Twenty-five years after Richard Nixon resigned from office, his legacy remains shrouded in controversy. His was a complex, inconsistent, and even contradictory presidency, shaped by the man's personality and political practices and played out during one of America's most turbulent eras. Melvin Small now draws on the latest archival releases to take a fresh look at Nixon and place his administration in proper historical perspective.
Nixon once predicted that by the year 2000 scholars would begin to evaluate his presidency more favorably. Small, however, steers a steady course between Nixon's detractors and apologists to offer the most balanced and thorough coverage yet available of the man's character and accomplishments. He notes many of the solid achievements of Nixon's domestic programs while criticizing some of his more celebrated foreign policies, especially concerning the Third World, and illuminates Nixon's broader influence on American political institutions and culture.
Small's topical approach permits readers to observe the development of an entire domestic program or international relationship over an extended period, making it easier to understand such drawn-out issues as reforming welfare or ending the Vietnam War. Regarding Vietnam, Small integrates military and diplomatic policy with Nixon's efforts to neutralize the antiwar movement. His coverage of White House operations and Nixon's war with the media precedes a particularly insightful chapter on Watergate and the threat of impeachment. A closing chapter on Nixon's post-presidential years reveals facts about his health and his "blackmailing" of both Presidents Bush and Clinton, and a bibliographic essay provides an extensive survey of the Nixon literature.
He was the first president to travel to China and to call for welfare reform, and although he left Washington under a cloud, many of Nixon's ideas and policies have been embraced by Americans—a legacy few presidents can claim. Small's book is a lively and anecdotal account that looks at the many sides of Richard Nixon and comes to grips with both the man and his presidency.
Read an Excerpt
TRAIN WHISTLES IN THE NIGHT
When a distinguished bipartisan panel of thirty-two historians, political scientists, and other experts was asked in 1996 to rank the presidents, Richard M. Nixon finished dead last. That result would not have surprised Nixon, who predicted that "History will treat me fairly. Historians probably won't because most historians are on the left."
At first glance, it seems hard to believe that a president with so many dramatic accomplishments abroadand even at home could lag behind such abject failures as Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Warren G. Harding. Of course, for many observers, Nixon's astounding presidential "firsts," from traveling to China and Russia to talking to astronauts on the moon to calling for the first welfare reform program, are overshadowed by his even more astounding firstbeing the only president to resign from office.
Of all American presidents, Richard Nixon remains the most controversial. This is partly a product of his tough partisanship in the political trenches, where he believed in "giving as good as you get." He ran for national office in every presidential election year from 1952 through 1972, except for 1964. He also ran for the House in 1946 and 1948, for the Senate in 1950, and for the California state house in 1962. Senator Bob Dole (R-Kans.), in a eulogy for his friend and political mentor, proclaimed the second half of the twentieth century the "age of Nixon." Time magazine apparently agreed, featuring Nixon on its celebrated coverfifty-six times during his lifetime.
Evaluating Nixon's presidency is made more difficult by his controversial personality and character. Noted presidential chronicler Theodore H. White admitted in 1984 "that I have spent the greatest portion of my adult life writing about Richard Nixon and I still don't understand him." Economist Arthur Burns, a prominent Nixon adviser, warned another chronicler that he would never "fully understand" his former boss, and a Soviet diplomat reported that as late as 1972, his colleagues found "Nixon's personality ... so impenetrable that we had no idea what would please him."
Paradoxically, the task of understanding Nixon and what went on in his White House should be made easier, given the availability of several hundred hours of the infamous tapes, millions of documents, and scores of first-rate memoirs, including ten volumes of Nixon's own reminiscences. Unfortunately, these documentary riches make things more difficult, since Nixon appeared to be many different people at many different times to many different friends, associates, and journalists. William Safire, one of his speechwriters, saw him as an "amalgam of Woodrow Wilson, Nicholas Machiavelli, Teddy Roosevelt, and Shakespeare's Cassius, an idealistic conniver evoking the strenuous life while he thinks too much."
However one evaluates Richard Nixon, all his biographers, including an unusual number of psychobiographers, have focused on his formative years. It was there, in southern California during World War I and the years after, that Richard Nixon developed the complex and contradictory, perhaps even schizophrenic, character traits that so affected his career and fateful presidency.
Richard Milhous Nixon weighed a hefty eleven pounds when he was born on 9 January 1913 to Francis Anthony (Frank) Nixon and Hannah Milhous Nixon in Yorba Linda, California, a town of 200 in Orange County. His mother named him after Richard the Lionhearted; Nixon in Gaelic means "he falleth not." He was the second of five brothers. Harold was born in 1909, Francis Donald in 1915, Arthur in 1918, and Edward in 1930. Arthur died of tubercular encephalitis in 1925, and Harold died in 1933 after a ten-year struggle with tuberculosis. Richard later reported that these traumatic events helped make him "a liberal on health issues."
Frank Nixon was born in Ohio in 1878 in poor circumstances. His family, of Scots-Irish origin, had come to the United States before the Revolution, and one of its members, Sheriff John Nixon of Philadelphia, was the first official to read the Declaration of Independence in public. After a minimal education, Frank ran away from home when he was thirteen and worked at a variety of jobs until he ended up as a motorman in California in 1907, where he met Hannah Milhous.
Hannah, a cousin of the novelist Jessamyn West, was born in 1885 in Indiana in a much more stable middle-class milieu. She moved with her family and servants to Whittier, California, in 1897. The Milhouses, who were of German and Irish Quaker stock, had also come to the United States before the Revolution. Hannah had completed two years at Whittier College before she married Frank in 1908 following a whirlwind courtship. Her family did not approve of the match, believing that she had married beneath her station.
Frank was boisterous, crude, and often angry and argumentative. In contrast, the fastidious and courteous Hannah was cerebral, serene, and deeply spiritual. Richard and the rest of his siblings had a difficult time earning the approval of their father, a "very competitive man" and "a real disciplinarian." They often turned to their mother for comfort and support, but she, being undemonstrative and shy, did not always satisfy their needs. Nonetheless, on the day he left office in 1974, Nixon looked back on them fondly: "I remember my old man. I think that they would have called him sort of a little man, a common man.... he did his job and every job counts up to the hilt regardless of what happens." As for his mother, "She will have no books written about her, but she's a saint."
Richard grew up in Yorba Linda in a 700-square-foot Sears kit house, which originally had no electricity or running water. His father ran a lemon orchard. When that project failed in 1919, Frank worked as a roustabout in an oil field, while Hannah labored at a Sunkist packing factory. A serious young boy, Nixon talked of the "hard but happy" days in Yorba Linda, where "sometimes at night I was awakened by the whistle of a train, and then I dreamed of the far-off places I wanted to visit someday."
Much has been made of the Nixon family's difficult financial condition, particularly in Yorba Linda. Nixon himself noted, "It's been said our family was poor, and maybe it was, but we never thought of ourselves as poor." They owned a car, and Frank and Hannah subscribed to the Los Angeles Times, the Saturday Evening Post, and Ladies Home Journal, over which their bookish son pored.
In 1922, the family moved to East Whittier, a town dominated by Quakers, where Frank opened a service station and grocery store. The Whittier Quakers, who belonged to the California Yearly Meeting, had pastors, were somewhat more evangelical and less liberal than eastern Quakers, and were not all pacifists. Religion was an important part of the Nixons' life, with the family going to church on Wednesday nights and several times on Sunday. Never one to make much of a display about his faith, Nixon claimed to be a deeply religious person whose devotions were "intensely personal and private." He had something of a born-again experience in 1926.
The Nixon children worked hard to help support the family. When Hannah took Harold to Prescott, Arizona, for treatment for tuberculosis, Richard and his brothers assumed her chores. In the summers of 1928 and 1929, he joined her in Arizona, where he found employment as a chicken plucker, swimming-pool boy, and carnival barker. At home in Whittier, he helped out at the grocery store, which sometimes meant driving at four in the morning to pick up produce in Los Angeles. In addition, he held jobs as a sweeper in a packing house and as a janitor, and at night he tended smudge pots in orange groves.
Nixon, who learned to read before he entered first grade in 1919, excelled in school, in part because he had a remarkable, almost photographic memory, a quality that contributed significantly to his success in politics. An "ambulatory computer," he could remember the names of thousands of politicians throughout the country and, even more importantly, could memorize long speeches, making it appear that he was talking extemporaneously.
Generally a straight-A student, he was the valedictorian and president of his eighth-grade class, finished third in his high school class in 1930, was second in his college class in 1934, and was third in his law school class in 1937. In his senior year in college, he won the Southern California Intercollegiate Extemporaneous Speaking competition.
Never a hail-fellow-well-met sort, he was nonetheless a respected if not especially popular student leader who won almost all the elections he entered. He failed only once in his student political career when, in 1929, he lost the race for high school student-body president. That was the last election he lost until the presidential race in 1960.
Impressed by his musical talent, his mother sent him to study the piano with her sister, Jane Beeson, 200 miles away in Lindsay for five months in 1925. But Richard preferred sports, even though, according to one friend, "he had no athletic ability whatsoever."
Although he had the grades and awards to attend a more prestigious college, financial necessity caused him to stay at home and attend Whittier College in 1930. When he enrolled, the college had a student body of 400, of whom less than 20 percent were Quakers. Whittier provided him with a classical education, dominated by courses in history and English. Early in his collegiate career, he led a successful challenge against the Franklins, a group of well-to-do students who ran most of the institutions at Whittier. This battle against an upper-class establishment was the first of many in his career.
Nixon talked often about Wallace Newman's influence on his character and development. "Chief" Newman was the inspirational coach of Whittier's football team, where Nixon was a tireless, courageous, but untalented last-stringer who failed to letter. Despite his attempts to be a regular guy in college, Nixon was awkward and ill at ease. One of his classmates later observed, "In today's terms we kids would have called him a nerd." During his college years, he dated and ultimately became informally engaged to Ola Florine Welch, the daughter of the Whittier police chief. He had first met her during his senior year in high school when both acted in the Aeneid. The fun-loving and spontaneous Welch, who broke off the relationship in 1935, explained, "Most of the time I just couldn't figure him out."
Nixon attended the highly competitive Duke University Law School from 1934 through 1937. The recipient of only a partial scholarship, he had to hustle to make ends meet, working part-time for the National Youth Authority. Successful once again in scholarship and campus politics, the extremely hardworking and serious Nixon, who never had a date while in law school, earned the sobriquet "Gloomy Gus." He proudly remembered being told that he had "what it takes to learn the lawan iron butt." His heroes were Supreme Court Justices Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, and Charles Evans Hughes.
At Duke, Nixon became something of a liberal on racial issues. Appalled by the system of segregation he experienced in North Carolina, he was especially distressed by the racist views of many of his classmates. At Duke, he also participated in his first office break-in. Concerned about his performance on final exams at the end of his second year (performance was linked to future financial assistance), he and several classmates broke into the dean's office to obtain an advance peek at the grade lists. No one discovered their minor transgression at the time.
Many of his peers at Duke thought that Nixon was destined for the scholarly life, considering his powerful intellect and remote personality. He certainly appeared suited for the contemplative career of an academic, where he could work relatively independently without having to interact very much with colleagues.
Although a good law school, Duke was not as prestigious as the older East Coast schools, a fact that frustrated Nixon when he sought employment at several New York law firms in the midst of the depression in 1937. He was also turned down for a job by the FBI. Much later, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, by then a friend, told him that he had been approved for employment but that his line had been eliminated because of budget cuts. Another FBI official claims that Nixon was not hired because an interviewer found him "lacking in aggression."
This early failure to obtain the law positions he wanted was just another one of the many self-perceived disappointments and humiliations Nixon confronted. Despite his many accomplishments during his school years, he remained a cold and shy young man who could not make friends easily, whose only girlfriend deserted him, who sat on the end of the football bench, who could not attend the college of his choice, and who grew up on the other side of the tracks in a cold, dysfunctional family that suffered grave losses.
Returning to Whittier in the summer of 1937, Nixon accepted a position with the small Wingert and Bewley law firm. His mother, who had gone to college with Tom Bewley, helped him obtain the job. He passed the California bar that year, which was an accomplishment in itself, since less than half of those who took the exam passed. Most of his cases for the three-person firm involved probate and estate work. He became a partner in 1939 and earned close to $4,000 in 1940, not an insignificant sum, although he lost a good deal of his money in a failed frozen orange juice venture. He also served as deputy city attorney for Whittier and president of the Whittier College Alumni Association and the Duke Alumni Association of California. He became so involved in Whittier campus politics that he was a serious candidate for the college's presidency in 1940.
That same year, he contemplated running for the California Assembly. Having registered as a Republican in 1938, he supported Wendell Willkie in the 1940 presidential campaign. Nixon's politics diverged from those of his parents. Frank was a populist who had voted for William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, Robert M. LaFollette, and Franklin Roosevelt. Hannah had supported Woodrow Wilson. Until the late 1930s, Richard had not been actively involved in politics; at this point in his career he was something of a nonideological centrist.
Far more important than his developing political and legal career was his love life. Nixon met Patricia Ryan when both appeared in a play with the Whittier Community Players in January 1938. For Nixon, it was "love at first sight"; immediately after their first meeting, he told the incredulous Pat that he was going to marry her. It was not love at first sight for Pat, as she continued to date others, with the hapless Nixon volunteering to chauffeur her and her dates around town.
Pat had changed her name in 1930, having been born Thelma Catherine Ryan in impoverished circumstances in a miner's shack in Ely, Nevada, on 16 March 1912. She grew up in Artesia (now Cerritos), California, eight miles from Whittier. After her mother died, fourteen-year-old Pat assumed the family's female duties for her father and two brothers. She attended Fullerton Junior College in 1930 and then worked in New York City. Returning to California in 1934, Pat obtained employment as a bank teller in Artesia and occasionally as a film extra in Hollywood. After working her way through the University of Southern California, where she graduated cum laude with a B.A. in 1937, Pat obtained a post at Whittier High School teaching commercial courses. A Republican and also an agnostic, she became secretary of the Whittier branch of the American Association of University Women.
Dick pursued Pat for more than two years until, in March 1940, she accepted his proposal. He proposed at one of their favorite spots, the beach at Dana Point, California, near San Clemente, later the locale of their summer White House. They were married at the Mission Inn in Riverside on 21 June 1940 and honeymooned in Mexico.
When a Duke professor recommended Nixon for a job in the Office of Price Administration (OPA) in Washington, the young lawyer accepted the appointment, eager to escape the confines of his hometown. He and Pat arrived in the capital in January 1942 and took up residence in Alexandria. The OPA was full of liberals at the time Nixon came on board to deal with tire rationing. His boss, Thomas Emerson, who went on to Yale Law School, later headed the left-leaning National Lawyers Guild.
Although Nixon performed well at the OPA, his experiences there soured him on rationing and price controls and government bureaucracy in general. He liked some of his colleagues but felt that "others became obsessed with their own power and seemed to delight in kicking people around, particularly those in the private sector." When, in April 1942, the navy issued a call for lawyers, a bored and disillusioned Nixon enlisted as a lieutenant, a commission to which his degree entitled him. This was not an easy decision, because he feared offending pacifist relatives.
In August 1942, he attended Officers' Candidate School at Quonset Point, Rhode Island, where a classmate was William Rogers, later his secretary of state. At the same time, Pat accepted employment as an assistant business analyst at the OPA. In October, she joined her husband for his six-month tour in Ottumwa, Iowa. He shipped off from San Francisco on 31 May 1943 for New Caledonia in the South Pacific, where he was an operations officer at an airstrip. From New Caledonia, Nixon moved to Bougainville in the Solomons in January 1944 and on to Green Island in March. Each of these moves brought him closer to the front, but he never saw combat. Nonetheless, he adopted the nickname the "Fighting Quaker" when running for Congress in 1946.
Nixon's experience in the Pacific brought him into contact with a wide variety of Americans for the first time. There he discovered a special rapport with working-class men, who knew him on Green Island as the proprietor of "Nick's Snack Shop." He spent a good deal of time reading serious books and magazines but also playing poker, where he developed a reputation for being a cautious and shrewd player who knew when and how to bluff. His poker winnings later helped finance his first campaign for office. Reflecting on his military experiences in his memoirs, Nixon attributed his successes in diplomacy, in part, to the skills he honed during the war over the card table.
He returned to San Diego in July 1944 for a posting at Alameda Naval Air Station and then moved to Philadelphia, New York, and finally Middle River, Maryland, where he worked on terminating wartime contracts. By the time he resigned from the navy in October 1945, he had achieved the rank of lieutenant commander.
Nixon left the service to run for Congress as a Republican from his old Twelfth Congressional District. In August 1945, the Committee of One Hundred, a group of Republican politicians and small businesspeople, ran an advertisement in twenty-six newspapers seeking to recruit a candidate to take on incumbent Democratic representative Horace Jeremiah (Jerry) Voorhis: "Wanted: Congressman candidate with no previous political experience to defeat a man who has represented the district in House for ten years." Because the popular Voorhis seemed a shoo-in, despite the fact that his district had recently been gerrymandered, only eight people answered this unusual advertisement. A socialist as a young man, Voorhis, by 1946, was well within the Democratic Party and had earned credit for his honesty and diligence as a legislator. A member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), he introduced Public Law 870, or the Voorhis Act, to require the registration of any organization controlled by a foreign government.
Disappointed with the candidates who had volunteered to challenge Voorhis, Herman Perry, one of the leaders of the Committee of One Hundred and head of the Whittier branch of the Bank of America, contacted his old acquaintance Richard Nixon in Washington to see if he was interested. For Perry, Nixon had "the personal appeal, the legal qualifications. He had been in Washington and around the world. He was a natural."
On 1 October 1945, Nixon informed Perry that he would accept the challenge. Announcing his candidacy in newspaper advertisements in December, Nixon emphasized his opposition to the "economic dictatorship by irresponsible governmental agencies" and his support for "a progressive and constructive program ... as opposed to class hatred and economic warfare." In a private letter to Perry that month, Nixon conceded that Voorhis was "honest, conscientious and able," but he "votes with the most radical element of the New Deal group. He is definitely lined up with Congressman Vito Marcantonio of New York," as well as Helen Gahagan Douglas of California. Nixon intended to appeal especially to young people, Republicans, veterans, and the "so-called liberal wing" of the GOP. Nixon told Perry that he would run in support of "practical liberalism" as an "antidote to ... New Deal idealism."
Nixon hired Murray Chotiner to assist in his campaign. A lawyer and political operative, Chotiner had a reputation for being a gut fighter. It was his idea that Nixon attack Voorhis's alleged support from the CIO's Political Action Committee (PAC). In fact, the committee had endorsed Voorhis in 1944 but not in 1946. Voorhis did, however, receive the endorsement of the National Citizen's PAC, a more moderate organization. Voorhis blundered in agreeing to five debates with Nixon, a master debater. In the first one, on 13 September 1946, he became confused when Nixon came to the stage with a piece of paper containing alleged "proof" of Voorhis's endorsement by the CIO's PAC. Nixon later disingenuously claimed that there was "a distinction without a difference" between the two PACs.
During the rest of the campaign, Republican operatives accused Voorhis of being a communist or fellow traveler; others, perhaps not directly related to Nixon, made anti-Semitic charges against Voorhis's supporters and positions. For his part, Nixon complained that someone from the Voorhis camp broke into his campaign headquarters and stole expensive pamphlets. As for the general nature of the campaign, Nixon later wrote, "If some of my rhetoric seems overstated now, it was nonetheless in keeping with the approach that seasoned Republican politicians were using that year."
Nixon received the support of almost all the newspapers in his district, most notably the powerful Los Angeles Times and its publisher Norman Chandler and political editor Kyle Palmer, a kingmaker in the Republican Party. He was also supported in the Alhambra Post-Advocate by campaign reporter Herbert Klein, who had been one of the first to pick up the line that Voorhis's votes paralleled those of fellow-traveling Representative Marcantonio. Klein, who later worked on Nixon's campaigns, became his director of communications in 1969.
Nixon conducted a well-financed campaign, supported in part by contributions from outside the district, including one from Herbert Hoover, whose wife had been on the Whittier College board with Nixon. He ran one of the first California campaigns that was candidate and not party centered and in which independent professional political operatives controlled the candidate's media and fund-raising operations.
He beat Voorhis by a 57 to 43 percent margin, one of seven California Republicans to defeat incumbent Democrats in what was a big year nationwide for the GOP. The Republicans captured the House by 246 to 158 and the Senate by 51 to 45. Thus it was that Nixon, along with Pat and their first child, Tricia, who had been born the previous February, journeyed to Washington to join the historic 80th Congress. (Julie was born in July 1948.) Pat, whose secretarial skills proved useful to her husband during the campaign and in Washington, was not pleased with the rough-and-tumble nature of the Voorhis campaign. In Washington, she never really enjoyed being the wife of a highly controversial politician who worked at his job around the clock. Although the Washington Post labeled him "the greenest congressman in town," Nixon and some of his friends early on talked about the possibility of this hardworking, intelligent, attractive young veteran with a highly photogenic family someday becoming president.
During his first term he served on HUAC, the Education and Labor Committee, and the House Select Committee on Foreign Aid, popularly known as the (Christian A.) Herter committee. Although a moderate in an extremely conservative Republican majority on HUAC, he chose anticommunism as the subject for his maiden speech in Congress on 18 February 1947. Commenting on the HUAC investigation of communist Gerhart Eisler, he later noted, "This was really the first time I had brought home to me the character of the Communist Party and the threat it presented to the country." In 1948, he cosponsored the Mundt-Nixon Bill that called for the registration of Communist Party members. The bill died in the Senate but reappeared in another form in 1950 as the McCarran Act. On one occasion he complained about the stonewalling of the White House on an issue relating to subversion: "When Cong. can't get information from Exec. dept./info which is bandied about to press/then high time Congress did something about it."
As a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, he helped draft the Taft-Hartley Act, which, he maintained, protected workers from corrupt and undemocratic unions. In April 1947, Nixon traveled with John F. Kennedy, a young Democratic member of the committee and another former navy man who had been elected in 1946, to debate the merits of the bill in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. He and Kennedy got along quite well during their years together in the Houseso well, in fact, that Jack felt comfortable passing Dick a campaign contribution from his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, for Nixon's 1950 Senate race.
Of all his activities during his first term, Nixon's service on the Herter committee proved to be the most important in the long run. In the summer of 1947, he traveled to Europe to examine the desperate political and economic situation there. He returned a confirmed internationalist and free trader, convinced that the United States had to do more to rebuild and protect Western democracies. According to Herb Klein, that trip was "a major influence on his whole career in Congress." It was also on that trip that he met Rose Mary Woods, the committee's bookkeeper. In February 1951, Woods joined Nixon's staff and remained one of his most important and loyal assistants throughout his career.
During his first term, Nixon cofounded the Chowder and Marching Society, an informal group of fifteen young Republicans impatient with the pace of conservative change in Congress. Among the members were Kenneth Keating from New York, Thruston Morton from Kentucky, and, in 1949, the newly elected Gerald R. Ford from Michigan. Here, among his "best and most intimate friends" in Washington, Ford recalled that Nixon, who struck many as a cold fish, could let his hair down and be a "regular guy."
He certainly was a regular Republican during his first term, voting 91 percent of the time with his party, a figure that fell to 74 percent during his second term. Since Nixon won both the Democratic and Republican primaries in 1948, he ran unopposed for reelection, after having been catapulted to national prominence because of the Alger Hiss case. Nixon virtually single-handedly took up the cause of Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist who accused Alger Hiss, a former State Department official and then president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, of having been a fellow Communist. For a while, it looked as if Nixon had bet on the wrong horse. During the preliminary stages of the hearings, the smooth and elegant Hiss had the best of it over the rumpled, admitted Communist. But Nixon, the only lawyer on the committee, had been fed information from the FBI and was later assisted by a new friend, Bert Andrews of the New York Herald Tribune. Nixon was convinced that Chambers (coincidentally, also a Quaker) was telling the truth and that Hiss was bluffing. At the eleventh hour, Chambers produced incriminating micro-films hidden in a pumpkin patch on his farm that clinched the case for HUAC and the FBI, and Nixon triumphed. After his first trial ended in a hung jury, Hiss was found guilty of perjury and sentenced to a five-year prison term.
The Hiss case became an obsession with Nixon. It was here that he learned about the media, leaks, cover-ups, and the fact that the Justice Department often operated as a partisan agency. During his greatest crisis in 1973-1974, he constantly returned to the lessons of the Hiss case and urged his colleagues to read and reread his account of it in his best-selling book Six Crises. That account, in which Nixon takes center stage, was challenged by HUAC's chief investigator Robert Stripling, who called it "pure bullshit." Stripling was correct to call attention to the way Nixon had exaggerated his role in bringing Hiss to justice.
The case not only catapulted Nixon to national prominence but also made him a polarizing national figure, a paladin of anticommunist conservatives and an enemy of eastern liberals and especially, as he contended for the rest of his life, the eastern media. In 1969, he complained about the media, "Seventy-five percent of those guys hate my guts. They don't like to be beaten" as they were on the Hiss case. George Reedy, who worked for United Press International during the era and was President Lyndon B. Johnson's press secretary, later agreed that "none of us wanted him [Hiss] to be guilty. We didn't want that committee to be right about anything. It was a committee that really made you cringe, it was so bad."
Nixon claimed that because of the eastern establishment's hostility, which began over the Hiss case, he lost the 1960 election. But he also admitted that had it not been for the case, he never would have obtained the vice-presidential nomination in 1952. Dwight David Eisenhower allegedly told Nixon in 1951, "The thing that impressed me most was that you not only got Hiss, but you got him fairly." Aside from its impact on his political career, Nixon contended, with some exaggeration, that the case "aroused the nation for the first time to the existence and character of the Communist conspiracy in the United States."
The case demonstrated Nixon's willingness to take dramatic risks to pursue his goals. When at one point it appeared that the "Pumpkin Papers" might be forgeries, he exclaimed, "Oh my God, This is the end of my political career. My whole career is ruined!" As things turned out, the Hiss case served as a launching pad for his 1950 Senate race against Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas.
It was during that race that Americans first heard of "Tricky Dick" Nixon. His campaign manager was Chotiner, an early practitioner of negative campaigning who subsequently worked in every one of Nixon's campaigns until 1968. His Democratic opponent, a former singer and actress, was a liberal whom the Book of Knowledge ranked as one of the twelve smartest women in the world. Although a critic of HUAC and anticommunism, Douglas had moved toward the center of her party in recent years. Yet communism became the chief issue for the Nixon camp. This focus was not exceptional, as the 1950 campaign coincided with Senator Joseph McCarthy's (R-Wisc.) emergence on the national scene and his charges of "Communists in the State Department." McCarthy campaigned in California for Nixon. McCarthy's charges received further impetus following the outbreak of the Korean War in June.
Douglas had already been wounded during a tough primary campaign when her conservative opponent first brought up the "Pink Lady" charge, suggesting that she was a communist sympathizer. In addition, she blundered when she compared Nixon's voting record with that of Vito Marcantonio. Nixon turned that charge around, comparing her voting record with Marcantonio's on pink-sheet broadsides, and labeled her "pink right down to her underwear."
Throughout his career, Nixon was never comfortable with women in politics. The outspoken Douglas had even irritated Marcantonio, who urged Nixon to defeat the "bitch." But Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn (D-Tex.) told Douglas, "Take that young man out in the finals. His is the most devious face of all those who have served in Congress all the years I've been here."
As in the Voorhis campaign, apparently freelance Nixon supporters made anti-Semitic phone calls, calling attention to Douglas's husband, the actor Melvyn Douglas, one of whose parents was Jewish. In another scurrilous ploy, Nixon supporters mailed thousands of postcards reading, "Vote for our Helen for Senator. We are with you 100%. The Communist League of Negro Women Voters."
Nixon later defended his own inflammatory rhetoric against the "extremist" Douglas, whose campaign was one of "stridency, ineptness, or self righteousness" matched only by George McGovern in 1972. In 1958, however, he confided to a British publisher, "I'm sorry about that episode. I was a very young man."
He campaigned effectively and energetically, making a thousand speeches in sixteen weeks. As in 1946, he enjoyed wide support from the California press, with the major papers favoring him by a six-to-one margin. Yet Representative John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) told a colleague, "You have no idea what he's been through. Dick Nixon is the victim of the worst press that ever hit a politician in this country. What they did to him in the Helen Gahagan Douglas race was disgusting." Kennedy considered Nixon to be "an outstanding guy [who] has the opportunity to go all the way." His victory by almost 700,000 votes, enhanced by the support of conservative Democrats, constituted the largest plurality of any senatorial candidate in 1950. When he was sworn in in December at the age of thirty-seven, after the incumbent resigned early, Nixon became the second youngest member of the Senate. To Senator Robert Taft (R-Ohio), the leader of the conservative Republicans, he was "a little man in a big hurry" with "a mean and vindictive streak."
During his two years in the Senate, Nixon became one of the most popular Republican stump speakers, appearing at party fund-raisers three times a week in 1951. As a senator, he supported the Truman administration's containment policies in Europe; assailed its policies in Asia, especially China; spoke out often about the corruption in the White House; and adopted a conservative, free-market approach to economic and social policy. He voted with his party only 70 percent of the time. A panel of political scientists rated Nixon the seventy-first best senator in the 82d Congress.
Back and neck pains, caused by the tensions associated with the frenetic pace of life as a national political figure, led him in 1951 to seek relief from a New York internist specializing in psychosomatic medicine and to see him periodically over the next four years. That same year he met Charles "Bebe" Rebozo, a Florida realtor, who soon became Nixon's closest confidant, one of the few people with whom he could truly relax.
By 1951, Nixon had emerged as a possible candidate for vice president in the upcoming election. He was acceptable to members of the eastern old guard such as Thomas E. Dewey, being an anticommunist internationalist, young and vigorous, and from an extremely important state. After Eisenhower emerged as the leading candidate for the presidency, Nixon played an influential role in the California delegation to the Republican convention. He worked behind the scenes against favorite-son candidate Earl Warren, as well as second-ballot threat Robert Taft, to help the general win a first-ballot victory. Eisenhower had first met Nixon in 1949 when, as president of Columbia University, he had asked the second-term congressman for a briefing on the anticommunism issue. But he left the choice of vice president to the professionals in his entourage. After Nixon obtained the nomination, Eisenhower was astonished to discover that his running mate was only thirty-nine, which soon made him the second youngest vice president in history.
During the campaign against Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower remained above the partisan fray while his running mate did the rhetorical dirty work. For example, Nixon labeled Stevenson "Adlai the appeaser ... who got a Ph.D. degree from [Dean] Acheson's College of Cowardly Containment." Many years later, Nixon regretted "the intensity of the attacks." During the 1968 campaign, a "new Nixon" generally took the high road, whereas his running mate, Spiro T. Agnew, was the master of alliterative invective.
Nixon's political career was almost destroyed during the campaign by sensational revelations about a secret political fund his supporters had put together. In the fall of 1950, the chair of his senatorial campaign committee, Dana C. Smith, had established a fund to help finance a potential 1956 Senate campaign. Because Nixon's senatorial salary and office allowances were insufficient to carry on national political activities, or even to operate effectively in such a large and complicated state as California, Smith and seventy-six other contributors, mostly from California, contributed about $16,000 a year to defray expenses for such items as Christmas cards and postage, which cost almost $5,000. Nixon himself lived modestly, never accepted fees for his speeches, and never used the money in the "slush fund" for personal expenses. Other politicians, including Adlai Stevenson, had established similar funds. Nixon did dissemble when he maintained that his fund was not secret and that he never gave favors to the donors.
Stories about the fund, spread by Nixon's Republican opponents in California, had been making the rounds even before the Republican convention. Those stories, however, were not widely publicized until 18 September, when the New York Post hit the stands with an article headlined "Secret Rich Man's Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far beyond His Salary." The disclosure raised serious problems for Eisenhower, whose campaign formula of K-1, C-3 (Korea, communism, corruption, and controls) had made the perceived corruption in the Truman White House a central issue. Revelation of the slush fund deeply troubled Eisenhower, as it unleashed a "storm of criticism of hurricane proportions." He insisted that "Nixon had to be clean as a hound's tooth." Many in the Republican leadership, led by the influential New York Herald Tribune, immediately called for Nixon's resignation from the ticket. The pressure on Nixon was enormous. To make matters worse, Eisenhower kept him dangling by delaying a decision about his future for three days after the existence of the slush fund became public.
The Republicans faced a difficult problem. As a perplexed Eisenhower shrewdly commented, "Well if Nixon has to resign, we can't possibly win." Thomas E. Dewey suggested to Nixon, with Eisenhower's approval, that he go on television to explain the fund, and if the public's response to the unprecedented presentation was 90 percent in his favor, he could stay on the ticket. Dewey also suggested that Nixon offer his resignation on the show. Nixon rejected the latter advice.
During the run-up to the speech, in a conversation with an undecided Eisenhower, an exasperated Nixon exploded, "There comes a time on matters like these when you've either got to shit or get off the pot." (A more decorous Nixon later claimed he said "fish or cut bait.") Few people in recent years had spoken to the dignified general so intemperately; Eisenhower most likely never forgot the incident. More seriously, he was displeased when, during the televised performance on 23 September, Nixon asked all the candidates to make full financial disclosures. Eisenhower did not want to reveal the special deal Congress had arranged for him concerning royalties for his memoirs Crusade in Europe.
In the speech delivered on 23 September without notes and with Pat at his side, Nixon described his humble origins and meager resources, including his wife's "Republican cloth coat" (as opposed to the Democrats' mink coats that had figured in corruption charges). As for gifts from supporters, he refused to return a little dog named Checkers that his daughters loved. Appearing as a common, plainspoken man with no pretensions, he struck a chord with much of the population. The Republican National Committee (RNC) received an astonishing 160,000 telegrams and 250,000 letters running 350 to 1 in Nixon's favor, an outpouring that convinced all 107 members to urge his retention. After what seemed to Nixon to be interminable hemming and hawing, Eisenhower finally told him that he was his boy.
Most political commentators missed the fact that the performance they perceived as mawkish and maudlin played very well with the average American viewer. The dean of American columnists, Walter Lippmann, commented, "That must be the most demeaning experience my country has ever had to bear."
Pat Nixon was humiliated by the Checkers ordeal. Never enthusiastic about her husband's political career, she "lost the zest" for campaigning and reported, "It kills me" to talk about the Checkers speech. She soon extracted a written promise from her husband to leave politics after his first term as vice president. The enormous success of his televised speech taught Nixon about the potential power of the new medium and, in 1960, bolstered his confidence when he agreed to debate John F. Kennedy on television.
On the night of the inaugural, Hannah Nixon gave her son a note: "You have gone far and we are proud of you alwaysI know that you will keep your relationship with your maker as it should be for after all that, as you must know, is the most important thing in life." Nixon carried the note around in his wallet for the rest of his life.
Although his office was in the traditional out-of-the-way vice-presidential quarters in the Senate, Nixon was one of the most visible and active vice presidents in history. He attended 171 cabinet meetings (and chaired about 20) and 217 National Security Council (NSC) meetings (and chaired 26). He was the first vice president to attend those important meetings routinely. Nixon was also involved in 173 sessions with legislative leaders, functioning as one of the administration's primary liaisons with Congress.
Like most vice presidents, he represented the president on foreign tours, making eight official trips to fifty-eight countries. In the fall of 1953, he traveled to fourteen Asian and Middle Eastern countries, including Vietnam, covering 45,500 miles in sixty-nine days. When he returned, he delivered a nationwide radio address in which he enunciated the domino theory: "If Indochina falls, Thailand is put in an almost impossible position. The same is true of Malaya with its rubber and tin. The same is true of Indonesia." Vietnam became one foreign policy issue over which Nixon disagreed directly with his president, especially in 1954, when he advocated military intervention to save the French in their war with the Vietminh. On other foreign policy issues, he tended to be slightly more hawkish than the president, but this mattered little. In an authoritative study coauthored by Eisenhower aide Robert Bowie, Nixon does not appear as a significant participant in national security decisions.
Nixon was the administration's chief campaigner and link to the Republican Party, although Eisenhower had to tone down his vice president's harsh rhetoric during the 1954 and 1958 congressional campaigns because he needed Democratic support on foreign policy matters. Nixon did help structure the political demise of his old friend Senator McCarthy, who had become an embarrassment to the administration. He felt that "McCarthy's intentions were right but his tactics were, frankly, so inept that he probably did our cause more harm than good." Nixon learned about the uses of executive privilege when the administration refused to release documents to the senator during the army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. He also chaired the Committee on Government Contracts and the Cabinet Committee on Price Stability for Economic Growth. He was not a very efficient administrator, however, as he had difficulty organizing his staff.
The vice president earned respect for the dignity and intelligence he displayed during the president's three major debilitating illnessesa heart attack in 1955, an operation for ileitis in 1957, and a stroke that same year. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and presidential chief of staff Sherman Adams worried after the heart attack that Nixon and his right-wing friends might try to take over the administration. To make certain that the vice president did not overstep his bounds, Adams traveled to Ike's bedside in Denver to serve as liaison between the cabinet, chaired by the vice president, and the ailing president. Further, Eisenhower told Nixon that while he was ill, Dulles would be in charge of foreign policy. Eisenhower and Nixon signed an unprecedented document in 1958 outlining procedures to be used in the case of a future presidential illness. This agreement preceded ratification of the Twenty-fifth Amendment in 1967, which prescribed procedures to be followed in case of presidential disability.
Even though Nixon was an effective vice president, Eisenhower was not certain he wanted him to be his running mate again. In December 1955, the president advised Nixon to accept an important cabinet post to get "executive experience." Eisenhower was serious about the benefits Nixon would gain by working in such a capacity and was grooming him for the presidency, but perhaps not as early as 1960. He considered his vice president to be too political and somewhat immature. "He just hasn't grown," commented the president, and was not yet "presidential timber"; he did not know "if Nixon would measure up." Also, as the president and moderate Republican leaders of a growing "dump Nixon" movement knew, the controversial vice president could cost them votes. The Democrats had already begun to make Nixon an issue for the 1956 campaign. When contemplating potential running mates early in 1956, Ike gave A pluses to five Republicans and only an A to Nixon and another candidate. Although Nixon finally convinced Eisenhower in April to tell the press that he was an acceptable candidate, the president did little to stop other Republicans from scheming against his vice president, almost until convention time.
The Eisenhower-Nixon ticket was reelected, winning 57 percent of the popular vote. Nixon may have cost the Republicans votes in the South, since he was perceived to be a moderate or even a progressive on race. He reinforced this perception in 1957 when he encountered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Ghana and invited him back to the White House. King later thanked Nixon for his assistance in promoting passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act.
During his second term as vice president, Nixon was involved in two major foreign policy confrontations. In May 1958, he traveled to South America to attend the inauguration of the president of Argentina and to make goodwill visits to seven other countries. The problems began at the University of San Marcos in Lima, Peru, where anti-American young people threw stones and even spit on Nixon and his entourage. Nixon admitted that he "felt the excitement of battle" at the university, where he kicked a protester, and someone in the crowd commented, "el gringo tiene cojones" ("the yankee has balls"). A much more serious and even life-threatening attack occurred in Caracas, Venezuela, where mobs beat his limousine with rocks, pipes, and clubs, injuring two occupants with spraying glass. Nixon was cool under pressure, ordering the Secret Service to hold its fire until the last possible moment, despite the dangerous assault. He also learned from the experience, as he told the cabinet on his return, about "the advent of the lower classes into the political scene and the ensuing requirement that American ambassadors ... broaden their contacts beyond the traditional elite."
Nixon again displayed his coolness under fire and the glare of television cameras at the first American Trade Exhibition in Moscow in July 1959 when he engaged in a "debate" with Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev in front of a model American kitchen. Television viewers in the United States saw the vice president going toe-to-toe with the Soviet leader, a man whom Nixon considered "a bare-knuckled slugger who had gouged, kneed, and kicked" his way to power. Nixon claimed that he "knew the value of keeping cool in a crisis." For his part, Khrushchev considered Nixon "a man of reactionary views ... a McCarthyite," as well as a "son of a bitch." Krushchev claimed to have cast "the deciding ballot" in the 1960 election when he withheld the release of several downed American flyers until after Kennedy had been safely elected. He later told Kennedy, "we voted for you."
Nixon's drinking habits first became a possible political problem during the Russian trip. Milton Eisenhower, a member of the American mission sent by his brother to keep an eye on the vice president, reported that one night before a Moscow dinner a nervous Nixon drank "about six martinis" and became quite vulgar.
That same year, Nixon met another anti-American leader who figured prominently in his future. When Cuba's new premier, Fidel Castro, came to the United States in April 1959, Eisenhower asked the vice president to size him up. In response, Nixon reported that the Cuban was "either incredibly naive about Communism or under Communist disciplinemy guess is the former," and "his ideas about ... how to run a government or an economy are less developed than those of almost any world figure I have met."
By the time of his meeting with Castro and his rhetorical duel with Khrushchev, Nixon had emerged as the front-runner for the 1960 presidential nomination. He was vying to become the first sitting vice president to represent his party in a presidential campaign since Martin Van Buren. Still not certain that he was the best man, Eisenhower worried that "Nixon will never be President. People don't like him." He asked RNC chair Leonard Hall to try to talk him out of the run in a "very, very gentle" way. Eisenhower later denied that he ever lacked confidence in Nixon, telling him in 1963, "Newspaper people are never going to cease their attempts to make it appear that you and I have been sworn enemies from the beginning of our relationship."
Nixon was not pleased with the administration's economic policies during the recession years 1959-1960. The candidate preferred an expansionist economic program; Eisenhower was most concerned about inflation and its "inequitable and damaging effects." One eyewitness recounts Nixon "literally shaking with tension" during a White House meeting when the president endorsed a tight economic program that might hurt the vice president in the upcoming campaign. One of those in the minority in the administration who backed Nixon's approach was economist Arthur Burns, who later became President Nixon's chief domestic adviser. As he prepared to run for his second term in 1971, Nixon did not forget the lesson he had learned in 1959 about the relationship between economic stimuli and electoral success.
Nixon faced opposition to his nomination from a fast-growing conservative movement led by Arizona senator Barry Goldwater and from liberal Republicans led by New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. Concluding that he could win the nomination by accommodating the liberals, Nixon met Rockefeller before the convention on 22 July 1960 to fashion a moderate platform in what came to be called "The Compact of Fifth Avenue." The compact helped guarantee Nixon's first-ballot victory by a 1,321-to-10 vote at the convention in Chicago five days later. Embittered conservatives termed it the "Munich of the Republican Party." Eisenhower himself was not pleased with the compact's defense program and considered his vice president too "liberal" on social issues.
Eisenhower also questioned Nixon's vice-presidential choice, former Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., who turned out to be a weak and erratic campaigner. Lodge's off-the-cuff promise that a Negro would serve in the Nixon cabinet may have cost the party votes in the South.
During the campaign, Nixon tried to keep his distance from Eisenhower, both to establish his independence and to permit himself space to make oblique criticisms of unpopular administration policies. Eisenhower encouraged Nixon's independence but was not happy about those criticisms. On several occasions, Nixon ignored the president's tactical advice, for example, when Eisenhower warned him against "those benighted debates" with Democratic candidate Senator John F. Kennedy, and then when he offered to loan him his own television expert, actor and director Robert Montgomery, for the first debate.
Ike certainly did not help Nixon during a 24 August 1960 press conference. When asked to cite a policy for which Nixon was responsible, the president responded, "If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don't remember." Eisenhower later explained that "he was being facetious, he didn't mean it the way it sounded." Regardless, that remark wounded Nixon. During the last week of the campaign, when the still popular Eisenhower offered to go all out to help Nixon, who was then running neck and neck in the polls with Kennedy, Nixon rejected the offer. This was not another example of the candidate's resolve to appear independent. Instead, he was honoring Mamie Eisenhower's private request that her ailing husband not launch an enervating speaking tour.
Nixon thought that the media treated him unfairly during the campaign. Whether or not that charge was true, journalists covering the Kennedy camp felt that they were treated better by the Democratic candidate and his staff than they were by the Nixon team. J. Edgar Hoover, who hoped that Nixon would win, provided him with secret reports on Kennedy and his family. CIA officials may have balanced the FBI's intervention by providing Kennedy with unauthorized intelligence reports about Cuba and other classified foreign policy issues.
The 1960 campaign was the first campaign in history to feature televised debates. As an accomplished debater and creator of the Checkers triumph, Nixon thought that he would easily demonstrate his mastery over his less experienced opponent. But he was tired, in part because of his ill-considered promise to campaign in all fifty states, and "sick as a dog" when he showed up for the all-important first debate on 26 September 1960. It was less what he said than the way he looked"an awkward cadaver," according to one observer, and "as tense a man as I had ever seen," according to anotherthat convinced television viewers that the cooler and more natural Kennedy had "won" the first of four debates and proved that he was "presidential." As many as 100 million Americans watched at least one of the four debates.
The 1960 election turned out to be one of the closest races in history, with Kennedy winning the popular vote by a 49.7 to 49.5 percent margin and the electoral vote by a more comfortable 303 to 219. But if Nixon had taken Illinois and Texas, where he was convinced that ballot-box-stuffing Democrats had "stole[n] the election," he would have won the electoral vote 270 to 252. Although Eisenhower was among those who urged him to demand a recount, Nixon decided that such an action would "tear the country to pieces." The next time he ran for president, Nixon organized a group of 100,000 poll watchers, headed by a former FBI official, to protect him against fraud.
Kennedy won because there were more registered Democrats than Republicans and because the economy was in recession. Nixon felt that he lost because "I spent too much time ... on substance and too little time on appearance." Aside from the televised debates, the campaign was noted for a hawkish and even irresponsible Kennedy prodding Nixon to do more about communist Cuba (while most likely aware that the administration was planning a secret invasion); the Kennedy camp's intervention to protect Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been arrested just prior to the election; and the publication of stories about a $205,000 loan that Nixon's brother Donald had obtained from Howard Hughes and the possibility of influence peddling. This story appeared again and again during Nixon's subsequent political career and may have had something to do with the Watergate break-in.
Table of Contents
1. Train Whistles in the Night
2. Organizing the White House
3. Ending America's Longest War
4. The Great Game
5. Beyond the Grand Design
6. Law and Order
7. Disraeli Redux
8. A Private President's Public Relations
9. The Road to Reelection
11. Running for Ex-President
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In this volume, Small covers the presidency of Richard Nixon. For those looking for the former president's life story, look elsewhere. Small is well researched, and goes against the traditional view that Nixon was a giant in foreign matters and an absentee president at home (though he does not argue with that second part). Small argues compellingly that Nixon in fact neglected issues of great importance in emerging nations, focusing only on the two large communist blocs, and the absence of his policies at home were probably to the nation's advantage. It is not a scathing attack, but a well-balanced view of a slightly unbalanced but remarkably skilled politician.