Published in 1990, Roger Morris’s “Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of An American Politician” is the most detailed biography available focusing on Nixon’s childhood and early political career. Morris is an author, journalist and former staff member of the National Security Council (during the LBJ and Nixon administrations). He is also the author of “Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America.”
Reminiscent of the first volume in Robert Caro’s ongoing series on LBJ, this weighty 866-page biography seems to miss nothing of consequence during its subject’s formative years. Like Caro’s “The Path to Power,” this biography is serious, penetrating, meticulously observant and incredibly thorough. It is doubtful there will ever be more exhaustive coverage of Nixon’s first forty years.
Morris begins with an extensive exploration of the region in California where Nixon was born and raised followed by a lengthy review of his ancestry. It is two-dozen pages before Nixon’s name is mentioned and forty pages before he is born. And this level of detail is the rule rather than the exception; nearly every important topic receives careful focus and significant attention. Even readers who are familiar with Nixon will find there is much to be learned.
The chapter focusing on his future wife is by far the most detailed introduction to Pat Ryan I have ever read, the description of his job at the Office of Price Administration far exceeds what I’ve seen before and the discussion relating to his participation in the Alger Hiss spy case is so extensive (at nearly 250 pages) that it is essentially a book-within-a-book. And Morris conveys the “fund scandal” and Checkers speech in a surprisingly captivating manner.
The chapter dedicated to the 1952 Republican Convention in Chicago (where Eisenhower and Nixon became the party nominees) is even more descriptive, and enthralling, than similar sections of the eleven Eisenhower biographies I recently read. My favorite Eisenhower biography allocated just one-sixth the space which Morris provides here.
But readers expecting to be effortlessly swept from chapter to chapter with a fluid narrative or elegant prose will be disappointed. For all its clarity and sophistication, Morris’s writing style lacks the expressive brilliance and vibrant scene-setting which the best biographers offer. His narrative is detailed and penetrating, but often matter-of-fact and a bit colorless.
And although its length is not inherently troublesome, this book could have been at least 200 pages shorter without losing real substance or omitting important observations. Morris can be so verbose at times that the full measure of what is being discussed gets lost – or at least diluted. To fully absorb this book’s lessons requires a better-than-average attention span and concentration.
Overall, however, “Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of An American Politician” provides extraordinary access to Nixon’s life through his election as Vice President. It is regrettable Morris never completed this series, and Nixon’s personal life and inner-self are somewhat under-covered. But for readers already somewhat familiar with Nixon who are interested in better understanding his rapid rise in politics, there is no more compelling choice of biography.
Overall rating: 4 stars