I finished Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Education of a Politician, which was the first volume of a three-volume series about the life of Richard Nixon.
In my latest reading, Ambrose talks about Nixon’s 1962 race for Governor of California against Democrat Pat Brown (the father of Jerry). Here were some aspects of Ambrose’s discussion that stood out to me.
—-For the first time, in the race for a Republican nomination, Nixon had to fend off challenges from the right. The John Birch Society was attaining more power and influence within California Republican politics, and Nixon was challenged by someone who was further to the right than he was. That resulted in less money going into the Nixon camp. Nixon criticized the John Birch Society, particularly the charge of its founder, Robert Welch, that Dwight Eisenhower was a conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy. And there were prominent John Birchers who privately told Nixon that they disagreed with Welch’s more outrageous statements.
—-The Brown campaign contended that Nixon wanted the Governorship so that it could be a stepping stone for him to reach the Presidency. Whether this was true or not, Ambrose narrates that Nixon had little interest in the issues facing California. There were also scandals that Brown harped on. For one, in Washington, when Nixon bought a house, he signed a “restrictive covenant” in which he promised not to sell his home to an African-American or a Jew. John Erlichman advised Nixon to respond to the charge by saying that he did not read the fine print, but Nixon was hesitant to say this because he thought that there were plenty of voters who approved of such restrictive covenants. This troubled me because Ambrose has pointed out more than once in the book that Nixon was quite progressive about racial issues, and the idea that Nixon backed down from this somewhat in his race for Governor disturbs that favorable image, especially since there were times when Nixon refused to live where there was a restrictive covenant. I got a chuckle out of something that Ambrose said on page 661, however: “In two years, Nixon had fallen from debating with John Kennedy over the fate of the world in front of the largest audience in history to arguing with Pat Brown over a house deed he had signed eleven years ago.”
Another scandal concerned Nixon’s brother Donald, who received money from business magnate Howard Hughes when his (meaning Donald’s) restaurant was in trouble. There was speculation that Hughes was doing this to get governmental favors from Richard Nixon when he was Vice-President, but Ambrose, as he considers Eisenhower Administration documents, sees no evidence for this.
—-After Nixon lost the race for Governor, he told the press that it wouldn’t have Nixon to kick around anymore. Many thought that Nixon’s political career was over, but Democrats such as Harry Truman were hesitant to conclude this because they recognized that Nixon’s statement appealed to his Republican base, which thought that the newspaper media were biased. Ambrose does not think that Nixon’s accusations against the press were particularly accurate, for a number of newspapers in California were Republican. Moreover, while Nixon said that the press didn’t report that Nixon defended Brown’s patriotism, Ambrose states that “Actually, all the California papers had quoted Nixon’s statement on Brown and Communism to the effect that Brown was just as anti-Communist as Nixon, but did not know how to work effectively against the conspiracy” (page 670).
While I’m on the issue of the press, I’d like to return to Ambrose’s discussion of how Nixon would have governed had he won the Presidential election in 1960, as opposed to how he governed in 1969-1974. As President in 1969-1974, Nixon felt under assault by the liberal establishment, including the news media. Would Nixon have been as distrustful had he won in 1960? Ambrose doubts this, for he says that Nixon’s relations with the press were pretty good until he alienated the press in 1962. But I wonder about this, for, in his book Six Crises (which Nixon wrote before he ran for Governor in 1962) Nixon complains about the press, portraying it as biased.
—-I’d like to comment on Ambrose’s own view on Nixon. Ambrose says that he initially did not care for Nixon, seeing Nixon as looking out primarily for Nixon! Ambrose was reluctant to write a biography on Richard Nixon, and Ambrose’s dedication refers to his (Ambrose’s) brothers, who voted for Nixon, whereas Stephen Ambrose did not. But Ambrose’s book on Nixon, at least the first volume (which is the only one that I’ve read so far) was quite fair towards Nixon, critiquing Nixon at times, and defending him at other times. Because Ambrose is a masterful storyteller, as well as a thorough researcher, I felt that I knew Nixon a lot better after reading Ambrose’s book.