Why Richard Nixon was pretty bad, after all

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Forty years after his resignation as US president and twenty years after his death, many have sought to revise the general opinion about disgraced US president Richard Nixon. But though he did achieve successes,  it’s worth remembering: he was known as “Tricky Dicky” for a reason…

The Pink Lady campaign

Nixon played dirty from an early stage, shamelessly exploiting the post-war ‘Red Scare’ to demolish his Democrat opponent, the actress Helen Gahagan Douglas in his 1950 campaign for the US Senate.  Although she was basically a New Deal Democrat, Nixon using provocative and sexist language labelled her “the Pink Lady…pink right down to her underwear” and had thousands of pink leaflets distributed saying the same thing. Douglas lost and gave up politics (her granddaughter is the actress, Illeana Douglas). Nixon won by a landslide and became a senator but at a price: he would be known as “Tricky Dicky” forever.

Sabotaged peace talks

Having lost the 1960 election narrowly to JFK, Nixon wasn’t prepared to do so again in November 1968. But President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to halt the bombing campaign in Vietnam in October was calculated to help Nixon’s opponent Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Acting covertly, Nixon used an intermediary to sabotage the peace talks. The Humphrey team knew about it, but confident of victory, stayed quiet. Instead, Nixon won narrowly. The truth wasn’t revealed until after his death in 1994.

Foreign policy dishonest

Nixon was elected claiming to have a “secret plan to end the war.” In fact, he had no plan. He first attempted to win the war as  Johnson had, by fighting, also illegally invading Cambodia before ultimately withdrawing US forces and  ensuring a Communist victory (in fairness, probably an inevitable outcome, whatever he did). Nixon’s administration also backed General Augusto Pinochet’s bloody coup against the democratically elected Salvador Allende government in Chile in 1973, leading to the deaths of 3,000 people.

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Obsessed with his “enemies”

Nixon generally confused legitimate and fair political opponents with enemies of the state. His “enemies list” included everyone from Senator Ted Kennedy to entertainers like Bill Cosby (ahem) and Barbara Streisand.

Watergate

In 1972, having sabotaged the primary campaign of his most feared opponent Senator Ed Muskie, the Nixon team’s attempts to wiretap and destroy their political opponents escalated when a botched break-in at Democrat HQ led to the Watergate scandal which led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974. No scandal, other than the Iran-Contra scandal, has come close to Watergate in terms of severity. Nixon lied repeatedly, humiliated his country and himself and destroyed his own presidency.

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The most conservative candidate in US history

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“Au, H2o! Au, H2O!” may seem like an odd thing to chant (in fact, it definitely is). But in 1964, Senator Barry Francis Goldwater (Au=Gold, H2O=water on the Periodic Table) was the US Republican presidential candidate and, in truth, the science-themed chanting of his supporters was one of the least odd things about either the candidate or the campaign.

Goldwater is probably the most right wing US presidential nominee there has ever been. The Republican Party effectively jettisoned any attempt to appear moderate when it selected Goldwater as the party’s nominee instead of Nelson Rockefeller, scion of one of the richest families in world history and later the Vice President to President Gerald Ford.

Unusually, the new nominee did not even pretend to be moderate, claiming famously:

“Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice…moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

The contrast between the amiable golf playing Republican president “Ike” Eisenhower of just a few years before and the Arizona senator was striking. Goldwater was undeniably eloquent: fifty years on, few phrases from a convention address by any candidate have remained enshrined in popular memory (at least in the US) as well as the first sentence above. Only Kennedy’s “New Frontier” has proven as enduring.

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But Goldwater’s timing was awful. The US craved stability after the Kennedy assassination of the previous year. They feared Goldwater’s aggressive Cold War rhetoric. A memorable TV commercial by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign exploited this fear with a broadcast showing a little girl apparently being obliterated by a nuclear bomb. “The stakes are too high to stay home,” the advert warned. Two years after the near apocalypse of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the message was clear.

The Goldwater campaign used the slogan “Goldwater: In your heart, you know he’s right.”

But people did not, in truth, know any such thing. A common retort to the Republican slogan was: “Goldwater: In your guts, you know he’s nuts.” As with the Tory slogan in the UK 2005 General Election, “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” Goldwater had totally misread the public mood.

Ultimately, Goldwater was routed. He won only six out of fifty states and was beaten by President Kennedy’s successor, Johnson by a record margin of votes in the November 1964 election. He was one of the biggest presidential losers of the 20th century.

Fifty years on, three things stand out. On the one hand, while World War III may have been averted, the US certainly did not enjoy peace and stability under his opponent LBJ. By 1968, the nation was being ravaged by disorder and assassination, largely due to the escalation of the Vietnam War. Goldwater was at least as hawkish as Johnson in backing this war, however, so it is unlikely either candidate could have provided a peaceful future.

A lasting consequence of the campaign was also that the actor Ronald Reagan first made his mark with a speech for Goldwater. Reagan had been a Democrat as late as 1962. By 1966, he was Governor of California and by 1981, president himself. Reagan had a charm which Goldwater lacked but had it not been the ascent of Gorbachev in the USSR his aggressive Cold War stance which echoed Goldwater’s, Reagan’s anti-Soviet position might have ended as disastrously as Goldwater’s threatened to do.

Ironically, in old age, Goldwater who died in 1998, came to retreat from his earlier extremism. He attacked Reagan over the Iran-Contra scandal and in 1996, with parallels being drawn between presidential contender Pat Buchanan and the Goldwater of 1964, Goldwater, by then an old man, made clear he supported Buchanan’s moderate opponent Senator Bob Dole (the eventual nominee although not the ultimate victor).

Fifty years on, many today still sympathise with Goldwater’s creed. But his policies were decisively rejected by the electorate and ultimately by Barry Goldwater himself.

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