At the end of his compelling and dispassionate three-volume biography of Richard Nixon, the historian Stephen E. Ambrose sums up his subject's nature, those traits that over a long career brought the 37th President stunning political triumphs but ultimately disgrace and ruin.
Nixon, he writes, was the toughest American politician of his time. Disciplined, highly knowledgeable, a hard worker, an inveterate risk taker. A man of enormous pride who was never ready to accept defeat. A stuffed shirt who even walking along a beach or relaxing in his own home could be found dressed in suit and tie. Painfully shy, inherently suspicious, incapable of trusting others, a consummate actor, much given to self-pity. And beneath the surface there was always a simmering anger whose sources can only be guessed at--he was, writes Ambrose, "the angriest American President."
A CORE OF CONFLICT: To Nixon, power was a matter of manipulation, of favors, public relations, polls, smears, intimidation, and not, as some other Presidents intuitively understood, an ability to lead by persuasion and a talent to inspire confidence, always in a context that respected the limits that govern the democratic exercise of authority.
To Nixon, conflict was what gave life its sense and substance. In an interview with David Frost he said ". . . What makes life mean something is purpose. A goal. The battle. The struggle. Even if you don't win it." In the political world his greatest admiration was reserved for those--Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Mao Tse-tung--who had struggled and suffered defeat before they experienced victory.
Nixon won more than his share of electoral and legislative battles, not all of them by fair means. He was elected to the House from Whittier as a young Navy veteran in 1946, to the Senate four years later in a mean and bitter campaign. Less than two years afterward he won the second spot on the Republican national ticket. He served eight years as Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice president, failed to win the presidency in 1960 by a hairbreadth--a shift of a few thousand votes would have given him an electoral college victory over John F. Kennedy--then lost decisively when he ran for governor of California in 1962. At that point he seemed headed for history's ash heap.
Instead he began one of the most remarkable comebacks in American political history. Narrowly elected President in 1968 and smashingly reelected in 1972, Nixon embarked on a series of bold and controversial initiatives.
In foreign policy he was proudest of ending U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, achieving an opening with China and reaching detente with the Soviet Union. In domestic policy he outraged many conservatives in his own party by proposing welfare reform, national health insurance for all, a negative income tax for the poor.
RUIN AND RETURN: The Watergate scandal--the burglary of Democratic Party headquarters followed by an expanding conspiracy to cover up White House involvement in that and other crimes--destroyed the second Nixon Administration. Facing articles of impeachment drawn up by the House Judiciary Committee, accused of misusing presidential power and obstructing justice, confronted with self-produced tapes detailing the cover-up, Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974. A month later he received a presidential pardon for any crimes he might have committed.
And then, typically, he began his slow climb back from disgrace, traveling widely, writing prolifically, at least partially reclaiming his cherished role of international statesman, if not the respect his fellow citizens had once accorded him. Perhaps he still had hopes of that, too, when he died Friday at age 81.