Who Was Richard Nixon?
Richard Nixon was a Republican congressman who served as vice president under Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nixon ran for president in 1960 but lost to charismatic Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy. Undeterred, Nixon returned to the race eight years later and won the White House by a solid margin. In 1974, he resigned rather than be impeached for covering up illegal activities of party members in the Watergate affair. He died on April 22, 1994, at age 81, in New York City.
Early Life and Military Service
Born on January 9, 1913, in Yorba Linda, California, Richard Milhous Nixon was the second of five children born to Frank Nixon and Hannah Milhous Nixon. His father was a service station owner and grocer, who also owned a small lemon farm in Yorba Linda. His mother was a Quaker who exerted a strong influence on her son. Nixon's early life was hard, as he characterized by saying, "We were poor, but the glory of it was we didn't know it." The family experienced tragedy twice early in Nixon's life: His younger brother died in 1925 after a short illness, and in 1933, his older brother, whom he greatly admired, died of tuberculosis.
Nixon attended Fullerton High School but later transferred to Whittier High School, where he ran for student body president (but lost to a more popular student). Nixon graduated high school second in his class and was offered a scholarship to Harvard, but his family couldn't afford the travel and living expenses. Instead of Harvard, Nixon attended local Whittier College, a Quaker institution, where he earned a reputation as a formidable debater, a standout in college drama productions and a successful athlete. Upon graduation from Whittier in 1934, Nixon received a full scholarship to Duke University Law School in Durham, North Carolina.
After Duke, Nixon returned to the town of Whittier to practice law at Kroop & Bewley. He soon met Thelma Catherine ("Pat") Ryan, a teacher and amateur actress, after the two were cast in the same play at a local community theater. The couple married in 1940 and went on to have two daughters, Tricia and Julie.
A career as a small-town lawyer was not enough for a man with Nixon's ambition, so in August 1942, he and Pat moved to Washington, D.C., where he took a job in Franklin Roosevelt's Office of Price Administration. He soon became disillusioned with the New Deal's big-government programs and bureaucratic red tape, though, and left the public service realm for the U.S. Navy (despite his an exemption from military service as a Quaker and in his job with OPA).
Serving as an aviation ground officer in the Pacific, Nixon saw no combat, but he returned to the United States with two service stars and several commendations. He eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant commander before resigning his commission in January 1946.
Following his return to civilian life, Nixon was approached by a group of Whittier Republicans who encouraged him to run for Congress. Nixon would be up against five-term liberal Democratic Jerry Voorhis, but he took on the challenge head-on. Nixon's campaign exploited notions about Voorhis's alleged communist sympathies, a tactic that would recur throughout his political life, and it worked, helping Nixon win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in November 1946. During his first term, Nixon was assigned to the Select Committee on Foreign Aid and went to Europe to report on the newly enacted Marshall Plan. There he quickly established a reputation as an internationalist in foreign policy.
As a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) from 1948 to 1950, he took a leading role in the investigation of Alger Hiss, a former State Department official with a previously stellar reputation. While many believed Hiss, Nixon took the allegations that Hiss was spying for the Soviet Union to heart. In dramatic testimony before the committee, Hiss vehemently denied the charge and refuted claims made by his accuser, Whittaker Chambers. Nixon brought Hiss to the witness stand, and under stinging cross-examination, Hiss admitted that he had known Chambers, but under a different name. This brought Hiss a perjury charge and five years in prison, while Nixon's hostile questioning of Hiss during the committee hearings went a long way toward cementing his national reputation as a fervent anti-Communist.
In 1950, Nixon successfully ran for the United States Senate against Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas. She had been an outspoken opponent of the anti-Communist scare and the actions of HUAC. Employing his previous successful campaign tactics, Nixon's campaign staff distributed flyers on pink paper unfairly distorting Douglas's voting record as left-wing. For his efforts, The Independent Review, a small Southern California newspaper, nicknamed Nixon "Tricky Dick," a derogatory nickname that would remain with him for the rest of this life.
Nixon's fervent anti-Communist reputation earned him the notice of Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Republican Party, who believed he could draw valuable support in the West. And at the Republican convention in 1952, Nixon won the nomination as vice president. Two months before the November election, the New York Post reported that Nixon had a secret "slush fund" provided by campaign donors for his personal use, and some within Eisenhower's campaign called for removing Nixon from the ticket.
Realizing that he might not win without Nixon, Eisenhower was willing to give Nixon a chance to clear himself. On September 23, 1952, Nixon delivered a nationally televised address in which he acknowledged the existence of the fund but denied that any of it had been used improperly. He turned the speech back on his political enemies, claiming that unlike the wives of so many Democratic politicians, his wife, Pat, did not own a fur coat but only "a respectable Republican cloth coat." The speech was perhaps best remembered for its conclusion in which Nixon admitted accepting one political gift: a cocker spaniel that his 6-year-old daughter, Tricia, had named "Checkers."
Although Nixon initially thought that the speech had failed, the public responded to what became known as the "Checkers Speech." Nonetheless, the experience embedded a deep distrust of mainstream media in Nixon, who would one day be at the receiving end of much worse from reporters. The Checkers Speech aside, the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket defeated the Democratic candidates, Adlai E. Stevenson and John Sparkman, and Nixon avoided a full-on political disaster.
Between 1955 and 1957, Eisenhower suffered a series of illnesses, including a heart attack and a stroke. Although Nixon held little formal power as vice president, perhaps out of necessity, he expanded the office to an important and prominent post during his two terms. As president of the Senate, he helped ensure the passage of Eisenhower-approved bills, such as the 1957 Civil Rights Bill. While the president was incapacitated, Nixon was called on to chair several high-level meetings, though real power lay in a close circle of Eisenhower advisers. The health scares prompted Eisenhower to formalize an agreement with Nixon on the powers and responsibilities of the vice president in the event of presidential disability; the agreement was accepted by later administrations until the adoption of the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1967.
Initially, Nixon's efforts to promote American foreign policy met with mixed results, as he undertook many high-profile foreign trips of goodwill to garner support for American policies during the Cold War. On one such trip to Caracas, Venezuela, Nixon's motorcade was attacked by anti-American protesters, who pelted his limousine with rocks and bottles. Nixon came out unscathed and remained calm and collected during the incident.
In July 1959, Nixon was sent by President Eisenhower to Moscow for the opening of the American National Exhibition. On July 24, while touring the exhibits with Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, Nixon stopped at a model of an American kitchen and engaged Khrushchev in an impromptu debate. In a friendly yet determined way, both men argued the merits of capitalism and communism, respectively, as it affected the average American and Soviet housewives. While the exchange (later dubbed the "Kitchen Debate") had little bearing on the United States/Soviet rivalry, Nixon gained popularity for standing up to the "Soviet bully," as Khrushchev was sometimes characterized, and greatly improved his chances for receiving the Republican presidential nomination in 1960.
Running for the Presidency
Nixon launched his bid for the presidency in early 1960, facing little opposition in the Republican primaries. His democratic opponent was Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy. Nixon campaigned on his experience, but Kennedy brought a new vitality to the election and called for a new generation of leadership, criticizing the Eisenhower administration for endangering U.S. national security. Besides defending the administration during the campaign, Nixon advocated for a series of selective tax cuts that would become a core doctrine of Republican economic policy going forward.
The 1960 presidential campaign proved to be historic in the use of television for advertisements, news interviews and policy debates, something that would play right into Kennedy's youthful hands. Four debates were scheduled between Nixon and Kennedy, and Nixon had his work cut out for himself from the beginning.
During the process, he was recovering from the flu and appeared tired, and then when he arrived at the TV studio, Nixon chose to wear little TV makeup, fearing the press would accuse him of trying to upstage Kennedy's tan, crisp look. Though he had shaved, Nixon's "five o'clock shadow" appeared through the cameras, and his gray suit blended into the studio's gray background in contrast to Kennedy's tailored dark suit. Also, Nixon was still sweating out his illness, and his perspiration under the hot studio lights was picked up by the cameras in close-ups as he responded to questions. In short, he never looked half as healthy, young or vibrant as Kennedy. Showing the power of the new visual medium, post-debate polls indicated that while many TV viewers believed Kennedy had won the debates, radio listeners indicated that they thought Nixon had won.
In November 1960, Nixon narrowly lost the presidential election, by only 120,000 votes. The Electoral College showed a wider victory for Kennedy, who received 303 votes to Nixon's 219. Though there were some charges of voter fraud in Texas and Illinois and legal papers were filed, subsequent court rulings showed that Kennedy had a greater number of electoral votes even after recounts. Not wanting to cause a Constitutional crisis, Nixon halted further investigations, later receiving praise for his dignity and professionalism in the face of defeat and suspicion that possible voter fraud had cost him the presidency.
Following the election, Nixon returned with his family to California, where he practiced law and wrote a book, Six Crises, which documented his political life as a congressman, senator and vice president. In 1962, various Republican leaders encouraged Nixon to run against incumbent Democratic Governor Pat Brown. Nixon was at first reluctant to get into another political battle so soon after his disappointing defeat to Kennedy, but eventually, he decided to run.
The campaign did not go well for Nixon, with some observers questioning his sincerity to be governor of California and accusing him of making the election a stepping stone back into national politics. Others felt he just wasn't enthusiastic enough. He lost to Brown by a substantial margin, and many political experts characterized the defeat as the end of Nixon's political career. He himself said as much, blaming the media for his defeat and lamenting, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore..."
After the California election, Nixon moved his family to New York City, where he continued to practice law and quietly but effectively remade himself as America's "senior statesman." With his calm, conservative voice, Nixon presented a sharp contrast to the escalating war in Vietnam and the growing antiwar protests. He cultivated support from the Republican base, which respected his knowledge of politics and international affairs. He also wrote a farsighted article for Foreign Affairs magazine entitled "Asia After Vietnam," which enhanced his reputation.
Yet, Nixon agonized over whether to reenter politics and go for another run at the presidency. He consulted friends and respected leaders such as the Reverend Billy Graham for advice. Finally, he formally announced his candidacy for president of the United States on February 1, 1968. Nixon's campaign received an unexpected boost when on March 31, incumbent President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek another term.
By 1968, the nation was openly struggling over the war in Vietnam, not only on college campuses but in mainstream media. In February, newscaster Walter Cronkite took an almost unprecedented (for him) position, offering commentary on his recent trip to Vietnam, stating that he felt victory was not possible and that the war would end in a stalemate. President Johnson lamented, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the nation." As the antiwar protest continued, Nixon's campaign stayed above the fray, portraying him as a figure of stability and appealing to what he referred to as the "silent majority" of social conservatives who were the steady foundation of the American public.
Nixon was able to construct a coalition of Southern and Western conservatives during the campaign. In exchange for their support, he promised to appoint "strict constructionists" to the federal judiciary and selected a running mate acceptable to the South, Maryland governor Spiro Agnew. The two waged an immensely effective media campaign with well-orchestrated commercials and public appearances. They attacked Democrats for the nation's high crime rate and a perceived surrender of nuclear superiority to the Soviets.
For a time, the Democrats still held the high ground in the polls, but the assassination of presidential contender Robert Kennedy and a self-destructive nominating convention in Chicago, where Vice President Hubert Humphrey was nominated, weakened their chances. During the entire election campaign, Nixon portrayed a "calm amidst the storm" persona, promising a "peace with honor" conclusion to the war in Vietnam, a restoration of America's preeminence over the Soviets and a return to conservative values.
In a three-way race between Nixon, Humphrey and independent candidate George Wallace, Nixon won the election by nearly 500,000 votes. He was sworn in as the 37th president of the United States on January 20, 1969.
Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck once called politics "the art of the possible." But a more pragmatic description was offered by U.S. economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who said politics "consists of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable." Nixon became well-versed in walking a narrow line, as, in one particular issue, he needed to appease the Southern partners in his election coalition and address Court-ordered busing to reduce segregation. He offered a practical solution he called "New Federalism": locally controlled desegregation. Across the South, the Nixon administration established biracial committees to plan and implement school desegregation. The program was well accepted by the states, and by the end of 1970 only about 18 percent of Black children in the South were attending all-Black schools, down from 70 percent in 1968.
As president, Nixon also increased the number of female appointments in his administration, despite opposition from many in his administration. He created a Presidential Task Force on Women's Rights, requested that the Department of Justice bring sex-discrimination suits against blatant violators and ordered the Department of Labor to add sex discrimination guidelines to all federal contracts.
Some of President Nixon's well-intentioned domestic policies under New Federalism clashed with the Democrat-controlled Congress and were fraught with unintended consequences. A case in point was the Family Assistance Plan. The program called for replacing bureaucratically administered programs such as Aid to Families With Dependent Children, Food Stamps and Medicaid with direct cash payments to those in need, including single-parent families and the working poor. Conservatives disliked the plan for guaranteeing an annual income to people who didn't work, the labor movement saw it as a threat to the minimum wage and federal caseworkers saw the program as a threat to their jobs. Many Americans complained that adding the working poor to Welfare would expand the program rather than reduce it.
Though initially not showing much interest in environmental concerns, after the 1970 Earth Day, with millions of demonstrations across the country, President Nixon sensed a political opportunity and a need. He pushed for the Clean Air Act of 1970 and established two new agencies, the Department of Natural Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency. Keeping true to his New Federalism principles of less government and fiscal responsibility, Nixon insisted that all environmental proposals meet the cost-benefit standards of the Office of Management and Budget. In 1972, he vetoed the Clean Water Act (which he generally supported) because Congress had boosted its cost to $18 billion. Congress overrode his veto, and in retaliation, Nixon used his presidential powers to impound half the money.
Nixon often adopted a stance of confrontation rather than conciliation and compromise. In his ambition to push through his agenda, he sought to consolidate power within the presidency and took the attitude that the executive branch was exempt from many of the checks and balances imposed by the Constitution. This attitude would later turn on him during the Watergate scandal.
Though achieving some success in domestic politics, most of President Nixon's first term was dominated by foreign affairs and, most notably, the Vietnam War. His administration successfully negotiated the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), designed to deter the Soviet Union from launching a first strike. Nixon also reestablished American influence in the Middle East and pressured allies to take more responsibility for their own defense.
With the assistance of his brilliant but taciturn national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, Nixon was able to achieve détente with China and the Soviet Union, playing one off against the other. Since the mid-1960s, tensions between China and its main ally, the USSR, had increased, causing a breach in their relationship by 1969. Nixon sensed an opportunity to shift the Cold War balance of power toward the West, and he sent secret messages to Chinese officials to open a dialogue.
In December 1970, Nixon reduced trade restrictions against China, and in 1971, Chinese officials invited the American table tennis team to China for a demonstration/competition, later dubbed "ping-pong diplomacy." Then, in February 1972, President Nixon and his wife, Pat, traveled to China, where he engaged in direct talks with Mao Zedong, the Chinese leader. The visit ushered in a new era of Chinese-American relations and pressured the Soviet Union to agree to better relations with the United States.
In Latin America, the Nixon administration continued the long-standing policy of supporting autocratic dictatorships in lieu of socialist democracies. Most notably, he authorized clandestine operations to undermine the coalition government of Chile's Marxist president, Salvador Allende, after he nationalized American-owned mining companies. Nixon restricted Chile's access to international economic assistance, discouraged private investment, increased aid to the Chilean military and funneled covert payments to Allende opposition groups. In September 1973, Allende was overthrown in a military coup, establishing Chilean army general Augusto Pinochet as dictator.
But the foremost issue on Nixon's plate was Vietnam. When he took office, 300 American soldiers were dying per week in Vietnam. The Johnson administration had escalated the war to involve over 500,000 American troops and expanded operations from the defense of South Vietnam to bombing attacks in North Vietnam. By 1969, when Nixon assumed the presidency, the United States was spending between $60 and $80 million per day on the war. Nixon faced the decision of either escalating the war further to secure South Vietnam from communism or withdrawing forces to end involvement in an increasingly unpopular war.
Nixon proposed a controversial strategy of withdrawing American troops from South Vietnam while carrying out Air Force bombings and army special-ops operations against enemy positions in Laos and Cambodia, both of which were officially neutral at the time. He established what became known as the Nixon Doctrine (also called "Vietnamization"), replacing American troops with Vietnamese soldiers. From 1969 to 1972, troop withdrawals were estimated to be 405,000 soldiers. While Nixon's campaign promise in 1968 was to draw down the size of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the bombings of North Vietnam and incursions into Laos and Cambodia created a political firestorm. When Nixon made a televised speech announcing the movement of U.S. troops into Cambodia to disrupt so-called North Vietnamese sanctuaries, young people across the country erupted in protest, and student strikes temporarily closed more than 500 universities, colleges and high schools.
Beyond all the strife, the war in Vietnam had caused domestic inflation to grow to nearly 6 percent by 1970. To address the problem, Nixon initially tried to restrict federal spending, but beginning in 1971, his budget proposals contained deficits of several billion dollars, the largest in American history up to that time. Though defense spending was cut almost in half, government spending on benefits to American citizens rose from a little over 6 percent to nearly 9 percent. Food aid and public assistance escalated from $6.6 billion to $9.1 billion. To control increasing inflation and unemployment, Nixon imposed temporary wage and price controls, which achieved marginal success, but by the end of 1972, inflation returned with a vengeance, reaching 8.8 percent in 1973 and 12.2 percent in 1974.
Watergate and Other Scandals
With the war in Vietnam winding down, Nixon in 1972 defeated his Democratic challenger, liberal senator George McGovern, in a landslide victory, receiving almost 20 million more popular votes and winning the Electoral College vote 520 to 17. Nixon looked invincible in his victory. It seems odd, in retrospect, that his re-election campaign, the Committee to Re-Elect the President (also known as CREEP) was so concerned about Democrats opposition that it reverted to political sabotage and covert espionage. Public opinion polls during the campaign indicated President Nixon had an overwhelming lead. The entry of independent candidate Wallace ensured some Democratic support would be taken from McGovern in the South, and for most of the American public, Senator McGovern's policies were just too extreme.
During the campaign in June 1972, rumors began to circulate about White House involvement in a seemingly isolated burglary of the Democratic National Election Headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. Initially, Nixon downplayed the coverage of the scandal as politics as usual, but by 1973, the investigation (initiated by two cub reporters for the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) had mushroomed into a full-scale inquest. White House officials denied the press's reporting as biased and misleading, but the FBI eventually confirmed that Nixon aides had attempted to sabotage the Democrats during the election, and many resigned in the face of criminal prosecution.
A Senate committee under Senator Sam Ervin soon began to hold hearings. Eventually, White House counsel John Dean gave evidence that the scandal went all the way to the White House, including a Nixon order to conceal wrongdoing. Nixon continued to declare his innocence, though, repeatedly denying previous knowledge about the campaign sabotage and claiming to have learned about the cover-up in early 1973.
Nixon responded directly to the nation by staging an emotional televised press conference in November 1973, during which he famously declared, "I'm not a crook." Claiming executive privilege, Nixon nevertheless refused to release potentially damning material, including White House tape recordings that allegedly revealed details of CREEP's plans to sabotage political opponents and disrupt the FBI's investigation. Facing increased political pressure, Nixon released 1,200 pages of transcripts of conversations between him and White House aides but still refused to release all of the recordings.
The House Judiciary Committee, controlled by Democrats, opened impeachment hearings against the president in May 1974. In July, the Supreme Court denied Nixon's claim of executive privilege and ruled that all tape recordings must be released to the special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski. Once the recordings were released, it didn't take long for Nixon's house of cards to teeter: One of the secret recordings confirmed the allegations of the cover-up, indicating that Nixon was looped in from the beginning.
In late July 1974, the House Judiciary Committee passed the first of three articles of impeachment against Nixon, charging obstruction of justice. Upon the threat of a likely post-impeachment conviction, Nixon resigned from the office of the presidency on August 9, 1974. He was succeeded by Gerald Ford, whom Nixon had appointed vice president in 1973 after Spiro Agnew resigned his office amid charges of bribery, extortion and tax evasion during his tenure as governor of Maryland. Nixon was pardoned by President Ford on September 8, 1974.
Retirement and Death
After his resignation, Nixon retired with his wife to the seclusion of his estate in San Clemente, California, where he spent several months distraught and disoriented. Gradually he regrouped, and by 1977 he began forming a public-relations comeback. In August 1977, Nixon met with British commentator David Frost for a series of interviews during which Nixon sent mixed messages of contrition and pride, while never admitting any wrongdoing. While the interviews were met with mixed reviews, they were watched by many and positively contributed to Nixon's public image.
In 1978, Nixon published RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, an intensely personal examination of his life, public career and White House years; the book became a best-seller. He also authored several books on international affairs and American foreign policy, modestly rehabilitating his public reputation and earning him a role as an elder foreign-policy expert.
On June 22, 1993, his wife Pat died of lung cancer. Nixon took the loss hard, and on April 22, 1994, just 10 months after his wife's death, Nixon died of a massive stroke in New York City. President Bill Clinton was joined by four former presidents to pay homage to the 37th president. His body lay in repose in the Nixon Library lobby, and an estimated 50,000 people waited in heavy rain for up to 18 hours to file past the casket and pay their last respects. He was buried beside his wife at his birthplace, in Yorba Linda, California.
Often caricatured in media, Nixon has proved a source of fascination for his experiences that seemingly captured the best and worst of life as a public figure. His 1977 interviews fueled the production of the 2008 feature Frost/Nixon, starring Frank Langella as the ex-president and Michael Sheen as his interviewer. In 2017, longtime White House reporter Don Fulsom published The Mafia’s President: Nixon and the Mob, about Nixon's associations with Mickey Cohen, Meyer Lansky and other notorious figures from organized crime in the 20th century.
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