A review of Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, by Conrad Black

On March 3, Conrad Black reported to Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida. The Canadian-British newspaper magnate was starting a 78-month sentence following his conviction on charges of fraud and obstruction of justice. Before going to prison, Black finished a massive biography of Richard Nixon. Some reviewers have dismissed the book as one crook's effort to rehabilitate another.

That judgment is off base. Although Black sympathizes with his subject, he finds much to criticize. He accuses Nixon of "self-righteous hypocrisy" in the Alger Hiss spy case. Black tells of a "shabby ploy" at the 1952 GOP convention in which Nixon publicly backed California Governor Earl Warren while privately working for Dwight Eisenhower. Of Nixon's mockery of Watergate defendants who were "stonewalling" on his behalf, Black writes: "Nixon was plumbing a new depth of cynicism in this fetid affair."

He reserves harsher judgments for others. He applies the term "rutting panther" both to John F. Kennedy and Jesse Jackson. He sneers at "heart-on-sleeve, flannel-mouthed leftists" and repeatedly charges the news media with treating Nixon unfairly. Drawing on firsthand knowledge, he paints a damning picture of Nixon's key foreign policy advisor: "Kissinger always has been an inexhaustible storehouse of nasty opinions about almost everyone. Only a few extremely powerful or intimate people are exempt from his rather unattractive habit of running down everyone, no matter how congenial he is with the subjects when he sees them."

Such observations are the book's most engrossing aspect. Largely absent is the primary-source research that one might expect from such a volume. The endnotes show that Black drew heavily on secondary sources, with only a modest amount of archival work. He often cites Nixon: The Education of a Politician (1987), the first volume of Stephen E. Ambrose's comprehensive trilogy. Unfortunately, he seems to have overlooked the best-researched account of Nixon's early political career, Irwin Gellman's The Contender (1999). Buffs can also pick a few factual nits. Black says that Representative Jerry Voorhis, who lost his seat to Nixon in 1946, got his graduate degree at Claremont College. It was actually Claremont Graduate School. (That distinction is a big deal in Claremont.) In his section on the 1950s, he labels Ronald Reagan as a "former" Democrat and Walter Cronkite as "legendary." Neither adjective would apply until the following decade.

Another limitation is uneven coverage of Nixon's policies. On the one hand, Black's treatment of international affairs is extensive. Although critics have slammed him for appearing to airbrush episodes like the overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende, he does offer a good deal of detail on Nixon's diplomatic and military strategies. On the other hand, he tends to slight economics and domestic policy. He gives only a casual mention to the decision to impose wage and price controls. In his memoirs, Nixon himself offered a deeper, tougher appraisal. The decision, he wrote, "was politically necessary and immensely popular in the short run. But in the long run I believe that it was wrong. The piper must always be paid, and there was an unquestionably high price for tampering with the orthodox economic mechanisms."

Similarly, Black skates across poverty policy, claiming that Nixon "was an early champion of welfare reform." He implies that Nixon's 1969 proposal foreshadowed the overhaul that passed in 1996. The Clinton-era measure ended the federal entitlement, shifted the policy focus to workfare, and devolved authority to the states; Nixon's Family Assistance Plan would have gone in the opposite direction. As a Nixon advisor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan crafted the plan, which centered on a $1,600 basic federal benefit for a family of four. In his book about its defeat, Moynihan quoted Nixon as saying: "I don't give a damn about the work requirement. This is the price of getting the $1,600."

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Black's research and policy analysis may be faulty, but his timing is superb. As the 2008 presidential race unfolds, this book reminds us that Nixon's career anticipated key features of contemporary politics. There has been much talk lately about the "latte liberals" who played such a big part in the early Democratic primaries. The term is fairly recent, but the concept was familiar to Nixon. During his first term in Congress, he fought liberal intellectuals over the Alger Hiss spy case. Whittaker Chambers, the repentant ex-Communist who exposed the story, contrasted "the glittering Hiss forces" with Nixon and his fellow anti-Communists. "The inclusive fact about them," wrote Chambers, in Witness, "is that, in contrast to the pro-Hiss rally, most of them, regardless of what they had made of themselves, came from the wrong side of the railroad tracks."

Hiss did not hide his disdain. Black recounts a hearing in which Hiss told Nixon: "I attended Harvard Law School. I believe yours was Whittier." Hiss erred in two ways. First, he got his facts wrong: Nixon received his legal education at Duke Law School. More important, Hiss's hauteur made it easier for Nixon to portray him as a villain. (It also helped, as declassified documents later confirmed, that Hiss was guilty as sin.) Nearly all of Hiss's supporters were patriotic and well-intentioned, but a fair number shared his arrogance. "No feature of the Hiss case is more obvious, or more troubling as history," wrote Chambers, "than the jagged fissure, which it did not so much open as reveal, between the plain men and women of the nation, and those who affected to act, think, and speak for them."

For decades, the "jagged fissure" would work to Nixon's advantage. As president, he framed the debate over Vietnam as a conflict between the "silent majority" and long-haired protesters from elite colleges. Vice President Agnew denounced "an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals." Ever since Nixon, Democratic leaders have repeatedly left themselves open to the same kind of attack. In 1988, Michael Dukakis told Iowa farmers that they might want to grow Belgian endive. In 2000, Al Gore sighed his way through a key debate. In 2004, John Kerry bragged that foreign leaders wanted him to win. The Bush family is hardly from the wrong side of the railroad tracks. But facing such opponents, the 41st and 43rd presidents managed to cast themselves as champions of the plain people against Ivy League twits.

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Observers often bemoan the negativity of today's campaigns, but Nixon was playing in a rough league more than half a century ago. In the 1950 California Senate race, his supporters called Democratic candidate Helen Gahagan Douglas "the pink lady," suggesting that she was a pale version of a Red. (In those days, "Red" meant Communist, not Republican.) Even Nixon admirers must cringe at his 1952 attack on President Harry Truman, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson as "traitors to the high principles in which many of the nation's Democrats believe." He joked that Stevenson got a degree from "Acheson's College of Cowardly Communist Containment," a line that seems especially nasty and inappropriate in light of Acheson's later reputation as a hero of anti-Communism.

These tactics prompted the cartoonist Herblock to depict Nixon as a sewer rat and Douglas to dub him "Tricky Dick." That much is familiar. But as Black explains, Nixon's foes were just as venomous, if not more so. Douglas accused him of "nice, unadulterated fascism," and, evoking Mussolini's Blackshirts, referred to "the backwash of Republican young men in dark shirts." On the eve of the 1956 election, Stevenson capped his second presidential campaign by alluding to Eisenhower's heart attack the year before: "Distasteful as this matter is, I must say bluntly that every piece of scientific evidence we have, every lesson of history and experience, indicates that a Republican victory tomorrow would mean that Richard M. Nixon probably would be President of this country within the next four years." Black rightly notes that such comments "were more contemptible than anything Nixon had come up with."

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Nixon, of course, was far more than the instigator and target of political attacks. He was a shrewd political strategist and tactician. Whether or not they care to admit it, today's top political leaders are following political trails that Nixon marked out. After his narrow 1960 loss to JFK and his crushing defeat in the 1962 California gubernatorial race, his name became synonymous with "pathetic loser." Yet he managed to come back and win the GOP presidential nomination in 1968. How did he do it? In part, he benefited from his competitors' weaknesses. Michigan Governor George Romney flamed out in a blaze of ineptitude. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller stood too far to the left for most Republicans and dithered about entering the race. California Governor Ronald Reagan was not quite ready, having served less than two years in public office.

But Nixon had to work very hard to exploit the opportunity. The nomination fight was more of a close-run thing than Black suggests. Nixon won with 692 delegates, a mere 25 more than he needed. The loser image still weighed him down, and no party faction saw him as one of their own. Conversely, however, he positioned himself so that most Republican leaders considered him acceptable. He won endorsements from conservatives like John Tower, Barry Goldwater, and Strom Thurmond. He also got the support of the most famous moderate of them all: Dwight Eisenhower.

In 2008, John McCain won the nomination in a similar way. His opponents—including George Romney's son—washed out for a variety of reasons, leaving him as the last man standing. Like Nixon, he won grudging acceptance from the party's wings. Economic conservatives regretted his opposition to tax cuts but consoled themselves that he was a foe of pork-barrel spending. Social conservatives still smarted from his immigration bill and his attacks on the Religious Right, but he was able to point to a pro-life voting record.

Even Democrats have taken Nixonian approaches. Obama's "we are one nation" rhetoric could have come straight from Nixon's 1969 inaugural. During the Texas primary campaign, Hillary Clinton ran an ad playing up her qualifications to handle a crisis. It pictured a phone ringing in the White House in the middle of the night.

Your vote will decide who answers that call, whether it's someone who already knows the world's leaders, knows the military—someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world. It's 3 a.m., and your children are safe and asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?

This spot echoed a 1968 Nixon ad:

Think about it: when the decisions of one man can affect the future of your family for generations to come, what kind of a man do you want making those decisions? Think about it: who is the one man who has the experience and the qualifications to lead America in these troubled, dangerous times? Nixon's the one.

Don't expect politicians to credit Nixon as an inspiration. For many voters, his reputation remains radioactive. But if you had to pick the political figure who did the most to shape and model the way we practice politics today, Nixon would indeed be the one.