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Richard M. Nixon: The American Presidents Series: The 37th President, 1969-1974

Richard M. Nixon: The American Presidents Series: The 37th President, 1969-1974

by Elizabeth Drew, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

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The complex man at the center of America's most self-destructive presidency

In this provocative and revelatory assessment of the only president ever forced out of office, the legendary Washington journalist Elizabeth Drew explains how Richard M. Nixon's troubled inner life offers the key to understanding his presidency. She shows how Nixon was


The complex man at the center of America's most self-destructive presidency

In this provocative and revelatory assessment of the only president ever forced out of office, the legendary Washington journalist Elizabeth Drew explains how Richard M. Nixon's troubled inner life offers the key to understanding his presidency. She shows how Nixon was surprisingly indecisive on domestic issues and often wasn't interested in them. Turning to international affairs, she reveals the inner workings of Nixon's complex relationship with Henry Kissinger, and their mutual rivalry and distrust. The Watergate scandal that ended his presidency was at once an overreach of executive power and the inevitable result of his paranoia and passion for vengeance.

Even Nixon's post-presidential rehabilitation was motivated by a consuming desire for respectability, and he succeeded through his remarkable resilience. Through this book we finally understand this complicated man. While giving him credit for his achievements, Drew questions whether such a man—beleaguered, suspicious, and motivated by resentment and paranoia—was fit to hold America's highest office, and raises large doubts that he was.

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Library Journal
For the "American Presidents" series, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., famed journalist Drew limns a paranoid prez focused on international affairs. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.

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Richard M. Nixon

By Elizabeth Drew, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2007 Elizabeth Drew
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-8127-9


Up from Yorba Linda

Richard Nixon had a hard early life. He was born on January 9, 1913, in a seven-hundred-foot frame house his father had built in Yorba Linda, California. The town, set among citrus groves in Orange County, was home to about two hundred people, most of them struggling financially. For many years, the Nixon house had no running water or electricity. Dick Nixon was the second of five sons — two of whom died young — born to Frank and Hannah Milhous Nixon. Frank, born in Ohio of Scots-Irish descent, was quarrelsome and combustible; by all accounts, it was difficult to win his approval, and he thrashed his sons when they crossed him. Hannah, a devout Quaker whose parents had migrated to California from Indiana, came from a middle-class, stable milieu (her parents objected to the marriage). She was selfless toward others but at home was cold, remote, and undemonstrative, and she devoted most of her attention to her two sickly sons. She was also stinting in her praise of her brightest son's achievements. Frank, who had a minimal education, ran away from home when he was thirteen, holding a number of jobs until he moved to California, where he became a streetcar conductor. Hannah, whose family was somewhat better off, attended Whittier College for two years. After their marriage, Frank ran a lemon orchard that failed and worked as a roustabout in an oil field.

When Nixon was nine, the family moved to nearby Whittier, which was composed predominantly of transplanted midwesterners who tended toward conservatism and was dominated by Quakers. The California Quakers were different from their eastern brethren; they weren't necessarily pacifists and were more evangelical and less liberal. The Nixons attended church on Wednesday nights as well as on Sundays. The citizens of Whittier, like those of many southern California towns, believed in temperance, banned public dancing, and closed the cinemas on Sundays. Frank Nixon opened a gasoline station, later expanding it into a grocery store where the entire family worked. Customers steered clear of the volatile Frank, preferring to deal with Hannah. As a teenager, Richard often arose at four a.m. to drive to Los Angeles to buy produce for the store.

Richard Nixon was a precocious child. He taught himself to read before he entered the first grade. He was an A student throughout his education, often finishing near the top of his class. He won oratorical contests, had a phenomenal memory, and was valedictorian of his eighth-grade class. A loner as a child, he preferred to be by himself, talking little, lying in the grass and staring at the sky. Despite his social awkwardness, he was elected several times to leadership positions by his classmates, indicating an early knack for politics — and high ambitions. His early life also suggests a propensity for taking risks, putting himself on the line in order to succeed — in school politics, debating, sports. Despite having a slight build, and no real natural athletic ability, he went out for football. Nixon tried to be "one of the guys," but because of his lack of social skills and his tendency to be a loner, he was more respected than popular in high school.

When Nixon graduated from Whittier High School, his parents lacked the means to send him to an elite college. (He had been offered a scholarship to Harvard but his parents couldn't afford the other expenses of sending him there.) So he was forced to stay home and attend Whittier College. Once again, he went out for football — and was a last-stringer who failed to win a letter. In college, Nixon also led a successful rebellion against the Franklin Club, a group of well-off students who were the powers at the school and had denied him membership; he formed a rival fraternity — the first of his many battles against people of more privilege — and he was elected president of the student body in his senior year. (In that office, he won a battle to introduce dancing at the Quaker college.) During his college years, he steadily dated Ola Florine Welch, a popular and substantive student at Whittier, and they became informally engaged. But it was a stormy relationship; her friends wondered what she saw in Dick Nixon. "He wasn't sexy," one said. She did admire his intellect, but later she dropped him for another man, saying, "Most of the time I just couldn't figure him out." Nixon was stung by the rejection and brooded about it for years.

After graduating from college in 1934, Nixon attended Duke University Law School, a good law school but not considered among the top ones in the country. Once again, his parents couldn't afford to send him to a more prestigious school. He held down several jobs while attending Duke on a partial scholarship. Nixon wasn't happy in his law school years; he was hardworking, serious, and remote (he never had a date in those three years), and acquired the nickname "Gloomy Gus," though he did get elected to the presidency of the law school bar association for his senior year. A classmate said he was elected out of "genuine respect for his scholarship" rather than because he was better liked than the other candidate. Nixon barely campaigned for the position and was self-effacing after he won it. No one expected him to go on to greater things. He was embittered when prominent Wall Street law firms declined to hire a Duke graduate, favoring those who attended more prestigious law schools. This was just one of Nixon's several disappointments in his life.

Returning to Whittier in 1937, Nixon got a job in a small law firm, one of whose partners had gone to college with Hannah Nixon. His work mainly consisted of probate and real estate cases. Before long Nixon had become a partner in the firm, earning a good salary, but (not unlike his father) he lost a lot of money in a failed frozen orange juice venture. He assumed local leadership roles and became president of the Whittier College Alumni Association.

In 1938, Nixon metThelma (Pat) Ryan during an appearance by the two of them in a play put on by the Whittier Community Players. Pat, too, had come from harsh circumstances — born in a miner's shack in Nevada. Her mother died at an early age, and Pat took over her duties. She worked her way through college in California, graduated cum laude, and taught commercial classes at Whittier High School. Nixon said it was love at first sight, and he told Pat right away that he was going to marry her. Pat, a spirited redhead, wasn't interested. Nixon pursued her as doggedly as he pursued other goals, even driving her to her dates with other men. After more than two years, she relented, and they were married on June 21, 1940.

According to the author Kati Marton, though the union began as a love match, it was a "misalliance" that led to a "lifeless marriage." Pat thought she was marrying an up-and-coming attorney who would take her far from Whittier. She hated politics. Later the cold and distant Nixon often snubbed her in public. Their two daughters, Tricia and Julie, who were born in 1946 and 1948, respectively, did love their father; Julie was particularly fierce in her support of him as his troubles mounted later.

Though Nixon grew up in California, he was rootless for the rest of his life, and he moved often. He lacked, in Garry Wills's term, the "stamp of place." He had no equivalent of John F. Kennedy's Hyannis Port or Lyndon Johnson's and Ronald Reagan's ranches, or the Bush family's Kennebunkport. As president he took many of his vacations in Key Biscayne, Florida, a haven of the unrooted.

In early 1942, having seized upon an opportunity to get out of Whittier, Nixon took a job in Washington with the Office of Price Administration, for which he had been recommended by a former law school professor. The experience turned him against government controls and the federal bureaucracy. Later that year, when the navy issued a call for lawyers, a bored Nixon volunteered as a lieutenant. Though he served in the Pacific, he never saw combat. During his military service, he spent much of his time reading serious books and was an avid — and successful — poker player. He resigned from the navy in 1945 to run for his first political office.


The Rise and Fall and Rise of Richard Nixon

Nixon's political career was one of triumph and failure, sweet victories and bitter losses, a long search for vindication. Throughout his political career, he talked often, even obsessively, about his real and perceived enemies, especially those among the more privileged classes and the elites, and these feelings were blended into his politics. His doggedness was exceptional, even as politicians go. His political ruthlessness made him a reviled figure, but he was in a ruthless profession. Still, his tactics, while not unique or in some cases even original with him, were, for his times, at the outer edges of opportunism and savageness.

The pattern was set in his first political race. He was drafted in 1945 by some local Whittier businessmen to take on the liberal five-term congressman Jerry Voorhis, scion of a wealthy family and a graduate of Yale, in the next election. Nixon, then thirty-two years old, promised the businessmen that he'd "tear Voorhis to pieces." The Nixon-Voorhis race took place in the context of the onset of the Cold War; in 1946, Winston Churchill declared in Fulton, Missouri, that an "iron curtain" had descended across Europe, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was warning that communists were infiltrating the federal government and labor unions. Candidates across the country were invoking the "Red Menace."

Portraying himself in his campaign as the "fighting Quaker" and distributing pictures of himself with helmet in hand (though he'd never seen combat), Nixon spoke of "lip-service Americans" and attacked Voorhis as a sympathizer with labor union communists and voting for their interests. Nixon also charged that Moscow was trying to influence voters on Voorhis's behalf. The mid-1940s were an anxious time for other reasons as well; the transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy was taking its toll on several industries, especially the aircraft industry in southern California. Nixon ran as the champion of the "Forgotten Man," a conservative populist, reflecting the antigovernment, anti-big business opinions of much of southern California, as well as his own experience at the Office of Price Administration. To help with his campaign, Nixon hired Murray Chotiner, a lawyer and political operative known as a rough tactician. Chotiner's guiding insight was that people voted against, not for; the key to winning was to put your opponent on the defensive — early. Chotiner would remain at Nixon's side for a long time. Nixon defeated Voorhis soundly, 57 percent to 43 percent.

Upon arriving in Washington in January 1947, Nixon lobbied to retain Voorhis's seat on the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the perfect setting for continuing his anticommunist crusade — and, as it turned out, to gain national attention. His big break came in August 1948, when Whittaker Chambers, a rumpled, brilliant former communist and now an editor at Time, testified before the committee that Alger Hiss, a courtly, wealthy, and well-connected former State Department official and now the president of the prestigious Carnegie Endowment, had been a Soviet agent in the late 1930s. Nixon seized the issue, hauling Hiss in for questioning before the committee and working with Chambers to prove his charge. Hiss denied that he had ever met Chambers, but to the astonishment of most in the circles of which Hiss was a part, Chambers and Nixon later turned out to be right: Hiss was convicted of perjury in 1950 and sent to prison. The Hiss case made Nixon a national anticommunist star, and he campaigned on the issue across the country in 1948. Though he had triumphed in it and by it, Nixon considered the Hiss case his first "crisis," referring to it throughout the rest of his life.

In the course of his House career, Nixon became an ally of the anticommunist crusader Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Nixon, who had led the way, fed McCarthy material for his famous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1950, in which McCarthy claimed that "I have in my hand a list of 205 ... members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department." (McCarthy could never prove the charge.) According to McCarthy's biographer Thomas C. Reeves, the language McCarthy used in Wheeling was almost identical to that employed by Nixon in a speech on the House floor a few weeks earlier.

After just two terms in the House, Nixon decided to run for an open U.S. Senate seat in 1950, against Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas. In this campaign, he went even further than he had against Voorhis, and acquired the sobriquet "Tricky Dick," which would linger throughout his career. Once again, it's important to see Nixon's Senate race in its context. The year 1950 was the height of the "Red Scare"; shortly after Hiss was convicted in January, Judith Coplon, a former Justice Department official, and Klaus Fuchs, a physicist who had worked on the atomic bomb, were convicted of espionage for the Soviet Union. In June, a war broke out between communist North Korea and South Korea, and in October Mao Zedong's communist forces, which had taken over China the previous year, joined the war on the side of their North Korean allies. Hollywood issued its blacklist, and loyalty oaths were coming into vogue. President Harry Truman approved the development of the hydrogen bomb. Douglas, an actress who had gone to Barnard College, was a strong supporter of the New Deal. Nixon, picking up on a theme used against Douglas by her Democratic opponent in the primary, cited her votes that were the same as those of a left-wing member of Congress from New York, Vito Marcantonio, a member of the American Labor Party. (This theme had actually been initiated in the 1946 race against Voorhis by the newspaper publisher Herb Klein, who later served as Nixon's communications director.) Though the "communist sympathizer" charge was being employed nationwide that year, Nixon's and Chotiner's innovation was to hand out material about the number of times, which was exaggerated, that Douglas and Marcantonio had voted together on a pink flyer. Douglas became tarred as the "Pink Lady." Nixon also attacked Douglas as an eastern elitist, contrasting her with himself as a family man of modest means; he also made thinly veiled references to the Jewish origins of her husband, the actor Melvyn Douglas. Whittaker Chambers's biographer Sam Tanenhaus has speculated that Nixon didn't need the anticommunist smear to defeat Douglas; not only were the issues on Nixon's side, but also he was the far better politician. Nixon was widely considered an attractive figure; newspapers described him as "tall, dark and hand-some." Nixon won with 59 percent of the vote. If Nixon was ruthless in his 1950 election, he was also in fashion. In the Florida Democratic primary in that same election year, Congressman George Smathers defeated the incumbent senator Claude Pepper by branding him "Red Pepper." Maryland Democratic senator Millard Tydings was defeated on similar charges, with his opponent brandishing a cropped picture purporting to show Tydings with Earl Browder, the head of the Communist Party in America, and Joseph McCarthy and his allies also took credit for the defeat of Illinois senator and majority leader Scott Lukas by Everett McKinley Dirksen. But it was Nixon's tactics — and the nickname they earned him — that stood out.

* * *

Now a genuine national figure and hero to many in the Republican Party, after two years in the Senate, a bored and restless Nixon was ready to move up. With the help of Chotiner and some California businessmen, Nixon maneuvered strenuously, and deviously, for a place on the party's presidential ticket in 1952. California governor Earl Warren was a dark-horse candidate in the race for the nomination between Ohio senator Robert Taft, a conservative isolationist and stiff campaigner, and the World War II hero Dwight Eisenhower, who was especially popular with the business and internationalist wings of the Republican Party, and Warren was the de facto head of the California delegation to the Republican National Convention. But a group of California businessmen (who found Warren too progressive) enlisted a very willing Nixon to swing the delegation to Eisenhower. It was obvious to Nixon that his best opportunity for political advancement lay with the popular general. So with his characteristic combination of political and dark genius, Nixon pretended to the Taft forces that he was for their man — in order to secure his own right flank and to lead Taft to believe that he needn't campaign much in California — and began to work against Warren, first by giving tepid speeches about him while praising Eisenhower's broad appeal, and then by agreeing to sign a pledge to be a loyal supporter of Warren only after extracting a promise that he would be allowed to select nearly half of the California delegates.


Excerpted from Richard M. Nixon by Elizabeth Drew, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.. Copyright © 2007 Elizabeth Drew. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Elizabeth Drew is the award-winning author of thirteen previous books, including Washington Journal, Politics and Money, Whatever It Takes: The Real Struggle for Political Power in America, and The Corruption of American Politics. She is a regular political correspondent for The New York Review of Books and the former Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. She lives and works in Washington, D.C.

Elizabeth Drew is the award-winning author of books including Washington Journal, Politics and Money, Whatever It Takes: The Real Struggle for Political Power in America, and The Corruption of American Politics. She is a regular political correspondent for The New York Review of Books and the former Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. She lives and works in Washington, D.C.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., (1917-2007) was the preeminent political historian of our time. For more than half a century, he was a cornerstone figure in the intellectual life of the nation and a fixture on the political scene. He won two Pulitzer prizes for The Age of Jackson (1946) and A Thousand Days (1966), and in 1988 received the National Humanities Medal. He published the first volume of his autobiography, A Life in the Twentieth Century, in 2000.

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