Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, 1962-1972 covers the ten-year period from Richard Nixon’s press conference following his defeat in the California gubernatorial race by Edmund “Pat” Brown (November 7, 1962) to his landslide reelection victory over South Dakota Senator George McGovern (November 7, 1972). In documenting what some have called the most remarkable political comeback in modern American history (Nixon himself liked to compare it with Winston Churchill’s), Stephen Ambrose continues the project he began with Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913- 1962 (1987). Here, as in that previous volume, the emphasis is very much on Nixon the public figure. Ambrose claims not to understand the inner Nixon; his stated objective is to explore what Nixon did rather than why he did it.
The author of a dozen previous books dealing with military and diplomatic history, readable if somewhat pedestrian in style, Ambrose is perhaps best known for a two-volume biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower. As Ambrose sees it, the contrasts between the genial Ike and the abrasive Nixon could not have been greater. The general loved life; Nixon seemed unable to relax Eisenhower was not without guile, but Nixon made Machiavellian tactics a hallmark of his career. While president, Ike had little use for Nixon except to deflect criticism from the right wing of the Republican Party. When Ike omitted him from a 1963 list of Republican presidential possibilities, Nixon was furious. During the next five years, however, their relationship mellowed, especially with the betrothal of grandson David Eisenhower to daughter Julie Nixon.
The two presidents that Nixon most admired were Theodore Roosevelt (for his toughness) and Woodrow Wilson (for his intellectual brilliance); he hoped to emulate their activist foreign policies. His disinterest in domestic issues recalled Calvin Coolidge’s dictum that the country could pretty much run itself Like his fellow Quaker Herbert Hoover, Ambrose suggests, Nixon was aloof and ineffectual in dealing with Congress. Regarding Franklin Delano Roosevelt, arguably America’s premier twentieth century politician, Nixon countenanced neither his aristocratic lineage nor his welfare state liberalism. While FDR could be petty and envious and could pit loyal advisers against each other, his tolerance of dissent and openness to fresh opinions was in stark contrast to the atmosphere of the Nixon White House. In some ways, Nixon’s mirror image was the canny and manipulative Lyndon Baines Johnson. Both loved dramatic actions that would surprise and confound their critics; both distrusted the Ivy League, Eastern establishment; both masked insecurities with periodic bouts of bravado. Johnson’s main interests, in contrast, lay in domestic areas, but the two men followed remarkably similar courses of action in Vietnam.
Ambrose also notes similarities between Nixon and John E Kennedy. Junior officers coming of age during World War II, they shared moralistic assumptions about America’s leadership role in the world and saw no limits to what the United States could accomplish abroad given the will. Cold warriors, they set few, if any, restrictions on what methods might be used to assert American primacy. Both were provocative in their rhetoric and infatuated with crisis management. Although they were political enemies, Nixon regarded Kennedy as somewhat of a kindred spirit (the feeling was not reciprocated; Kennedy thought Nixon dangerous and unprincipled). President Kennedy’s death signaled an end to a golden era of prosperity and global influence, but Nixon, as spokesman for the Republican opposition, seemed oblivious to the limitations of American power.
Rather than remain in California in 1963, Nixon became a senior partner in a New York law firm, which allowed him ample time to travel and accumulate political IOU’s while netting approximately a quarter of a million dollars annually from such corporate clients as Pepsi-Cola. In 1964 he was waiting in the wings in case a Republican deadlock should occur. He was fortunate not to have received the nomination, as the inevitable defeat to Lyndon Johnson would have added to his loser’s image. Instead, by his loyalty to the Goldwater-Miller ticket at a time when Republican moderates were disassociating themselves from it, Nixon solidified his ties with the old guard, whose support he knew would be crucial to future success.
One is struck by how little Nixon the politician changed during the 1960’s. He continued to make all substantive decisions on issues and tactics himself despite assembling a secret team of two dozen “Birdwatchers.” He found fault with whatever position President Johnson took. They were, writes Ambrose, like two bull elks, “knocking horns in their opening maneuvers.” Nixon was an extreme hawk, calling for escalating the Vietnam War into North Vietnam. Equating dissent with disloyalty, Nixon called for the dismissal of Rutgers University history professor Eugene D. Genovese, who was quoted as saying that he would welcome a Vietcong victory.
Ambrose presents a graphic portrait of the Nixon-Humphrey presidential race of 1968. Unscathed after an easy road to the nomination, Nixon blamed the Democrats for the accumulated ills of the 1960’s. One television commercial ridiculed Hubert Humphrey’s “Politics of Joy” theme by juxtaposing scenes of war and civil disorder with Humphrey laughing and grinning. On the stump Nixon told aides that he wanted hecklers roughed up (off-duty policemen were generally happy to comply). Despite a promise to steer clear of personal attack, he branded Vice President Humphrey a soft, indulgent, permissive, spendthrift lapdog trained at President Johnson’s obedience school. Promising “peace with honor,” he refused to reveal details of his Vietnam policy on the grounds that it would undercut the Paris peace talks. When an eleventh-hour bombing halt held out hopes for a breakthrough, Nixon sent Mrs. Anna Chennault on a clandestine mission to urge South...
(The entire section is 2473 words.)