Donald Trump’s excesses lend an air of novelty to his presidency: we have never, we tell ourselves, seen the likes of him. But one of the big takeaways of Richard Nixon: The Life is how derivative the current commander-in-chief truly is—in his methods, his appeal and at least some of his social pathologies. In John A. Farrell’s comprehensive yet entertaining biography of Nixon, the Watergate scandal is the shabby coda to an American tragedy, featuring an outsider who scrambled to the highest office in the land, yet couldn’t shed the sense that he didn’t belong. Farrell, a former White House correspondent for the Boston Globe, and a member of that newspaper’s famed Spotlight investigative team, recently spoke to Maclean’s.
Q: You’ve spent the past five years writing about a president who was given to narcissism and paranoia; who was known for dirty tricks, political smear-jobs, and spying on opponents; who rode to the presidency on the support of angry white voters who felt taken for granted. I guess my question is: wouldn’t it have been easier to just stay on as a White House correspondent?
A: (Laughing) I’ve had friends suggest I had some exceptional glimpse into the future, and that I knew this was going to happen. But I, like all of them, thought Hillary Clinton was going to win.
Q: There has been some revisionism and even nostalgia toward Nixon in recent years. Why?
A: For one thing, the baby boomers are dying out. So the influence of liberal historians who hated Nixon has ebbed. Even the passions about Vietnam have. My son, who’s approaching 30, went to Vietnam. To his generation, it’s a beautiful vacation spot—he rented a motorcycle and rode from Saigon to Hanoi. And Nixon’s great achievement of going to China continues to resonate. We’ve had 50 years of peaceful co-existence with China, and people have come to appreciate the break that made in the big icefall of the Cold War.
I also think that with each successive Republican administration, there’s an inclination for progressive Republicans and even Democrats to look back with nostalgia on the Nixon years, when so much was done on the environment, and even on social issues. The thing that works against that is the White House tapes, which have been dribbling out for 30 years. Each one of them reignites the revulsion in people, because they show his ugly side. Which was pretty ugly.
Q: You’ve unearthed evidence that reinforces the worst assumptions about him: namely, that Nixon plotted in 1968 as a presidential candidate to sabotage Lyndon Johnson’s peace talks aimed at ending the war in North Vietnam. The implication is Nixon persuaded the South Vietnamese leadership to stall the negotiations. Take me to the moment when you first saw this material.
A: These files had been opened by the Nixon Library in 2007. Anybody else could have seen them, but you have to go through notes about picking up dry cleaning, or whether the gardener should be getting a $5 raise. In the midst of all this are these notes that [Nixon aide and eventual chief of staff] Bob Haldeman kept as a campaign manager from the late summer though the fall of 1968. Nixon’s lawyers had fought long and hard to keep these ones away from the public during his life. They were all on these legal pads.
Q: What did they show you?
A: In Haldeman’s notes, we for the first time have Nixon actually saying, “Keep [Nixon intermediary] Anna Chennault working on the South Vietnamese” for “any way we can monkey-wrench” Johnson’s initiative. Bits and pieces of this had come out over the years, but Nixon had always denied personal involvement in it. Here we have it coming straight from his mouth.
Q: How did the new information affect your own understanding of the man?
A: The great unanswerable is whether these peace talks would have ended in a settlement. But [Nixon’s Democratic opponent Hubert] Humphrey would have had more incentive to cut and get out. My argument is that Watergate, while a horrible, wrenching episode of American history, did not end up with several million human beings dying. Whereas keeping the war going for another six years—with what happened in Cambodia, and the Vietnam War going another four years, and to the Vietnamese boat people—cost at least hundreds of thousands of lives. In the book, I say this was a more heinous act than the Watergate cover-up.
Q: What signs of Nixon’s political legacy have you seen in the rise of Trump?
A: They both campaigned on the politics of grievance, going to the stressed, worried, middle-to-low-class Americans and saying, “The elites are taking it all away from you, and giving it to minorities.” Nixon used several issues this way, most notably forced busing [for racial integration of schools]. He also used law and order. In Trump’s expressions to his core vote, you hear that gnawing at racial fear and resentment against immigrants. You see the creation of great threats that don’t actually exist but make a scared, economically oppressed family look around for a solution other than what mainstream Democrats and Republicans have been pushing.
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Q: You’d hope Nixon’s downfall would scare leaders away from the dark arts of campaigning. I now wonder whether he instead provided an instruction manual for the unscrupulous.
A: He was definitely a pioneer. Resentment of the elites has existed in American politics going back to the 1880s. But the Second World War was a great unifier, and to some extent the Cold War was. Nixon was the guy who revived this whole strain of the little guy, the forgotten. And he finally put his brand on it when he called it the “Great, Silent Majority.” He was also John the Baptist to Joe McCarthy, in spreading fears about Communism in the way that Trump preys on fears about Islamic terrorism.
Q: What about their scandals?
A: It’s amazing. Both Watergate and the “Russia-gate” scandals involve break-ins, of sorts, of the Democratic National Committee. And since Trump’s become president you have this branding of the press as an enemy of the American people. Nixon was very anti-press, but he at least had a regard for the First Amendment. His ragings against the press were mostly done in private.
Q: Nixon was arguably the last president—maybe short of Obama—to show great faith in the capacity of government to effect positive change. Yet his legacy was to undermine faith in the honesty of political leaders. Do you think that fed into the anti-government attitude so widespread in America today?
A: Faith in government was not undermined so much by Nixon. He was a man of that time, and there were majorities in the polls that showed a belief in government activism. Knee-jerk anti-government feeling really came with Reagan and Barry Goldwater and the hard-right conservative movement.
Q: He kept everyone uncertain about what he would do next. On Vietnam, he deliberately played the madman. Do you think Trump might be playing the same games?
A: Definitely acting crazy is a way of scaring the Mexicans or the Chinese or the Europeans into giving better trade accommodations. It certainly appeals to his base, which wants to believe he’s going to be a typical politician who moderates his principles. But we haven’t had any big tests yet. As time plays out, and we see what he really does with the budget, health care and deporting immigrants, then we’ll know how much was a madman act and how much of it he truly believes.
Q: I was struck by your description of Nixon’s defining paradoxes: “The idealist versus the cynic, father’s son versus mother’s boy, trickster versus statesman.” Those kinds of contradictions speak to complexity and depth. I’m not sure I see anything like that in Trump.
A: My Republican friends—and these are regular, middle-class Republicans who voted for him—say look, this is Trump from the Art of the Deal, Trump the showman. They say he’s staking out an extreme position and portraying himself as a crazy guy so when you bargain with him, you start closer to the centre, you begin to negotiate with yourself. That’s very much what Nixon tried to do with his madman act. It could be that in his own way, this is what Trump is trying to do.
Q: Given a choice between Nixon and the current occupant, who would you rather see in the White House?
A: As long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, I’d rather it were Nixon.