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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.