Nixon biographer John Farrell explains how he accounts for the president’s embattled psyche (Interview)

Historians in the News
tags: Nixon, John Farrell



The ghost of Richard Nixon seems to be hovering over our political moment, with paranoia once again gripping the West Wing and talk of wiretapping commanding column inches. But for all the comparisons between Nixon and Donald Trump—a fondness for ranting about perceived enemies, a distaste for norms and niceties, a collection of morally grotesque top advisers—Nixon and Trump are also different in crucial ways. In his new book on the 37th president of the United States, Richard Nixon: The Life, John A. Farrell tells Nixon’s life story in a single volume. The book is full of harsh assessments of—and fresh reporting on—Nixon’s dirty tricks. But Farrell also does his best to humanize Nixon for readers and explain the origins of the former president’s inner demons.

I spoke by phone with Farrell, who has also written books about Clarence Darrow and Tip O’Neill. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the two warring sides of Nixon, his strange relationship with JFK, and the similarities between the Nixon tapes and a certain person’s late-night tweets. ...

One paradox of your book is that Nixon is simultaneously extremely dishonest and extremely sincere.

I’m not a psychologist, but I was struck by the fact that the two sides of him seemed to mirror the two sides of his parents. His father was really an unlikable person. He was a blowhard. He worked his family to the bone. He used to hire Dick’s cousins to help out in the family stores, and then he would leave dimes on the windowsill so that when they were cleaning, they would come across the dimes, and he would test them to make sure they weren’t cheating him. That’s the kind of guy he was. He once refused to carry groceries for an eight-month-pregnant woman who lived across the street because he was feuding with them over something. Just a real rough guy and a crude sort of populist as well.

His mother came from progressive Republicans who admired Teddy Roosevelt, Robert La Follette, Woodrow Wilson. The western Quakers were different from the eastern Quakers but still had that Quaker tradition of pacifism and brotherhood. But she was a little bit weird in her own way, in that she was something like JFK’s mother, a religious zealot who would retreat into her closet to pray. The most famous remark that Nixon ever said about her was, “My mother never told me that she loved me, nor did she have to because I knew.” And that was typical Nixon to always add the qualifier that undermined the first part of the sentence.

So I think that you had these two warring sides in him, and his own personality had equal parts of this dreamy Quaker vision to do something great and look great in the eyes of his mom, and at the same time, the lessons that he had learned from his father. There was a great anecdote that I didn’t put in the book of Nixon campaigning in ’68, and a Secret Service guy walking down the aisle of the airplane, and there is Nixon pounding his hand into the armrest of his chair saying, “Got to be tougher. Got to be tougher. Got to be tougher.” So that’s my armchair psychology. ...




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