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Criminal or foreign policy genius? Master of dirty tricks or health care reformer?
Richard Nixon's a complicated guy.
Nixon rose to national prominence as a major figure in the communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era McCarthyism; 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 during the Watergate years. He resigned in disgrace, the first president ever to do so.
And yet, and yet.
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 USSR, and extended environmental regulation at the federal level. He proposed healthcare reform that makes the Affordable Care Act look positively conservative by comparison.
Unlike his bitter rival, President John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon wasn't born into a political dynasty. Growing up in a staunch Quaker household in Whittier, CA, Nixon's childhood was filled with struggle. His father, who operated a grocery store and gas station, was very strict and forbade activities like drinking and dancing. While other kids were out having fun, Nixon lived a Spartan lifestyle, waking early in the morning to work at his father's grocery before going to school. Nixon's childhood was also marked with tragedy. His younger brother Arthur died in 1925. His older brother Donald died of tuberculosis in 1933.
Despite being president of his 8th-grade class and a great debater, he suffered his first of many defeats during his senior year in high school, when he unsuccessfully ran for student body prez (source). He graduated third in his class and was offered a full scholarship to Harvard University. But his brother's deteriorating health forced him to remain in Whittier, where he graduated from Whittier College in 1934. He went on to attend Duke University School of Law.
After being turned down for a job with the FBI, Nixon began practicing law at a local firm. In 1938, he opened his own branch of Wingert and Bewley Law Firm in La Habra, California, and soon became full partner. He participated in local theatre where he met his future wife, Thelma "Pat" Ryan. Like with his future political career, Nixon had to tenaciously pursue Pat after several rejections. They got married in 1940, and the newlyweds soon moved to Washington D.C. When World War II broke out, Nixon enlisted in the Navy.
Nixon had never really shown much interest in politics until a family friend suggested he run against longtime Democratic incumbent Jerry Voorhis from California's 12th congressional district. Nixon campaigned by painting his opponent as a communist, a strategy which worked in 1945 and which pretty much set the tone for his early career.
After his election to Congress, Nixon quickly became a household name by going after labor unions and communists. He was offered a seat on the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was tasked with investigating private citizens and government employees suspected of communist sympathies. He became one of the leading figures in the Alger Hiss spy case, and used the national recognition he got in the Hiss investigation to launch a successful Senate bid in 1950. His campaign tactics during his Senate race earned him the enduring nickname "Tricky Dick" and a lifelong distrust of the press.
Nixon's anticommunist cred would elevate him to the vice presidency in 1952. Even though the presidential nominee, Dwight D. Eisenhower, didn't really like Nixon or his tactics, Ike deferred to the GOP powers-that-be and asked him to be on the ticket. Things were going swimmingly until the the New York Post published an article accusing Nixon of having a secret slush fund supplied by wealthy buddies that he put to use living a life of luxury. The citizens were furious.
The fund wasn't really secret at all; it was money to help defray political expenses that Nixon's Senate allowance wouldn't cover. It's believed that the story was leaked by an aide to Earl Warren, who blamed Nixon for undermining his own presidential aspirations. (He had to settle for being Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.)
Regardless, Nixon knew he was the victim of a smear campaign by his enemies in the press. Eisenhower wanted him to resign, fearing this scandal would scuttle Republican chances in the general election.
Now, if this had happened after 1973, the affair would have been called "Puppy-gate."
Let us explain.
In a bold move, Nixon decided to take his case regarding the so-called secret fund directly to the American people via the relatively newfangled technology of television and the oldfangled radio. On September 23rd, 1952, he delivered what would be forever known as the "Checkers Speech," in which Nixon denied any wrongdoing and bared all the details of his and Pat's modest personal and financial circumstances, starting with the grocery store in Whittier. The message was that he was struggling with debt like all Americans, and that the only political gift he'd ever accepted was a little black-and-white puppy (awww) that his kids named Checkers.
At the end of the speech, he asked people to write, call and telegraph their opinion to the Republican National Committee about whether he should remain on the ticket. More than four million people did, begging him to stay. The speech saved his political life. Ike relented.
After serving two terms as Eisenhower's veep, Nixon was defeated in the 1960 presidential race by John F. Kennedy. The medium of TV, which had served him so well in 1952, failed him this time in debates with the handsome and tanned JFK. Licking his wounds, Nixon ran for governor of California in 1962 and was again defeated. After his defeat, he famously told the press: "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."
Did we mention he hated the press?
Sometimes referred to as his "Wilderness Years," 1962-68 saw Nixon fade into the political background. He went back to practicing law, 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 margin in 20th-century American presidential elections, but Nixon was still viewed as one of the few Republicans who wasn't responsible for Goldwater's landslide 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. Was this the beginning of a political resurrection?
1968 saw one of the most dramatic and traumatic series of primary elections for both Republicans and Democrats. President Lyndon Johnson, his popularity in the pits because of the escalation of the war in Vietnam, decided not to run for re-election after he saw Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy racking up voter support. The country was rocked by all kinds of social and racial unrest; riots and antiwar protests spilled into the streets and onto college campuses. In April 1968, civil rights icon Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Two months later Bobby Kennedy, having announced his candidacy for president just six weeks earlier, was gunned down in a California hotel after winning that state's primary.
The nation was reeling.
The Democratic National Convention blew up with protests, demonstrations, 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 primarily on putting forth the idea that he was a figure of stability, and that he was the best bet for the so-called "silent majority" of 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, squeaking by Democrat Hubert Humphrey, Johnson's VP.
As president, Nixon got busy. He started covert military ops in Latin America and Southeast Asia, and sold tons of weapons to countries in the Middle East. When the 1972 presidential election came around, he was ready to rumble. The Democratic party was in shambles, and Nixon's "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.
Nixon was convinced that there were people out there intent on destroying him, and he kept an actual "enemies list": political opponents who often became the targets of wiretaps, FBI probes, and smear tactics. For example, many years after Watergate, John Ehrlichman described Nixon's famous "War on Drugs" as not a war on drugs at all:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did. (Source)
Despite his dirty-tricks tactics and conservative brand of politics, though, Nixon looks positively 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. Hardly the anticommunist crusader he seemed to be in the 1950s.
Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, a favorite whipping-boy of today's Republican party. He expanded food stamps and supplemental income programs for the elderly and disabled. He supported 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 socialist compared to Obama's Affordable Care Act.
So why the reputation as a dour, suspicious, vindictive, secretive man?
Um, because he was a dour, suspicious, vindictive, secretive man.
And then there was Watergate.
After the break-in at the Democratic National Committee, the walls began to close in on Nixon once it was revealed that Nixon had tape-recorded all conversations in the Oval Office. In 1973 the Senate Watergate Committee and the special prosecutor kept insisting on getting their hands on tapes and documents that might answer the question, "What did the president know and when did he know it?"
Nixon protested his innocence throughout and agreed only to release redacted transcripts of some of the tapes. The battle heated up and eventually found its way to the Supreme Court. Once he was ordered to disclose all the tapes in their original forms, he knew the game was over.
Nixon was a man of such contradictory qualities that even Stephen Ambrose, the author of a three-volume biography of the guy, 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, Mr. Ambrose, you're not alone. And don't call us Shirley.