Although eventually forced out of office and disgraced by Watergate, Richard M. Nixon was surely one of the most successful American politicians of the post-World War II era. First as a congressman and then as a senator, Nixon won accolades from party regulars and emerged as perhaps the leading spokesman for the Republicans. He served as vice president in the Eisenhower Administration; he lost the presidency to John F. Kennedy in 1960 but came back to claim that office in 1968, winning reelection in a landslide in 1972. A farsighted Republican leader, Nixon played a major role in undermining the powerful Democratic coalition that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had put together during the Depression. As president, he would demonstrate both ingenuity and courage by breaking out of the Cold War mentality that he and others had so effectively exploited during the late 1940’s and 1950’s. Complex, controversial, and always fiercely partisan, Nixon has been alternately praised and damned by journalists and scholars alike. Those who write about him have seldom found much middle ground. Stephen E. Ambrose is the significant exception. Well-known as the distinguished biographer of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ambrose has written the first volume of what promises to be a balanced and insightful biography of the remarkable Richard Nixon.
Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962 is concerned with the young Nixon and the forces that shaped his character and personality. The book goes through 1962, the year Nixon was defeated in the race for governor of California. Drawing upon extensive research, Ambrose portrays Nixon as a shy and serious child. “He wasn’t a little boy you wanted to pick up and hug,” according to his cousin Jessamyn West. He was very fastidious, clean and neat, insisting “on a clean, starched shirt each morning.” Intellectually precocious, he was reading the newspaper by age six and talking politics with his argumentative father. Despite his basic shyness, he found acting and public speaking invigorating, was very good at both, and became a champion debater. He was clumsy at sports but kept trying anyway. Throughout high school and college, he worked in the family grocery store, maintained high grades, and involved himself in a multitude of extracurricular activities. As the “best all-around student” at Whittier High School, he won a scholarship to Harvard University but turned it down because the traveling and living expenses would be too much. Unusually bright and hardworking, Richard Nixon was bent on succeeding.
Without trying to psychoanalyze Nixon the young man, Ambrose acknowledges the significance of his Quaker, middle-class background. Nixon was immersed in Quaker moralism during his formative years. Much of his self-discipline, seriousness, and dedication to work and school reflected the religious ethos of his family and friends. In spite of his shyness, the Quaker tradition of lay speakers introduced him to public speaking, providing increasingly satisfying experiences. Like his father, he saw politics in moralistic terms, announcing at age eleven in the wake of the scandals of the Harding Administration that he was going to become a lawyer who could not be bought. High-minded, the young Nixon was also personally ambitious. His mother and father believed in the work ethic, and, during the boom times of the 1920’s in Southern California, Nixon saw that the hard work of his parents and their friends was amply rewarded. His desire to do everything well, however, had a frenetic quality about it. According to his mother, the death of two brothers, one younger and one older, seemed to make Nixon work harder than ever, as if he were trying to make up for the loss of these siblings. Furthermore, that traumatic experience may well have contributed to his personal reserve and reluctance or inability to develop close friendships.
At Whittier College, Nixon matured intellectually and religiously, though social relationships remained difficult for him. He was much influenced by Paul Smith, professor of history and later president of the college, whose progressive views shocked some of his Quaker students. Nixon’s English teacher, Albert Upton, was also something of an iconoclast. From them and others, Nixon learned to think critically and began to formulate his own ideas about politics and religion. Moving away from Quaker mysticism, he found that he could not accept the divinity of Jesus, but, keeping his doubts to himself, he embraced Christianity as the best ethical system of all. He continued to hone his verbal skills in debate and held a succession of offices in campus government, including presidency of the student body. He kept trying to play football, still filled with fervor for the sport but singularly inept at it. “We used Nixon as a punching bag,” said his coach, who nevertheless appreciated the lad’s tenacity and spirit. Whether on the field or off, Nixon was an enthusiastic booster of Whittier College, and his fellow students elected him to one office after another because he worked hard at whatever he did. Although well liked and much admired, he was not very successful with women, several of whom found him stuffy, too concerned with his own image to be much fun.
Second in his graduating class of 1934, Nixon accepted a full-tuition scholarship to the newly established Duke Law School. Away from home for the first time and dependent upon his father for living expenses, Nixon studied fiercely to keep his fellowship. He spent long hours in the library reading and memorizing materials. He also watched every penny, lived in a toolshed for a time to save on rent, and worked every odd campus job he could manage during those Depression years. He made good grades but seemed always on edge. His professors deemed him capable, if not very imaginative. Unlike many of the other students, Nixon seemed to enjoy being called upon in class and arguing with his professors. He roomed with Southern boys at Duke and came to appreciate certain qualities of the South, but he clashed with Southerners over race relations, insisting that segregation was wrong. He won the respect of his classmates and served as the president of the Student Bar Association. As Ambrose makes clear, however, academic success was his goal, and he never took law school for granted. Despite his pessimism, he was graduated third in the class of 1937. Having inquired about a job with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), he took the advice of his teachers to return to Whittier, get into a law firm, and go into politics.
Back in Whittier, Nixon badly bungled his first lawsuit. Already considering politics, he was more successful in local civic...
(The entire section is 2738 words.)