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Richard Milhous Nixon - The Rise Of An American Politician Paperback – 1990
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My only regret about this work is that there isn't a second volume to cover his later years. I have no doubt Morris would do an exceptional job of covering his presidency and post-presidency years as well.
I have only read the first seven chapters, but I highly recommend this book to all Nixon fans. I also recommend it to all students of American history and presidents. If you have not become a Nixon admirer by just reading the first few chapters, then there is something terribly wrong with you.
Roger Morris has a good way of painting the historical background of others in a way that can be quite interesting and challenging to those who find it exciting to see what was going on in other lives.
The timing (in receiving the book) was good.
The reader watches young Nixon grow up in a relatively prosperous family. Despite the future president's claims of poverty, the family sent to sons to college and owned a car during the depression. There were limits to the Nixons' finances. Richard was smart enough to win admission to Harvard, but his family could not afford to send him East. Despite the death of two brothers, Nixon's home was a supportive, nurturing environment. Yet, as hone high school friend noted, Richard was "admired rather than liked."
After the war, Nixon and his wife, Pat, dreaded returning to small town life. As a result, the interest a group of community leaders showed in him as a candidate to take on Congressman Jerry Voorhis was a godsend. According to Morris, this election marks the start of red-baiting in American politics and in Nixon's career. Voorhis and Nixon would later downplay the role of red-baiting in this election for very different reasons. Morris argues that this first campaign is the start of an inverse relationship ethics and political success in Nixon's career. That is, the higher Nixon rose in politics, the less he cared about the methods he used to get there. While this assertion might be true, Nixon in 1946 was nowhere near the cutting edge of mudslinging that Morris would have us believe. In his shorter and much better biography of Nixon, historian Stephen Ambrose points out that Senator William Knowland, a man Morris sees as a Paragon of virtue, was actually far dirtier than Nixon ever was against Voorhis.
Encouraged by his congressional victory, Nixon gravitates more and more towards the anti-Communist right wing. He eagerly sought and gained a seat on the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Morris clearly exaggerates Nixon's influence when he contends that a freshman congressman had enough power to intimidate Hollywood into making anti-Communist films and artistically inhibiting filmmakers for a decade. Nixon and HUAC soon hit pay dirt when they stumbled upon on one of the few incidents of a communist actually holding a high position in the U.S. government. The FBI leaked to the committee the testimony of Whitaker Chambers, an editor with Time-Life, in which he accused former State Department official Alger Hiss of spying for the Soviet Union. That these accusations were taken seriously Morris argues is a sign of how strong the anti-Communist witch hunt was in America. Chambers had made the charges before, but only at a time when red-baiting was acceptable political tool would they be taken seriously. Morris contends that Hiss was innocent of the charges hurled at him, but the evidence he offers simply does not support his case. In addition, a good deal of material declassified in the last ten years here and in the former Soviet Union shows Hiss was as dirty as his detractors claimed.
Intoxicated with his success, Nixon decides to run for the U.S. Senate against Helen Douglas. Once again he uses his favorite tactic and once again he destroys another respectable career. In a moment of pure hyperbole, Morris characterizes this race as "the most notorious, controversial campaign in American political history." In making this statement, he ignores the Presidential elections of 1824, 1876, 1968 and U.S. Senate Races in Texas in 1948 and in North Carolina in 1984. The Nixon-Douglas race did, however, contribute to some of the better political one-liners in history. Nixon said Douglas was "pink right down to her underwear" and Douglas called Nixon "Tricky Dick." Only in 1952 with the slush fund controversy would Nixon get a taste of his own medicine.
There are many problems with this biography. The first is its length. Morris could have easily trimmed 200 pages without damage to his narrative. Ambrose covers the same period and 10 additional years with 250 fewer pages. Another problem is his habit of making over arching indictiments against Nixon. The biggest shortcoming, though, is Morris's portrayal of his subject. He sees Nixon as a crude, ambitious, paranoid politician with few scruples. That Nixon had these traits is beyond question. Morris unfortunately overlooks the complexity of Nixon's personality. Nixon had the capacity to be generous, thoughtful and compassionate. The portrayal in this book is most unrewarding.