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."