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Nixon Before the Fall : RICHARD MILHOUS NIXON The Rise of an American Politician by Roger Morris (Henry Holt: $29.95; 944 pp.; 0-8050-1121-8)) : NIXON Volume Two: The Triumph of a Politician, 1962-1972 by Stephen B. Ambrose (Simon & Schuster: $24.95; 742 pp.; 0-671-52837-8)

October 15, 1989|Robert Dallek | Dallek is professor of history at UCLA and the author of several books on recent U.S. history. He is writing a two-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. and

Like the mythological Egyptian bird that consumed itself by fire and rose renewed from its ashes, Richard Nixon is a latter-day phoenix. Defeated by John F. Kennedy for the presidency in 1960 and by Pat Brown for the California governorship in 1962, Nixon told a press conference: "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around any more."

As so often in his career, his words masked the reality of his actions. He at once began working toward the comeback that culminated in his two victorious campaigns for the White House in 1968 and 1972. Resigning the presidency in 1974 rather than face impeachment and conviction for Watergate crimes, Nixon began his final battle: the vindication by history. Making the case for himself in his 1978 memoirs, he has worked to convince Americans of his greatness as a foreign-policy leader and to obscure the truth of Watergate and other improprieties by blocking release of documents and tapes that might further blight his reputation.

His current campaign enjoys some success. A November, 1988, Louis Harris poll, asking a cross section of Americans to rank the last nine Presidents from F.D.R. to Reagan in 11 categories, rated Nixon as "best in foreign affairs," well ahead of all the others, except Reagan, who was a close second.

Although a decisive plurality of the poll said that Nixon had set the lowest moral standards of all these Presidents, he scored better than Johnson, Ford, and Carter in several other categories. Having suffered the worst public humiliation of any President in U.S. history by resigning from office and having continued a spirited fight for vindication, Nixon has partly redeemed himself with some Americans who find considerable appeal in a man who doggedly struggles to overcome self-inflicted defeats.

Two new biographies by Roger Morris and Stephen Ambrose will undercut Nixon's efforts to create a positive historical image. A former member of the State Department and the National Security Council, who resigned in protest against Nixon's 1970 invasion of Cambodia, Morris has become a prize-winning journalist. To be published next month, his massively detailed 900-page book, the first of a multi-volume biography, takes the story only through Nixon's election as vice president in 1952.

The book tells us more about Nixon than most readers would ever care to know, but therein also lies its strength. It is the most detailed and authoritative reconstruction of Nixon's life and career we have ever had. Building his account on materials in 35 archives and from hundreds of oral-history interviews, Morris dispassionately recounts the story of Nixon's early life in California, at the Duke University law school, in a Whittier law practice, in the Navy during World War II, and, above all, in postwar politics. Nixon's 1946 congressional race against Jerry Voorhis, his role in the Alger Hiss case as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee, his 1950 race for the U.S. Senate against Helen Gahagan Douglas, his campaign to become Dwight Eisenhower's running mate, and his part in the 1952 presidential election never has been told more completely and evenhandedly.

Morris shows a keen understanding of Nixon's strengths and importance as a representative American. He describes him as a man of extraordinary diligence and determination, with an exceptional feel for public sentiment that propelled his meteoric rise in mid-century American politics. In high school, Morris writes, Nixon's "grades were nearly perfect. . . . There was a dour fierceness of application and ambition about the record." But he struggled with geometry, scoring only B's the first two quarters. ". . . When the teacher once presented a special problem, promising an A for the next quarter for its solution overnight, he worked until 4 a.m., got the grade, and finished the course with an A."

His first campaign for a House seat was a microcosm of his capacity to succeed in politics. The campaign was "a political balancing act between the warring wings of the Republican Party--a matter of conviction as well as expedience and opportunity--that Richard Nixon was to practice with an almost instinctive brilliance throughout his career." No detail that could serve the campaign escaped his notice. "So complete was his attention to detail, so insistent the control . . . that the candidate himself even decided the precise telephone poles and other locations 'where campaign posters should be placed to the best advantage.' " He would stand "in the print shop as his political pamphlets came off the press, making certain every word and layout was exact."

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