Richard Nixon. By Antoine Coppolani. Paris: Fayard, 2013. 977 pp.
Nearing the end of his life, Richard Nixon claimed that he would be remembered for two things-Watergate and the opening to China. Not if Antoine Coppolani has anything to say about it in this French-language biography. Coming in just under 1,000 pages, excluding exhaustive notes, Coppolani's sympathetic account systematically examines each of the many controversies surrounding Nixon throughout his long political career. Ultimately, Coppolani seeks to answer two questions in his quest to uncover the real Nixon: To what extent has history judged Nixon a great president? And on what bases and interpretations have historians done so?
Coppolani argues that the majority of scholars who portray Nixon in a negative light do so because of their failure to examine the complete historical record. In providing a corrective, Coppolani carefully wades through a mountain of archival material to demonstrate that Nixon's foreign and domestic policies were far more nuanced than most historians recognize. As Coppolani notes in his introduction, Nixon remains the most elusive of American presidents, a man who has, at various times, been compared to "Robespierre," a "quartz crystal," and a "layered cake." In other words, Nixon was complicated. Insisting that the truth about Nixon is hidden among the archives, Coppolani cautions against relying too heavily on the White House tapes, which continue to receive attention from journalists, former government officials, and historians alike, as they are not sufficient to explain Nixon's decision making (see, e.g., recent books by John Dean, The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It [New York: Viking, 2014]; Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter, The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972 [New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014}; and Ken Hughes, Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate [Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014}). Coppolani seeks neither to villainize nor to glorify Nixon, avoiding much of the historiographic wars about his presidency, while simultaneously demonstrating his familiarity with the vast secondary literature. Supposedly leaving it to the reader to decide whether Nixon can be rehabilitated, Coppolani provides a wealth of detail to ensure that Nixon will be remembered for far more than Watergate and China.
Proceeding chronologically at first, Coppolani moves briskly through Nixon's...