Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Nixon and Ambrose

I finished reading my 4th book of 2005 late this afternoon: Nixon The Education of a Politician 1913-1962 by Stephen Ambrose. It is the first work of non-fiction I have read in the new year.

I've read many of Ambrose's books and I liked them. As with his other books, this biography, which takes us through Nixon's unsuccessful run for California governor in 1962, is exceptionally well done. Ambrose treats Nixon fairly, and gives a highly readable account of such notable events as the Alger Hiss hearings and Nixon's famous Checkers speech.

I am saddened that Ambrose's career ended on an unfortunate note. At worst, he was guilty of plagiarism; at best, "borrowing" material from other historians and failing to give proper credit or provide proper attribution. I believe Ambrose was a victim of his own success. Many of his books such as Undaunted Courage and Nothing Like It In The World were both critical and popular successes.

History or biography that is both well-researched and well-written takes time. Yet it seemed in the final years of his life that Ambrose was cranking out a book at the rate of one a year. I'm sure his publishers encouraged his productivity. The reading public rewarded it as well; sales were enthusiastic. Perhaps it is best if a historian enjoys a modest, but appreciative audience, rather than fall prey to the allure of the best seller list.

As for Nixon, I was first eligible to vote in 1972. I voted for George McGovern. I believed in McGovern's campaign, once traveling to South Dakota to meet him at a rally of young Democrats. I was also, unabashedly, a Nixon-hater.

Ambrose tells us that Nixon was first called "Tricky Dick" by Helen Gahagan Douglas, his opponent in the 1950 California U.S. Senate race. Nixon, who had been a California congressman, won and later vaulted into national prominence as a member of HUAC–the House Unamerican Activities Committee.

Ambrose has this to say of Nixon: "He polarized the public more than any other man of his era. It is remarkable but probably true that in 1960, when he was only forty-seven years old, he was the most hated and fear man in America--and next to Eisenhower himself, the most admired and wanted." (p 613)

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