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It's hard to look back at Nixon without gray-colored glasses. Actually, it's hard to look back at Nixon without glasses that have been spray painted black, immersed in a bucket of mud, and then burned.
Sorry, we got a little carried away there.
In America's popular imagination, Nixon's been the face of political corruption, power-hungry ambition, and two-faced cronyism. We aren't saying Nixon wasn't any of these things: just that he wasn't only these things.
Nixon's a complicated figure. He was a major figure in the communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era; his underhanded campaign strategies in his Senate run earned him the moniker "Tricky Dick." As President, he escalated the Vietnam War and covered up a massive break-in at the Democratic Congressional Committee's HQ in a building you may have heard of: The Watergate.
He opened up relations with China in the midst of the Cold War; presided over large-scale integration of southern schools; "won" the Space Race; got the first nuclear-arms control treaty with the U.S.S.R.; and extended environmental regulation at the federal level. He proposed healthcare reform that makes the Affordable Care Act look positively conservative by comparison. At the time that the speech was made, however, all of this was a distant and unforeseeable dream.
Nixon didn't set out with a burning passion for dismantling over a century and a half of democracy. He was born and raised in Yorba Linda, California, where you can find the Nixon Library as a monument to all his deeds (and misdeeds, for that matter). He was raised in an evangelical Quaker environment, which obviously didn't have much of an impact considering how zealously he'd eventually commit American soldiers to foreign wars. (Quakers are usually committed pacifists.)
Nixon's early life wasn't easy. The family ranch failed in 1922, prompting a move to Whittier, California. This hardship didn't hold Richard back: he was a great student, particularly in debate. He won a number of national debate championships even though his only formal training in public speaking came from his high school English teacher.
While he got a scholarship to Harvard, family problems caused him to stay local and attend Whittier College. From there he got a full scholarship to Duke University's law program, where he graduated third in his class. It seemed like Nixon was well on his way to living the classic American Dream.
Initially a humble lawyer and family man of modest means, Nixon showed little interest in politics until a family friend recommended him as a potential candidate to replace longtime Democratic incumbent Jerry Voorhis from California's 12th congressional district. He began his political career by implying that Voorhis was a communist, a strategy which worked and which pretty much set the tone for his early career.
As a Congressman, Nixon went after labor labor unions and communists and was offered a seat on the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was busy investigating private citizens and government employees suspected of communist sympathies. He became one of the leading figures in the Alger Hiss espionage investigation. Nixon used the national recognition he got in the Hiss matter to launch a Senate bid in 1950, a campaign that demonstrated his growing popularity as well as his foaming-at-the-mouth Red Scare approach to politics. His campaign tactics during his Senate race earned him the nickname "Tricky Dick."
Nixon's youth, energy, and anti-communist cred made him a natural contender for the Vice Presidency in the 1952 election. Eisenhower deferred to Republican leadership on the matter, and consented to have Nixon as his running mate. They made a decent team at first, forming a good cop/bad cop duo that polled well with voters. The secret fund scandal, however, would come to tarnish their relationship. After hammering the Democrats on their corruption, allegations that Nixon was keeping a secret fund and using it inappropriately wasn't great news for the Republican campaign.
Like, at all.
Nixon, knowing he was the victim of a smear campaign, took his case to the people with his historic Checkers Speech. Eisenhower bowed to popular opinion and kept him on the ticket, and he'd eventually serve as the VP in both of Eisenhower's presidential terms. This naturally set Nixon up as the Republican frontrunner for the 1960 presidential election. Though he won the nomination handily, his contest with the dashing Democratic candidate, John Fitzgerald Kennedy (ever heard of him?), wasn't so easy.
JFK was a lot like Nixon in some ways: young, charismatic, and a powerful public speaker. Nixon had generated a lot of ill will through his virulent crusades against communism, his particular brand of sappy public speaking, and his frosty relationship with Eisenhower. All that, and a few disastrous televised debates, contributed to a narrow loss to JFK.
The defeat hit Nixon hard.
Combined with an unsuccessful 1962 run for the governorship of California, it seemed to signal the end of Nixon's political career. In a press conference after his loss to Pat Brown, Nixon told the assembled media, who he'd always believed were out to get him, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore." He was sure he wouldn't be back in the public eye.
Sometimes referred to as the "Wilderness Years," the period of 1962-68 were marked by Nixon's quiet fade into the background. He began to practice law again, and refused to run for office in 1964. He did, however, support Republican candidates for Congress and Goldwater for the presidency. Goldwater lost the election by 80 points, the fifth largest landslide in 20th century American presidential elections, but Nixon gained popularity as one of only a few Republicans who wasn't responsible for Goldwater's embarrassing loss.
Nixon built upon this renewed credibility by campaigning hard for Republic congressional candidates during the midterm elections, which resulted in them retaking a bunch of seats lost in 1964.
Nixon was back.
1968 saw one of the most deeply contentious series of primaries for both Republicans and Democrats. President Lyndon Johnson, his popularity tanking because of the escalation of the war in Vietnam, decided not to run for re-election after Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy started racking up support. The country was rocked by social and racial unrest; riots and antiwar protests spilled onto the streets of American cities. In April 1968, The Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Two months later Bobby Kennedy, having recently announced his candidacy for President, was gunned down.
The Democratic National Convention blew up with protests and arrests. Chicago police tear-gassed and beat-up antiwar protesters and Eugene McCarthy supporters. But while the Democrats were tearing each other apart, the Republican party was coalescing behind Richard Nixon, who promised to restore law and order to a country that seemed to be falling to pieces.
Nixon's strategy relied entirely on appealing to the idea that he was a figure of stability, and that he was the best bet for the so-called "silent majority" of socially conservative Americans who opposed the radical change represented by the hippies, racial justice protesters, and antiwar agitators. This silent majority wasn't much of a majority, but it was enough to get Nixon to the Oval office, narrowly defeating Democrat Hubert Humphrey, Johnson's VP.
As president, Nixon got busy. He began a number of secret military operations in Latin America and Southeast Asia, as well as vastly increasing sales of weapons to the Middle East. When the next presidential cycle came around, Nixon was ready. The Democratic party was in utter shambles, and Nixon's popularity and Southern Strategy to appeal to disaffected white Southerners handed him the one of the biggest landslide victories in American electoral history, with a whopping 96% lead over his opponent, George McGovern.
Despite his conservative brand of politics, though, Nixon looked liberal compared to Republican leaders of today. Examples? Well, he famously opened up trade relations with communist China in 1972 and promoted a policy of détente with the Soviet Union, getting the first agreement on limiting nuclear arms.
Not exactly the anticommunist hardliner he seemed to be in the 1950s.
Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, that Republican whipping-post today. He expanded food stamps and supplemental income programs for the elderly and disabled. He spearheaded affirmative action and enforced the civil rights legislation passed during Lyndon Johnson's administration. He proposed a federally-supported national health care plan that looks positively socialist compared to Obama's Affordable Care Act.
So why does Nixon get the reputation as a dour, suspicious, vindictive, secretive man? It's because he was a dour, suspicious, vindictive, secretive man, that's why.
And then there was Watergate.
On June 17, 1972, some guys broke into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel and office complex and went digging through files and planting secret recording devices. This was nothing new for the Nixon Administration, who'd frequently bugged the offices of political opponents' offices and used federal agencies like the F.B.I., I.R.S., and C.I.A. to hassle activist groups that Nixon didn't like.
And he liked hardly anybody.
It gradually became clear that there was a massive cover-up of the Watergate break-in, and that the burglars had been paid hush money to keep quiet. A secret informer, nicknamed "Deep Throat" by the media, leaked information to Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, suggesting that the cover-up went pretty high up. Senator Howard Baker famously asked, "What did the President know and when did he know it?"
How far up did the cover-up go? You guessed it—all the way to the president himself. Nixon protested his innocence in the Watergate affair, once again taking his case to the American people on television. He famously declared at a press conference that "I am not a crook."
Unfortunately for Nixon, his paranoia about his many political enemies had made him record conversations that took place in the Oval Office: 3,700 hours of recorded phone calls and meetings between February 1971 and July 1973. Even more unfortunately, some of those conversations were about his role in the cover-up of the scandal.
He refused to release the tapes. But the Justice Department eventually forced Nixon to hand them over, and the world was treated to the "smoking gun" tape that showed that the president had been part of the cover-up conspiracy since a week after the burglary.
The House of Representatives began impeachment proceedings against the president, accusing him of "high crimes and misdemeanors." On August 8, 1974, Nixon, with his family somberly looking on, resigned the Presidency. Gerald Ford, Nixon's VP and now suddenly P, said it was "one of the very the saddest incidents I have ever witnessed" (source).
Nixon was the first President in American history to resign from office. But like any good villain, he had plans for a comeback.
After a controversial pardon by President Ford, Nixon began planning a way to reenter politics. This was despite the fact that his criminal actions during Watergate had more or less handed the last election to the Democrats.
It wasn't just power that motivated him in his later life: Nixon was also desperately in need of income. He started his career with nothing, as he told everyone in the Checkers Speech, and by the end he was almost broke again. At one point in 1975, he had less than $500 in his bank account. The sale of some of his properties, alongside the exorbitant fees he was paid for his probing, confessional interviews with British newsman David Frost, got him back on his feet financially.
Politically, however, Nixon never fully recovered. He spent his time after the presidency writing books and continuing to support the Republican Party whenever they'd let him (which wasn't often, as he was considered toxic by this point). Still, people recognized his foreign affairs expertise, and he became something of an elder statesman, traveling to the Soviet Union and China to discuss nuclear arms limits and human rights issues.
Nixon died on April 22, 1994.
Watergate is the gift that keeps on giving.
Some of the conversations Nixon recorded in the Oval Office even before Watergate continued to be released after his death. About 3,000 hours of the recordings have been released so far. (You can check them out here.) They're not pretty. In 2010, the nation heard chats from early 1973 where he talked smack about Jews (insecure, aggressive, obnoxious), Blacks (they need to inbred with whites), Irish (mean drunks), and Italians (don't have their heads screwed on tight). (Source)
Ultimately, Nixon was a man of contradictory qualities who was willing to do whatever it took to achieve political success. Even the author of a three-volume biography of the guy, Stephen Ambrose, was hard-pressed to characterize him. He wrote, "It was so sad. He was a man of very great gifts, to whom much had been given, but he was incapable of enjoying life, or of seeing himself and his role realistically...Surely this author is not alone in thinking it must have been a terrible thing to be Richard Nixon." (Source)
No, Ambrose, you're not alone. And don't call us Shirley .