Nixon biographer chronicles legacy of former president

October 20, 2017

Faculty and students gathered Tuesday, Nov. 17 to hear John Farrell discuss his recent biography of Richard Nixon, titled “Richard Nixon: The Life.” Farrell answered audience questions and drew comparisons between Nixon’s administration and the current administration.

The 50th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s political comeback is coming next year, spurring new coverage and evaluations of Nixon’s presidency. In addition, the similarities between the Trump and Nixon administrations gave Farrell’s talk a greater sense of importance.

John Farrell, a prize-winning biographer, worked at The Boston Globe with Brandeis Professor Eileen McNamara, who introduced Farrell on Tuesday. He has since worked as career journalist at The Denver Post and National Journal and has contributed to Politico Magazine and The Atlantic.

Farrell gave a short history lesson, both of Nixon’s rise to political fame and of the Nixon administration itself. Farrell delved into Nixon’s psyche, describing how his self-conscious personality affected his politics.

“He was plagued by doubt and intense and painful insecurity. Nixon was the Ago to his own Othello,” he said, referencing the Shakespeare play. “[Nixon] was constantly whispering in his own ear, ‘you’re no good…they don’t like you, they’re operating against you,’” Farrell said of the former President, “and it came to me that the original title of the book was “Richard Nixon: An American Tragedy” because…this took on tragic proportions.”

In discussing Nixon’s rise to political power, Farrell focused on the similarities between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, who, he argued, had comparable childhoods. Moving on to Nixon’s later life, Farrell examined how Nixon came to be known by the famous moniker “Tricky Dick,” due to his evasive strategies with the press. He had a tendency to deny his statements or change his story after the fact.

In a brief anecdote, Farrell described how the press began carrying around tape recorders, which were quite large at the time, to catch Nixon’s exact wording.

The advent of television affected Nixon as a politician, as Farrell explained, saying, “With television though, Nixon, this very awkward person, had found his way out… the response from journalists in his fumbling attempts at one-on-ones was just awful… And so television became his way to evade them, to get around them.” Perhaps one of Nixon’s greatest TV successes was the “Checkers Speech” where Nixon used TV to present himself an everyday man.

Farrell painted a picture of Nixon more complex than what may be found in a usual history book. He dove into Nixon’s personal insecurities and anxieties, describing how Nixon’s personal struggles were so pervasive in his life that Farrell almost named the book after that topic.

Farrell noted the attitudes present in both Nixon and Trump’s administrations which vilify the press as the enemy of the administration, and in today’s case, the nation.

“You have a president who just last week tweeted that NBC should be investigated,” Farrell said of Trump. The president’s statement that his government “should take away [NBC’s] broadcast license because of its reporting very reminiscent of what Nixon did, although Nixon did it in secret.”

Farrell concluded by taking questions from the audience on Nixon’s history, the Trump presidency, and current political culture. Though the questions were wide-ranging, there was a clear focus from the students in attendance on how the strategies President Trump employs in communicating with the press are very similar to Nixon’s in their evasive and distracting nature.

“Richard Nixon: The Life” has been reviewed favorably by publications including The New York Times and National Public Radio (NPR), organizations that praise the biography’s relevance to current politics and Farrell’s writing style.

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