Richard Milhous Nixon
Richard Nixon is rapidly passing into history. The passions stirred by his stormy political trajectory are gradually dying away. The only man ever forced to resign from the presidency spends his retirement cultivating his celebrity status. Already the subject of an opera, Nixon is a relic of an angry time, out of place in the era of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Soon he will be gone.
If an anachronism, however, Richard Nixon is by no means irrelevant. He pioneered the electoral alliance of South and West that kept the White House virtually a Republican preserve in the quarter century after 1969. It was Nixon’s “silent majority” that resoundingly rejected Michael Dukakis’ liberalism, responding to a Republican campaign of invective and innuendo eerily reminiscent of those run by Nixon in his heyday. Richard Nixon must stand as one of the prime architects of contemporary America. Hence, the time has come to assess his life, searching out the truth of what he did and the meaning of what he accomplished.
Roger Morris makes a significant contribution to this process in his book Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician, a massive study of Nixon’s life up to his inauguration as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president in 1953. Morris’ work is the product of exhaustive research, both in archives and through interviews, and it sheds new light on such matters as Nixon’s family background, his marriage, and crucial episodes in his early political career, such as the Alger Hiss case. In its diligent accretion of detail, Morris’ biographical labor can only be compared to Robert Caro’s monumental study of Lyndon Johnson.
A reader looking for magisterial evenhandedness in this biography, however, will be disappointed. Morris, a prizewinning investigative reporter and the author of critical studies of Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig, eschews impartiality. Quite early, it becomes obvious that Morris does not like Nixon or what he conceives Nixon to represent in politics. Morris’ partiality is at once the great strength and weakness of his book. In and of itself, a biographer’s admiration for or dislike of his or her subject poses no necessary impediment to literary excellence. A certain amount of passion may sharpen the biographer’s analysis. Indeed, Morris’ strong opinions about his subject give his study an interpretive power that other biographies of Nixon have lacked. The question remains, though, whether Morris’ bias ultimately distorts the truth about Richard Nixon.
Morris creates a morality tale, retelling the ageless story of innocence corrupted by a Faustian bargain, and his originality lies in the way he executes this familiar task. Instead of focusing on the flaws inherent in his protagonist, Morris shifts his emphasis from Richard Nixon’s psyche to his surroundings, letting environment explain his subject’s downfall. By making Nixon a product of his time and place, Morris explores the possibility, dear to any moralist, of condemning the society that nurtured his villain. For Morris, America as well as Richard Nixon stands in the dock.
Morris begins his book by describing the geological formation of the California Basin, which resulted in a land notable for its beneficent climate and natural beauty but ominously bereft of life-giving water. Southern California plays a key role in Morris’ thesis; his depiction of the region is so powerful and persistent that it attains the status of a silent actor in the drama. Morris sees the American settlement of California as the decadent culmination of America’s pioneering phase, and he views the society that took root there as the frenzied harbinger of the modern United States. Everything about Southern California tended to extremes. If the Basin’s climate seemed an exaggeration of America’s physical majesty and bounty, its society became a distortion of the wider American polity. From early in its history, entrepreneurs of all shades of integrity made California their special preserve. Southern California became synonymous for materialism, be it the gaudy philistinism of Hollywood or the conspicuous consumption of the masters of the Basin’s agricultural and industrial empires. For Morris, California’s prosperity was built upon the rotten foundation of the exploitation of racial and ethnic minorities. Nowhere else outside the Deep South did blacks, Mexicans, and Asians suffer the disabilities they endured in Southern California. Basin society nurtured political extremism, ranging from radical labor movements and Upton Sinclair’s “end poverty in California” (EPIC) movement of the 1930’s to the most vitriolic of red baiting. In the 1920’s, Los Angeles led the nation in a variety of unsavory categories, from divorce and suicide through narcotics addiction to such crimes as embezzlement, bank robberies, and society murders. Morris portrays Richard Nixon growing to young manhood in a society virtually indistinguishable from the dark realm savagely evoked in the novels of Raymond Chandler and Nathaniel West. It was this society that, after the harnessing of the Colorado River in the 1930’s and 1940’s, witnessed an even more explosive period of growth.
Morris believes that California betrayed the American Dream even as it seemed to fulfill that promise. Just as Basin development sprawled on land that was essentially desert was a lie, so, too, was the much vaunted...
(The entire section is 2223 words.)