"Nixon: The Education Of A Politician 1913-1962" is the first volume in Stephen Ambrose's comprehensive biography of Richard Nixon. This one takes Nixon from his birth to a farmer-gas station operator-grocer in Yorba Linda, California through his defeat for governor in 1962.
Ambrose writes of the Nixon's background, his Quaker mother who taught him Faith and pulled her whole family into the Republican Party and his father who always seemed to make the wrong choices in business. He tells of Nixon's education where he was a serious student amongst other children who "didn't smell good." He brings out facts that molded Nixon's character but are not widely known. Nixon declined scholarships to Harvard and Yale because he could not afford the living expenses, choosing Whittier College where he could live at home. When he got a scholarship to Duke University Law School it was a new institution, not the prestigious one it is today. It was there that he was introduced to the world outside of Southern California and learned to speak of "The War Between The States", a term he used for life. Ambrose writes of the turning points in Nixon's life, such as being turned down by New York law firms and the FBI, any of which could have kept him out of politics. We read of his courtship of and marriage to Pat, his naval service and entry into politics.
Nixon's political career began in 1946 with his election to the House of Representatives by defeating long time incumbent Jerry Voorhis in what Nixon's critics term his first "dirty" campaign. From his position on the House Un-American Activities Committee he got involved in the investigation of Alger Hiss whose conviction made Nixon a national figure and propelled him to the Senate and the Vice-Presidency. The 1960 race for president and the 1962 race for governor are covered, although in a more cursory fashion than other books that focus exclusively on those races.
Ambrose delves deeply into the complex relationship between Nixon and Eisenhower, an arrangement in which each used the other for his own ends. Ultimately it was a relationship in which Nixon needed Eisenhower, politically and emotionally, but Ike could have done without Nixon.
Even more crucial is the relationship between Dick, Pat and their daughters. Pat is depicted as a woman who did not want to be a politician's wife and who hoped he would retire in 1956 but who supported him and campaigned with him every time he made a decision to run. Dick's public slights of her seem to be more due to inattention than lack of affection. Tricia is shown as the daughter who always wants to fight with and for her father. The family is portrayed as affectionate and loyal with Dick's total dedication to politics as the main factor distinguishing this from a stereotypical American family of its era.
I had heard that Stephen Ambrose did not like Richard Nixon so I was pleasantly surprised at the objective assessments made of Nixon and his career. Many events in Nixon's career have elicited passionate enmity but Ambrose usually chose not to jump on the bandwagon, often concluding that Nixon was right. In his summaries, he concludes that Nixon divided people along party lines, but did not use race, class or religion as issues. He points out that Nixon was neither alone nor the first or last to use Communism as a political tool. He concluded that Nixon probably hurt Eisenhower in 1956, but ran well ahead of the party in 1960 despite his costly campaign mistakes. He described "Six Crises" as "a book written by a great man about small events" and "the most visible Vice-President of the twentieth century, and the most successful."
I have a strong interest in Richard Nixon, partly because his triumph occurred as I was becoming politically of age and have read extensively about him. This is clearly the best book I have written about Nixon and one of, if not the, best biography I have ever read. I am looking forward to the next volume.
This first part of Ambrose's trilogy deals with Nixon's early years and his rise to congressman, senator, vice-president and 1960 Republican presidential candidate. It lucidly conveys the childhood years of poverty in California including the vividly written death of Nixon's elder brother. From these early years to his time at Whittier University we can see some of the signs and syptoms of Nixon's complex personality and flaws that were to manifest themselves so dramatically in his later years. I liked the way the author showed an empathy with Nixon whilst at the same time highlighting the man's many faults and his deeply troubled nature. We admire this Nixon for overcoming his shyness, awkwardness, neuroses and hardships to achieve what he did but we are also troubled that such a man came to be the most powerful man in the world and Ambrose conveys these conflicts within us and Nixon superbly.