The Invincible Quest: The Life of Richard Milhous Nixon
By Conrad Black
Quercus £30, 1,120 pages
FT bookshop price: £24

Conrad Black, the gifted biographer of Franklin D. Roosevelt, undertook a thankless and almost impossible task when he decided to write a flattering portrayal of Nixon. Black represents Nixon as an ordinary patriotic American, ambitious and accomplished, hard-working and determined to succeed.

Black is too canny and careful to ignore entirely the defects in this complex and ruthless man. But he opens The Invincible Quest with a startling statement that sets the tone for the whole work: “Richard Milhous Nixon was one of America’s greatest leaders, and probably its most controversial President.”

Black’s apologia for Nixon is neither convincing nor compelling; it gains nothing from its exaggerated awe for certain of his accomplishments. Nixon was certainly America’s most controversial president. By no measure, however, was he “one of America’s greatest political leaders”. To make him the equal of either of the Roosevelts, Theodore or Franklin, or Harry Truman in the 20th century, or Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln in the 19th, is to stretch the truth.

Several of these presidents have no place in Black’s pantheon, given his political and ideological leanings. Even his glowing tribute to Dwight Eisenhower, who treated Nixon as a servant, is somewhat surprising, particularly given the general’s readiness to abandon him in 1952 when the scandal over Nixon’s secret funds erupted. Black retells the familiar tale of how Nixon managed to save his political career with his Checkers speech, when he defended himself on television over revelations of his personal slush fund. Nixon went on to be an active vice-president, a willing surrogate for an indolent, ageing and sometimes infirm president.

Black does recognise that Nixon could be treacherous. He showed that trait unmistakably with Earl Warren, for example, whom he was pledged to support for the Republican presidential nomination in 1952 and then betrayed. This was, of course, a minor blemish compared with others which offended American liberals, who complained of how unfairly he treated his political enemies, using the communist menace to gain political traction.

Nixon was incontestably a hard-ball player who managed to climb the greasy pole. Black is occasionally candid about Nixon’s shortcomings – he documents, for example, his ineptness in personal relations. But Black treats him far too lightly.

To exonerate him, he emphasises how much Nixon helped surreptitiously to diminish Senator Joseph McCarthy’s political stature, and greatly exaggerates his role in the senator’s final downfall. He rarely condemns his more sordid political practices and tactics – his argument is that their success over many years is their ultimate justification. And he never asks how a purportedly devout religious Quaker could so completely discard his pacifist beliefs to become an unabashed warrior.

More convincing is his praise of Nixon’s foreign policy. Black is instructive in interpreting Nixon’s relations with both Eisenhower and Kissinger; he fails, however, to explain what made each so wary of him, so dubious about his character and intentions.

Black is remarkably factual in his lengthy explication of what happened at Watergate, the mistakes Nixon made in his attempts to conceal what he knew, and, ultimately, the dignity he purportedly displayed in announcing his resignation. Black represents Nixon’s “farewell address” as a “masterpiece”, to remind us of George Washington’s more historically significant speech – an exaggeration that will convince few who choose to read Nixon’s words again. In Black’s constant traducing of the small men who hounded Nixon out of office, he shows his bias unmistakably, going so far as to suggest that in the end, the president, like his mother, was a Quaker who knew how to turn the other cheek.

Nixon once said of Mamie Eisenhower: “I really like that Mamie. She doesn’t give a shit for anybody – not a shit!” Nixon unwittingly followed her example. He failed to build institutions that survived him, he left no oral or written testament to serve as a useful guide for future generations. In the end, Black is partially right; Nixon was indeed common. But that condition did not allow him to become great.

Stephen Graubard is the author of ‘The Presidents’ (Penguin)

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