The Blog

ALWAYS THE ONE

The Political Career of Richard Nixon

12:00 AM, Sep 13, 1999 • By ALVIN S. FELZENBERG
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts



It's been twenty-five years since the only resignation of an American president, but our fascination with that complicated man, Richard Nixon, seems to continue unabated.


How are we to make sense of his extraordinary achievements, his monumental flaws, the heights to which he rose, and the depths to which he fell? From the day he was first elected to Congress in 1946 at the age of thirty-three until his death in 1994, Nixon was a dominant force in American politics; no American president since the Founders was on the Political stage longer than Nixon. And now, a quarter century after he left the White House, Nixon is the subject simultaneously of the comic movie Dick, and two serious studies: The Contender by Irwin F. Gellman and The Presidency of Richard Nixon by Melvin Small. Indeed, these two new volumes might serve as bookends to their subject's career: Gellman shows how Nixon was at the beginning, Small shows how he was at the end, and between them we can begin to discern the lineaments of the man.


Gellman reveals himself to be something more than a serious historian interested in weighing evidence and telling a story. This well-regarded author of three books on Franklin Roosevelt's foreign policy is a man with a mission. As he takes Nixon from his humble beginnings in Yorba Linda, California, to the vice presidency, Gellman passionately works to dispel the myths Nixon's detractors have perpetuated about his early years in politics. It's just not true, Gellman claims, that Nixon was a Red baiter of the first order, out-McCarthying Joe McCarthy. Neither is it true that he was a stooge of California's powerful industrialists, who had secretly financed his campaigns. It's not even true that he constantly lied, especially about the records of his opponents.


But Gellman has achieved something more important than simply exploding these old myths. The basic facts of Nixon's life and career have long been available in works by Stephen Ambrose, Jonathan Aitken, Tom Wicker, and Herbert S. Parmet. But what Gellman has added in The Contender is one of the very few outstanding legislative biographies ever written.


Most of the successful studies of this kind have either been about extremely powerful senators (Richard Remini's Webster and Clay, for example, or Randall Woods's Fulbright) or about dominant congressmen (Richard E. Cohen's new study of Dan Rostenkowski being the latest). Good studies of the work of junior members are rare -- usually because there's so little to say. But Nixon turns out to have had a surprisingly effective and busy legislative career.


He did have a hand in drafting both the Taft-Hartley Act and the Mundt-Nixon internal security measure (better known as the McCarran Act), but his influence was more strongly felt in legislative oversight than in the crafting of legislation. He took his seat as part of Harry Truman's famous Eightieth "Do-Nothing" Congress, and he enjoyed wide latitude courtesy of divided government -- becoming one of the first freshman to chair a subcommittee in the House this century and using his powers to expose misdeeds in the executive branch.


Of course, it was by taking risks (as he did when he believed Whittaker Chambers's assertion that former state-department official Alger Hiss had been a Soviet agent) that Nixon caught the attention of party elders and the media. But it was also by sheer persistence. Indeed, it would be fair to say that Nixon was catapulted to higher posts more by his record of success than by calculating ambition. He had not planned on running for office. Others sought him out. Once elected, he concluded that the way to rise was through hard work. Nixon's was the only name Dwight Eisenhower's advisers ever seriously considered for the second spot on the 1952 ticket.


Because readers know where Nixon's career will take him in the years beyond the scope of Gellman's study, they will be tempted to probe for evidence of how what Nixon learned as a legislator would influence his actions as president. And Gellman supplies the information in abundance.


Nixon's internationalism, anti-communism, and interest in foreign affairs, for example, were evident very early. In his first months in Congress, Nixon took his first trip to Europe as part of a fact-finding tour of postwar conditions assembled by Massachusetts representative (and future secretary of state) Christian Herter. Nixon returned prepared to take on his party's isolationist wing in support of the Marshall Plan. In the last address he ever gave, he vividly recalled the impact that trip had on him. (William Elliott, the Harvard professor who advised the Herter Committee and befriended Nixon, would later help launch the career of another young man of promise, Henry Kissinger.)