Richard M. Nixon

A Life in Full


By Conrad Black

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From the late 1940s to the mid-1970s, Richard Nixon was a polarizing figure in American politics, admired for his intelligence, savvy, and strategic skill, and reviled for his shady manner and cutthroat tactics. Conrad Black, whose epic biography of FDR was widely acclaimed as a masterpiece, now separates the good in Nixon — his foreign initiatives, some of his domestic policies, and his firm political hand — from the sinister, in a book likely to generate enormous attention and controversy.

Black believes the hounding of Nixon from office was partly political retribution from a lifetime’s worth of enemies and Nixon’s misplaced loyalty to unworthy subordinates, and not clearly the consequence of crimes in which he participated. Conrad Black’s own recent legal travails, though hardly comparable, have undoubtedly given him an unusual insight into the pressures faced by Nixon in his last two years as president and the first few years of his retirement.


Render unto Caesar: The Life and Legacy of Maurice Duplessis
A Life in Progress
Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom


The Meteoric Rise 1913-1953

Chapter One
One of the Common People 1913-1945

— I —

RICHARD MILHOUS NIXON was one of America's greatest political leaders, and probably its most controversial president. He was both brilliant and strangely awkward, but ultimately and uniquely indestructible. And in his perseverance he made many of his countrymen awkward also, throughout a very long career, and after. He would not go away, and lingers yet.
Like much about Richard Nixon, the circumstances of his early years were nondescript. They were not as modest as those of some presidents, though they were certainly modest. There was almost nothing picturesque about them, little levity, but no degeneracy either; no careening, drunken, abusive adults about, none of the romance of the frontier, and not quite, in southern California around the First World War, the full proverbial wholesomeness of traditional, small-town America.
Life was real and life was earnest in the Quaker community of his childhood twenty miles from Los Angeles, which was just about to arise as a colossal and garish city that would influence the world. Young Richard listened to the distant train whistles and the roar of the steam engines in the night, "the sweetest music I've ever heard,"1 and dreamt of the wider world. There was often the scent of citrus groves in the air, but the harsh life of the great ranches and farms and migrant workers, the hucksterism of this early phase of the great trek to California from the East and the Midwest, blended uneasily with the Quakerism of the Nixons and their neighbors. There was little that seemed permanent or even durable, and almost no nearby trace of the long Spanish history in Southern California. Los Angles and its surroundings were just becoming a catchment for the demographic driftwood of America, as New York long had been for Europe.
And there was nothing to suggest that serious, diligent, well-scrubbed little Richard Nixon would incite the political passions of the United States as no one else has, for more than forty years, or that he would change the history of the world. But, of course, he did.
In Richard Nixon's youth, the population of Southern California would grow very quickly, and be recognized as some sort of laboratory for America. Bertrand Russell, an unlikely visitor, called it the "ultimate segregation of the unfit," and Upton Sinclair, the crusading novelist and radical 1934 candidate for governor of California, thought it a paradise of swindlers. The film industry arose and recorded, refracted, foretold human drama and comedy, and dispensed its images of American life to the whole world. Southern California became a precursor of public tastes in many fields, evanescently recruiting vast swaths of America and the world to its fashions and tastes, and repelling many by its insubstantial brazenness.
Richard Milhous Nixon grew up close by this surging Babylon with Quaker parents in a Quaker town, Whittier, named after one of America's leading poets and most illustrious Quakers, John Greenleaf Whittier.
The Quakers, the Society of Friends, had departed the existing Christian churches in seventeenth-century England, rebelling against the political and religious feuding of the time. The English Reformation seesawed back and forth from the Roman Catholic apostate Henry VIII and his Papist (Mary) and Protestant (Elizabeth) daughters, through Cromwell's Puritan Commonwealth, to the officially self-proclaimed Glorious Revolution of 1688. George Fox had started the Society of Friends, taking the name from Christ's assertion that his "friends" were those who did as he "commanded" (John 15:14). Fox founded an unstructured, quietist church, espousing simple dress and tastes, abstinence, temperance, asceticism, and many prophetic secular causes. These included pacifism and the abolition of capital punishment, slavery, and racial discrimination. It was a contemplative church, where divine inspiration would come to the quiet seeker of it. They were good and courageous and idealistic, if somewhat unworldly, and unexciting people.
William Penn brought the Quakers to what became Pennsylvania in 1682, and by the American Revolution a century later, there were fifty thousand of them in the American colonies. The Friends moved west with the rest of the population, establishing communities across the country as the United States spread steadily toward the Pacific.
Richard Nixon's Quaker heritage came from his mother's family, the Milhouses. They had come from the German principalities to England in the seventeenth century and changed their name from Milhausen. They fought with Cromwell in the English Civil War against the Anglo-Catholic King, Charles I. Cromwell rewarded them with land in Ireland, a country Cromwell, for all his Puritanism, suppressed with a severity that must have helped propel the Milhouses into the arms of the Quakers. They emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1729. In 1854, Richard Nixon's great-grandparents, Joshua and Elizabeth Milhous, joined the move westward and decamped from Pennsylvania to Indiana. Joshua Milhous was the model for the protagonist of the novel The Friendly Persuasion, written by another great-grandchild, Richard Nixon's cousin, Jessamyn West. Elizabeth Milhous was a famous preacher, whom Richard Nixon well remembered from her later years, including one occasion when she related the miracle of the loaves and fishes with such exuberance that she showered the congregation with her lunch of sardine sandwiches.2
At the end of the 1880s, Richard Nixon's grandparents, Franklin and Almira Milhous, moved to California. They brought with them their daughter, Hannah, Richard's mother, born in 1885 and named after an aunt and the biblical mother of Samuel. They joined the colony in Whittier, incorporated in 1887, for which occasion the town adopted a bit of doggerel the poet had written for his grandnephew:3
A life not void of pure intent,
With small desert of praise or blame,
The love I felt, the good I meant,
I leave thee with my name.
In a tiny foretaste of what would summarize much of Southern California's future, as historian Roger Morris wrote in his fine history of Richard Nixon's early years, what enveloped the Milhous family in Whittier was a "dusty mix of piety and profiteering."4 This mélange of Low Church Christianity and sleazy commercial dealings would be an important component of the heritage bequeathed by circumstances to Richard Milhous Nixon.
Whittier itself suffered at the hands of California land speculators, "men of no conscience, smooth oily tongued professional land sharks."5 In 1888 there was a bust in land prices, which fell by about 90 percent in Whittier as the population thinned out from a thousand to about four hundred.
The Friends set up their meeting house, and municipal ordinances banned the sale of alcoholic beverages, dance halls, and theaters. One of the earliest inhabitants was Lou Henry, daughter of a local banker, who eventually became Mrs. Herbert Hoover. Franklin and Almira Milhous were joined in Whittier, as the years passed, by two of Franklin's brothers and two of his sisters, and by his mother. Their evening dinners were very well attended, not only by relatives but by the servants (usually African-Americans, Mexicans, or Indians), who sat with their employers, and even by indigent passersby that Almira invited to join them. This too was part of Richard Nixon's heritage - an absence of racial, religious, and economic prejudice, and a respect for everyone, regardless of their financial and social standing. There were participatory scriptural readings before dinner.
Hannah Nixon was a quiet but strong-minded, gentle person, who had a religious apotheosis at a Quaker evangelical meeting when she was fifteen, three years after her family moved to Whittier.
The first Nixons came to America from Ireland in 1731 and settled in Delaware, moving later to Pennsylvania, and in 1853 to Ohio. Richard Nixon's great-grandfather volunteered to take the place of a wealthy man in the Grand Army of the Republic during the Civil War and gave his life for Lincoln and the Union at Cemetery Ridge, on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, in 1863. Richard Nixon's grandfather, Samuel Brady Nixon, was named after a man who, when about to be burned by Indians, seized a papoose and threw it into the conflagration stoked up to consume him, so distracting his executioners that he escaped, running several miles, naked, to elude his pursuers.
The seventeen-year-old Samuel B. Nixon, whose mother died a few months after her husband was killed at Gettysburg, struggled to maintain the family homestead, but it was eventually gaveled down to creditors at a sheriff's sale, and the young family was parceled out among relatives. Samuel Nixon resettled near Richland, Ohio, married, and had five children. The middle child, Francis Anthony Nixon, Richard Nixon's father, was born in 1878. Samuel's wife was afflicted with tuberculosis, which would take a heavy toll on her family, and for two years they moved to West Virginia, and then through the Carolinas and Georgia, in search of a salubrious climate, while Sam worked at odd jobs. Nothing availed and they returned to Ohio, where Richard Nixon's grandmother died in 1886, aged thirty-four.
Again the Nixon family, in its poverty and bereavement, was dispersed among relatives. Samuel Nixon remarried in 1890 and gathered his family again, but Frank Nixon did not get on with his stepmother, who scolded and thrashed him. He went to school only for a few months, when he was thirteen, and his education was very rudimentary. As a teenager he worked in a brick works and raised his own potatoes, and earned a reputation as a dapper dresser, having smarted under the insults of his classmates for the penury of his wardrobe. In 1896, he encountered the Republican presidential candidate and governor of Ohio, William McKinley, who complimented Nixon on his fine-looking horse.6
He was a rough and ready man, fearless and belligerent. He struck out for Colorado while still in his teens, and worked on a sheep farm, in a railway yard and a glass factory, as a telephone installer and an electric company repairman, and finally as a carpenter, becoming very skilled.
He returned to Ohio, to Columbus, and worked for the municipal streetcar company. After five years he was promoted to motorman, and suffered frostbitten feet in the winter, as the motormen were in open, unheated cabs, while passengers and conductors traveled in stove-heated comfort. Frank Nixon, rebuffed both by management and his union in his efforts to get the streetcar cabs heated or enclosed, supported a candidate for state senator who promised to provide a legislated solution. Frank organized motormen and others behind the candidate, campaigning tirelessly for him out of hours, despite exhausting work days, and the candidate was elected and pushed through the law. Frank Nixon, who had shown great pluck and ingenuity, quit before he was fired and moved with another motorman to California. He would start again, having known nothing, as he later said, "but struggle and hardship."
With a letter of introduction from an officer of the Columbus Motormen's union, he became a streetcar driver on the run from Long Beach to Whittier, and moved into a Quaker boarding house in Whittier. His fellow roomers brought him to their church, and here, at a staid Valentine's Day festivity in the Christian Endeavor room of the Whittier Friends' Meeting House, Frank Nixon met Hannah Milhous. It was love at first sight, augmented in Frank's case by the loneliness of a newcomer far from home, and in Hannah's by the omnipresence of her numerous family and especially her overbearing father.
The Milhouses, despite their Quakerism, were not above an affectation to social superiority and looked down on Frank Nixon as a rough-at-the-edges drifter. This impression was heightened when Frank was fired by Pacific Electric as a streetcar driver soon before his wedding, for hitting an automobile at a level crossing. But Frank quickly got another job, as a foreman at one of the large local citrus ranches, and he appeased a major Milhous concern by becoming a Quaker.
Frank Nixon and Hannah Milhous were married in a Quaker ceremony in Whittier on June 2, 1908, and moved into a staff cottage on the ranch where Frank worked. After a few months, with Hannah expecting their first child, Frank again retired his job. They moved in with Hannah's family, and Frank worked for his father-in-law in his plant and tree nursery. This was an awkward arrangement, but while it lasted the couple's first child, Harold Samuel Nixon, named after a pre-Norman English king and Frank Nixon's father, was born, in June 1909.
After a brief foray two hundred miles up-country to try to operate an orange grove on a parcel of Frank Milhous's land, Frank and Hannah Nixon returned and Frank planted a lemon grove on a ten-acre plot he bought on kinfolk terms from his father-in-law at Yorba Linda, fifteen miles from Whittier. At the back of this plot, Frank Nixon used his carpentering skills to build a very simple clapboard bungalow beside the Anaheim ditch, an irrigation and water collection channel.
This little house would become a national historic site, for here Richard Milhous Nixon was born on the cold ninth of January in 1913. He emerged weighing a formidable eleven pounds, with a strong voice and an almost full head of black hair and dark eyebrows, an instant miniature of what he would famously become. (A newborn, tiny version of the adult Richard Nixon is a startling concept.) He was named after Richard the Lion-Heart, brave crusader and king of England from 1189 to 1199.
Richard Nixon was a relatively placid child, serious and studious, and interested in everything. Though not at all effeminate, he liked to play with dolls when he visited families who had little girls. The Nixons kept producing sons; twenty-two months after Richard, Francis Donald Nixon was born. Richard's first memory was of falling off a horse-drawn buggy, driven by his mother, when it turned a sharp corner. One of the wheels inflicted a long but shallow cut in the middle of Richard's head, which required extensive stitching. This caused him to brush his hair straight back, unparted, which he did for the rest of his life, and as a youth it gave him a slightly unfashionable appearance.
Frank Nixon pursued his living first as an orange- and then a lemon-grove owner and operator. The countryside was rolling hills and foothills, turning in the east to the Santa Ana Mountains, and beyond them the taller San Bernardinos. There were sagebrush, cactus, and luxuriant wildflowers, but a lot of semi-desert - soil generally too dry to be ideal for citrus fruit. Dust storms occurred occasionally in the summer, and in winter there were usually a few descents into freezing temperatures.
An astonishing amount of pompous surmise and malicious fiction has been written and portrayed in film about Richard Nixon's upbringing. His mother, though reserved, was affectionate and devoted. His father, though noisy and irascible, was conscientious and not excessively severe. Frank appears to have had the confidence normal for the time in the corrective powers of corporal punishment, but rarely to have had occasion to apply it to Richard. The most frequent cause of such incidents was the boys' inability to avoid swimming or wading in the Anaheim ditch - or, more grandly, canal - which flowed invitingly by their house through the hot summer, but playing in which was forbidden by law, as well as by parents concerned by its swift current.
Richard Nixon was a rather self-contained little boy, with a round face and big, dark eyes. He enjoyed good health, despite a bout of pneumonia when he was four. He was always well turned out and never misbehaved in the presence of adults. The Nixon family revolved around Hannah, who deeply loved her children, never raised her voice, and instilled her religious faith in her husband and sons. While it was a desperately serious environment, it was stable and emotionally solid. "No one projected warmth and affection more than my mother did," Richard recalled. "But she never indulged in the present day custom, which I find nauseating, of hugging or kissing her children or others for whom she had great affection."7 Henry Kissinger's famous rhetorical question of sixty years later - "Can you imagine what this man could have done if he had ever been loved?" - was probably well-intentioned amateur analysis, but it was mistaken. Richard Nixon was always loved by his parents, and by his own family. His personality had some serious foibles, but a noticeable absence of affection from those from whom he most needed it was not the source of them.
Though the Nixons were not prosperous, their means were adequate, their needs few, and Frank fairly steadily bettered his lot by dint of hard work, decade after decade. But in these early days, while the lemon trees slowly grew to full size, Frank had to deploy some of his many secondary skills to supplement his income and meet bills. The Nixon family diet, with its principal staple of cornmeal, was very monotonous. But by 1918, Frank had a tractor and an automobile, and Hannah had some china dishes. She made the children's clothes herself, and they were handed down from Harold to Richard to Donald and, after 1918, on to Arthur Burdg, the Nixons' fourth son. (Arthur was also named after a famous old English king; Burdg was grandmother Milhous's maiden name.)
They were able to hire a helper to take care of the children, whom Hannah would not tolerate to be called a "hired girl" by her sons. She was to be referred to as their "friend," who was helping them.8 The three boys slept in a semi-attic. The house had only one other bedroom, a modest parlor, a dining room and kitchen, and one bathroom, and was heated by a single stove. There was no upholstered furniture and minimal decoration.
Frank Nixon loved to argue about politics and the Bible, and became a very popular Sunday school teacher, flamboyantly taking the Quaker youth of Whittier all the way through the scriptures. He was an animated and thorough teacher with flair, and a human interest in individual students.
Richard Nixon went to the little wooden Yorba Linda school, entering grade one in the autumn of 1919, when he was a few months short of his seventh birthday. He sometimes went barefoot, but carried shoes and socks in a paper bag, and always wore a starched white shirt, black bow tie, and knee pants. He never rumpled or dirtied his clothes, and his mother visited the school early on to admonish the teacher never to call her son anything except Richard. "Dick" was not acceptable. Richard got on well and was such an apt student that he skipped forward to grade three in his second year. In later life, he gave his mother credit for this, for teaching him to read before he set foot in a school.9 His prodigious memory, which would become famous, revealed itself early, as he routinely memorized prose passages and poems and recited them for prizes at school and at his church. The Nixon family read poems and stories aloud after dinner, and the family took a daily newspaper and the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies' Home Journal, and National Geographic. But there were no books in the home. (Jessamyn West did find there, hidden away, in 1919, a pamphlet on sex education.)
By 1920, Richard Nixon, under his father's influence, was already interested in politics, and already a Republican. Frank Nixon considered Woodrow Wilson a fuzzy-minded idealist and William Jennings Bryan, the three-time unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate, a wild-eyed radical. He believed the Republicans the party of self-help and rugged individualism and Wilson an international busybody. Hannah, truer to Quaker pacifism than her husband, was impressed by Wilson's quest for a League of Nations and a durable world peace. In 1920, a rare election in which three of the four candidates for national office ultimately became president, Frank and Richard were delighted that the Republicans, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, defeated the Democrats, James M. Cox and thirty-eight-year-old Franklin D. Roosevelt, by a wide margin. (Both presidential candidates were from the Nixons' native state of Ohio.)
Hannah, who had had more access to rudimentary culture than her husband, detected a musical talent, and specifically an aptitude for the piano, in Richard. The family had an elementary upright piano, and Hannah forced Richard to practice, against his wishes, every afternoon. He never learned to read music, but he did memorize a good many pieces of classical music and rendered them with confidence and often with gusto, without consulting the score, which would have been incomprehensible to him.
Yorba Linda grew rapidly, and there were soon many young people for Richard to play with. He blended well into the group, though always retaining, as he would his entire life, the standoffish manner and odd formality of dress that amused humorists and caricaturists decades later. And he spent an inordinate amount of time reading. Harold and Donald Nixon were playful, gregarious boys. Richard got by, but was more serious and very bookish. Where his social qualities seemed to emerge most unselfconsciously was in the affection and interest he always showed for his little brother Arthur. He played with him as a baby and pushed him around the neighborhood in an improvised pram, an adapted children's wagon. Arthur grew up a quiet and serious child, like Richard, less affable than Harold and Donald.
By late 1919, Frank Nixon's inability to afford the fertilizer needed to encourage his lemon trees in the semi-arid ground caused him to give up being a lemon farmer. He moved on to the next in the succession of California's get-rich resources, oil, which was pumped at many places in the area. He became a field worker for Union Oil. At the same time, Hannah took a job in the local Sunkist lemon packinghouse - work regarded as being above that done by the mainly Mexican pickers in the groves. Hannah was a sorter and packer, and sometimes brought Richard or Donald with her to act as sweepers. Richard found it literally nauseating work, because the sound and movement of the lemon-packing machinery aggravated his motion sickness. Richard and Donald also worked in the summers of 1920 and 1921 as pickers in the bean fields, twelve hours for one dollar, and Richard acquired a life-long revulsion for string beans.
In May 1922, Frank Nixon sold the little house he had built in Yorba Linda, and his failed lemon grove with its stunted trees, for less than he had paid his father-in-law for it, and, with a Milhous guarantee for a five-thousand-dollar loan, set up a gas station on Whittier Boulevard in East Whittier. Frank believed that his father-in-law had lied to him about the condition and prospects of the Yorba Linda lemon grove, and Richard dutifully adhered to his father's line that his grandfather had misled and exploited him.10
The Milhous reservations about Frank Nixon as a rough and abrasive man had not much abated, other than with Hannah, and there arose against it a Nixon view that the Milhouses were condescending snobs and exploiters. Hannah straddled this schism with the implacable and silent dignity of a devout Quaker. There were frequent family gatherings at the Milhous home in Whittier, which most of the Nixons found excruciating. Frank dodged them when he could.
It is not the case, as has often been claimed, including by Richard Nixon, that oil was ever discovered on Frank Nixon's land, though he did look at possible gas station locations where oil was subsequently discovered. These were difficult years for young Richard Nixon, and he did not look back on them with much pleasure, other than his respect for the strong characters of his parents; he had a tendency to exaggerate the stark, Dickensian realities of their existence: income had to match expenses or disaster impended. All the family worked hard, every day.

— II —

Henry Kissinger recounted in the second volume of his official memoirs a trip he took with President Nixon in 1970 by car from Los Angeles to Yorba Linda to Whittier. As he walked around the little house where he was born, Nixon shouted that the Secret Service contingent and a press car had to leave them. It seemed to Kissinger, in passages that he drew on many years later for his eloquent eulogy of Nixon, that Nixon was more comfortable back in the simple, inauspicious world he came from than in the mighty and storied realms he then inhabited. It seemed that it was all a series of accidents that had thrust Nixon upwards in public life. Kissinger reflected: "What extraordinary vehicles destiny selects to accompany its designs."11 (Undoubtedly so, but Kissinger was as illustrative of this truth as Nixon was.) He believed that Nixon had accepted the apparently hopeless initial Republican nomination for a congressional seat because "he had nothing better to do." It was also what Nixon had long been determined to do.
By the time he put in for that nomination, and long before, Nixon had settled on a political career, probably by the time he was reading about the 1920 election. What seemed to please and relax him that summer day in 1970 was the contemplation of how far he had come and how much he had achieved, whatever the war protesters, who then, just after the Cambodia incursion in 1970, were surging through the streets of many cities, might think of it.
Nixon did not consider his remarkable rise to the summit of modern history to be a series of accidents. He considered it a triumph of his willpower, intermittently blessed and facilitated by the God he worshipped, but whose omnipotence and unpredictability frightened him. Some combination of a fierce determination to better his lot and a piercing fear, a terror, that he was aspiring to too much, was already perceptible in Nixon as a boy, and it became more disruptive to his equanimity as he aged, until all was reconciled in his brilliant final years. Only Nixon could resolve it, in the serenity that can come to some people only after immense tumult. His tumult would be immense.
Whittier was a metropolis compared with Yorba Linda, despite the enforced reticence of the Quakers. (When there was an impromptu dance at the high school at the end of 1919 celebrating the return of First World War veterans, the school principal had been excoriated from the pulpit and by the school board.)12 The earth was richer and the botany less scrubby than at Yorba Linda. Walnut and olive trees, as well as fruit trees, abounded. Whittier College had a fine hillside campus, and the town, by California standards, had a deserved air of durability. In the spring, the perfumed scent of orange blossoms was overpowering.


On Sale
Oct 23, 2008
Page Count
360 pages

Conrad Black

About the Author

Conrad Black was the chairman and chief executive officer of Hollinger International Inc., among whose newspaper holdings are the Daily and Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator in London, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Jerusalem Post. He is the author of two previous books published in Canada and became a member of the British House of Lords as Lord Black of Crossharbour in 2001. He divides his time between London, Toronto, and New York.

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