Flashback Friday: Richard Nixon

Flashback Friday will be a weekly feature where we look back at former politicians who are significant individuals in history. The premiere post will focus on Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States. Nixon is well known for being the only president in history to resign the position, doing so in the face of unavoidable impeachment. His numerous accomplishments and service to the country have been forever tainted due to his involvement in the Watergate scandal.

I have been thinking about Nixon a lot this past week ever since I watched ‘Frost/Nixon’. It is a movie I have owned for nearly a year, but finally got around to watching. The film is based on the world famous interviews of President Nixon which were conducted in 1977 by British journalist David Frost. ‘Frost/Nixon’ (while of course being a film and not completely accurate) helps to inform a generation of people who were not around when these events took place. Surprisingly, after watching the film, I felt a great deal of sadness and empathy for Nixon. I am not sure if that is the sentiment which most viewers take away, but I suspect at the time of their publication, the interviews between Frost and Nixon produced any sympathy for the former president at all.

Nixon grew up in California, in a family of devout quakers. He worked hard to earn the admiration of his father and the death of two of his four brothers early in life, made Nixon feel as though he had to make something of himself to compensate for the loss. He attended college near his hometown, then received a scholarship to Duke University where he studied law. Upon graduation, and after much success as a student, Nixon started to practice law in California. He served in the Navy during WWII, then came home to California (a wealthier man, thanks to his excellent poker skills). During this all, he married Thelma ‘Pat’ Ryan. The two met after starring in a play together. While initially not warm to Nixon, he courted her for quite some time, and after proposing (numerous times) the two married in 1940. They went on to have two daughters.

He was approached by prominent Republicans to run for Congress in 1946. In that election, he beat the incumbent Democrat and officially began his political career. After gaining respect in the House, he turned his attention to the Senate and in 1950 again defeated the Democratic incumbent. Unfortunately for Nixon, it was in this election that he first gained attention for being less than fair when competing with his opponent. He gained the label ‘Tricky Dick’, something he would come to despise and which he would never be without.

Once in the Senate, Nixon began to make a name for himself as an ardent anti-communist, fearful of any suspicious left-wing activity. By 1952, the Republicans were desperate to get the White House back, and with President Truman’s decision not to run again, it appeared they had a good shot for the first time in decades. Dwight Eisenhower won the nomination for president and selected Nixon to be his running mate. There were several qualities that the General found attractive in Nixon as his vice president. First, Nixon was young and brought some energy to the Republican team. At the time Nixon was 39, while Eisenhower was 62. A second attractive feature was the national representation Nixon would help bring to the ticket. Eisenhower’s support and image was largely on the east coast, New York to be specific. As a Senator from California, Nixon could help strike a regional balance. Lastly, Nixon appeared like the ideal protege of sorts. He was someone who could become vice president, spend time learning the ways of the party and government, then possibly go on to lead it in later years.

Nixon’s chances of becoming vice president were almost derailed when it was put forth that he was benefiting from political fundraising and living a lavish lifestyle. In order to put the rumours to rest, he famously went on television in 1952 to publicly state he did not benefit from any political contributions. The only gift he stated he had kept was a black and white dog named Checkers which his children loved. Henceforth the address was known as the ‘Checkers Speech’ and did serve to put a stop to the allegations.

Nixon giving the 'Checkers Speech'

The Eisenhower/Nixon ticket went on to win in 1952 and again in 1956. While serving as vice president, Nixon became an ambassador for the United States and for Eisenhower, who was often ill or unwilling to attend certain events. It is evident that Nixon began to grow restless in the position, with some doubts of whether he would remain on the ticket for the 1956 election. Ultimately he made a plea to Eisenhower to keep him on as vice president.

Then came 1960, and this is where Nixon really becomes interesting. He gained his party’s nomination for president and famously battled John Kennedy for the job. With eight years of experience in the White House as vice president under an enormously popular president, it appeared as though Nixon should have easily won. However as the emergence of the television showed, Nixon lacked the charm, charisma and good looks the country now deemed important in a president. In a narrowly close election, Nixon lost. He likened his defeat to his performance in the televised debates and would never let people forget that those listening on television (and not able to see Nixon pale, sweating, and feverish) thought he had done better than Kennedy.

This was Nixon’s first electoral defeat and the arguably the most painful (other than when he ran for class president in high school, something he never forgot). A fiercely proud man, who could hold a grudge longer than anyone else, he was intent on redeeming himself one way or another. He ran for governor of California in 1962 but lost yet again. In his concession he announced his retirement from politics and blamed the media for their unfair coverage. Everyone, including Nixon, thought this was officially the end of his political career.

But with the benefit of hindsight, we all know that is not the case. The rest of the story is includes one of the greatest political comebacks, followed by one of the greatest political downfalls. In both case, Nixon was the orchestrator of each. He once again gained his party’s nomination for president in 1968. The country had been enduring years of political unrest and Nixon claimed to represent the ‘silent majority’. Those in the country who did not protest, those who did not march, those who simply wanted to live a normal life again. While he benefited from a divided and struggling Democratic party, Nixon went on the claim the presidency and was sworn in as president in 1969.

Aside from Watergate, the presidency of Richard Nixon is remembered for the relations he had with the Soviet Union and China. Foreign relations were always something Nixon was fond of, and he was immensely knowledgable in that area. He moved the United States closer than it ever had been to the two aforementioned countries. While he struggled with the Vietnam War, something he argued was his predecessor’s fault and not his own, he largely brushed that criticism off as being from the left-wing media and the hippies (two of his most loathed groups in society). In 1972, he was reelected by the largest margin in history. Nixon was not content just to win. He needed to win, and win big to satisfy his own insecurities.

What could have been a relatively easy term for Nixon following his victory soon turned into political hell. The break-ins at the headquarters of the Democratic party in the Watergate hotel were linked to the Republican party and the White House. What got Nixon in trouble was his alleged coverup of the incident, the proof of which was caught on tape. When the court ordered the White House to turn over tapes from conversations in the oval office, several hours of conversation was missing (which was blamed on Nixon’s secretary). Once released, the transcripts showed that Nixon indeed did know of the break-ins and ordered a cover up. With his impeachment imminent, Nixon resigned.

Thus history was made on August 9, 1974 when Nixon resigned his position. No president before him or since has done such a thing. The world watched, some were shocked, others were happy. Through it all Nixon professed his innocence. He stated he had done nothing wrong and remained the proud, arrogant man many had believed him to be all along. The decision to sit down with David Frost in 1977 and do in the interviews was done on account that Nixon could easily manipulate the conversation and improve his public image. This was something he would have more trouble doing with more respected journalists. While the first interviews did go as planned by the Nixon team, it was not until the last taping that Frost pushed the former president to the edge, and he began to open up. He famously stated when asked by Frost if he thought he did something illegal that “when the president does it, it is not illegal”.

It was a shocking admission, and showed just how out of touch Nixon was. All the time he had spent professing his innocence was not an act. He truly thought that as the president he was above the law and therefore had done nothing wrong. This is where I began to feel sorry for Nixon. He had spent his whole life working to win and be the best. He had never forgotten the wrongdoings done to him. He allowed his insecurities to fester within him, until it all came to a boiling point and put him in the position he ended up in. He admitted in the interviews that he had constructed his own downfall. It was evident in his face just how tormented he was by all that had happened to him.

While I am not saying Nixon deserves sympathy, because he clearly was wrong and guilty of many of the charges put forward against him, I can’t help but imagine the shame he felt, likely for the remainder of his life. His enemies had won, and it probably left him feeling empty. While he did gain credit as an elder statesman in his post presidential years, and his image improved as time passed, he was always saddled with the scandal.

L-R Presidents Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford & Nixon

Nixon died in 1994 after suffering a stroke. His beloved wife passed away just ten months before him. His funeral was held in California, outside of the house he was born in. That is the place he and Mrs. Nixon are buried today, as well as the site of his presidential library. By holding his funeral in California he made the world come to him. This was the place he secluded himself to after his resignation and where he spent many of his last years. There was not a big ceremony in Washington, as is generally the case with presidential funerals. Instead Nixon brought the world to his home and on his terms, where he received a dignified and honourable goodbye. It seems that in the end ‘Tricky Dick’ got the last laugh.

Additional information on President Nixon:


About Chris James

A student of political science at a Canadian University sharing stories of interest on Canadian and American political and social issues.

Posted on October 22, 2010, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I do agree that Nixon was indeed guilty, but again, there are two sides to every story, so I think it is great to see Nixon’s side. Very interesting

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