Whittier, California. And then—out of the blue, Nixon said—he had gotten a letter from some folks back home who wanted him to run for Congress. It was a long shot: he would be chal- lenging a five-term incumbent. Nevertheless, intrigued, he had waited for the cheaper nightly long-distance rates and discussed it over the telephone.

“I’m not a politician,” Nixon told Renneburg. “I probably would be defeated.”

“I hope they didn’t reverse the charges,” his colleague said. “No, they didn’t.” Nixon smiled. “They seemed to be serious.”

Renneburg urged him to accept the offer. He admired Nixon’s qualities and thought he’d make a good congressman—a voice for a new generation in uniform coming home from war and seeking to build a better world.
“Even if you get defeated, you might get some clients,” Renneburg told him. “Somebody might remember the name of Nixon.”
 
For the very few who knew him well, the notion of “Congressman Nixon” was not exceptionally odd. All his life, he’d displayed an interest in history and politics. He was disciplined, hardworking, bright, and earnest, and had shown a rudimentary knack at winning school and club elections in Whittier. But those whipstitch contests were years ago. The congress- man who represented the Twelfth Congressional District—Representative Jerry Voorhis—was a sturdy veteran of the House Democratic majority propelled to office by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s mighty New Deal coalition. In polls of the capital’s press corps, and of his fellow congressmen, the handsome, pipe-smoking Voorhis won top-ten rankings for diligence and integrity. He was the son of a retired automobile executive whose wealth could finance his campaigns. His constituent service earned him the loyalty of the district’s farmers and citrus ranchers, for whom he ably labored on the House Agriculture Committee, a coveted perch. In the three most recent elections, the Republicans had tried to supplant him with a popular coach, a celebrity preacher, and a respected businessman. He had whipped them all. Richard Nixon—Dick, to his friends and family; Nick in the navy; Nixie in college and Gus during law school—was thirty-two years old in 1945; not a bad-looking guy in his dress blues. “He looked so different: younger, real tanned, thinner, and of course very handsome in his blue uniform with all the braid and the white cap,” Pat wrote his parents.

Age would accentuate the flaws in his features—jowls, the spatulate nose and receding hairline—but not for decades. His hair was thick and black and wavy. His deep-set eyes were the darkest brown, and his face pleasantly symmetrical, especially if he’d just relax and grin. Glee clubs and choirs prized his voice, and he was a more than capable pianist. He liked Chopin and Brahms. “He is a romanticist at heart, but he doesn’t like to let this show,” a music teacher would recall.

Nixon had played on the football team in college, but only because they needed bodies to fill out the squad, for he was no athlete. His feet were big, his chest narrow, and his shoulders sloped. The navy had taught him to stand up straight, but his natural posture was to slouch, hands dangling.

His mind was his defining feature. It was sharp and analytical; his memory remarkable. He enjoyed little more than sprawling in an armchair with a yellow legal pad, chin on his chest, legs on a footrest, thoughts marching through his head. He liked it there, in that restless mind. It was where, in the unhappy times of his boyhood, he had fled. He was a daydreamer, a cloud counter, a bookworm as a youth, and at night he would lie in bed listening to the train whistles, conjuring the marvelous places he would go. He could be there with you without being there, seem like he was listening while his thoughts were far away. He passed folks on the street and didn’t see them; walked into them in hallways, offered a distracted nod and half a wave, and kept going. Some thought he was stuck-up, rude, or dour.

He wasn’t easy to like. He knew it, and it hurt. “All over town people talk about what a good natured fellow Don is and wonder how he could have such a sour puss brother,” he had written from the South Pacific in 1943, describing himself in a wartime “V mail” to his niece Laurene, the newborn baby daughter of his brother Donald. He welcomed her to the world, gave her “the scuttlebutt about your new relations,” and touched, as a Quaker, on war’s iniquity: “My hope for you is that when you are 17 your boyfriend won’t have to use V mail to write.”

It was a sweet letter, and some who saw that side of him found his awkwardness, that ungainly shyness, endearing. A friend liked to tell a story about Dick helping out with the dishes after dinner, leaving the kitchen and drifting through the house with a single glass, wiping it over and over, well past dry, transfixed by a speech he was crafting in his mind for an upcoming high school debate. It was a distinctive personality, peculiar even. Some accepted his preoccupation, but others saw calculation and gave him no credit for his dreaming.

He was given to small kindnesses, to bringing red roses to shut-ins, or sending little gifts of money to those who had fallen on hard times. At law school he befriended a disabled young man, put him on his ticket in a student election, and carried him up granite steps to class. He was a striver, a self-improver, and so—given the faults in his personality—an actor. If in small talk he was achingly inept, during high school and college he had thrust himself onstage—in school plays, collegiate debate, and public speaking competitions. He became a fine performer, his teachers recalled. His self-discipline was legendary, his preparation thorough. Others might come to rehearsal without knowing their lines; not Dick Nixon. He could lose himself in craft, ingest emotions, and affect and excite an audience. He yearned, above all, to be a great man. He had that sense of drama.

Nixon was looking to jump-start his life in those weeks after the war for, truth be told, he was a bit of a flop. He had excelled in high school and been offered an opportunity to study at Harvard or Yale, but his family’s tottering finances prohibited it, and so he had attended little Whittier College, enrollment four hundred, where the faculty was well intentioned but undistinguished. There he could live at home and continue to work at his father’s grocery store. It galled him. The crowning moment in his schooling was the day he was accepted, with a scholarship, to study law at Duke University. He showed not just happiness, but bliss at the prospect of escape. He was “not only fun, he was joyous, abandoned—the only time I remember him that way,” his college girlfriend said. But though he graduated from Duke with honors, he could not find work with a Wall Street firm. He applied, without success, to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Finally, his mother prevailed upon a family friend to give Dick a desk in a local law office, and back he slunk, Mr. Nobody from Nowhere. Nixon’s first notable case was a disaster: he and the firm were sued for negligence and penalized thousands of dollars. He went bust at business, too. A scheme to market frozen orange juice failed, leaving him fending off irate creditors.

He was luckier in love. Pat was a spirited beauty—a gypsy, a vagabond, he fancied her—with looks that had earned her bit roles in Hollywood and a job modeling clothes in a swank Los Angeles department store as she worked her way through the University of Southern California. He was drawn to her pilgrim soul. Thelma Catherine Ryan (like Dick, she collected nicknames: Buddy in her youth and Pat as she grew older) was a fellow striver. She had been born in a Nevada mining camp, orphaned in her teens, and compelled to assume the household chores—cooking, laundry, cleaning—for herself and two brothers. Free of that drudgery, college degree in hand, she had no wish to be tied down and had resisted Dick’s advances. His intensity was off-putting. But he persevered—for resilience was another of his defining traits—and in time she came to see him as a man of destiny. As a gift, she gave him a figurine, a mounted knight on a charger. She was “willing to submerge her entire life to him,” said a friend. Her faith was his great asset.

For their honeymoon they filled a car’s trunk with canned goods and set off on a road trip through the Southwest and Mexico. As a wedding prank, their friends had stripped the labels from the cans, and they’d end up eating stew for breakfast. For their first anniversary, they drove to New Orleans, split an order of Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine’s, and rode a steamer around the Caribbean. In 1941, they had leapt at the opportunity to move to Washington, where big things were happening. But Nixon’s work as a bureaucrat in the Office of Price Administration, writing rationing rules, was stifling, and he felt out of place among the East Coast whiz kids—the Ivy League liberals and bright, left-leaning Jewish attorneys who served the New Deal as men-at-arms. Six months after Pearl Harbor, recognizing his duty and yearning for excitement, he enlisted.

They sent him to a navy air training station—carved, incongruously, from the landlocked cornfields of Ottumwa, Iowa. He was newly married and a Quaker, and it was safe there in the Midwest, pushing paper. But displaying his sense of obligation, he lobbied for a transfer to combat. “Sir, I have a letter from Lt. (jg) Richard Nixon . . . now in Ottumwa, Iowa— legal officer & crying his heart out” to get into Air Combat Intelligence, a superior noted. “He is a good one . . . young, no children & wants A.C.I.” A man could get himself killed, friends told him. Dick should leave the fighting to the single men, Pat’s brother advised. But Nixon was insistent, and ultimately, the navy shrugged and dispatched the young lieutenant to the war zone.

In the South Pacific, Nixon served on a series of island outposts where he supervised the work of a combat air transport team, moving ammunition, reinforcements, and food and medicine to the front, and the wounded to the rear. He wrote to Pat, telling her not to worry about the recur- rent Japanese shelling and bombing, for only the morons who refused to take shelter got killed, and his bunker on Bougainville was roomy and protective—with a roof of logs and sandbags. There was plenty of down-time, much of which he whiled away in the discordant style of a fighting Quaker—reading his Bible or playing poker. He sent aching letters to her and read voraciously, copying down odd lines of speech and poetry, tearing out articles from magazines and newspapers and jotting his thoughts in the margins, or in journals he kept, about such disparate subjects as the female enigma, the ability of civilian populations to endure strategic bombing, the role of China in world affairs, and the dark sides of human nature.

In a moment of self-recognition, perhaps, he jotted down a line, attributed to Tennyson, from a pulpy short story in Collier’s magazine: The most virtuous hearts have a touch of hell’s own fire in them.

“He was struck by what he was learning about men,” said Albert Upton, a favorite college instructor with whom Dick corresponded. “It was the first opportunity that he had ever had, I think, to see how much evil there is in the world around you, not just how much evil there is in Shanghai or Timbuktu, but how much evil there may even be in Whittier, California, where supposedly everybody goes to church.” Nixon came to loathe the disorder and waste of war. Writing to Upton, he spoke of the need for moral rearmament, a Christian movement that taught brotherhood, peace, and spiritual purity. His heroes were Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, who had tried to build a structure for peace and convey America’s democratic values to the world. “Men’s hearts wait upon us,” Wilson had said in his first inaugural—words that Nixon would one day cite in speeches. “Who dares fail to try?”

There is cool and there is square, and Richard Milhous Nixon was nothing if not square. Duty called. Work got done. Yet he was no martinet, and something of a happy finagler, treating his enlisted men to a ham dinner after helping to “liberate” the meat from a passing plane and finding beer for the Seabees, who in turn built a comfortable hut—complete with shower—for Nick and his fellow officers. He was generous with the loot. Pilots relished the offerings at “Nick’s Snack Shop,” the hut at the airfield where they could wind down over hamburgers, coffee, or cold pineapple juice between missions. He learned how to cuss. And for a good Quaker boy, raised in a pious...

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