“Nixon: Ruin and Recovery 1973-1990” is the third and final volume in Stephen Ambrose’s series on Richard Nixon. Ambrose was a historian, prolific author and one of the best-known biographers of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. Shortly before his death in 2002, allegations of plagiarism and exaggeration surfaced which have tarnished his reputation.
Like the preceding volumes in this series, “Ruin and Recovery” is far more accessible than its hefty 597 pages of text might suggest. Credit is due primarily to the straightforward and unpretentious writing style which permeates the series. Each of the volumes exhibits remarkable balance, careful – and strictly chronological – organization and an unusually coherent (if somewhat prosaic) voice.
Published in 1991, this concluding volume covers the second term of Richard Nixon’s presidency and the majority of his post-presidency. Because Nixon died in 1994, the final three years of his life is uncovered. More importantly, the evolution of Nixon’s legacy over the past quarter-century also escapes examination.
About 450 pages carry the reader from Nixon’s re-election in 1972 to his resignation in 1974. Because Watergate dominated these years, it is extremely thoroughly covered in this volume. It is also quite well-covered. Of all the Nixon biographies I have read, I can think of no better detailed review of Watergate than that found here (and in Volume 2). Readers seeking an efficient review of Watergate, however, will need to look elsewhere.
The chapter covering October 1973 (which includes the Saturday Night Massacre) is among the best in the book; it is fascinating, intriguing, infuriating and often depressing. A later chapter reviewing Nixon’s final days in office is also quite gripping…and shows Ambrose’s writing near its best and most engaging. But the most provocative and thought-provoking chapter is the Epilogue in which Ambrose considers Nixon’s character, his reputation and the impact of his resignation on the country.
Other than the book’s lack of greater separation from Nixon and his era, its most obvious shortcoming is that it often feels more like an interesting history text than a colorful presidential biography. Watergate, rather than Nixon, often seems to be the primary subject of the book and Ambrose never writes with a vivid narrative flair. His literary style is unobtrusive and matter-of-fact, not elegantly descriptive.
Also likely to irritate some readers of the series is Ambrose’s seemingly premeditated ambivalence toward his subject. While Nixon provokes a strong reaction for most people, Ambrose appears to go out of his way to balance scorn and admiration. Not until the last sentence of the series do we learn which way the scale finally tips: “When Nixon resigned, we lost more than we gained.”
Overall, “Nixon: Ruin and Recovery 1973-1990” proves a satisfying conclusion to Ambrose’s 1,933-page series. Despite the handicap of being written during Nixon’s lifetime, this volume admirably summarizes the end of his presidency and his retirement years and thoughtfully ponders his legacy. With a healthy dose of Chernow’s or McCullough’s engaging and descriptive writing style this series might have been nearly perfect.
Overall rating: 4 stars