Published in 1987, “Nixon: The Education of a Politician 1913-1962” is the first volume in Stephen Ambrose’s well-regarded series on Richard Nixon. Ambrose was a historian and the author of more than two-dozen books. He remains one of the best-known biographers of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon but numerous allegations of plagiarism and exaggeration have tarnished his reputation. Ambrose died in 2002 at the age of sixty-six.
This 674-page introductory volume covers Nixon’s life up through his unsuccessful attempt to become governor of California in 1962. The volume is well-paced, very well-organized, and written in an extremely straightforward and comprehensible style. And where most of Nixon’s biographers seem to adopt a “love him or hate him” attitude, Ambrose approaches his subject with remarkable balance.
Although this biography provides significantly more insight into Nixon’s early life than the single-volume biographies of Nixon I’ve read, it is far less detailed than Roger Morris’s “Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of An American Politician” – the first installment in Morris’s never-completed series on Nixon. Where Morris spends 250 pages reviewing Nixon’s role in the Alger Hiss case, for example, Ambrose only needs about forty pages.
Still, Ambrose is a good storyteller and misses very ittle of importance in Nixon’s life. And while the book is not exceptional in many ways, it is consistently solid. Nearly every important topic or moment is well-described, and several are particularly insightful or captivating.
Among this book’s best moments are the description of Nixon’s rapidly growing proficiency at poker during World War II, the review of Nixon’s first term as a Congressman (perhaps the clearest and most colorful summary of this period that I’ve read) and the discussion of the 1952 national campaign when Nixon ran as Eisenhower’s vice presidential candidate. Ambrose also does an excellent job comparing and contrasting Nixon and John F. Kennedy while discussing the presidential campaign of 1960.
It is unsurprising that the future president is afforded a position of prominence in the narrative. But through this author’s lens, Vice President Nixon seems far more vital to (and active within) the Eisenhower administration than seems to have really been the case. And although I always enjoy reading a biographer’s personal perspective on his or her subject (particularly when it is presented as opinion rather than being treated as fact) the chapter assessing Nixon’s vice presidency seems forced and unnatural.
Finally, Ambrose’s focus on Nixon’s family is disappointingly uneven. While his wife appears frequently in the narrative, she always appears as a subservient housewife and mother whose motivations for marrying Nixon are never clear. Readers will miss that she was an intelligent and well-educated woman who set aside her own ambitions for her husband’s career.
Overall, “Nixon: The Education of a Politician 1913-1962” provides a straightforward, balanced and interesting introduction to Richard Nixon. Although Ambrose does not write with the elegance or sophistication of the very best biographers – and in spite of his tarnished reputation as an author and historian – this volume remains the standard introduction to Richard Nixon for good reason.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars