A paranoid crook who should never have got close to power in the first place, a triumphant success and one of only two men to carry 49 out of 50 states in a US presidential election, Richard Millhouse Nixon was a mass of contradictions. On the centenary of the disgraced US president’s birth in January 1913, what lessons can we draw from his life?
US presidents never resign…except in his case.
Resignation mid-term is the norm as a way out for UK prime ministers: Thatcher, Blair, Wilson: all went this way. Not so in the US. Only three presidents have ever faced the humiliation of impeachment: Andrew Johnson (in the 1860s), Bill Clinton and Nixon. And only Nixon was driven from office as a result… had not his successor President GeraldFord pardoned him soon afterwards, he may well have become the first president to go to jail too.
He was genuinely born poor.
Abraham Lincoln was famously born in a log cabin but most other US presidents have been of far less humbler stock. Not Nixon: he was born into a genuinely impoverished Quaker lifestyle and two of his brothers died during childhood. This unfortunately gave him a huge chip on his shoulder about anyone he perceived to have had a cushy privileged upbringing (for example, the Kennedys).
He was an anti-Communist through and through.
Nixon’s rapid rise to power occurred only by dipping his hands in the murky waters of McCarthyism. It was the key issue of his times but by embroiling himself in the case of State Department official Alger Hiss who had been accused of being a Soviet spy, the young congressman shamelessly courted publicity which most young politicians would have shunned.
He was called “Tricky Dicky” for a reason…
The 1950 campaign for the US senate seat muddied Nixon’s reputation still further. His opponent Helen Gahagan Douglas was a Hollywood actress married to the actor Melvyn Douglas and later the grandmother of Illeana Douglas, a character actress known today for roles in films such as Cape Fear, Grace Of My Heart and Ghost World. The campaign became notorious for Nixon’s dirty tactics. Although she was, in reality, no more left-wing than Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nixon argued she was a fellow traveller for the Communist cause. He famously labelled her the “Pink Lady” claiming “she is pink right down to her underwear” and had thousands of pink leaflets distributed claiming just that.
The tactics worked. Nixon won by a landslide. He was famous and picked by General Dwight D. Eisenhower as his vice presidential running mate less than two years later off the back of this success. Douglas’s political career was over. But the Tricky Dicky nickname would stay with Nixon forever.
Nixon lost the presidency in 1960 because of the TV debate…or did he?
We all know the story. Nixon was robbed of the presidency in 1960 by a slicker, handsomer opponent. Radio audiences thought Nixon had won the famous debate with the young John F. Kennedy but on TV, JFK nailed him. Voting irregularities in Chicago further ensured JFK’s narrow win.
But it is wrong to attribute Nixon’s defeat in 1960 wholly to a triumph of style over substance. Nixon was already widely distrusted. He had almost been dropped from the vice presidential ticket in 1952 over claims he had profited from campaign contributions. Only the famous “Checkers speech” on TV, the sentimental address in which he referred to his daughter’s dog Checkers, was his salvation. But TV would prove his undoing in 1960.
Yet this is not wholly true either. For one thing, as with Obama and Romney in 2012, while the vote between Kennedy and Nixon was very close, the Electoral College margin between the two candidates in the final vote was actually quite wide (303 for Kennedy, 219 for Nixon, although Nixon, oddly, carried more states). Whatever happened in Chicago, Nixon wasn’t even close to winning. Distrust had played its part too. In 1952 and 1956, Eisenhower’s opponent Adlai Stevenson had milked fears over the ageing Eisenhower’s health to exploit concerns that Nixon not the beloved Ike would end up being president. The president had had a heart attack in 1955. In 1960, a Democratic poster depicted a cartoon of a shifty looking Nixon and asked memorably: “Would you buy a used car from this man?”
If in doubt…blame the press.
Nixon soon reached rock bottom losing in a landslide to Edmund G “Pat” Brown in the 1962 California Gubernatorial election. The father of the present Governor Jerry Brown, the Democrat was doubtless helped by President Kennedy’s deft handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. How Nixon would have handled it, we will never know. At any rate, Nixon appeared to quit politics. Like his future biographer Jonathan Aitken (and others), he was keen to blame the media for his own failings:
““For sixteen years, ever since the Hiss case, you’ve had a lot of fun. You’ve had an opportunity to attack me, and I think I’ve given as good as I’ve taken. I leave you gentlemen now, and you will now write it, you will interpret it, that’s your right. But, as I leave you, I want you to know, just think how much you’re going to be missing — you don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
But it was not to be. Nixon returned (in fact he had never had any real intention of quitting) and achieved the presidency ….
The Comeback Kid.
No presidential nominee has ever lost the presidency, returned to regain the nomination and then gone onto win the presidency. The sole exception is Richard M. Nixon.
Vanquishing the Kennedys.
JFK narrowly beat Nixon in 1960. Bobby Kennedy might well have beaten him again had he not been gunned down during the summer of the 1968 campaign. Nixon instead faced and narrowly beat the vice president, Hubert Humphrey in 1968 but feared the third brother Ted Kennedy would dethrone him in 1972. He even started a file on Ted Kennedy’s sex life. There was no need. The Chappaquiddick Incident in July 1969 (In which a young girl was found drowned in the Senator’s car from which Kennedy had mysteriously escaped) wrecked the youngest Kennedy brother’s presidential dreams forever, though not his career. Ironically, Kennedy had declined an invite by Nixon to attend an event celebrating the Apollo 11 moon landings that very weekend. Had he gone, the accident would never have happened and history might well have played out very differently.
Vietnam and China.
Nixon’s firm anti-Communist credentials were such that with the aid of Henry Kissinger, he was able to end the war in Vietnam (albeit still in a humiliating but unavoidable US defeat) and spectacularly re-open relations with Communist China in 1972. A president with a more liberal reputation could never have got away with this. A landslide re-election win was assured. Nixon won 49 states, his opponent Senator George McGovern, only one.
Nixon had won narrowly in 1968 only by using a mole to sabotage Vietnam peace talks which threatened to deliver Humphrey a last minute victory. The Humphrey team was well aware of this but feared releasing the information on it as they had acquired it by wire-tapping. Their own polling suggested they would beat Nixon anyway. This turned out to be wrong.
In 1972, the Nixon team sabotaged their most feared Democratic opponent Ed Muskie’s primary campaign partly through silly tricks (releasing mice in a press conference with the message “Muskie is a ratfink” on their tails) but also by spreading rumours Muskie’s wife was an alcoholic. Muskie cried on TV, effectively finishing the Nixon team’s work for them.
Nixon would doubtless be amused to see phone hacking in the news again. But in 1972, it was the journalists, notably the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who were the heroic ones.
Nixon’s enemies list.
The “Enemies List” which Nixon drew up during his presidency gives a unique insight into just how paranoid he had become. In addition to politicians like Ed Muskie, Walter Mondale and Ted Kennedy (more accurately described as legitimate political opponents. Nixon’s view of them as “enemies” was unhelpful) the list also included figures as diverse as John Lennon, Bill Cosby (!), Gregory Peck and Barbara Streisand.
Once it emerged Nixon had routinely recorded conversations in the White House a legal battle emerged to gain access to the tapes. Nixon refused on the grounds of “executive privilege”. The tapes when revealed had some mysterious gaps on them (Nixon’s secretary had apparently accidentally wiped one section), showed that Nixon swore a lot (the phrase “expletive deleted” was used a lot) and, worst of all, proved his role in covering up the investigation into the break-in. Impeachment proceedings began. Though “not a quitter”, Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment in August 1974. He spent his last twenty years attempting to restore his shattered reputation. He died, soon after his wife Pat, in 1994.
Nixon achieved much mostly in the field of foreign policy. But for all his talent, he was deeply flawed and perhaps unsuited to high office. He wasn’t the US’s worst president (that might be George W. Bush) but his remains an unhappy period for the US presidency.