Longtime Journalist Offers Tips on Making the Leap From Daily News to Writing Books

By Chris Adams

Richard Nixon, the nation’s 37th president, is one of the most studied men in history. So imagine John Farrell’s delight when he uncovered a piece of the man’s history that had remained secret for almost five decades.

And then imagine having to sit on that scoop for more than two years.

Nerve-wracking for sure, but well worth it. Farrell’s “Richard Nixon: The Life” came out in 2017 to wide praise, both for the eloquence with which it was written and for the news it generated.

In a video with the National Press Foundation, Farrell – who spent his career at The Boston Globe, The Denver Post and other papers – talked about Nixon as a compelling figure in history and about the art of writing a big biography.

The book was recently named on the best-of-2017 list by a New York Times reviewer; that same reviewer earlier in the year praised it, saying that “Farrell has a liquid style that slips easily down the gullet, and he understands all too well that Nixon was a vat of contradictions.” She called the book “complicating and well-rounded.”

Farrell has made the rounds this year discussing the parallels between Nixon and President Donald Trump. Their early lives were radically different – Nixon’s family never had any money, Trump’s was loaded – but their presidencies have shared several things in common, including an intense loathing of the press, an us-versus-them mentality and scandal.

Farrell (website, Twitter) wrote two biographies before his Nixon book: “Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned” and “Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century.” He’s now working on a book about late Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

He described the process of sifting through presidential archives and the voluminous written records on such major historical figures. The process can take a couple of years. “My method is to try to be a vacuum cleaner,” he said.

He’s always writing in the back of his head but mostly doesn’t start committing words to paper until halfway through the process. From initial idea to taking up shelf space in your local book store takes Farrell about six years.

It was while going through presidential papers from former Nixon Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman that Farrell found his scoop. Nixon’s papers have continuously been released since his presidency ended, and so a biographer today has access to material that wasn’t available to biographers from the first decades after Nixon left office.

Those papers included notes from 1968, before Nixon was president but when he was engaged in a tight race for the White House. The notes showed that Nixon instructed allies to lean on the government of South Vietnam to slow a peace process then underway with the administration of President Lyndon Johnson.

Bottom line: To help his electoral chances, Nixon endeavored to let more American soldiers languish in Vietnam.

Nixon had always denied messing in the peace process in such a manner; it likely would have been illegal to do so, Farrell wrote.

Farrell came across the Haldeman notes early in his reporting process and had to sit on his discovery.

He eventually broke the news himself, in an opinion piece in The New York Times. The Times then followed up with a news story on the finding, underscoring its historical significance.

“History is like a big jigsaw puzzle,” he said. “I did a corner. You know, you got a 4,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. That was my little corner.”

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