From battlefields to ballot boxes

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How much of an asset is experience of warfare to a future political career? Does a spell in the army, navy or air force, particularly during a world war always lead to popularity?  Is it any use whatsoever in helping leaders make decisions once in power?

Winston Churchill’s long record of military heroism probably made him the ideal person to lead Britain through the darkest days of the Second War. But in the Thirties, when Churchill was in the political wilderness and appeasement was in vogue, Churchill’s background probably counted against him. Coupled with his warnings about Nazi rearmament, Churchill’s reputation fuelled fears that he was a warmonger. His role in the disastrous Gallipoli landings in 1915 complicated matters still further. Churchill had resigned as Lord of the Admiralty and immediately volunteered for the Western Front. He was the first of four Great War veterans to lead Britain.

If ever a man had cause to hate war, it was Churchill’s successor Sir Anthony Eden. He had not only fought in the First World War but lost two brothers in the conflict as well as a son in World War II. But Eden recognised the dangers of appeasement (before World War II) and resigned as Foreign Secretary over Neville Chamberlain’s friendliness towards Mussolini in the late Thirties. It could have been the end of a promising career for Eden. However, with the outbreak of war, like Churchill, his arguments seemed vindicated. He returned, eventually succeeding Churchill in 1955.

Sadly as Prime Minister, Eden’s instincts served him less well. Perhaps viewing the Egyptian leader Nasser as a new Il Duce, Eden led Britain into a disastrously ill conceived attempt to retake the Suez Canal in 1956. The end result was a calamitous humiliating withdrawal and Eden’s downfall.

Both Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan served in the First World War too as did the US Presidents Harry S Truman and Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower. The impact of the Great War on their leadership isn’t obvious. But for Ike, his major role as Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe in the Second World War was to prove crucial to his election.

General Eisenhower had never been elected to any office before 1952 and his huge fame and popularity as a General at a time of Cold War in Europe and hot war in Korea was almost the sole basis for his 1952 presidential campaign. He won handsomely then and in 1956, both times beating the less charismatic Adlai Stevenson comfortably.

But Ike was only the first of seven World War II veterans to make it to the White House between 1953 and 1993. Some were more heroic than others. John F. Kennedy had rescued the crew of his Japanese PT 109 swift boat after the Japanese rammed it in the Pacific. Kennedy had swum dragging a colleague to safety while holding a lifeboat in his teeth. Ronald Reagan, in contrast, spent most of the war making propaganda films. But every leader for forty years was a WWII war veteran. The last one was George HW Bush. Like Senator Bob Dole who unsuccessfully sought the presidency in 1996, aged seventy three, Bush had been a pilot.

Oddly, although many notable British politicians served in World War II (for example, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn, John Profumo, Colditz escapee Airey Neave, William Whitelaw,  Enoch Powell and many others) only two: Edward Heath and James Callaghan became Prime Minister. Neither seems to have gained much politically from their war experience. Callaghan relished anything to do with the navy. Heath spoke in later life over his unease over the execution of a Polish officer in 1945. But Callaghan never won a General Election and Heath only won one and lost three. Harold Wilson, in contrast, spent the war in the civil service but won four out of five General Elections.

Perhaps the issue was less relevant in the Britain of the Seventies or than in the US where the president is also Commander in Chief. But even there, the war was rarely a big issue other than in the case of Eisenhower or perhaps in helping Kennedy beat his Democrat rival Hubert Humphrey (who had not served in the war) in 1960. President Ford’s running mate Bob Dole (again) also committed a damaging gaffe in the 1976 Vice Presidential TV debates claiming that every 20th century war had been a “Democratic war” started by a Democratic president.

Margaret Thatcher was largely excused from any expectation of military service simply because she was a woman. Yet many women did do voluntary work during the war, joining the Wrens and such like. The young Margaret Roberts chose to focus on her career and Oxford instead. Thatcher was fortunate to escape serious scrutiny on this. Her Labour opponent in 1983, Michael Foot was less lucky. He had been unable to fight in the Second World War due to asthma (which bizarrely seems to have been cured buy a car accident in the Sixties) but in the jingoistic atmosphere after the Falklands War, both Foot’s championing of CND and even his choice of coat at the Cenotaph for the Remembrance Sunday service led his patriotism, entirely unfairly to be questioned.

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Foot was born in 1913. His successor as Labour leader Neil Kinnock was actually born during the Second World War in 1942. In Britain, national service had ended with the Fifties. Only a few notable politicians have had military experience since the Eighties.

In the United States, the focus shifted from World War Two to the far more controversial legacy of Vietnam. In 1988, George HW Bush’s running mate Dan Quayle, already under scrutiny over his inexperience and competence, was found to have used his family’s connections to ensure enrolment on the Indiana National Guard twenty years before. The National Guard were traditionally seen as an easy escape route to avoid the draft. Quayle survived but his embarrassment contrasted him unfavourably with Colonel Oliver North, a leading figure in the Iran-Contra Scandal but a decorated Vietnam vet.

Four years later, the Democratic candidate Governor Bill Clinton saw his campaign descend into controversy when it was revealed he too had evaded the draft.  But Clinton survived, perhaps helped by the fact, that unlike Quayle or George W. Bush later on, he had actually opposed the war. Bush’s joining of the Texas National Guard to avoid service was exacerbated in 2004, by the revelation that he had gone AWOL while even doing that at one point. Many assumed this to be drink related.

Bush’s opponent Democrat Senator John Kerry was well placed as regards Vietnam, having not only served there heroically but become a vocal opponent of the war on his return. Vietnam suddenly became a big issue again at the time of the Iraq war. But despite his strong position, Kerry overplayed the Vietnam card. Although the Republicans erred in attempting to fake a Seventies picture of a young Kerry supposedly standing next to fiercely anti-war activist Jane Fonda, and were not helped by Vice President Dick Cheney admitting he had avoided service too, claiming he had “other priorities”, Kerry’s overemphasis on his war record ultimately totally backfired.

In 2008, Barack Obama beat Vietnam vet and former Prisoner of War John McCain for the presidency. The 2012 election between Obama and Romney was the first since 1944 in which neither of the two main candidates had served in a world war or Vietnam.

Do war vets make better presidents? It seems doubtful. Neither Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt served in the forces (FDR was already a politician during the First World War. He contracted polio in the Twenties). Were they thus automatically worse presidents than Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter who did?

Eisenhower and Kennedy may have benefitted popularity-wise from their years of service. But did anyone else?

Every election between 1992 and 2008 was fought between a war veteran and a non-combatant:

1992: President George W Bush (WWII) Vs Governor Bill Clinton: Clinton won.

1996: Senator Bob Dole (WWII) Vs President Bill Clinton: Clinton won.

2000: Vice President Al Gore (Vietnam) Vs Governor George W. Bush. Bush won.

2004: Senator John Kerry (Vietnam) Vs President George W. Bush. Bush won.

2008: Senator John McCain (Vietnam) Vs Senator Barack Obama. Obama won.

As we can see, the non-combatant beat the veteran every time.

So far no Vietnam veterans at all have won the presidency yet this era may not be over yet.

In the UK, the only recent notable MPs with military backgrounds have been Paddy Ashdown, the Lib Dem leader between 1988 and 1999 and Iain Duncan Smith, Tory leader. It is true, Ashdown’s military background contributed to his popularity. But in the case of IDS, the least successful Opposition leader since the war, any advantage even during the Iraq War was extremely well hidden.

Ultimately, war experience may bring about good qualities and spawn great leaders, notably Churchill. But it is rarely a decisive factor in terms of popularity or leadership.

Some leaders such as Blair or Thatcher have proven natural leaders in peace and war without any military background at all. Others such as Sir Anthony Eden or Edward Heath found their military background little help in office and totally floundered in Downing Street.

Basically, if you are unsure who to vote for, basing your decision on the candidate’s military background is unlikely to help you to make the right decision.

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How President Kennedy’s assassination changed the world forever

 

The full magnitude of the scale of shock at the news of President Kennedy‘s assassination half a century ago cannot be fully appreciated today. Perhaps only by comparison with more recent traumas such as the September 11th attacks in 2001 or Princess Diana’s death in 1997 can we today find any suitable frame of reference.

But the impact of the shooting was huge. The effects on the Kennedy family, the US and the world in general have continued to resonate throughout ensuing fifty years…

1963

President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as his successor. Kennedy’s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald is himself shot dead by night club owner Jack Ruby on live TV two days later. The Warren Commission is set up to investigate the assassination.

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1964

Bobby Kennedy, the late president’s brother, resigns as Attorney General. He and President Johnson have long hated each other. Bobby is elected Senator for New York.

Ted Kennedy, already a Senator for Massachusetts since 1962, is involved in a serious plane crash. He suffers a broken back and punctured lung. Two others on board including the pilot are killed.

President Johnson passes a wealth of legislation including the Civil Rights Act. Johnson wins the 1964 presidential election handsomely with Hubert Humphrey as his running mate (both Humphrey and Johnson fought Kennedy for the Democratic nomination in 1960 and lost).

History will never know for sure whether Kennedy had he lived, would have passed as much legislation as Johnson, been re-elected in 1964 or escalated the Vietnam War to the same disastrous extent.

The Warren Commission (which includes future Republican president, Gerald Ford amongst its members) rules that Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy.  Over time, most Americans grow to disbelieve this verdict.

1965

Malcolm X, black civil rights leader, is assassinated.

President Johnson dramatically escalates the Vietnam conflict.

1967

Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald’s killer, dies in prison.

1968

Another traumatic year for the US and the Kennedys.

Martin Luther King, black civil rights leader, is assassinated prompting widespread race riots.

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President Johnson shocks the world by pulling out of the presidential race following serious setbacks in Vietnam and a strong primary challenge from the anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy. Senator Bobby Kennedy has already entered the race by this point.

A bitter Kennedy-McCarthy primary battle ensues (McCarthy fans see Kennedy as jumping on the anti-war bandwagon). Kennedy eventually emerges triumphant at the California Primary in June. With Richard Nixon emerging as the new Republican candidate, the stage seems set for another Kennedy vs. Nixon contest as in 1960. But moments after his California victory speech, Bobby is himself shot and killed on live TV. The assassin is Sirhan Sirhan, a young man who objects to the Senator’s support for Israel (a position shared by most US politicians). Sirhan remains in jail today. Kennedy leaves behind a pregnant wife, eleven children and a Democratic Party in disarray.

At a deadlocked convention, some Democrats move to draft 36-year-old Senator Ted Kennedy as the candidate but the last Kennedy son is at this point fearful of assassination himself. Vice President Hubert Humphrey is eventually chosen as nominee but loses narrowly to JFK’s defeated 1960 opponent, Republican Richard Nixon in the November general election.

Jacqueline Kennedy horrifies many by marrying Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.

1969

The Apollo 11 mission fulfils JFK’s 1961 pledge to land an American on the moon and return him to Earth by the end of the decade.

That very same weekend Senator Ted Kennedy – already seen as the most likely Democratic presidential nominee in 1972 – appears to crash his car at Chappaquiddick, leading to the death of a young girl Mary Jo Kopechne. The scandal and Kennedy’s unsatisfactory explanation for his behaviour (he claimed to have “repeatedly dove” to rescue her), the suspicion that he was having an affair with her or that he may have been drink driving, casts a shadow over the rest of his career. His judgement is certainly questionable, calling his lawyer immediately after the crash before calling the emergency services. He is not jailed and is re-elected to the Senate many times. But he will never become president.

Father Joseph P. Kennedy dies aged 81 (he has been unable to speak since as stroke during his son’s presidency. He has seen two of his sons assassinated, another killed in the war, a daughter lobotomised and another killed in a plane crash.

1972

George Wallace, pro-segregation Governor of Alabama and an old rival of the Kennedys, is shot and badly wounded by student Arthur Bremner. Bremner’s disturbed diary inspires the film Taxi Driver which itself inspires John Hinckley to shoot President Reagan in a bid to “impress” actress Jodie Foster in 1981.

Ted Kennedy threatens to run for president when last minute polls suggest he could win the nomination. But he chooses not to. Senator George McGovern gets the Democratic Party nomination instead.

Sargent Shriver, Eunice Kennedy’s husband, is picked as Senator George McGovern’s running mate after his first choice, Thomas Eagleton is forced out by revelations about his medical history.

McGovern and Shriver are defeated heavily by President Nixon who wins 49 out of 50 states.

1973

Lyndon Johnson dies (had he ran in 1968 and ran again, his presidency would have ended just two days earlier). Unusually, as Hoover, Truman and Eisenhower all died within the last decade, there are no former US presidents alive for a period between January 1973 and August 1974.

The tenth anniversary of the JFK assassination. The US is mired in Vietnam and Watergate.

1974

Alan J. Pakula’s  film The Parallax View starring Warren Beatty focuses on assassination conspiracy theories.

President Nixon resigns over the Watergate Scandal. Gerald Ford succeeds him.

1975

President Ford narrowly escapes two assassination attempts within the space of a fortnight. Both the assailants are women. “Squeaky” Fromme (a member of the Manson “family”) draws a gun on Ford when he attempts to shake her hand in the crowd. Sara Jane Moore fires a gun at Ford but a bystander knocked her arm causing her to miss. Both women were freed only after Ford’s death over thirty years’ later.

Aristotle Onassis dies. Although only in her forties, Jackie Onassis does not remarry again.

1976

The film Taxi Driver featuring a fictional assassination attempt on a presidential candidate is released.  As mentioned, this inspires John Hinckley Junior to shoot President Reagan in 1981.

Democrat Jimmy Carter narrowly beats President Gerald Ford for the White House.

1979

Maria Shriver, Sargent and Eunice’s daughter meets Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is already an aspiring film actor and Republican supporter.

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The William Richert film Winter Kills centres on a fictional Kennedy-esque family cursed by assassinations.

1980

Senator Ted Kennedy mounts his one and only bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. He mounts an effective challenge and delivers a memorable speech to the Democratic Convention but is beaten by President Carter who goes on to lose to Ronald Reagan in November. Kennedy is harmed by the ghosts of Chappaquiddick. In retrospect, he also seems foolish to have run in a year where he would have to unseat a sitting incumbent Democratic president (the only election in which this was the case between 1968 and 1996).

Ex-Beatle John Lennon is shot dead in New York.

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1981

President Reagan is shot and wounded by John Hinckley Junior. Hinckley is ruled not guilty as he is insane. Reagan’s press secretary Jim Brady is badly wounded in the shooting. Secretary of State Al Haig declares on TV in the hours after the shooting that after Reagan and Vice President Bush, he is in control. This is constitutionally incorrect (he was third in line after both the Vice President and the Speaker of the House) and the “I’m in charge” gaffe reassures no one on an alarming day. Reagan makes a full recovery and eventually dies in 2004, long after the end of his presidency.

This seems to break the supposed “curse” which has seen every president elected in a year ending in zero since 1840 die in office (1840: Harrison, 1860: Lincoln, 1880: Garfield, 1900, McKinley, 1920: Harding, 1940: FDR, 1960: JFK).

1983

Martin Sheen stars as JFK in the acclaimed TV series, Kennedy.

1984

David Kennedy, Bobby’s fourth son, dies of a drug overdose, aged 28.

1986

Mara Shriver marries Arnold Schwarzenegger, by now a huge film star. He is Republican Governor of California from 2003 until 2011. She remains a Democrat. Their marriage ends in 2011.

1987

Kennedy-esque Democratic contender, Gary Hart is forced out of the presidential race after a sex scandal.

1988

Future Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore evoke Kennedy strongly in their presidential bids as does the eventual nominee Massachusetts Governor, Michael Dukakis. 

Senator Dan Quayle unwisely compares himself to JFK in the vice presidential debate:

Quayle: I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.

Judy Woodruff: Senator [Bentsen]?

Bentsen: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.

Bentsen wins the debate although Bush and Quayle win the election.

1991

William Kennedy Smith, Senator Edward Kennedy’s nephew is acquitted after a high profile rape trial. Although he is acquitted, the family’s image is further tarnished by the scandal.

Oliver Stone’s hugely controversial film JFK is released. It centres less on the President himself but on conspiracy theories surrounding his death.

1992

Democrat Governor Bill Clinton is elected to the presidency. His campaign makes great play of various superficial similarities between the candidate and JFK. Clinton’s “New Covenant” echoes Kennedy’s “New Frontier” (though proves less resonant). Clinton is also similarly youthful (46), has a slight physical resemblance to JFK and actually met the assassinated president when the 35th president visited his high school when Clinton was 16.

Joyce Carol Oates’ novella Black Water is published. It is clearly inspired by the Chappaquiddick Incident.

1993

John Connally, the former Governor of Texas wounded in the 1963 assassination dies, aged 76. In the years since, he has defected to the Republicans and ran for president himself in 1980, being beaten for the party nomination by Ronald Reagan.

1994

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, widow of the former President, dies aged 64.

Special effects technology enables JFK to appear as a character in the film, Forrest Gump.

Patrick Kennedy, a son of Ted Kennedy, is elected to the House of Representatives.

1995

Rose Kennedy dies aged 104. She is the mother of Jack, Bobby and Ted.

The novel Idlewild by British writer Mark Lawson imagines President Kennedy surviving into old age. Idlewild in New York was renamed JFK Airport following the 1963 assassination.

1997

Michael Kennedy, another of Bobby’s children, dies in a skiing accident. He is 39.

The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour Hersh is published.

1999

John F. Kennedy Junior, the only son of the assassinated president, dies in a plane crash, alongside his wife and sister-in-law. He is 39.

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2000

Thirteen Days, a film about the Cuban Missile Crisis is released. Kevin Costner stars as he did in JFK (although does not play JFK in either case). Bruce Greenwood is JFK and Steven Culp, RFK (The 13 days referred to in the title are October 14th-28th 1962).

2004

Another JFK , Senator John (Forbes) Kerry wins the Democratic presidential nomination. He is also from Massachusetts and is the first Roman Catholic to be nominated since John F. Kennedy himself. However, he ultimately lacks the Kennedy magic and is beaten in the November election by President George W. Bush. The Bush political dynasty has thus far produced two US presidents.

The Manchurian Candidate centring on political assassinations is remade, starring Denzel Washington.

2006

The film Bobby, directed by Emilio Estevez and based around the day of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination is released. Estevez is the son of Martin Sheen who played JFK in 1983.

2008

Barack Obama is the first African American to be elected US president. Some see this as a fitting tribute to the career of Senator Ted Kennedy, who has by now been diagnosed with a fatal brain condition. Obama is also the first president born during Kennedy’s presidency and the first serving US senator to win the presidency since JFK himself in 1960.

2009

Ted Kennedy dies, age 77. Although his career was marred by the Chappaquiddick Incident in 1969, he enjoyed a long and successful career as “the lion of the Senate”. He is the third longest continuously serving Senator in US history.

Four out of five of Joe and Rose’s remaining daughters die during this decade (Rose, Kathleen, Eunice and Patricia).

2011

TV series The Kennedys starring Greg Kinnear as JFK and Katie Holmes as Jackie. It is less well received than the series, The Kennedys, thirty years before.

2018

Jean Ann Kennedy, former US ambassador to Ireland is the only remaining daughter of Joe and Rose Kennedy left. She is 90.

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Presidents on screen

Ronald Reagan

So Daniel Day Lewis has nailed Abraham Lincoln. Bill Murray also apparently masters FDR in the forthcoming Hyde Park on Hudson while Anthony Hopkins (amongst others) have recreated Richard Nixon on screen while Dennis Quaid and John Travolta have (sort of) portrayed Bill Clinton. But what about all the other presidents who have never had a decent shot at being on screen? Here are a few possible contenders:

George Washington

Who was he? Only the first US president (1789-97) and victor in the American War of Independence (or as the Americans more excitingly call it, the Revolutionary War).

Who could play him? Tricky. Tom Hanks? Washington doesn’t actually look much like any contemporary actor.

Prospects? On the one hand, it’s surprising there haven’t been more films about Washington. On the other, films about the early days of the Republic (Revolution, The Patriot, The Alamo) often perform badly at the box office. And are boring.

 

Teddy Roosevelt

Who was he? The 26th president (1901-1909). The youngest ever Commander in Chief whose refusal to shoot a bear on a hunting expedition inspired the creation of the teddy bear. More importantly, he fought and won a vital domestic battle against the great monopolies (trusts) of his day and pledged to “speak softly and wield a big stick” in foreign policy. Later ran as an independent presidential candidate and is distantly related to Democrat president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45).

Who could play him? John Goodman, Oliver Platt, Nathan Lane. Anyone fat basically.

Prospects? Already a major character played by Brian Keith in The Wind and the Lion (1975), Teddy R also had a tragic upbringing and an exciting military career. He was also shot and wounded as a presidential candidate in 1912, but delivered a speech regardless. Potentially a great film.

 

Dwight David Eisenhower

Who was he? Ike was a leading commander in World War II and in peacetime 1953-61) a hugely popular president.

Who could play him? Anthony Hopkins. Ed Harris. Anyone bald.

Prospects? Ike’s military career was exciting but his presidency was uneventful. Unless you enjoy watching people play golf.

 

John Fitzgerald  Kennedy

Who was he? Youthful charismatic inspiration to the world, Cold Warrior, first Catholic president and compulsive womaniser. Famously assassinated 1963.

Who could play him? Was played well on TV by Greg Kinnear and thirty years ago by Martin Sheen.

Prospects? JFK has been portrayed a few times in TV and film, but it’s surprising no one’s done a full scale biopic yet. War hero, family tragedy, nuclear confrontation, the battle for civil rights: it’s all there. That said, it’s quite tricky to square this with his womanising and dealings with the Mafia particularly as the Kennedy family remain such a potent force in the US. Their opposition effectively forced an end to the (admittedly dodgy) Greg Kinnear/Katie Holmes TV series The Kennedys.

 

Lyndon Baines Johnson

Who was he? Kennedy’s successor (1963-69) began his presidency well with a wealth of civil rights and anti-poverty legislation (“the Great Society”) but ultimately became hopelessly bogged down in the Vietnam quagmire.

Who could play him? Liam Neeson. Perhaps Daniel Day Lewis again.

Prospects? Ultimately a bit of a downer story-wise and the garrulous sometimes bullying LBJ is not an instantly loveable figure.

 

Ronald Reagan

Who was he? Simple minded Hollywood actor turned ultra-conservative 40th president (1981-89). Almost started World War III but somehow managed to oversee the end of the Cold War instead.

Who could play him? Warren Beatty, Tom Hanks, Josh Brolin (who played him in the short lived TV series). Richard Dreyfus could play Gorbachev, Sacha Baron Cohen Colonel Gadaffi while John Hamm could be Oliver North.

Prospects? Great. Assassination attempts, arms to Ira, bombing in Libya and Reagan’s ultimate decline into Alzheimer’s. A movie is only a matter of time,

 

Films that sound like they should be about presidents …but are not.

George Washington: 2000 film set in a depressed contemporary US city. Not actually about the first US president.

Garfield: About a cat. Nothing at all to do with the 20th president James A. Garfield who was assassinated in 1881.

Ted: No. Not about Teddy Roosevelt at all. Seth MacFarlane adult comedy about a teddy bear who comes to life.

The Truman Show: A man who grows up in a world entirely created for TV. His name’s Truman Burbank. Nothing to do with atomic bomb dropper Harry S. Truman (1945-53). That one was actually portrayed by Gary Sinese in the decent 1995 TV movie Truman.

JFK: Actually very little about JFK himself, aside from a short biography at the start. O liver Stone’s film is instead a dramatised account of the investigation into why the 35th president was assassinated. And by whom.

Dead Presidents: Hughes Brothers’ crime drama. “Dead presidents” is US slang for banknotes (which, of course, have portraits of dead presidents on them).Image

100 years of Richard Nixon

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.

Dirty tricks.

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.

Watergate.

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.

The end.

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’s legacy?

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.

Whatever happened to the end of Communism?

We all remember the fall of Communism don’t we? Certainly, anyone who is over twenty five will.

Who could, after all, forget the end of the Berlin Wall in 1989? Or Boris Yeltsin’s heroic role following the coup two years later? Or the final collapse of the USSR?

For many, the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to signal an ideological victory for capitalism. Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the triumph of liberal democracy and “the end of history”. Many argued that the end of the USSR proved that Communism and Marxist-Leninism, like fascism before it, simply could not work. It was contrary to human nature, they said. Reagan, Bush and Thatcher claimed the war had been won
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