American history, biographies, book reviews, presidential biographies, Richard Nixon, Roger Morris, US Presidents
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
Will be interested in the contrast with volume 1 of Ambrose. I expect that it covers much of the same ground. I read all three volumes of Ambrose many years ago, but when Smith’s revelations around his research came to light in the latter’s Eisenhower bio.
Someone told me that what Morris covered in nearly 900 pages Ambrose manages to review in about 300 (and that seems about right based on my reading of the table of contents). I could imagine shrinking Morris’s book by perhaps as much as 1/2 but I’ll be interested to see how Ambrose’s work holds up having essentially discarded 2/3 of what Morris included…
Christopher Saunders said:
This one’s of my favorite Nixon books for the depth of coverage and Morris’s skillful evocation of the context in which Nixon moved; very Robert Caro-esque, as you say. He’s very critical of Nixon in places (how could he not be, given their personal history?) but rarely, if ever unfair and always insightful in probing the man’s motives, ideology and inner demons. Shame he never wrote the follow up volumes. I found Ambrose’s trilogy more pedestrian in contrast, but I’ll be interested to see your thoughts.
There were so many similarities between Morris’s and Caro’s approaches that I was almost shocked. Having said that, Caro has spent decades pursuing his subject and Morris abandoned ship after just one volume (apparently due to reaction from Nixon apologists who didn’t like where the series was heading.)
I heard Morris was quite critical of Nixon, but I found his coverage far more balanced than I expected based on the hearsay evidence. And I didn’t find his coverage at all unreasonable. But I do agree that if I was a member of Nixon’s “inner circle” I might feel about this biography much the same way as the Kennedy family felt about Nigel Hamilton’s first volume on JFK (intended to be a three-volume series, also aborted after one volume).
Reblogged this on Practically Historical.
Franklin R. Robinson said:
I thought this book did the best job in describing how “Nixon became Nixon” over any other Nixon bio I have read. You’re right_ it dragged a bit at times, but overall worth the effort.
Just finished Mr. Morris’ book and I agree with this review. I really liked the chapter on Pat Ryan and the one on Nixon running against Helen G. Douglas; very well written. Admittedly, I barely made it through the Alger Hiss section (Cases I, II & III).
Steve, couple of questions for you; which book has the best portrait of the Hiss Case and Nixon’s involvement in HUAC, in terms of outlining their overall significance without overdoing it? (…I will await your summary of POTUS #37).
Secondly, have you read anything further as to why Mr. Morris did not continue with his writing on Nixon? I would have thought most people who wanted to protect his image would have softened over time and been open to a re-evaluation.
Chris, I’ll have to check my notes and see if I’ can figure out the answer to your Hiss/HUAC question. The issue, generally, as I remember it is that this era of Nixon’s life was either dispatched almost too-efficiently or was very well described but, by anyone’s definition, overdone. I’m not sure I found a happy medium…
On your second question, I’ve tried to ascertain what happened with the Morris “series” and my interpretation of the situation based on everything I’ve pieced together is that (i) Nixon was obviously still alive when Morris wrote the first volume, (ii) reaction from the Nixon camp was “not positive”, (iii) Nixon and/or his colleagues were still fighting to restrict access to documents / tapes and, although they allowed limited access to private documents in their control, they restricted this access to “friends” and, therefore, (iv) Morris decided life was just too short and moved on to another biographical subject (I believe it was Bill Clinton?)
But no matter the real backstory, it’s a shame because, as was the case (in my opinion) with Nigel Hamilton’s aborted series on John F. Kennedy, this could have been a really great multi-volume study of a fascinating and complicated president.
Thought it would be best to post this comment into its appropriate spot and let other Nixon biography experts chime in, if they happen to view it…
Steve, one question for you; is there a book or author that you believe is specifically good at covering Richard Nixon’s post-presidency / personal life from 1975 to 1994?