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The Best Man

Stephen Ambrose began his distinguished biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower with open admiration for his subject. Eisenhower, he writes, was “a great and good man…one of the outstanding leaders of the Western world of this century.”1 He offers no comparable evaluation of Richard Nixon in this first of two volumes on the life of the thirty-seventh president; indeed, there is no preface or foreword of any kind. Ambrose opens the book, almost abruptly, with a discussion of Nixon’s ancestors. He ends, equally unceremoniously, with the defeated candidate driving home from his “last press conference” in 1962. Yet even without saying so, Ambrose has produced a study of Nixon that is in many ways as powerfully “revisionist” as his earlier study of Eisenhower. Other biographers have scrutinized Nixon’s youth and early career for the seeds of his later failures. This book makes it possible to understand why, through most of his life, Nixon was a great success.

Ambrose’s reluctance to draw general conclusions from his work suggests that he may have surprised even himself with what he found. Like other liberal academics, he spent many years as a confirmed Nixon hater—so much so that in 1970 he helped lead a demonstration that disrupted a presidential visit to Kansas State University.2 Ambrose retains a certain skepticism still; he makes no apologies for the many unsavory moments in Nixon’s early career, and he takes his subject to task for his frequent distortions of his own past. But the Richard Nixon who emerges from this thoroughly researched, impressively written, and remarkably balanced book is not, in the end, the dark, brooding, bitter figure whom so many hostile writers have described. He is a talented, successful, complicated man who at a very young age emerged as one of the most accomplished and admired public figures of his time.

Ambrose’s challenge to the existing literature begins with his discussion of Nixon’s childhood. Psychohistorians (and others) have pointed repeatedly to the difficulties of these years: the straitened circumstances that kept his family constantly moving from house to house and business to business; the deaths of two brothers from tuberculosis; the frequent separations from one or both parents; the severe father and the stern, miserly mother. In searching for explanations of Nixon’s later problems, biographers have often pointed to the psychic scars he presumably absorbed in his youth. Fawn Brodie talks of an early “warping in his capacity to love” and a pattern of pathological lying “to bolster his ever-wavering identity.”3 Bruce Mazlish speaks of feelings of “betrayal,” “guilt,” and “anxiety” that remained forever unresolved.4

Ambrose has little patience with such speculation. Nixon’s childhood, he argues, was not always comfortable and not always happy. But neither was it traumatic. Nixon grew up in a strict but stable home. His family’s means were modest, but never desperate. In most respects, “his childhood was so normal as to be dull. No one abused him; there were no traumas, no betrayals, only love and trust.” At Whittier College, he was a good student and a respected campus leader—“a human dynamo in student government, the man everyone counted on,” “unanimously popular on and off the campus.” At Duke Law School, he displayed an almost alarming diligence; a classmate called him “the hardest-working man I ever met.” But he demonstrated as well both leadership and moral decency. As president of the Student Bar Association, he spoke frequently against racism and did volunteer work at a local legal clinic.

Nixon’s young adulthood was, similarly, remarkable only for its relative normality. He became a successful lawyer in Whittier, California; began to make a name for himself as a civic leader; pursued and married an attractive and popular schoolteacher (Pat Ryan). He worked briefly in Washington for the Office of Price Administration in the first year of World War II, then served inconspicuously in the Navy as a supply officer in the Pacific. He was popular with his fellow officers during the war. They remembered him later as a warm and friendly man much like the movie character “Mister Roberts.” (They remembered him, too, as a dedicated and talented poker player; his wartime winnings provided the stake for his first political campaign.)

In 1946, Nixon defied all predictions by defeating a popular incumbent, Jerry Voorhis, in a race for Congress. Four years later, he defeated the actress Helen Gahagan Douglas in a race for a vacant California seat in the United States Senate. Ambrose offers no defense of Nixon’s harsh tactics in the race against Voorhis (other than to acknowledge that he was hardly alone that year in attacking Democrats for their ties to organized labor); the 1946 campaign was, he acknowledges, a “dirty” one, characterized by “a vicious, snarling approach that was full of half-truths, full lies, and innuendos.” Indeed, Nixon anticipated almost all of the scurrilous charges and many of the vicious tactics that Joseph McCarthy would late employ. “REMEMBER,” one Nixon advertisement proclaimed, “Voorhis is a former registered Socialist and his voting record in Congress is more Socialistic and Communistic than Democratic.”

The campaign against Douglas in 1950 was another matter. Other biographers have seen in it the clearest evidence of Nixon’s unscrupulousness and have cited his references to a “Douglas-Marcantonio Axis” (a link between Mrs. Douglas and the left-wing New York congressman Vito Marcantonio) as proof of his preference for the political low road.5 Ambrose reveals that it was Douglas, not Nixon, who first raised the issue of “being soft on communism” in 1950; it was she who first tried to link her opponent to Marcantonio by making selective and dishonest use of voting records. Nixon responded in kind. Even the devastating, redbaiting (and vaguely sexist) nickname Nixon bestowed on Mrs. Douglas, the “Pink Lady,” was in response to her use of a far more devastating (and more enduring) nickname for him—“Tricky Dick.” Ambrose does not suggest that Mrs. Douglas’s tactics excuse Nixon’s own behavior; he does, however, help one to see the campaign in a different light.

Nixon was a highly respected young member of Congress. Ambrose describes him as the most adept and responsible member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, “careful and exact with the facts,” courteous toward witnesses, a “moderating influence” on that often reckless body. When Joseph McCarthy launched his crusade against Communists in government in 1950, Nixon at first denounced him for it. (Only the Communists were benefiting from McCarthy’s charges, he said.) When J. Robert Oppenheimer came under attack that same year, Nixon publicly defended him. (I have complete confidence in Dr. Oppenheimer’s loyalty,” he declared.) His famous pursuit of Alger Hiss was relentless and effective; without Nixon, there would likely have been no Hiss case. But as Ambrose portrays it, Nixon’s behavior throughout was honorable. His evidence was solid, and he allowed Hiss to ruin himself with his own lies and evasions.6

Nixon’s later claims that the pursuit of Hiss proved a political liability were almost certainly disingenuous. In fact, the case transformed him into a major national figure almost overnight. By 1950, he was the most sought-after speaker and fund-raiser in the Republican party, a man already (at the age of thirty-seven) discussed as a future president. Yet Nixon profited from more than his reputation as an effective anticommunist in these years. He was also an important conciliatory force within his party, helping to nudge it toward the center on numerous issues. He opposed the powerful China Lobby and supported the Eurocentric foreign policy of the Truman Administration, including the initially controversial Marshall Plan. He avoided an open break with Joseph McCarthy, but he never endorsed McCarthy’s tactics (and later, as vice president, participated quietly in the campaign to discredit him). “Thus,” Ambrose notes, “both the Old Guard and the more moderate Republicans thought of Nixon as a friend and ally, as he indeed was.” He even earned the admiration of the leaders of the party’s eastern establishment. Thomas E. Dewey described him as being considered “an absolute star, a man of enormous capacity” and helped to persuade Eisenhower to offer him the vice-presidential nomination in 1952.

Nixon’s experience in the campaign of 1952 was an ordeal few politicians could have survived. He was cut adrift by Eisenhower and forced to fight alone for his political life by denying spurious charges of financial impropriety; the result was the mawkish “Checkers” speech, which—effective as it was—so humiliated him that he was barely able to get through it without breaking down. On instructions from Eisenhower, Nixon became the “hatchet man” of the campaign, earning the contempt of the liberal press and making himself the butt of such attacks as Herblock’s famous savage cartoons. The rigors of 1952, Fawn Brodie claims, “left him cynical, soured, and obsessively suspicious of political friendships.”7

Yet whatever scars Nixon may have absorbed in 1952, they were seldom evident in his performance as vice president, which was, Ambrose claims, exemplary. He was, in fact, the most visible and successful vice president of this century. He endured frequent snubs and humiliations from Eisenhower without complaint and served the president faithfully and well. Eisenhower was reluctant to admit it (and in fact, in 1960, greatly damaged Nixon’s presidential campaign by denying it), but he came to rely heavily on his vice president’s advice on political matters and to respect (if not always to share) his views on international affairs. Nixon’s many trips abroad won him the respect and admiration of even the most skeptical world leaders. Drew Middleton of The New York Times described the impact of a Nixon visit to London in 1958: The vice president “who arrived billed as an uncouth adventurer in the political jungles, departed trailing clouds of statesmanship and esteem.” In 1955, when the president suffered a heart attack, Nixon behaved with grace and prudence. Emmet John Hughes, an Eisenhower speech writer and frequent Nixon critic, described him then as “poised and restrained…a man close to great power not being presumptuously or prematurely assertive.”

Because Eisenhower chose to remain largely aloof from partisan politics, Nixon served as the Republicans’ principal spokesman and most important leader throughout the 1950s. He campaigned strenuously in off-year elections; and while the party declined steadily in national strength during the Eisenhower years, Nixon’s efforts probably prevented the hemorrhaging from growing even worse. By the end of the decade, moreover, he had emerged as one of the party’s most dynamic and progressive figures. Long before it became politically profitable, he was an outspoken supporter of civil rights (and an important actor in the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act). Far more openly than Eisenhower (or, for that matter, John Kennedy), he supported the aims of the NAACP and spoke sharply against the rise of “massive resistance” by whites in the South. “I believe the issue is a moral one,” he wrote southern editors in 1957, “and is of such transcendent importance that all Americans must face it.”

  1. 1

    Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect (Simon and Schuster, 1983), p. 9; Eisenhower: The President, the second and concluding volume of the biography, appeared in 1984.

  2. 2

    An account of Ambrose’s role in the demonstration appears in a letter from one of his former colleagues to The New York Times Book Review, May 31, 1987, p. 58. Ambrose subsequently survived an effort by the faculty senate at Kansas State to censure him for his loud and at times obscene heckling of the President; but the episode apparently helped precipitate his departure from the university. He now teaches at the University of New Orleans.

  3. 3

    Fawn M. Brodie, Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character (Norton, 1981), pp. 25–26.

  4. 4

    Bruce Mazlish, In Search of Nixon: A Psychohistorical Inquiry (Basic Books, 1972), pp. 22–26.

  5. 5

    See, for example, Garry Wills, Nixon Agonistes (Houghton Mifflin, 1970), pp. 85–86.

  6. 6

    Ambrose provides a withering picture of Hiss, portraying him as both dishonest and insufferably arrogant. He calls Allen Weinstein, author of Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (Knopf, 1978), “much the closest and most careful student of the Hiss case” and implicitly endorses Weinstein’s conclusion that Hiss was guilty as charged.

  7. 7

    Richard Nixon, p. 271.

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