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Review of “One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream” by Tom Wicker

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One of the earliest scholarly studies of Richard Nixon is Tom Wicker’s “One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream” which was published in 1991, three years before Nixon’s death. Wicker was a journalist for The New York Times for more than twenty years and the author of nearly two-dozen books. Wicker, who was included on the master list of Nixon’s political opponents, died in 2011 at the age of 85.

With 687 pages, one might expect this book to closely cover every aspect of Nixon’s public (if not private) life, but this is not the case. Wicker’s book is neither a comprehensive biography nor a thorough study of his presidency. Instead, it is a review of what the author believes to have been the most important elements of Nixon’s life and an examination of his public and private persona.

The author deliberately provides little-to-no coverage of Nixon’s youth, his California gubernatorial campaign, much of the Watergate affair and his entire post-presidency. But what Wicker does cover receives careful scrutiny and often penetrating insight – at least within the confines of the information available when the book was being researched and written.

Given Wicker’s long-standing affiliation with a newspaper known for its strong progressive leanings, this review of Nixon’s life and career is surprisingly balanced. In fact, if any bias is to be found it is a tendency for the author to highlight Nixon’s best qualities while under-emphasizing his worst tendencies. The main objective of this book seems to be drawing attention to what Wicker believes are Nixon’s most underappreciated domestic policy achievements.

Despite its non-traditional approach and organization, there is much about this book to be commended. Wicker has an often keen and penetrating sense for the “hidden story” and is rarely content to take actions or events at face value. Instead, he always seeks out the hidden motivations and the underlying cause-and-effect for Nixon’s actions.

“One of Us” contains many brilliant insights, clever observations and more than its share of witty, memorable one-liners. It is also filled with some excellent descriptions and analyses: of Nixon’s chief aides and senior staff, of Nixon’s political philosophy as president and of the “Gold Standard” issue. In addition, Wicker provides a very detailed (and interesting, if not crisp) review of Nixon’s “fund scandal” and his “Checkers Speech.” The final chapter summarizing Nixon’s personality and philosophies is probably the most praiseworthy section of the book.

Unfortunately, Wicker’s book is far from ideal in several ways. For those new to Nixon, its lack of comprehensive coverage is problematic. Although his earliest years do receive some attention, his substantial post-presidency is altogether missing. And numerous aspects of his political career are given receive scant attention: the infamous Nixon-Kennedy debates, several of his campaigns, most of his youth and the Watergate affair. His 1960 loss to Kennedy is dispatched in two paragraphs.

In addition, Wicker’s organizational style will leave much to be desired for many readers. Chronology is often a secondary (or tertiary) consideration in this book. Wicker tends to bounce from topic to topic irrespective of sequencing. Nixon’s presidency is covered topically which will will not bother Nixon aficionados but will leave others working tirelessly to assemble events into a comprehensible sequence.

Equally exhausting is Wicker’s tendency to ramble and wander. While his analysis is often well-argued and convincing, it is not uncommon for the narrative to segue without warning from one topic to another. In one chapter (as just one example) the text veers suddenly from Nixon’s relationship with Kissinger to his reorganization of the State Department and then to the president’s relationship with the press. A more purposeful flow would make the book considerably more readable.

Overall, Tom Wicker’s “One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream” is a surprisingly meritorious analysis of several aspects of Richard Nixon’s life and persona. But it is far from ideal as an introduction to Nixon and contains few features of the most engaging presidential biographies. Its greatest value is as a supplemental study – and a repository of interesting insights and observations – for someone wishing to better understand this mysterious and frustratingly self-destructive chief executive.

Overall rating: 3¼ stars

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