A Look Back 50 Years After His Election
What exactly was it about Richard Nixon that generated such intense feelings? He was hated, feared, mocked, humiliated, and vilified. Fifty years after being driven from office, his name is still most often associated with Watergate, and when the press makes reference to him it’s most often prefaced by the words, “the disgraced former President.” Others, however, have a very different opinion of Richard Nixon. They believe he was one of our greatest Presidents and one of the most influential statesmen of the 20th century. Now, 50 years after his unlikely election to the Presidency, maybe the time has come to take a fresh look at Nixon. Was he really as bad as so many believe? Or was he a great leader who was the victim of a bloodless coup instigated by the liberal press?
That Nixon became President was astonishing. He lacked the movie-star good looks some politicians are blessed with, was not charismatic, and did not come from a wealthy family that could pull strings behind the scenes on his behalf. Some of the most influential newspapers in his day worked tirelessly against him. And if truth be told, he was not an especially likable individual, nor was he widely trusted. In the 1960 race for President, JFK used the slogan “Would you buy a used car from this man?”
In his book Richard Nixon, The Life, John Farrell writes, “Few US Presidents came so far, so fast, so alone as Nixon. He was, he would remember, somebody who was nothing.”
Nixon was born in Yorba Linda, California, in 1913. His youth was shaped by a long string of hardships, tragedies, and financial upheaval. There was an oil boom in California and speculators offered the Nixons $45,000 for their farm; however, his father declined, hoping someone would offer even more. No one did, and there was no oil there, the farm subsequently failed, and his family was forced to move. His mother wanted to purchase a property in Whittier, California, but his father settled on a different property there; a significant oil find was made on the property his mother wanted, which would have made the family wealthy.
During Nixon’s childhood, two of his brothers died from illness, and he himself experienced a health scare. A small lemon grove business his father started in one of the most fertile lemon-growing areas in the country failed. The family survived by setting up a roadside grocery/filling station. On a typical day, Nixon would wake at 4 a.m., drive to a distributor and purchase fruit, which he’d set up for sale before starting school. Historians say Nixon would lie awake at night, hear the whistle of trains passing through Whittier, and wished he were on it.
As a Quaker, Nixon was exempt from service during World War II, but he volunteered and served in the Navy in the Pacific. It was at that time that he first heard about poker, a card game very popular with the sailors. There are two ways to win at poker. The first is by being dealt very good cards; the second is by bluffing, pretending your cards are very good and convincing opponents they were best off forfeiting to you the money they’ve bet rather than risking more.
Nixon became intrigued by the game and felt it could be beaten. He closely observed players for several weeks and asked for advice from James Stewart, the sailor whom he thought was the best player. “Bet when you got it, fold when you’re beat.” Stewart replied. It was advice Nixon used in life.
Nixon made the most of two very helpful gifts. One was an exceptional memory, which enabled him to memorize all the cards that passed – very helpful in poker (and in life). “He was one of those rare individuals (who) … was told something and he never forgot,” said Nixon’s former high school teacher, Mary George. Other teachers and acquaintances shared this impression.
The other asset was being remarkably perceptive; he noticed even minute changes in gestures of the other players such as the pace of their breathing, eye movements, the tone of their voices and the like, all of which helped him gauge the “hand” his opponents were holding.
“Nixon was as good a poker player as, if not better than, anyone we had ever seen,” said James Udall, a lieutenant who served with him. “Dick had daring and flair for knowing what to do. I once saw him bluff a lieutenant commander out of fifteen hundred dollars with a pair of deuces (very weak cards).”
But poker was more than a way to pass time and to make money. In Nixon, Vol 1 –The Education of a Politician 1913-1962, historian Stephen Ambrose wrote:
“Poker gave Nixon the financial stake he needed to launch his political career. It also gave him invaluable lessons that were crucial to his political career. He learned how to take the measure of his opponents, to recognize the exact moment to strike, to realize when he could bluff the man with the strongest hand into an ignominious retreat, to know when to fold his own hand and quietly withdraw from the game.”
Frank Gannon, a former aide who conducted 38 hours of interviews with Nixon in 1983, asked him, “Do you subscribe to the theory that a great President must be a great poker player?”
“It helps,” Nixon said. “Many of the things you do in poker are very useful in politics, and are very useful in foreign affairs.”
What Makes Nixon Run?
After World War II, Nixon decided to enter politics. He used the money he made playing poker to help fund his first political campaign: the race for Congress against incumbent Jerry Voorhis, a popular and capable politician who had access to funding. As a four-term incumbent, he also knew tricks of the trade.
By comparison, Nixon was a newcomer who had no name recognition, and was on a very tight budget. But he was hungry. “I had to win,” Nixon said. He portrayed Voorhis as ineffective, and successfully linked him to a communist group – despite the fact that Voorhis had no connection to that group. In a series of debates, Nixon ripped him mercilessly to the cheers of huge crowds.
Years later, a still bitter Voorhis wrote in The Strange Case of Richard Milhous Nixon, that Nixon was “a ruthless opponent” whose “one cardinal and unbreakable rule was to win, whatever it takes to do it.”
The race for the Senate in 1950 against Helen Gahagan Douglas was even more brutal. The LA Times said that “Nixon’s charges against Douglas purposely strayed toward character assassination. He questioned her loyalty, her ‘communist sympathies,’ her Jewish husband’s loyalty, and her votes in Congress. Douglas’ campaign was also hit by a series of other dirty tricks.
“I felt like I was standing in the path of tanks,” she said. “The worst moment, a sight I couldn’t shake, was when children picked up rocks and threw them at my car, at me,” she said.
Nixon was chosen as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate in 1952 and again in 1956. In 1960 he was the Republican nominee for President and faced JFK, a young and energetic candidate. Kennedy won, but there were reports that voter fraud was responsible for his winning two electorally important states: Illinois and Texas. However, Nixon decided not to pursue the issue in order to maintain confidence and respect for the office of the Presidency.
In 1962, Nixon ran for governor of his home state in a heated race against Pat Brown and was defeated by more than twice the number of votes as in the race for President.
Nixon left his headquarters without speaking to reporters. However, he decided to come back and address them, and in what is often described as an angry and bitter press conference, Nixon told reporters: “As I leave you gentlemen now, I want you to know just how much you are going to be missing, because you don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because this is my last press conference.” Time Magazine gleefully wrote that barring a political miracle Nixon’s political career was finished.
But a miracle did happen, and to the shock of his opponents and even many of his friends he was elected President in 1968.
When Nixon assumed power in January 1969, demonstrations against the war in Vietnam were so prevalent and so violent that the country was being torn apart. Young people demanded an end to the draft.
Over the years, Nixon had developed a reputation as a hawk on defense and a tough anti-communist. However, despite the tough rhetoric, Nixon was actually anti-war. After World War II, he passed by a cemetery for soldiers killed in action and spent time there, reflecting on the terrible waste of human lives. According to Farrell, “War was the catalyst that transferred his interest in politics into a mission for peace.”
To the shock and surprise of many, Nixon introduced a long string of far-reaching policies that many people today may be totally unaware of. He established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), signed the Endangered Species Act, launched the War on Cancer, and called for health care and welfare reform decades before these became major issues.
Nixon endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment for women and brought women into policy-making jobs in the White House, and he also promoted civil rights by forcing the desegregation of schools in the South. While the merits of these policies may seem obvious now, at the time they were ground-breaking and drew criticism from some right-wing elements that had supported him.
These policies were so far to the left at that time that “by today’s standards they would be to the left of Barack Obama’s” said Luke Nichter, professor of history at Texas A&M and an expert on Nixon’s tapes.
Nixon’s foreign policy agenda was even more surprising. By June 1969, he began withdrawing US troops from combat in Vietnam, a policy he continued until the US ended its combat role there.
And in February 1971, Nixon shocked the world when he announced that he would travel to the People’s Republic of China the following year. That trip set the stage for full diplomatic recognition of what had been the most overt enemy of the US.
This move opened up a dialogue with the world’s most populous nation, reduced tensions, and opened up trade. It also led to detente with the USSR and subsequently an anti-ballistic missile treaty with them called SALT.
Nixon brought America’s military involvement in the Vietnam War to a close, ended the draft, and brought US POWs home. Since these were the major objectives of the protests and demonstrations in the 1960s and early 1970s, those also came to an end.
As a result of these accomplishments, Nixon’s job approval ratings were very high. In the 1972 race against Democrat George McGovern, he won with one of the largest electoral victories in history. It seemed Nixon could do no wrong. Unfortunately for him, that perception was about to change – big time.
By Gerald Harris