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.)

On economic matters, the early Nixon appeared less sure of what he wanted to do. He consistently condemned Truman for imposing price controls, but would sometimes advocate them as an unpleasant and yet necessary means of controlling inflation. In his first campaign for Congress, Nixon referred to himself as a "practical liberal." In office, he advocated increased Social Security benefits, public housing, and federal education subsidies to states that lacked "sufficient taxable property to maintain minimum standards." Conservatives and liberals who think Nixon changed course as president when he accepted some Democratic spending initiatives and introduced others of his own will learn from Gellman that Nixon was never as much an enemy of activist government as both he and his opponents claimed.

When it came to trade, Nixon "voted his district." Although a free-trader by inclination, he made the case for protection of the California citrus industry as vigorously as John F. Kennedy stood up for New England tanneries. On labor matters, he tended to oppose large and unaccountable conglomerations while he was in Congress -- just as he would reach an accommodation with the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters while he was president.

Another Nixon myth that Gellman sentences to the dustbin of history is the claim that Nixon was the creation of Murray Chotiner (who some consider the first modern political "consultant"). The Contender demonstrates that Chotiner played only a minor role in Nixon's early races (though the two grew closer afterwards), and one comes away from the book hungry for more information about the two politically astute California businessmen, Herman L. Perry and Roy Day, who promoted Nixon's rise.

So too Gellman demolishes the myth that Nixon defeated Helen Gahagan Douglas in his race for senator through deception, deceit, bribery, and fraud. The campaign was rough and tumble, but Nixon played within the bounds: Just as, in 1988, it was Michael Dukakis's Democratic primary opponent Al Gore who first raised the issue of Willie Horton that the Republican George Bush would later use, so Nixon used attacks against Douglas's left-leaning voting record that had originally been mounted by her Democratic opponents.

When it came to scandals, however, Nixon seems to have drawn the wrong lessons as president from what he witnessed as a legislator. He had observed the lengths to which the Truman administration -- and especially its politicized Justice Department -- had gone to protect its own from both congressional and grand jury investigations, and he seems to have come away from the experience believing presidential stonewalling was simply part of the political game.

Gellman does castigate the young Nixon for at least one ethical lapse. To assist another Chotiner client, Joe Holt, to win a congressional primary, Nixon supplied the campaign with information from the House Un-American Activities Committee about Holt's opponent (a former Nixon ally). Gellman does not consider whether Nixon committed other sordid actions of this kind. What business was it of Senator Nixon's, for instance, who "The American Friends Service Committee" invited to speak at Whittier College (a private institution and Nixon's alma mater)? It may be that in these and other episodes of the time, the "dark side" of Richard Nixon was visible very early in his career.

One who thinks so is Melvin Small. And, like many others, he finds in Nixon's dark side the key to the president's demise. As he builds his case in The Presidency of Richard Nixon, however, Small relies too much on the myths Gellman works to dispel. Indeed, he not only accepts the conventional stories about Nixon, but adds some new ones to the canon.

Small may believe that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and White House Chief of Staff Sherman Adams worried during President Eisenhower's illnesses that Vice President Nixon and his "right-wing friends" were plotting to take over the administration. But every other account of Nixon's behavior during that period, even those by his most severe critics, praise his restrained and dignified behavior.

If Gellman awards Nixon too much slack, Small grants him none. "Nixon was an unpleasant human being," he observes in his preface. "Nixon was a crude, bigoted, and mean-spirited fellow whose entire life seemed to be devoted to destroying real or imagined enemies," he adds in his conclusion. And throughout the book, Small appears preoccupied with Nixon's drinking. Rather than demonstrate how (if true) this activity influenced his actions as president, Small obsessively quotes almost everyone who ever saw Nixon take a beer.

In assessing Nixon's presidency, Small is more critical of Nixon's record in foreign policy and more laudatory about his domestic achievements than previous writers. He does credit Nixon for ending the Vietnam War, albeit too slowly, and bestows upon him the usual plaudits for taking the initiative with China and for the thaw in American-Soviet relations. But he then faults Nixon for bumbling in the Middle East, undermining an elected government in Chile, and supporting undemocratic regimes in the Third World.

On domestic policy, Small proclaims Nixon the most environmentally conscious president since Teddy Roosevelt and asserts that Nixon was honestly committed to increasing the number of minority-owned businesses and keeping treaty obligations to native Americans. (He quotes Nixon as saying that neither action would bring him many votes.) Small claims to find no "ulterior motive" in Nixon's affirmative-action "Philadelphia Plan." But he does record that Nixon recognized how "quota hiring" in the building trades would help divide the Democratic constituencies of African Americans and organized labor -- which surely sounds like an ulterior motive.

Small comes closest to capturing the essence of Nixon's style of leadership when he discusses how Nixon approached the desegregation of southern schools. He would equally oppose statutory segregation and forced integration. He would extend transition periods, but enforce court ordered ends to them. Nixon assembled biracial advisory commissions to provide for an orderly integration of southern institutions, which, given the polarization of the times, no Democrat could have had done. One Nixon aide said that the "miracle" of all this was that Nixon in five years achieved "total desegregation of the South in such a way that the courts and the Democrats received the blame."

In his treatment of Nixon's White House operations, Small forgets that Nixon was neither the first nor the last president to organize public support for his programs, enact a common strategy for media and speechwriting, or attempt to talk to the American people over the heads of the media. His discussion of initiatives Nixon put into place is too colored by how they were used to cover up and contain the abuses of Watergate.

Nixon enthusiasts and detractors alike would be well advised to read Gellman and Small side by side, for each contains the antidote to the other. Of course, even taken together, they merely provide the bookends for the man's career. When it comes to that myriad of contradictions that go by the name of Richard Nixon, no one ever will capture all that lies between.

A visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, Alvin S. Felzenberg writes frequently on the history of the American presidency.

Dr. Alvin Felzenberg

Read Dr. Felzenberg's latest writing as soon as it's published

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.