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'Nixon: The Life' Humanizes — But Doesn't Rehabilitate

Did Richard Nixon commit treason? Some evidence to that effect has been around for years, specifically in regard to what's become known as the Chennault Affair. According to the theory, Anna Chennault — a Chinese-American Republican insider — sabotaged Lyndon Johnson's efforts to strike a peace deal in Vietnam in October of 1968, and she did so at the direct request of the soon-to-be 37th President.

The purported goal of this treasonous act was to keep the Democrats from scoring a major coup just weeks before the election showdown between Nixon and his Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey. Now, John Farrell's exhaustive new biography Richard Nixon: The Life, presents the Chennault Affair as more than a theory. Farrell substantiates the charges of Nixon's treachery with a slew of new facts, many drawn from a newly unearthed stash of notes written by Nixon's White House Chief of Staff, H. R. Haldeman.

It's bombshell stuff. It's also just one of the book's many revelations. Pulling from recently uncovered diaries, secret reports, and the recorded words of everyone from Nixon aide John Dean to his second White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig, Farrell fills in the cracks and credibly bolsters a range of allegations about Nixon — that he courted favor with white segregationists, that wiretapping electoral adversaries had been in his game plan since the 1940s, and that his defining scandal of Watergate was no anomaly, but the last piece in a decades-long pattern of covert, illegal political machinations. In one especially illuminating chapter, Farrell lifts a rock off of Nixon's 1946 congressional campaign against Democrat Jerry Voorhis in California, uncovering a squirming nest of graft, espionage, and backdoor corporate dealings.

There's a lot to navigate, and Farrell does so with ease. Without dipping into melodrama or hyperbole, he lays out Nixon's rise from a lower-middle-class kid in Yorba Linda named after King Richard the Lionheart to his swiftly acquired identity of "a man of destiny" — as his wife Pat and so many others throughout the years came to view him, for both good and ill. It's hard not to feel for Nixon, the most uncommon "common man" in American political history, even as Farrell probes the depths of his subject's toxic cocktail of envy and self-pity.

Nixon helped build his political persona by railing against the perceived intellectual elite in favor of "the forgotten man" — the forerunner of the Silent Majority as well as today's alarming anti-intellectual hostility — but Farrell paints a poignant portrait of a man who was maneuvered into being "a more temperate, respectable edition of Joe McCarthy" when he assumed the vice presidency under Eisenhower in the early '50s. From his infamous Checkers speech in 1952 to his disastrous campaign against John Kennedy 10 years later, the uncannily resilient Nixon "reset the calculus of American politics," Farrell writes.

If [Nixon's] legacy has been inching toward rehabilitation in recent years, 'The Life' is a much-needed roadblock.

With a mix of morbid fascination and deep empathy, Farrell humanizes Nixon, but he doesn't let him off the hook. The author recasts the story of Watergate, recounted so many times over the past 40 years, as a saga of Shakespearean proportions — but also a logical, fatalistically inevitable outgrowth of the corruption and deception Nixon had spent a career cultivating. If his legacy has been inching toward rehabilitation in recent years, The Life is a much-needed roadblock.

For all the book's high-level access to the notes and oral histories of movers-and-shakers like Haldeman and Haig, some of its most telling and intimate details come from humbler sources. Farrell draws a vast amount of information from interviews with family, friends, supporters, and associates that were conducted early in Nixon's presidency, yet left sealed until 2012. "Nixon always seemed to be two people: one, very quiet, very much in the background, and actually somewhat morose," observes Hollis Dole, who was Nixon's navy tentmate when he served in the South Pacific during World War II. "But when the chips were down it was just as if he were electrified. He knew what to say, how to say it, and he became quite animated and smiled." That dichotomy between brooding schemer and extroverted leader has long defined the Nixon dynamic. But with The Life, Farrell has etched those history-shaking contradictions into the most vivid — and the most startling — relief to date.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

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