Sunday, August 25, 2013

Conrad Black's Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full 1

I started Conrad Black's 2007 biography of Richard Nixon, entitled Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full.  I was initially hesitant to read Black's book for My Year (or More) of Nixon, since I already have enough books about Nixon to read, plus Black's book is really long (like, over 1,000 pages).  But I found myself visiting Amazon repeatedly to see if the price of Black's book had gone down.  I decided not to buy Black's book, but I checked it out from the library, so I could see if I wanted to read it.  Now, I'm reading it.  I'll see over time if I made a good choice!

I haven't read anything earthshakingly new about Nixon in Black's book up to this point, and I had to get used to Black's prose.  Moreover, after reading Roger Morris' detailed and extensively-documented tome about Nixon's early life and political career up to (and including) 1952, I found Black's discussion of Nixon's childhood, college years, and time at Duke Law School to be very disappointing.  But I'm finding as I continue to read Black's book that I am enjoying it more and more.  Black has been accused by reviewers of being pro-Nixon, of seeing Nixon in a sympathetic light because Black himself has had legal problems (and that accusation, incidentally, is one reason that I was motivated to read Black's book).  But, in my reading thus far, Black strikes me as fair-minded.  I think there are times when he acts as if he is some God-like narrator who knows for certain what really happened, and that gets on my nerves: at least Morris backed up more of his narrative with eyewitness testimony.  But I commend Black for sifting through the strengths and weaknesses of pro- and anti-Nixon narratives.  For example, in his section on Richard Nixon's 1946 Congressional race against Democratic incumbent Jerry Voorhis, Black disputes that the Committee of 100 that asked Nixon to run were huge industrialists, yet he also acknowledges that Nixon received a lot of money for his campaign, and that Nixon's portrayal of Voorhis' record was not particularly accurate.  Overall, Black steers a middle-ground between pro- and anti-Nixon narratives.

I also enjoy when Black calls out Nixon's BS.  For instance, Nixon in his 1946 campaign liked to appeal to his background in the Navy in World War II, and Nixon would talk about what his fellow Navy-men in the foxholes wanted in terms of political policy.  Black says that, for one, Nixon technically was not in a foxhole, and, two, even if he were in a foxhole, the men with him there would probably not be discussing politics with him!

I'm also noticing that Black keeps bringing up Franklin Roosevelt.  Black sometimes compares Nixon to Roosevelt: for example, Black notes that both were not good businessmen.  Black also defends Roosevelt against the right-wing charge that he sold out Eastern Europe to the Soviets.  And Black appears to regard the New Deal as something that was alleviating the Great Depression (on some level).  Black is largely regarded as a conservative, and he seems to understand the concerns of business-people who were opposed to the New Deal.  But I appreciate his sympathetic, albeit three-dimensional, portrayal of Franklin Roosevelt.  Incidentally, Black wrote a massive biography of FDR, and I may someday read that, alongside pro-New Deal and conservative anti-New Deal works, as well as Amity Shlaes' The Forgotten Man.  Black in his biography of Nixon may be bringing up Roosevelt continually to remind us that he wrote a book on FDR.  I prefer to think, though, that Black just can't get FDR out of his system!

This is not exactly the post that I was planning to write today.  I was intending to write about what Black says about how Nixon's social challenges actually made him into an effective politician.  I think I'll save that post for tomorrow.

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