On the face of it, Stephen E. Ambrose has written a balanced, descriptive account of the life of Richard Milhous Nixon from birth in 1913 to premature retirement from politics in 1962. Yet, underneath the polished prose and paced narrative, Ambrose's first volume of a projected two-volume biography of the 37th President of the United States makes perplexing reading, for two reasons.
First, instead of analysis, we are offered description or, worse, tantalizing one-liners. In connection with the death of Nixon's oldest brother, Ambrose asserts that Nixon "felt sorry for himself not Harold . . . (and) was to never again give his love and admiration . . . for fear of the pain of separation." Later, in reference to Nixon's close loss to John F. Kennedy in 1960 and win over Hubert Humphrey in 1968, we learn that his 1946 campaign against Rep. Jerry Voorhis in California "marked the beginning of what would become a lifelong obsession with percentages." Another one-liner occurs when Ambrose insists that Nixon's conduct in the Alger Hiss affair presaged that "in every future crisis of his life" he would "lash out in an uncontrollable fit of temper." (Of course, Nixon handled his last crisis--Watergate--with excessive calculation.) Finally, we learn that one of Nixon's "outstanding characteristics" was an ability to absorb facts. (Again, how about Watergate?)
The second perplexing aspect of the book is related to this inability to make historical sense out of Nixon's formative years and prepresidential political career. It stems from both the sources Ambrose employs and his uncritical use of them. Unlike his best-selling and well-received biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower, which took 20 years, the gestation period for this present book has been three or four years at most.
It is to Ambrose's credit, let it be said, that he ignores the largely contradictory studies of Nixon's psyche. After rejecting psychoanalytical accounts, which rival those written about Adolf Hitler, he re-creates Nixon's early life and career, alas, primarily with an engaging synthesis of such books of dubious provenance as the Nixon biographies by Bela Kornitzer, Earl Mazo, and William Costello, together with some miscellaneous oral history interviews.
Ambrose thus portrays Nixon's formative years as not particularly traumatic for someone of his generation and background, growing up in two towns near Los Angeles. This most unloved of American politicians, he writes, was not unloved as a child. But he proves this point in part by relying on an even more questionable source, a still unpublished campaign biography by Charles Richard Gardner, created for the campaign of 1952. Free-lancer Gardner hoped that this 262 pages of typescript, suitably printed, would advance his candidate, but it did not see the light of day (until now) even after he misrepresented himself to several publishers as a regular speech writer for Nixon. Ambrose's use of this partisan account hardly constitutes "thorough" or "meticulous" original research. Curiously, he has excised Gardner and Mazo's references to young Nixon's sense of humor and popularity. One can only assume that the purpose was to reinforce today's view of Nixon the friendless, frustrated outsider. As for oral history, Ambrose relies on interviews conducted by a group of undergraduates at Cal State Fullerton, who talked with officials of the Nixon Administration when they were still in office, in 1969-1972. These unsophisticated interviews hardly add scholarly cubits to the book under review.
As for Pat Nixon, the erstwhile First Lady receives credit for supporting her husband through all his political crises, but we are never told enough about her to understand why.
Even when Ambrose begins to use Nixon's vice presidential papers--rather than a pastiche of unreliable biographies and oral histories--Nixon's personality and political significance do not come into focus. We learn late in the book that "Nixon was no demogogue" because he did not attack "Negroes, union men or Catholics," yet in early campaigns for the House and Senate and as Eisenhower's vice president and hatchet man, his "ruthless" (and strongly implied demogogic political behavior is described in detail.
Nor does Ambrose come to a conclusion about Nixon's 1952 "Checkers" speech. In his biography of Eisenhower, he concluded that there had been a serious effort to dump Nixon after the exposure of a slush fund, and that the Checkers talk not only saved his career but became "one of the great classics of American political folklore," giving Nixon "a solid power base of his own." Relying on many of the same sources, this biography relates that Nixon's position on the 1952 ticket had always been secure and that the entire incident amounted to a "charade."
Ambrose quotes extensively from Nixon's "Six Crises" to describe his political life, but in the final analysis, he suggests that they were all false crises, which is probably true. Still, one would never know it from the exciting narratives and extensive coverages. Equally ambiguous, he asserts that with respect to civil rights, Nixon "was well within the mainstream of the Republican party," only to belie that description with references to his unusually positive relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s.
Probably the most original interpretation is the account of Nixon's early California campaigns against Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas. Despite anti-communist tactics, he was far from the McCarthy of California. Contrary to most liberal descriptions of Voorhis and Douglas, Ambrose leaves the impression that they were intellectual and political lightweights compared to Nixon and would have been defeated without the smear tactics attributed to him. There are also several insights into Nixon's significance as vice president. He differed with Eisenhower by supporting "lower taxes, a more action-oriented foreign policy, more social spending, more defense spending, and a willingness to live with debts." As for McCarthy's anti-administration attacks, anti-Communist reputation notwithstanding, Nixon "exerted all his considerable powers of persuasion on McCarthy to get him to back off."
Most of what we learn from this biography about Nixon's early life and career hence is in older biographies. And we are left with few clues about how experiences in Congress and as vice president may have formed or changed ideas. Ambrose has given a "mix and match" version of Nixon--not a "color-coordinated" foundation.
One turns from the Nixon of Stephen Ambrose to an artful portrayal by the veteran reporter C. L. Sulzberger. Even more than Ambrose, Sulzberger would have us believe that, like the girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, Nixon was "very, very good on international matters," but when he was "bad" on domestic issues, he was horrid. Sulzberger purports to have discovered Nixon contributions to foreign policy. The major reason for Sulzberger's book appears to be a single July, 1986, interview with Nixon. There is, unfortunately, little in it that cannot be found in others the former President has given, especially the lengthy television series he did recently, or the accountings he has offered in his books. Some of Sulzberger's earlier interviews with Nixon provide more interesting reading than that of 1986.
The bulk of Sulzberger's interpretation can be found in existing diplomatic studies. This former chief correspondent and long-time columnist for The New York Times projects a two-faced Janus-like Nixon with an enormous success record abroad and a "disastrous" one at home. Accepting this paradox, and blaming Watergate for any weaknesses he finds on Nixon's diplomacy, Sulzberger is relieved of the problem of explaining why "Richard Nixon proved to be a paradox as President."
By far the most interesting of Sulzberger's chapters describes the relationship between the White House and the State Department and particularly between Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Referring to the latter as a "colt of the estimable Nelson Rockefeller," he places the roles and power of this odd couple in perspective. He notes how much more hard-line Kissinger was, and how his power relied on that of the President. Thus Watergate became Kissinger's symbolic Waterloo, although he emerged unscathed from the scandal.
Ambrose's book will remain a graceful, if ambiguous, synthesis of what is well known about Nixon's life to 1962. Sulzberger's seems, sadly, a tired effort that accepts the standard paradoxical view of Nixon's career without adding any new insights into his foreign policies. Despite these new studies, we are left with the formidable task of divining for ourselves the purposes and procedures of this recent President of the United States.