Monday, August 09, 2004

Books About Nixon

Question: The Hauenstein Center event the other night featuring Nixon Library director John Taylor was exceptional. If I were going to read one book about Nixon what would you suggest?
From: Maribeth W. of Grand Rapids, Michigan
Submitted: August 07, 2004

Gleaves answers:
You ask a daunting question, because as time passes, Nixon is increasingly perceived as one of the most fascinating, complex, and important figures in 20th-century America. To date, no single biography has done justice to this man of Shakespearean proportions.

The word most closely associated with Nixon's name is "Watergate," and the fact that hangs most heavily about his reputation is that he was the only president to resign from office (August 9, 1974). He did so to avoid impeachment in the House of Representatives, which would have led to a divisive, nasty trial in the Senate.

To focus on Watergate, however, is to ignore the full story of a man whose career was one of the longest and most consequential in our history. Richard M. Nixon was at the center not just of national but of international affairs for almost three decades. Hard as it may be for many to believe nowadays, he was quite popular during much of his time in office. He placed on the Gallup Poll's annual survey of the most admired men in America 14 times; he was selected the most admired man in America four times. Remarkably, he continued to be one of the most admired men in America even when he was not in office: six different years he held that distinction. To top it off, he won the presidency by one of the greatest landslides in American history, winning all but one state and amassing 520 of 537 electoral votes.

Even during Nixon's darkest hour in the Oval Office, on the eve of his resignation, his popularity never fell to the lowest point of the modern presidency. That dismal distinction belongs to Harry S. Truman, who had only a 23 percent approval rating in November 1951 because of futile truce negotiations during the Korean War.

A few other facts from Nixon's biography. He is one of only two Americans ever elected to national office four times. (Nixon was elected vice president twice, and president twice -- which invites comparison to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was elected president four times.) Nixon came from one of the poorest backgrounds of any 20th-century president, yet received a good enough primary education to win a scholarship to Harvard. (He chose to go to Whittier College instead.) A man who commanded clear, strong English, Nixon wrote more bestsellers than any other president. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine more than any other public figure, and Norman Rockwell painted his portrait for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

Perhaps Henry Kissinger summed Nixon up best when he wrote, in his autobiography The White House Years:

"What extraordinary vehicles destiny selects to accomplish its design. This man, so lonely in his hour of triumph, so ungenerous in some of his motivations, had navigated our nation through one of the most anguishing periods in its history. Not by nature courageous, he had steeled himself to conspicuous acts of rare courage. Not normally outgoing, he had forced himself to rally his people to its challenge. He had striven for a revolution in American foreign policy so that it would overcome the disastrous oscillations between overcommitment and isolation. Despised by the Establishment, ambiguous in his human perceptions, he had yet held fast to a sense of national honor and responsibility, determined to prove that the strongest free country had no right to abdicate."

There are legions of books about Nixon, most of them quite critical. To get you started, I would recommend the following three works. For a biography sympathetic to our 37th president, read Jonathan Aitken's Nixon: A Life (first published in the U.K. in 1992; in the U.S. in 1994). For a more comprehensive, critical appraisal, see Stephen E. Ambrose's multivolume biography, Nixon: The Education of a Politician, and Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, and Nixon: Ruin and Recovery. Then read David Greenberg's recent study, Nixon's Shadow, which brilliantly examines the meaning of Nixon to American politics and culture. Greenberg's study demonstrates that Nixon continues to be one of the most fascinating public figures with whom Americans can grapple.

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