By Iwan Morgan. London: Arnold, 2002 (copublished in the United States by Oxford University Press). 228 pp.
This volume is part of a series entitled "reputations," the aim of which is to reconsider and reevaluate the reputations of major historical figures ranging from Henry II to Margaret Thatcher. Morgan, a historian of U.S. politics at London Guildhall University, responds with a balanced and insightful survey of Richard Nixon and his presidency. Based wholly on secondary sources, Nixon introduces no new information and thus does not break with or extend existing scholarship. The result instead is a reasonable, judicious interpretation of the subject. Morgan's analysis might be seen as a preview of a postpartisan take on Nixon, one written by scholars who have never had to decide whether to vote for or against him.
After a brief introduction in which the author aptly notes and largely dismisses Nixon's efforts to write his own version of Nixon revisionism, the book takes on the perplexing topic of Nixon the individual: "a multi-faceted and multi-layered figure" (p. 191). Here, Morgan produces a nuanced, if tentative, portrayal of the complexities and contradictions so often noted by others while ably batting down some of the seemingly more outrageous claims (that he was a compulsive liar, a drunk, a spouse abuser) that various writers have made. Morgan focuses on Nixon's family and educational background while mostly eschewing the kind of long-distance psychoanalysis that Nixon himself abhorred. In a refreshing contrast to the Nixon-the-monster strain of criticism, Morgan emphasizes how conventional Nixon's life seemed prior to his undertaking a political career. In this telling, it was Nixon's consuming commitment to his political career that not only brought out the extreme "dark" and "light" sides in him but also made him distinguishable from the rest of America's small-town lawyers.
Nixon's prepresidential political career has been recounted many times. Morgan summarizes it concisely, noting Nixon's proclivity for Red-bashing, while also pointing out that he was far from the worst of the Republicans in that respect. Nixon receives ample chastisement for his "pink lady" campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1948. However, Morgan sees him as acting responsibly in the investigation of Alger Hiss--the point at which Nixon truly became anathema to many liberals while establishing himself, prematurely perhaps, as a national politician...