Jonathan Mirsky

His dark materials | 12 October 2017

His fans never realised how dark, scheming and vengeful he was. And, astonishingly, he got away with many of his crimes

In this giant, prodigiously sourced and insightful biography, John A. Farrell shows how Richard Milhous Nixon was the nightmare of the age for many Americans, even as he won years of near-adulation from many others. One can only think of Donald Trump. Nixon appealed to lower- and  lower-middle-class whites from the heartland, whose hatred of the press and the east-coast elite, and feelings of having been short-changed and despised by snobs, held steady until their hero and champion unmistakably broke the law and had to resign his second-term presidency.

Nixon won a smashing re-election in 1972, even as it was apparent that the White House was awash with skulduggery. His closest aides were caught, arrested and charged with breaking into the Watergate complex, where there were Democrat offices — though Farrell contends that Nixon gave no express orders for these and similar acts.

Other cronies hoped to discover embarrassing documents in the files of the psychiatrist treating Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the revealing Pentagon Papers, and preserved the infamous Oval Office tapes in which Nixon confided his darkest thoughts against his enemies. The president nearly got away with all of it. Farrell quotes Nixon as longing to be feared as a madman. The only two men he truckled to were Dwight Eisenhower, who used Nixon for his dirtier tricks, and Mao, to whom Nixon promised he would betray Taiwan.

Even when he was totally exposed as a villain, liar and schemer, he was able to resign from the White House and was pardoned by his vice-president rather than having to undergo the ordeal of impeachment and ignominious removal from office. And he lived on, wealthy, often admired, and conceding only gradually, in an evasive, self-justifying way, that some of the things he had done
 were unwise, careless, wrong and even possibly illegal.

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