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.”
Nixon began calling for a federal tax cut to stimulate economic growth well before John Kennedy seized on the issue and made it his own. Although as vice president he could not voice such feelings publicly, he complained in private of the “standpattism” of Eisenhower’s leadership. “I am concerned,” he wrote in 1958, “about the tendency in this Administration to be sort of a care-taker…. We must go out and look for new ideas.” By 1960, he had, Ambrose claims, “identified himself with idealism and challenge every bit as much as Kennedy.” Like Kennedy, he beckoned the nation to undertake great deeds, to work together “in a cause greater than ourselves, greater than our nation, as great as the whole world itself.” (He was also, like Kennedy, a far more committed cold warrior than Eisenhower. He privately agreed with Kennedy’s public criticisms of the administration in 1960: that it was spending too little on defense and that it was behaving too cautiously in resisting communism in the third world.)
Nixon made many mistakes in his campaign against Kennedy, but he did little to discredit himself. He steadfastly refused to raise the issue of Kennedy’s Catholicism and repudiated those supporters who did so. He lost many black votes when Kennedy, not he, publicly intervened to have Martin Luther King, Jr., released from a Georgia jail. But while Nixon received no public credit for it, he too took action on behalf of King, appealing quietly to the attorney general to intercede—an appeal that came to naught because Eisenhower refused to get involved. The 1960 election was the closest in American history, so close that an investigation into vote-counting irregularities in several states might have reversed the outcome. Nixon refused to demand a recount, fearful that the result would be a protracted constitutional crisis. He accepted defeat with grace.
Had Nixon’s public career ended more happily, had there been no Watergate and no Vietnam, it would be these features of his early life that historians would likely emphasize: his intelligence, talent, diligence, even decency; the traits that made him the most enduring and resilient political leader of his generation and, for a time, one of the most successful presidents of this century. But Nixon’s public life did not, of course, end happily. And while it would be a mistake to examine his early career only for clues to his later problems, it is impossible to look at those years without asking how they help us to understand why things ultimately went so wrong.
Ambrose’s otherwise impressive objectivity proves something of a handicap here, for he steadfastly refuses to speculate about the sources of Nixon’s character. In fact, one might be tempted to conclude from the portrait here that Nixon’s later problems emerged not from defects in his own character but simply from the extraordinary problems he encountered in the White House. Anyone elected president in 1968, Ambrose seems vaguely to imply, might have behaved similarly. Yet even if inadvertently, Ambrose provides ample evidence of several characteristics of Nixon’s personality that almost certainly contributed to his eventual downfall.
One such characteristic was the burning resentment that seemed to settle on him in his youth and that he never managed to shed: the sense of himself as somehow an outsider, constantly at odds with the establishment. That was the source of the constant refrain, throughout his career, describing the hardships he had endured rising up through an unwelcoming world; and it was the source of the enduring bitterness toward those more “fortunate” than himself that seemed always to surface in moments of stress. Even when he became a man of wealth, fame, and power, part of him seemed always to remain the provincial boy from Whittier College who had been compelled to turn down a chance to attend Harvard because his family couldn’t afford it; or the struggling scholarship student at Duke Law School who for a time lived in an unheated toolshed to save money.
Nixon’s preoccupation with the Hiss case, for example, seemed at least in part a result of his personal resentment toward the elegant former diplomat whose manner he described as “condescending” and who, unlike Nixon himself, was constantly surrounded by what Ambrose calls “highly placed friends from the Washington social community.” In the Checkers speech and throughout the 1952 campaign, he spoke frequently of the degree to which Adlai Stevenson (“who inherited a fortune from his father”) had enjoyed “advantages” that Nixon himself had been denied. He liked to quote Abraham Lincoln: “God must love the common people—he made so many of them.” In 1960, late in the campaign when things began going badly, he once again fell back on a vaguely pathetic appeal to the sympathy of the voters for his lack of the wealth and connections with which John Kennedy had been born. Murray Kempton later described him as “wandering limply and wetly about the American heartland begging votes on the excuse that he had been too poor to have a pony when he was a boy.”8 And in 1974, in his painful farewell to the White House staff after resigning the presidency, he talked again of his humble origins, as if they were somehow to blame for his predicament.9
What is perhaps equally striking about Nixon in his youth, just as it was striking in his maturity, was his inability to form close personal relationships. Even as a child, he was a conspicuous loner—dour, serious, known within his family as “Gloomy Gus.” The pattern continued throughout his life. Nixon always had companions, but seldom real friends. “From grade school to high school to college to law school and then out into the world,” Ambrose writes, “he left behind his old associates…. When an acquaintance could only be called ‘a friend from the old days,’ Nixon lost interest in him.”
Except for his warm and affectionate relationship with his two daughters, Nixon’s adult life was, apparently, as emotionally barren as his youth. His marriage was stable and reasonably successful; but that was, Ambrose suggests, largely because Pat Nixon made so few demands of her husband, subordinated herself to his career, and became accustomed to a lack of intimacy. “I’ve given up everything I’ve ever loved,” she once confided to a friend.10 Only rarely, however, did she complain about what Ambrose calls an indifference from Nixon that “bordered on cruelty.” In 1952, for example, she heard that her husband was to be nominated for the vice presidency not from him (he had promised her earlier he would not accept), but from a television news broadcast in a hotel restaurant in Chicago. She rushed to the convention hall, battled through the crowd to her husband’s side on the podium, and kissed him on the cheek. He never looked at her. She never stopped smiling.
Outside his family, Nixon’s most important (and most revealing) friendship throughout his adulthood was with the much-ridiculed Bebe Rebozo, a rich Florida real-estate magnate whom Nixon first met in 1950. Their relationship continued for three decades. It survived, however, not because of a close personal bond between them, but because of the absence of one. Rebozo subordinated himself to Nixon’s solitary desires and asked nothing in return; he was as much a loyal servant as a friend, content to provide boats and vacation spots and, perhaps most important, silence to a man who had no interest in intimacy. “Bebe is like a sponge,” Pat Nixon once said; “he soaks up whatever Dick says and never makes any comments. Dick loves that.” Another mutual acquaintance remarked, more sardonically, “Nixon likes to be alone, and with Bebe along, he is.”
Ambrose has no explanation for this intense, perhaps even pathological, personal isolation. “The inability to trust anyone is one of the principal personality traits of Nixon as an adult,” he writes. The reason, he confesses, remains a “mystery.” But he is almost certainly correct in seeing in this isolation a source of some of Nixon’s later political problems. The absence of trusted friends and advisers, people in whom he could confide and on whose advice he felt he could rely, removed a critical check on his own, at times reckless, inclinations.
A second, and clearly related, characteristic was Nixon’s literally obsessive preoccupation with politics. He worked compulsively, and the only work that interested him was political. He had no hobbies (other than a largely statistical interest in sports). He took vacations only at Pat’s insistence and for nearly twenty years cut every vacation short to return to work. He saw his family seldom, ate dinner at home only once or twice a week, often spent the night on the couch in his office. He threw himself into every political campaign from 1946 through 1972, even when he was not himself a candidate, traveling widely and exhaustingly like a man possessed. He read and talked and apparently thought about almost nothing but politics; it was the only world that seemed to have any meaning to him.
After the 1960 election, Nixon moved to Los Angeles, established a lucrative legal practice, and prepared for life as a private citizen. Two years later, against the wishes of his wife (and, he later admitted, against his own better judgment), he launched an ill-fated campaign for governor of California, an office in which he had little interest and for which he had few qualifications. “Why,” he asks in his memoir, Six Crises, “would anyone risk these advantages of private life and decide to re-enter the political arena?” Because, he replied, “once a man has been in public life for any period of time, his interests and ambitions change…. It just happened, because my fate sent me to Congress in 1946, that I became a primarily public man and must, therefore, remain in that channel.”11
According to an epigram widely circulated in the 1950s, “when Nixon’s public and private personalities meet, they shake hands.” This missed the point. Nixon seemed to have no private personality. It was almost as if he ceased to exist once removed from the public stage. And like the lack of intimate friends, the lack of a private self—an internal balance wheel against which to measure one’s actions—may help to explain why his judgment so frequently went awry.
Nixon is not alone among politicians in having these qualities. Franklin Roosevelt had similar difficulties forming intimate relationships. Lyndon Johnson was at least as obsessed with politics as Nixon. But Nixon possessed another characteristic that set him apart from most of his predecessors: his distinctively combative view of politics. Not for him LBJ’s gregarious, backslapping, wheeling and dealing or FDR’s artful manipulation of subordinates. His own instinct was for combat, crisis. Perhaps because he lacked close friendships or other interests, it was only in the midst of crisis that he could achieve emotional intensity, a sense of release. Perhaps, too, it was only through his combative political style that he was able to vent the deep grievances that at other times he felt obliged to repress.
Whatever the reasons, Nixon seems to have felt fully alive only when he could convince himself that he was engaged in battle. He wrote in Six Crises about “why men who have been in public life seldom leave it voluntarily” in extraordinarily, if perhaps unintentionally revealing, terms:
Probably the greatest magnet of all is that those who have known great crisis—its challenge and tension, its victory and defeat—can never become adjusted to a more leisurely and orderly pace. They have drunk too deeply of the stuff which really makes life exciting and worth living to be satisfied with the froth.12
And so, throughout Nixon’s public career, he felt a compulsion to approach every contest, every controversy as if his own (and the nation’s) future depended on the outcome. If no crisis existed, he manufactured one and then used it to rationalize behavior that he might otherwise have abhorred. In his first campaign in 1946 against Jerry Voorhis, he developed a battlefield mentality that shocked many old acquaintances who had seen few signs of such combativeness in him in the past. Nixon himself apparently found nothing jarring about the “transition from nice Quaker boy to ruthless politician.” According to Ambrose, “there is no evidence that there was any soul-searching involved. To him it was all of a piece—you did whatever you could to win.” When every campaign was a crusade for the future of the Republic, when every opponent was a threat to peace and freedom, it was, as Ambrose notes, an easy step to believe that “any means were justified to reach the end.” Thus, year after year, election after election,
the basic message never changed. It was that a Democratic victory would lead to socialism at home and surrender to Communism abroad…. His sly use of innuendo, his denials that he had just said what everyone had just heard him say,…his trickiness with figures, his flights of hyperbole, his shameless hypocrisy—all these combined to make him hated, and admired.
His political tactics “were all directed toward deepening the political split rather than narrowing it.” “He polarized the public more than any other man of his era.” And as Jonathan Schell argues in his perceptive 1975 study of the Nixon presidency, he continued to do so throughout his public life, deliberately and apparently eagerly. Even after he claimed publicly to wish to “bring us together,” as he did in 1968, when he finally captured the presidency, he embarked on a course that rested on the principle of “positive polarization”—a belief in the value of isolating and discrediting his enemies.13 In 1972, after his landslide reelection victory and at a point when one might have expected him to feel some satisfaction and generosity, Nixon told an interviewer:
I believe in the battle, whether it’s the battle of a campaign or the battle of this office…. It’s always there wherever you go. I, perhaps, carry it more than others because that’s my way.14
So it had been throughout his long, often brilliant, and ultimately tragic public life.
Almost everyone believed Nixon’s career had come to an end in 1962, when he lost his race for governor of California and lashed out at reporters in his celebrated “last press conference.” (He was not, as some have claimed, drunk at the time—only exhausted and frustrated.) But he drove home from his “last” press conference, Ambrose concludes, “already discussing his future”—a future of which no reader of this book can possibly be unaware.
Ambrose has in this first volume added relatively little to the information available to us about Richard Nixon’s intensively scrutinized life. Nor does he seem likely to do so in the volumes to come. He has uncovered no new cache of manuscripts (and given the legal complications surrounding Nixon’s presidential papers, scholars will probably have little access to them for years). He has conducted few interviews (and none at all with Nixon or his family). He has made no important discoveries. What he has done, however, is to tell a familiar story with uncommon balance, skill, and grace—and with a fullness and detail that no previous work can match; in doing so he recalls a man far more complex and accomplished than the caricature many have come to accept. And so one finishes this absorbing biography eager for Ambrose’s account of the dramatic events to come.
July 16, 1987
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. ↩
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. ↩
Fawn M. Brodie, Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character (Norton, 1981), pp. 25–26. ↩
Bruce Mazlish, In Search of Nixon: A Psychohistorical Inquiry (Basic Books, 1972), pp. 22–26. ↩
See, for example, Garry Wills, Nixon Agonistes (Houghton Mifflin, 1970), pp. 85–86. ↩
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. ↩
Richard Nixon, p. 271. ↩
Nixon Agonistes, pp. 144–145. ↩
Richard Nixon, Memoirs (Grossett and Dunlap, 1978), pp. 1088–1089. ↩
Lester David, The Lonely Lady of San Clemente: The Story of Pat Nixon (Crowell, 1978), p. 73. ↩
Six Crises (Doubleday, 1962), pp. 424–435. ↩
Six Crises, p. 426. ↩
Jonathan Schell, The Time of Illusion (Knopf, 1975), pp. 73–74. ↩
Quoted in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Imperial Presidency (Houghton Mifflin, 1973), p. 217. ↩