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Richard Nixon Revisited

ISSUE:  Summer 1988

Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913—1962. By Stephen E. Ambrose. Simon & Schuster. $22.95. The Nixon Presidency: Twenty-Two Intimate Perspectives of Richard M. Nixon. Volume VI in a series, Portraits of American Presidents. Edited by Kenneth W. Thompson. $18.75. University Press of America.


Winston Churchill, in one of his many memorable observations, once described a Russian action on the international scene as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” If you were to add a few more qualifying phrases and a few more synonyms suggesting bewilderment, you might come close to describing the problem Americans have in understanding our 37th president. There are multiple riddles, mysteries, and enigmas about Richard Milhous Nixon that his many biographers, critics, defenders, and political opponents have been unable fully to explain. Two new books—a biography of his pre-presidential career by the historian Stephen Ambrose and a collection of conversations with more than 20 of his closest associates and observers, edited by the director of the White Burkett Miller Center, Kenneth W. Thompson—go a long way to improving our public portrait of Nixon as a person and as a politician. These books do not provide a full-fledged revisionist account of Richard Nixon and are not intended to do so. They do, however, add much needed balance and detail to the existing accounts of his life and administration, and make it possible to see, not another “new” Richard Nixon, but the old one in a broader perspective.

Ambrose, in the first volume of his biography which covers the period from Nixon’s birth to his “last” press conference in 1962, gives us an unusually objective account of Nixon’s early years. Ambrose avoids the temptation to seek out some crucial traumatic event in Nixon’s childhood which would explain the remainder of his life, a search that has preoccupied several of Nixon’s psychobiographers. He discounts the importance often attributed to the death of Nixon’s brother from tuberculosis and to the months that family members spent at the child’s sickbed. There is, in Ambrose’s view, no psychological “rosebud” which would unlock the mysteries of Nixon’s personality; instead there is only the early and largely unexplained emergence of those mysteries.

For Ambrose, Richard Nixon’s childhood was, in most respects, “so normal as to be dull.” Frank Nixon, Richard’s father, was a moderately successful businessman, who managed to miss out on the easy money that came to many in southern California, but was always able to provide for his wife and family. Nixon’s later claims of “log cabin” origins and childhood poverty are, Ambrose notes, the product of exaggerated campaign rhetoric or understandable feelings of inferiority from a candidate who competed for national prominence with John Kennedy and Nelson Rockefeller. Compared to them, Richard Nixon was poor; compared to the rest of the American people, particularly during the depression years, he came from a comfortable household. Like his father, Nixon’s mother was a hard worker who invested enormous energy in caring for her children and handling her share of the family enterprises. She was a strong and loving woman who encouraged her children to do well in school and to get as much education as they possibly could. The years of Richard Nixon’s youth, other than those of his brother’s illness, were happy ones with a large extended family in and around the small towns in which he grew up, regular religious training in the Quaker church, solid accomplishments in school, early responsibilities in the family store, and a healthy variety of childhood activities.

From this dull and normal background Nixon developed an unusual set of seemingly inconsistent qualities. The most important of these contradictory combinations, which is highlighted throughout the Ambrose book, involves the relationship between his public and private lives. From a very early age, Dick Nixon was shy in his personal dealings with individuals and small groups but at ease when performing in concerts, plays, and debates. On a stage, in front of a crowd, he had confidence and great success, easily winning high school debates, elections, and the acclaim of his schoolmates. At the same time, he seems to have had difficulty forming lasting friendships or intimate relationships of any kind outside his family. As a child he was both accomplished and awkward, widely popular and genuinely alone, combinations that would remain in evidence throughout his adult life. What accounts for these characteristics? Henry Kissinger, according to one of the transcripts in the Thompson book, is reported to have said that Nixon was never truly loved and could have been a far greater man and leader had even one person shown real affection for him. Ambrose disputes that claim and believes that Nixon came from a loving home. Later his own wife and daughters would provide him with the same sort of solid support he had received from his parents. Why then was he ill at ease outside his family circle but dynamic in the public arena? Ambrose suggests that it may have had something to do with his religious training. The Quaker church teaches modest individual behavior without public displays of affection at the same time that it encourages church members to speak out before the gathered congregation. But Ambrose offers that as only a partial explanation. In the final analysis, the dichotomy between the public and private Nixons, according to Ambrose, was “just the way he was.”

Furthermore, Ambrose wonders whether Nixon really was all that comfortable with the public parts of his life. He was clearly good at acting, debating, public speaking, and almost anything that put him in a spotlight, but he was also extremely sensitive to criticism. Throughout his life he constantly placed himself in positions where criticism was virtually inevitable. Why did he choose to do this? Was his ambition so strong that he willingly opened himself to the likelihood of personal pain? And where did that ambition come from? Ambrose is not sure, concluding again that this, too, was part of the way he was.

In college and in law school Richard Nixon demonstrated considerable intelligence (a quality constantly mentioned by his former associates in the Thompson book), a moderately conservative set of political opinions, and an incredible determination to learn. Having turned down a scholarship to Harvard because the cost of cross-country transportation was prohibitive, he attended Whittier College, where he excelled in many of his classes and participated in the same kinds of activities he had enjoyed in high school—debates and student government. He also played college football with a gutsy enthusiasm that impressed his coach and teammates who were otherwise unimpressed by his ability to play the game. After graduation, he worked his way through Duke law school with a scholarship, a variety of part-time jobs, and an austere student life style that made it possible for rather short ends somehow to meet. When he finished law school and returned to southern California, Nixon was a typical, perhaps even an ideal, young professional. He was clean-cut, conscientious, honest, hard working, a serious young man widely respected by his colleagues. He was, Ambrose believes, precisely the sort of individual from whom you would have purchased a used car.

He was also bored with the practice of law. American entry into the Second World War, shortly after his marriage to Pat Ryan, ended that boredom, or at least gave him more exotic locations in which to be bored; After a stint in Washington as a lawyer for the federal government agencies that regulated the wartime economy, he enlisted in the Navy and served as a supply officer in the South Pacific. Once again he showed himself to be an industrious and efficient young man who carried out his rather mundane duties with notable success. He also became a first-rate poker player. In Ambrose’s biography, poker serves as a minor metaphor, and Nixon’s talent for the game becomes a clue to some of his behavior in his subsequent political career. The accomplished poker player, Ambrose reminds us, is a shrewd judge of character able to read an opponent’s mood, degree of drunkenness, financial position, and skill while simultaneously hiding his own; he can quickly calculate the complicated odds that give clues as to whether a particular hand is likely to win; and, most importantly, he can bluff. “Bluffing is poker’s great art form,” and Nixon, Ambrose argues, was a master in its performance. When the war ended and Nixon returned to California, he had won enough money, perhaps as much as ten thousand dollars, to finance a campaign for congress.

Nixon’s early political career, his meteoric rise to national importance and almost equally rapid fall, is a saga made up of familiar stories—the vicious campaigns against Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas, the Alger Hiss investigation, the Checkers speech, the ambiguous relations between Eisenhower and his vice-president, the controversial trips to Latin America and Moscow, the crucial debates with John Kennedy, and the bitter and false farewell to the press after the unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in California. Ambrose retells these stories with fairness and flair.

He does not excuse the redbaiting that Nixon used so effectively in his early political campaigns—campaigns that earned him the enduring nickname, “Tricky Dick”—but he does place those campaigns in the context of American political culture in the years following World War II when anti-communism was on the rise. Even before there was a McCarthy, there was McCarthyism and, as Ambrose points out, the “soft on communism” campaign label was such a tempting political weapon that even one of Nixon’s opponents, briefly and rather foolishly, tried to use it against him. Nixon’s anti-communism was, of course, unique among its many postwar practitioners because he not only talked about the influence of Communists in American government, he also played a significant role in gathering evidence against the most notorious of the reputed Communist sympathizers in high places. As a congressman., Nixon worked hard to prove that Whitaker Chambers was telling the truth and that Alger Hiss was lying (or bluffing, in Ambrose’s account). He also devoted considerable energy to supporting a moderate internationalist foreign policy. Nixon was an early and solid supporter of the Marshall Plan, despite the fact that it was generally unpopular in his conservative congressional district. He voted for European economic assistance and then made a concerted, and largely successful, effort to change public opinion in his district. His congressional career, in Ambrose’s account, was not without substance and accomplishment.

As a senator, and shortly thereafter as vice-president, Nixon became embroiled in a nearly endless series of political campaigns. He ran for the Senate in 1950 and had the second position on the national ticket in 1952 and 1956; he represented the Republican Party as its most prominent spokesman in the off-year elections of 1954 and 1958; and he ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 1960 and for governor of California in 1962. In the 1950’s and early 1960’s more votes were cast for Richard Nixon (and against him) than for any other American political figure. Much of Nixon’s negative reputation comes from those years of campaigning when, particularly compared to Eisenhower, he became one of the most effective partisan politicians on the national scene. He did take time from his frequent campaigning to carry out his vice-presidential duties as well as the constraining circumstances of that office permit, showing particular grace and tact during Eisenhower’s periods of serious illness, learning a great deal about foreign affairs during extensive travels, and preparing himself for the presidency more thoroughly than almost any candidate in recent decades. These accomplishments did not, however, impress a majority of the American voters. In 1960 he lost a close election to a young, handsome, and charismatic Democrat who promised a new frontier; in 1962 he lost by a larger margin to a middle-aged, burly, and traditional Democrat who promised to keep things in California very much as they were. For all intents and purposes, Richard Nixon’s political career had ended, and his long-suppressed sensitivity to news media criticism exploded in a premature promise that Richard Nixon would, henceforth, no longer be available for newsmen to kick around.

At the end of Ambrose’s book it is difficult to realize that much of Richard Nixon’s career, including many of the most important episodes in that career, still lay ahead. The next volume of the biography will tell the story of Nixon’s years in the “wilderness” (if New York City can be appropriately described by that term), his political comeback, his controversial presidency, and his final and dramatic fall from power in the aftermath of the Watergate break-in. Serious students of American politics and history will await that volume with genuine anticipation. In the meantime, the collection of transcripts in the book edited by Kenneth Thompson will provide important clues as to what Ambrose and other historians will be saying about Richard Nixon in the years to come.

For some time the White Burkett Miller Center at the University of Virginia has been inviting prominent members of recent administrations to visit with scholars in Charlottesville and to record for posterity their insights and recollections about the presidents they served and the time they spent in national politics. These oral histories naturally vary in quality. Some guests repeat what they have already written in their memoirs. Others give guarded and defensive answers to the probing questions they are asked. But on a number of occasions interesting results are produced. In the relaxed atmosphere of a university conference room, after years have softened the edges of what were once sharp and painful events, former officials sometimes speak frankly and openly, giving the readers of these transcripts an exciting insider’s glimpse into American political power.

The collection of transcripts dealing with the Nixon administration is particularly strong. It includes many of the president’s most important associates, H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Maurice Stans, Raymond Price, Stephen Hess, and Bryce Harlow; two of his economic advisers, Arthur Burns and Herbert Stein; three of his cabinet appointees, Elliot Richardson, Earl Butz, and Robert Finch; a number of foreign policy experts, Helmut Sonnenfeldt, Kenneth Rush, and Joseph Siseo; and several award-winning journalists who followed the Nixon presidency with particular care, Lou Cannon, Hugh Sidey, and Clark Mollenhoff. Despite the long list of contributors, the book manages to maintain considerable continuity. Most of the former Nixon associates were asked to address a similar set of questions beginning with their earliest encounters with Richard Nixon and ending with their thoughts on his place in history. Moreover, several participants in the project were asked to comment on statements made by earlier visitors to Charlottesville. As a result, there is a kind of dialogue among the various contributors as well as a dialogue between each participant and his questioners,

A number of themes are developed in the collection that both confirm and amplify conclusions reached by Ambrose in the first volume of his biography. The contributors to the Thompson book are in complete agreement regarding Nixon’s intelligence, his complexity, his capacity for hard work, and his inability to trust other people, but they differ considerably about many of his other qualities. Some refer to Nixon as a natural and master politician. Others claim that politics was distasteful to him; it was something he did well, but grudgingly, in order to be able to make his mark on national and international affairs. In a revealing anecdote, Stephen Hess reports that after the Eisenhower administration was over he began sending the former president and vice-president reminders about the upcoming birthdays and anniversaries of leading national figures. Eisenhower, the general frequently dismissed as politically naive, used the reminders to send notes and make phone calls that were naturally well received and no doubt helpful in sustaining his influence and reputation. Nixon did not, telling Hess that “I really don’t want to be remembered as a person who recalls people’s birthdays.” Nixon’s ambition was aimed at larger targets. He wanted to make his reputation in public policy and particularly in foreign affairs.

Several contributors to the Thompson volume note a significant difference between the way Richard Nixon dealt with his policy advisers, who were at the outset of the administration individuals of unusual talent and diversity, and the way he dealt with his political advisers. In the case of the former, he was moderate, respectful, and analytical, almost never using the infamous expletives that had to be deleted from the Watergate transcripts. In the case of the latter, he was extreme, suspicious, and vindictive, capable of making rash suggestions that his experienced associates wisely ignored.

Those who saw Nixon dealing with a variety of visitors found him to have many more than two faces. The contributors to the Thompson book give personal testimony about Nixon’s many facets, hidden qualities, and surprising shifts in mood. John Ehrlichman doubts “seriously that there are many people [who] have seen the complete Richard Nixon,” and suggests that the best way to read about him is in an anthology with multiple authors. “Maybe you will be able to triangulate from that.” The triangulations which Thompson’s book makes possible do not provide readers with easy access to the complete Richard Nixon, but they do give us a richer account of his life and administration than would otherwise be available.

Riddles, mysteries, and enigmas about Richard Nixon clearly remain. Even after 700 pages of Ambrose prose, important events in Nixon’s youth and early career are largely unexplained. We do not fully know the forces that shaped his personality, and Ambrose is at his best when he warns us against believing that those forces are easy to find. We do not know enough about the character and the dimensions of Nixon’s political ambitions, though it is clear that those ambitions were formidable factors in his adult life. We do know that there were evidently important dichotomies in Nixon’s character and behavior, but it is sometimes difficult to explain their origins and trace their consequences. We know a great deal about the men who surrounded Richard Nixon during his presidency, but not nearly enough about the complicated relationships that existed among them. We cannot even say that we know all the facts about Watergate, the most exhaustively investigated presidential transgression of the 20th century. When Winstón Churchill told the British public about the problems associated with the interpretation of Russian foreign policy, he meant to warn them against those who would suggest benign and superficial explanations of potentially dangerous events. That is good advice, not only for students of history coming to grips with complicated figures in our nation’s past but also for citizens deciding how to cast their votes in years divisible by four.


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