Richard M. Nixon’s resignation in 1974 obscures the fact that the disgraced president was surely the most remarkable political figure of the post-World War II era. A Republican partisan who relished tough campaigning, Nixon provoked intense emotions both for and against his positions. Those who write about him have seldom found much middle ground. Stephen E. Ambrose is the great exception. Widely acknowledged as the best biographer of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ambrose has written the first volume of what promises to be a most insightful and judicious biography of the controversial Nixon.
This first volume follows Nixon through 1962, the year of his defeat in the race for governor of California. It is thoroughly researched, and Ambrose, admittedly no admirer of Nixon before he began this study, takes great pains to be fair. He finds much to admire in the young Nixon and emphasizes the Quaker, middle-class background that shaped the values of the future politician. Although seldom generalizing on the psychological, Ambrose does suggest that Nixon’s disciplined Quaker upbringing and the death of two brothers perhaps contributed both to his burning desire to succeed and to his personal reserve and reluctance or inability to develop really close friendships. Young Nixon was a respected leader, and his peers at school always turned to him to get things done.
Most of the book is devoted to Nixon’s early political career, his rapid rise in the Republican ranks, and his years as Eisenhower’s vice president. Ambrose makes clear that Nixon could be an unscrupulous campaigner, and his vicious attacks on Democrats at times earned for him the label “McCarthy in a white shirt.” Nixon, however, whose political career was largely made on his aggressive pursuit of Alger Hiss, was a moderating influence during the Red Scare of the 1950’s. Ambrose portrays him as a remarkable, astute politician whose relationship with President Eisenhower was marked by ambivalence and little affection on either side.
This is a first-rate analysis which documents Nixon’s talents and his desire to win at almost any cost.