Richard Nixon campaigns in Paoli, Penn. in July of 1968.

Credit: Ollie Atkins/Wikimedia Commons

Is This Donald Trump's Watergate Moment? A Nixon Biographer Weighs In

May 18, 2017

Donald Trump likes to compare himself to Andrew Jackson, but in the wake of the surprise firing of FBI Director James Comey and the appointment of a special counsel to investigate his campaign's ties with Russia, a more common comparison being drawn these days is to Richard Nixon. 

One of those people drawing comparisons is historian John A. Farrell, and he should know — his new biography of Nixon, called "Richard Nixon: The Life" was published earlier this year. Farrell sat down with Jim Braude and Margery Eagan to talk about the parallels being drawn between the two presidents and whether they stand up. A partial transcript of the interview is below.

MARGERY EAGAN:  There are a lot of fascinating similarities [between Nixon and Trump.] Give us a few.

JOHN FARRELL: There were coincidences, until this week. But going back to the actual beginning of the Russia scandal, it [started with] a break-in at the DNC. It was a different kind of break-in, but it was still a break-in at the DNC. The New York Times had this wonderful picture where they had the actual computer server sitting on top of the file cabinet broken into by the Watergate burglars back in 1972. That leaps right out at you.

There are other things too. We've had protests in the streets, we've had allegations about bugging and tapes. This firing of the FBI director was [Trump's] own Saturday Night Massacre. Now we've got a special counsel and it's very, very reminiscent.

JIM BRAUDE: In one of the pieces you wrote, you quote John Chancellor from NBC saying, "We are facing one of the great constitutional crises of our times." I think most people would agree to that on the spot analysis of what was happening now. This is not a constitutional crisis, at least not yet. Or is it?

FARRELL: This was an American election tampered with by a foreign country, a rival country. Everybody agrees on that. The question we don't know is whether or not there was collusion with the winning candidate, who begins to get investigated and people start getting fired. I don't know what happened, but I'll tell you this: having been intimately involved with Nixon and the cover-up for the last four or five years of my life, they are behaving at the Trump White House like they have something to hide.

BRAUDE: Why did you get into this? Why did you decide to pick a guy who has had quite a bit written about him?

FARRELL: It was collaborative with my editors at Doubleday. There was this tide of new information, including all the White House tapes, since the last big biography had been done. Mainly, I wanted to write this book for the new generation, that wasn't around [then]. I didn't want to write one more book for the culture wars of the Baby Boomers. This is a soup-to-nuts for millennials who only know of Nixon from "The Simpsons" or the movies where the bank robbers pull on the Nixon masks before they go in to do the heists.

BRAUDE: One of the places to me, as a non-historian, where the parallels [between Nixon and Trump] were epic is their contempt for the press. There's a great moment where President Nixon was dissing the press in a 1973 press conference just days after the Saturday Night Massacre. 

EAGAN: You write about the Los Angeles Times and how it had been a much more conservative paper, and how it had been a champion of Nixon. I did not know that they imposed blackouts on his opponents when he was running for office.

FARRELL:  It's very similar to Donald Trump, because Trump was made by the New York tabloid media. Nixon was made, to a great extent, by the Los Angeles Times and the conservative press in California. These are guys who really bite the hand that feeds them when they go into their "the press is the enemy, Henry" routine.

[But] Nixon was a vet from World War II, he came back and served with Eisenhower. It's hard to say with a straight face, but he did have a basic respect for the institutions of American government. He saw that the game was crooked and he was going to play it the way the Kennedys and everybody else played the game. But I don't see him ever going out of his way to destroy an institution like the press.

BRAUDE: When you entered this deal, I assume you knew a decent amount about President Nixon. What's the most powerful thing you learned about him during your research that you didn't know before?

FARRELL:  Several things. One, [he was a] great ally of Martin Luther King in the 1950s. Second, Pat Nixon was a wonderful person, not "Plastic Pat" like I'd been raised to believe.

A quick story. In 1946, he finally achieves his life dream: he gets elected to Congress. He goes to Washington, he gets sent to Europe on a fact-finding trip. He sees the ruined cities. He comes back and he goes out to his district where 80 percent of the people in his district think the Marshall Plan is throwing sand down a socialist rat hole. And Nixon — in his first election, achieved his dream — goes door to door, basically, in southern California, and persuades his district that the Marshall Plan is a good idea, we should support it, and wins not just the Republican nomination, but the Democratic nomination as well. Isn't that amazing?

Click the audio player above to hear more from historian John A. Farrell.


WGBH News is supported by:
Back to top