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Nixon’s Presidential Legacy: Is Trump Following Suit?

Richard Nixon gives his trademark “victory” sign while in Paoli, PA | July, 1968 © Ollie Atkins, White House photographer

Recent accusations regarding connections between the Trump campaign — and possibly members of his current administration — and Russia have had many looking back to the embattled presidency of Richard M. Nixon. The release of a new Nixon biography from John A. Farrell, Richard Nixon: The Life, has proven to be especially timely.

Clocking in at 752 pages, the book might look intimidating to the newly political, or those just looking for an overview of Nixon’s life, but appearances can be deceiving. This is a propulsive, well-written read that carries you away with the force of a runaway river.

Nixon is a compelling enough character to warrant a deep read on his own, but those who come to Nixon: A Life looking for points of commonality between him and Trump can certainly find them. While it remains to be seen as to whether Trump’s percolating Russian scandal will boil into another Watergate, there are already apt comparisons to be made between the two men’s relationships with the media, as this excerpt shows:

“Nixon remained exorbitantly sensitive and continued to suffer from the unhealed wounds he attributed to the press. ‘His antipathy…was really very, very intense — etched into his mind and attitude,’ said James Keough, a Nixon speechwriter and biographer. ‘It became a spiral: Nixon reflecting to the press he didn’t like it; the press hitting Nixon’s raw nerve. Just a real visceral feeling…He could not excise himself on it. It would burn on him and burn.'”

Nixon’s extreme sensitivity, vindictiveness, and power hunger were the fatal flaws that propelled him toward the scandal that ended his presidency: what he called an “indelible stain.” These are also flaws that some have observed in Trump.

Nixon’s stain, a nearly oblique mark, has all but blotted out the things he did get right: an end to the Vietnam War, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, a nuclear weapons treaty, and the beginnings of a relationship with China.

Farrell’s biography isn’t an attempt at revisionist history, and Nixon isn’t a saint. He deserves his cloudy legacy. Many of the good things he did were motivated by less than idealistic reasons, he had precious little respect for the constitution he was sworn to uphold, and he could hold a grudge unlike anyone else.

All of that said, Nixon earned his place in the history of our nation, for better or worse, and Farrell’s book captures the complexity of his legacy in a lucid and eminently readable fashion. The final chapter of the Trump presidency has yet to be written, and whether his own presidency will continue to bear comparisons to Nixon’s will be entirely up to him.