Kissinger Aide and Nixon Biographer Roger Morris comments on key aspects of Nixon's career.
I think his ambition is undoubtedly rooted in part in the example of his father who was an enormously hard worker. It's certainly fueled by his mother ambition, which is very substantial. Hannah Nixon is, I think, forever trying to make up for the, not a bad marriage in an emotional sense, but a bad marriage in a social and economic sense. She wants success for all her sons and especially for this middle son who is patently talented and has this drive anyway. In part, it's fed by all of the peer reinforcement and pressure which comes of a small community which begins to celebrate the achievements of this, not quite prodigy, but obviously talented child.
In Yorba Linda he's reciting orations and performing in the second and third grade in ways that bring a lot of gratification and a lot of community adulation. So that his status and in a sense, his power, as an individual, is very early on rooted in that distinction and accomplishment. All of those things are factors. But I think that there is something deep within Richard Nixon as there is deep within all achieving individuals which transcends his family or his culture or his time and place. And that's a kind of restless little engine, a drive which would have been there, I think, had he been born in Iowa or Florida or New York or anywhere else to very different parents under different circumstances.
There's a real sense that here's someone who's ticketed for something big and his opponents in the Democratic Party and the liberals of Southern California, I think sensed that, if not know it very early on. So there's a great feeling of uneasiness and dismay about how far and how fast he's climbing. But these are because of the combination of smear politics in Southern California and big money and very powerful forces on one side and Nixon as a very effective politician on the other, because of that unique combination, these are bitterly divisive and brutal campaigns that leave a legacy of bitterness and of discontent that lasts for generations. Richard Nixon does not simply defeat Jerry Voorhis for the Congress or defeat Helen Gahagan Douglas for the Senate in 1950, he destroys these people politically and very nearly personally, so that two extraordinarily gifted political figures who might have had very productive careers, beyond that point at which they encountered Richard Nixon, disappear from the American political landscape once and for all, never to be heard from again. Not to be appointed to office by their own party, by Presidents of their own party. Not even to be asked, for the most part, to serve on honorary commissions; simply eradicated, terminated as it were by Richard Nixon. And he does that in such a way, as to leave a great legacy of bitterness among their supporters and even among onlookers. People who were sort of neutral observers on the side. And that begins in 1946. He does not leave neutral fans along the way, does not leave people who are undecided about him.
Nixon's Political Skill
Well, I would have to say that Richard Nixon is probably the most gifted and skilled political practitioner, in his pre-Presidential years, of all of the American Presidents in the 20th century. I don't think he has a rival, frankly, in Roosevelt or Truman or, least of all, in his contemporaries, in even Lyndon Johnson, who was renowned for his powers of manipulation and maneuver as an American politician. Richard Nixon is very much a self-made man in the six years prior to his emergence as a national figure. Between the moment he's elected to Congress in 1946 and the moment he's inaugurated as Vice President in 1953, he conducts nothing less than a kind of prodigy of American political self advancement. He's helped along the way, very, very importantly and very crucially by key figures. Often by figures behind the scenes and by secret arrangements and by historical forces that are not apparent, at all, to the naked eye. And he has some very powerful patrons. But he's a man of enormous brilliance and tactical gifts and tireless devotion to his own career. A very skillful and very accomplished as a very young man, very, very early on in the whole process. So that I think one of the ironies of Richard Nixon's ultimate failure as a President and his disgrace as a resigned chief executive is that his early career was so very promising; really prodigal in very many ways.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?