Not Quite Tricky Enough: The Nixon Presidency

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’s background

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 the dog.

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.

1968 campaign

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 defeated.

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.

Nixon’s 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).  

Easing 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.

Nixon foreign policy

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.

1972 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.

Victory in Vietnam—again!

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, 1974).

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.