Richard Nixon was a contradictory and tragic figure. He had a keen mind and was an incredibly hard worker. At the same time, he was vengeful, paranoid and driven and “he got us deeper into the Vietnam War,” says John Farrell, author of new biography about the 37th president.
“His hate was his tragic flaw that brought him down in the end,” Farrell said Thursday during an appearance at Flagler College in St. Augustine.
Farrell’s book, Richard Nixon: The Life, went on sale March 28. It has gotten a lot of attention as journalists, scholars and historians compare Nixon to Donald J. Trump.
“I think it’s a great cautionary tale how a good person can be dragged down by his tragic flaws,” said Farrell, a former White House correspondent for the Boston Globe.
Farrell said he wrote the book to try to explain Nixon to young people who were born after the Vietnam War ended and had no memory of Watergate and the president’s 1974 resignation.
He said his son John helped him realize that millennials have a different view of Vietnam than Baby Boomers. John, then 27, had gone backpacking through Southeast Asia and planned to ride a motorcycle through Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.
Once he returned, his father asked, “How did you get treated?”
“Oh, fine,” his son replied. “They like Americans.”
His father couldn’t quite understand how that could be considering the horrific toll of the Vietnam War, which left more than 3 million people dead.
“Dad, they won,” his son said.
Nixon’s popular image is that of a “evil, dastardly president,” Farrell said. Young people see Nixon as a caricature. He’s the disembodied head on Futurama, the animated sci-fi sitcom. His face is on the mask that Hollywood bad guys wear when pulling bank heists. And he’s the only president to resign in disgrace.
Farrell said he wanted to explore Nixon’s human side. He discovered that Nixon’s father was a stubborn and quick-tempered “jerk” and conspiracy theorist who hired family members at his grocery store so he wouldn’t have to pay them a full wage.
His mother was a Quaker who repressed her emotions and often shut herself in a closet to pray.
“Nixon famously said, ‘I never once heard my mother say I love you,'” Farrell said.
Nixon was an awkward middle child who grew up in Whittier, California.
He was tormented by the deaths of two brothers. One died of tuberculosis, the other of meningitis.
While wealthy classmates took off for Ivy League schools, Nixon was forced to stay at home and help out his family. That gave him a “chip on his shoulder” that “gnawed at him all his life,” Farrell said.
Despite his difficult straits, Nixon worked hard, furiously scribbling his plans and ideas on long yellow legal pads. He eventually graduated from law school. He served in the U.S. Navy and was city attorney in Whittier.
He ran for Congress in 1946 and defeated a popular Democrat named Jerry Vorhis. Even then, he was willing to play dirty. He had suggested, with little evidence, that Vorhis was a Communist. And Nixon’s notes showed that he had contemplated planting spies in his opponent’s camp.
Nixon also showed a progressive side. He became friends with such figures as Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. He spoke out in favor of civil rights.
He was vice president under Dwight Eisenhower, but lost the presidential race to Kennedy in 1960.
He thought Kennedy stole the presidency from him. Farrell said Nixon’s daughter, Julie, told him that her father vowed “he was never going to be out-cheated again.”
Nixon won the presidency in 1968, defeating Hubert Humphrey.
He was re-elected in 1972 despite his inability to end the war in Vietnam.
While researching his book, Farrell discovered evidence that Nixon had scuttled a peace plan that then-President Lyndon Johnson was pushing in 1968. That may have prolonged the war and raised the death toll, Farrell said.
“Vietnam, to me, is a worse black mark than Watergate,” the author said.