Not Quite Tricky Enough: The
Richard Nixon was an exceptionally competent president and no more
immoral than any other president of the last sixty years. He was often
a true statesman, putting the good of his country far above personal
advantage. Nixon was also a clever politician, as his
nickname "Tricky Dick" suggests. But Nixon was not quite clever
enough, not quite tricky enough to overcome the hostility of his
political enemies. Comment.
Nixon was from a very different background than his 1960 opponent John
Kennedy. A recent biography of Nixon is titled “One of Us,” and
that’s a good place to start. Nixon was from an ordinary
lower-middle class family, with the typical values of such a
family. He an exceptionally strong work-ethic, particularly when
it came to his studies.
He earned the “Tricky Dick” nickname in his early campaigns for
Congress (against Jerry Voorhees initially) and for Senate (against
Helen Gehagen Douglas. He knew how to keep his opponents on the
defensive, accusing them of being associated with Communist
organizations and making much of any endorsement these candidate
received from Communist-sympathizing organizations. He served 5
terms in Congress where, as a member of the House Un-American
Activities Commission, he helped nail Alger Hiss for perjuring himself
about his past Communist ties. He was elected to the Senate in
1950, and, in 1952, Eisenhower chose him as his running mate, thinking
that he could use Nixon as his attack dog. Nixon would do the
dirty work of throwing the “soft-on-communism” mud at Adlai Stevenson,
while Eisenhower could appear above the concerns of petty partisan
politics. And, if Nixon went too far, he could be disposed of.
And Nixon almost was disposed. The press (who hated Nixon) began
attacking Nixon for allegedly receiving illegal contributions.
Eisenhower gave Nixon only one chance: Go on national television, make
your case, and if you get an 80-90% positive response, you can stay on
the ticket. Otherwise, for the good of the party, you have to go.
Now this seemed like an almost certain end to Nixon’s political
career. No-one in politics can get an 80% positive response, and,
if Nixon has to give up his place on the ticket…well, the stigma would
carry over so that he could never again be elected.
But Nixon rose to the occasion. He gave his famous “Checkers”
speech, a minute account of his personal finances coupled with the
insistence he had accepted nothing improper. Well, he did accept
one gift. He had mentioned on a campaign stop that his daughters
really wanted a dog, and he had accepted the offer of a dog for his
girls—Checkers. Nixon said, no matter what, he wasn’t giving back
Well, Nixon got his 90% positive response. Americans could identify
with his family’s day-to-day struggles, and it was obvious that Nixon
was “one of them.” The dog line? Masterful. Hard to imagine
a better way to get the audience on his side.
What’s interesting is that this ever became an issue in the first
place. Stevenson, a rich man to begin with, had been far more
unscrupulous with campaign funds than Nixon. And Eisenhower too,
also a rich man, was not at all careful about the gifts he
accepted. But the press ignored the flagrant abuses of Stevenson
and Eisenhower and focused on imaginary charges against Nixon.
Well, Nixon survived the crisis, and went on to serve eight years as VP
and to become the Republican nominee in 1960 against Kennedy. You
will remember (I hope) that the 1960 election was very close, and that
there was substantial evidence the election was stolen for
Kennedy. Nixon, however, wouldn’t challenge the results: such a
challenge would have weakened America’s confidence in the government,
and Nixon was statesman enough not to put the country through the
anguish of a disputed election. He was a relatively young man
anyway: there would be other chances anyway—maybe.
In 1962, Nixon ran for governor of California—and lost to Edmund G.
Brown senior (father of Jerry Brown). Nixon blamed the press, and
said he was withdrawing from politics: you won’t have Dick Nixon to
kick around anymore. Nixon moved to New York where he finally
made enough money for his family to be well-off financially. And
that could have been the end of his political story: but in 1968, his
party needed him.
The Goldwater and Rockefeller factions of the Republican party had torn
each other up in 1964, and, if the Republicans were to have any chance
at all in 1968, they needed a candidate who could unite both wings of
the party. Who could do that? Nixon’s the One, said his
campaign slogan, and, as far as uniting the party was concerned, he
really was the only one with a good chance of doing this. Nixon’s
anti-Communist credentials made him acceptable to the Goldwater wing of
the party while his new New York connections made him acceptable to the
big business/Rockefeller wing of the Republican party.
But, still, the Republicans would have had very little chance if the
Democrats themselves had not started fighting amongst one another.
At the beginning of 1968, LBJ was the obvious candidate, but anti-war
candidate Eugene McCarthy’s 40% of the vote in the New Hampshire
primary was portrayed by the media as a rebuke to Johnson and Johnson
took himself out of the race. The Democrat establishment now
supported Johnson’s VP, Hubert Horatio Humphrey, a fine speaker with
solid support from urban voters and the unions. But Humphrey
supported Johnson’s war policy, and the anti-war types wanted him
Bobby Kennedy (JFK’s brother) seeing an opportunity to gain the
presidency himself, elbowed McCarthy aside to lead the anti-war
Democrats, but it seemed a bit late: Humphrey had a big head start in
committed delegates. In California’s June primary, though,
Kennedy won a big victory. Maybe he could convince enough primary
delegates to shift to his side at the convention—his supporters
certainly thought so. But in the midst of his great victory
celebration, an assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, ended their hopes.
Kennedy was dead, and Humphrey was going to be the nominee.
But the anti-war types were determined to have their say. They
descended en mass on the Chicago (where the convention was being held),
staging their typical demonstrations, chanting things like, “Ho, Ho, Ho
Chi Minh, NLF is going to win,” and “Off the pigs” and throwing
excrement and garbage at the police officers who tried to restrain
them. Chicago Mayor Daily called in the National Guard. The
demonstrators got what they wanted, taking the focus off Humphrey and
on to themselves. And the press got what it wanted: a real show.
In addition to the anti-war types, another group of Democrats was
unhappy with the Humphrey nomination: Southern Democrats, unhappy with
Johnson’s Civil Rights legislation. The broke away to form the
American Independent Party and nominated a candidate of their own:
Alabama governor George Wallace.
“I don’t belong to any organized party,” said Will Rogers, “I’m a
Democrat.” Really true in 1968!!!
The election was close: Nixon got 43.4% of the vote, Humphrey got
42.7%, and Wallace 13.5%. The electoral college went 301 for
Nixon, 191 for Humphrey, and 46 for Wallace. Nixon was president,
but he was a minority president with no real claim to a mandate and
faced with a congress that was still controlled by the Democrats.
On top of that, he faced an unenviable task. The country was in
turmoil, with riots on campuses, riots in ghettos, riots at political
conventions. The two-party system was breaking apart, and
American society was more divided than at any time since the Civil
War. The Federal Deficit was enormous, and inflation threatened
to go out of control. The nation was committed to a war she no
longer wanted to fight but yet couldn’t give up. And nuclear war
was still a very real possibility.
economic policies—The Good, the Bad, the Ugly
Nixon did his best to address the economic issues facing the
country. He tried to control the deficit by vetoing congressional
spending bills and by not spending all the money congress authorized
him to spend (the good). He tried to end inflation by imposing
wage and price controls (the bad). He tried to increase American
exports by untying the American dollar from its golden anchor and
devaluing the dollar (the really ugly).
of domestic tensions?
Nixon had no patience with the anti-war demonstrators on college
campuses, calling the bums. When criticized for this, Nixon
replied, “When students on university campuses burn buildings, when
they engage in violence, when the break up furniture, when they
terrorize the faculty, then I think ‘bums’ is perhaps to kind a word to
that kind of person.”
But Nixon used more than rhetoric to break up the demonstrations.
He changed the draft system so that there was no longer a 2-S
deferment. Instead, you got a number in a draft lottery. Each
birthday date had a particular draft lottery number. Low numbers
were going to get drafted, high numbers not. Close to ¾ of
students now saw they had no chance of being drafted at all, and many
of the remaining students—well, once they were drafted, they weren’t on
campus anyway. The anti-war demonstrations came to an end. Of
course, the fact that in May 1970 National Guardsmen at Kent State
fired on students killing four of them made it clear that an illegal
demonstration wasn’t just fun and games!
But while anti-war demonstrations began to fade away, tension between
Nixon and the press heated up. Nixon considered “all press
enemies,” and he unleashed his VP, Spiro Agnew, to go after them.
Agnew called the press corps an “effete corps of impudent snobs,” and
the “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Quite right—but, as we will
see, it was dangerous to go quite so far in attacking the media.
Not surprisingly, Nixon’s greatest successes were in the foreign policy
arena. Because of his anti-Communist reputation, Nixon could do
things other presidents might not have gotten away with. He went
to China, working for what was called rapprochement with the
Chinese. More important, he began negotiating with the Soviet
Union, opening up the door to a $750 million grain deal. He also
started the SALT talks (the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks), a set of
negotiations designed to limit the threat of nuclear war. And it
worked! From the Nixon administration onward, the worry about
nuclear war was nowhere near what it had been.And, having built closer
relationships with the Soviet Union and the Chinese, Nixon could put
into place his plan for ending the War in Vietnam.
Nixon called his plan the “Vietnamization of the war.” He cut
American troops from over half a million to 24,000 and greatly reduced
spending on the war. At the same time, he gave the South
Vietnamese a chance to win by launching a massive bombing assault on
Communist targets—including, unfortunately, targets in Cambodia.
This meant few American boys coming back in body bags, but it was very
tough on the peoples of Indochina. Unfortunately, it was probably
the only option the American people would support at this point.
campaign: Nixon vs. McGovern
In 1972, Nixon and Agnew ran for reelection. The Democrats put up
George McGovern from South Dakota against him. McGovern was an
unapologetic anti-war liberal, sympathetic to or actively supporting
the liberal agenda of the time: reductions in defense spending, the
abandonment of Vietnam, amnesty for draft dodgers, liberalized drug and
abortion laws, increases in social spending, etc.
Not the directly the country wanted to go. Nixon creamed
McGovern, winning more than 60% of the popular vote and an
incredible 521 to 17 vote in the electoral college—one of the greatest
landslides in American history.
Nixon soon showed he deserved this vote of confidence. In January
of 1973, Nixon’s bombing campaign forced the NorthVietnamese to the
bargaining table. They signed an “Agreement on Ending the War and
Restoring Peace in Vietnam.” The U.S. would withdraw its troops,
South Vietnam would cede some territory to the North, but the rest of
South Vietnam would be free and independent. The United States
also pledged itself to stationing U.S. carriers in the regions with
planes onboard that would resume bombing if Hanoi violated the
accords. The war was won once again!
The press simply could not stand seeing a man they hated so successful,
and they had to figure a way to break Nixon. The issue they used
was the Watergate break-in and cover up. A bit of background:
In 1971, secret Pentagon papers were stolen and given to the New York
Times. The Times, in an effort to discredit the military and the
war effort, published the papers. The Nixon administration was
furious, and was determined to nail the thieves/leakers. They
started a massive bugging campaign, a campaign that eventually extended
to Democratic headquarters in the Watergate building. The
Watergate burglars bungled the job and were caught. This happened
in May/June of 1972, and received fairly wide-spread publicity.
The McGovern campaign tried to capitalize on the issue and ran ads
denouncing the Nixon administration over the Watergate issue.
No one cared—and no wonder! Every president from Roosevelt to
Kennedy had used illegal eavesdropping techniques. The press too
got lots of material illegally—and published it even though it put
American lives at risk!
But the Watergate burglars ended up appearing before a judge whose
sense of justice wouldn’t let him accept the “everybody does it”
excuse. Judge John Sirica, wanting to root out corruption in high
places, wouldn’t let the Watergate burglars be fall guys. He
wanted to nail the higher-ups. And so he gave the Watergate
burglars life sentences. Yes! Life sentences for first time
breaking and entering! Obviously, this was pressure to turn
state’s evidence so that higher-ups could be held responsible.
And then Congress (still controlled by the Democrats) got into the act,
holding hearings that went on day after day after day after day, with
one Nixon official after another appearing before them. And the
press? Well, it was all Watergate all the time. Still, while the
Nixon administration was hampered by the constant negativity, nothing
emerged that could possibly implicate Nixon himself.
But one thing was discovered. Nixon had been taping White House
conversations with his staff. Certainly there was something in
those tapes that could implicate Nixon in, if not the burglary, at
least in the cover up. But was there a way to legally get those
tapes? It seemed unlikely. What’s called “executive
privilege” usually shields a president’s private communications with
his staff. But Congressional lawyers persisted, and, the judges
ruled in their favor: Nixon would have to produce the tapes.
Eventually, the tapes promised to be a gold mine of opportunities to
embarrass Nixon and his staff if not of evidence of criminal wrong
doing. But, before getting Nixon, another problem had to be dealt
with: Spiro Agnew. Removing Nixon from office would do no good if
Agnew were president!
So: get Agnew first. Agnew, as governor of Maryland, had the
close ties to business interests all governors have, and almost any
governor is potentially vulnerable to the charge that these ties have
been too close. Agnew’s financial dealings seemed questionable,
and the press began attacking. Nixon made a bad tactical
mistake. He threw Agnew to the wolves, not doing much at all to
help his VP. But once the wolves had Agnew, they were thirstier
than ever for Nixon’s blood: and they got it. The House finally
decided there was enough evidence in the tapes to charge Nixon with
obstruction of justice and to impeach him. But, rather than going
through impeachment and a senate trial, Nixon chose to resign (August,
Once again, a statesman-like thing to do. Nixon probably could
have done what Clinton later did do: brazen it out and put the country
through the agony of a presidential trial. But for the good
of the country, he chose not to. Less than two years after one of the
most massive landslide victories in American history, Nixon left office
in disgrace—but also with a kind of nobility. Shakespeare might
have been tempted to say he was a man who loved his country not wisely
but too well.