Published in 1989, “Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician 1962-1972” is the second book in Stephen Ambrose’s biographical trilogy covering the life of Richard Nixon. Ambrose was a historian and author who remains one of the best-known biographers of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. Unfortunately, allegations of plagiarism and exaggeration have tarnished his reputation. Ambrose died in 2002 at the age of sixty-six.
This 662-page biography covers Nixon from just after his 1962 defeat in the race to become California’s governor to his re-election as President of the United States ten years later. This volume exhibits many of the attributes of the inaugural book in this series: remarkable balance toward its subject, careful organization and an uncommonly unpretentious and readable style.
With its lively and comprehensible narrative this book moves faster than its length might suggest. Readers familiar with Ambrose’s other biographies will recognize his careful balance of observation and analysis. And where many biographers adopt a “love him or hate him” attitude toward Nixon, Ambrose maintains a carefully balanced perspective toward his subject – praising Nixon for his best decisions and excoriating him for his worst.
The review of Nixon’s years in self-imposed political exile (between 1962 and 1967) is surprisingly engaging, and his description of Nixon’s campaign for the presidency in 1967 is no less compelling. President-elect Nixon’s “transition” and inauguration-related activities are very well-covered and only the description of his Cabinet selection proves somewhat disappointing.
It is hardly surprising this book devotes a great deal of time to Watergate and Vietnam. Both discussions are enlightening, but the pages devoted to Watergate are a particularly commendable introduction to that topic. It is unfortunate that, while this book was being researched and written, Nixon and Kissinger were actively fighting to restrict access to their archived documents and audiotapes. Consequently, Ambrose lacked access to the full range of materials which would eventually become available.
In fact, the age of this volume and its resulting inability to draw from important sources available to the modern biographer is one of the book’s most significant shortcomings. And while Ambrose’s narrative is generally engaging, it is not particularly colorful. Biographers such as McCullough, Goodwin and Millard give readers the sense of being in the moment while Ambrose recounts important events with a semi-sterile clarity…and from a distance.
As a result the reader never gets fully inside Nixon’s head. Ambrose nicely describes many of his subject’s strengths, flaws and contradictions…but never offers readers enough insight to really understand what makes Nixon tick. Henry Kissinger, too, plays an important role in this volume. But his portrayal here almost entirely fails to capture his enigmatic and wildly intriguing persona.
Overall, “Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician 1962-1972” provides readers a straightforward, impressively balanced and well-paced review of the decade leading up to the pinnacle of Richard Nixon’s political career. Written with the general reader in mind, this volume can be appreciated by almost anyone. And while it is not exceptional in many ways, it is solid in almost every way.
Overall rating: 4 stars