Nixon, Richard M. 1913-1994
Richard Milhous Nixon, U.S. representative and senator, vice president, and thirty-seventh president of the United States, was an influential, but flawed political figure in American politics. Born in poverty in Yorba Linda, California, Nixon was a diligent student who graduated from Whittier College, then Duke Law School. He was ambitious and felt, at an early age, a strong desire to prove himself, a personality trait that some scholars think contributed to his downfall.
Nixon’s political career began in 1947 when he defeated five-term incumbent Democrat Jerry Voorhis to become U.S. representative. After winning reelection, Nixon achieved national prominence as chair of the Un-American Activities Committee by relentlessly questioning Alger Hiss for purportedly being a communist spy while working for the U.S. State Department. In winning election to the U.S. Senate in 1950, Nixon successfully branded his opponent Helen Gahagan Douglas a communist (calling her the “Pink Lady”) and cemented his national reputation as a staunch anticommunist. His reputation as an anticommunist crusader early in his career undoubtedly helped Nixon achieve political and international prominence. It secured him a place on the Republican Party presidential ticket in 1952 and gave him the credibility to support China’s admission to the United Nations in October 1971 and open relations with China when he visited it—the first president to do so—in early 1972.
As the sitting vice president of popular president Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1953 to 1961, Nixon was the early favorite to become the thirty-fifth president of the United States in a campaign against the Democratic but little known junior senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. Nixon was clearly the more experienced, especially in foreign affairs. But presidential politics was becoming less about experience at the beginning of the television age, and more about perception and style. Although Nixon won the first televised presidential debate among radio listeners, he did not look as “presidential” as his opponent, who won the debate among television viewers. Nixon narrowly lost the 1960 presidential election to Kennedy by less than 120,000 popular votes.
Eight years later, Nixon was elected president in another close contest against sitting Democratic vice president Hubert Humphrey, on a campaign of ending the war in Vietnam and courting moderate Republicans on civil rights and law and order. Nixon achieved numerous domestic policy successes with the Clean Air Act of 1970 and omnibus crime legislation. But his major successes related to his expertise and his life-long interest in foreign policy.
Despite being raised as a Quaker, Nixon rejected the Quaker principle of pacifism and was decidedly hawkish in his foreign policy positions. He criticized the Truman administration for being too passive in its handling of the Korean War, disagreed publicly with Truman’s decision to fire General Douglas MacArthur, and, as president, Page 506 | Top of Articleexpanded the war in Vietnam by sending Marines into Laos and bombing Cambodia.
In a blow to the presidency’s unilateral foreign policy authority, Congress overrode Nixon’s veto of the War Powers Act, which attempted to limit presidential war power in the face of mounting public and congressional opposition to the war in Vietnam by insuring that “the collective judgment of both the Congress and the President will apply to the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities.” Nixon and subsequent presidents argued that the War Powers Act is an unconstitutional violation of separation of powers, in part because it requires presidents to consult with Congress before U.S. armed forces engage in military hostilities and remove forces from conflict if Congress has not declared war or issued a resolution authorizing the use of force within sixty days.
Nixon was the consummate politician, a fighter for office and for his own political survival. This aggressive style assisted Nixon, at times, but did not endear him to his political opponents. He fought for his political career early—to remain Eisenhower’s running mate in 1952—when he responded to charges that he had a campaign slush fund to defray personal expenses in the so-called “Checker’s Speech.” He admitted to having the fund, but only to pay political, not personal, expenses save one: a cocker spaniel he accepted as a gift for his daughter, Tricia. Eisenhower praised Nixon afterward and kept him on the ticket. This shrewd political maneuvering could not save him when he failed to win the presidency in 1960, to become governor of California in 1962, or to overcome the largest scandal of his political career: Watergate.
Rejected by the White House as a “third-rate burglary attempt,” the arrest of five members of the Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP) at the Democratic Party Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., “Watergate” evolved into a president-led cover up, which resulted in the first and only resignation of a sitting president in U.S. history. The extent of Nixon’s involvement became evident after revelation in House judiciary committee hearings of a secret taping system in the White House. Nixon claimed executive privilege and refused to submit the tapes to Congress. But the U.S. Supreme Court, in US v. Nixon (1974), rejected this claim, precipitating Nixon’s resignation less than three weeks later.
On August 9, 1974, Nixon was succeeded by Gerald Ford, who had replaced Nixon’s elected vice president, Spiro Agnew, who had resigned in October 1973 and pleaded no contest to tax evasion in a plea-bargained deal for charges of accepting bribes while governor of Maryland and vice president of the United States. Ford was the first unelected vice president in U.S. history, in compliance with the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In September 1974 he pardoned Richard Nixon for “all offenses against the United States which he … has committed or may have committed or taken part in” while president.
Although Watergate damaged the president, Nixon overcame its physical and mental tolls and became a respected leader abroad after his presidency. During and after his political career, Nixon was also a prolific writer and author. Beginning with his account of his early political career, including the Checker’s Speech and Alger Hiss affair, Nixon wrote Six Crises (1962). Along with his presidential memoirs (1978), after his resignation he wrote several other books, including No More Vietnams (1985) and 1999: Victory without War (1988), that confirm his personal interest in foreign affairs and attempts to shape and frame popular discourse on American involvement in international conflicts.
SEE ALSO Eisenhower, Dwight D. ; Kennedy, John F. ; Khrushchev, Nikita ; Vietnam War ; Watergate
Nixon, Richard M. 1962. Six Crises. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Nixon, Richard M. 1978. RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. New York: Grosset and Dunlap.
Nixon, Richard M. 1985. No More Vietnams. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Nixon, Richard M. 1988. 1999: Victory without War. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Barber, James D. 1972. The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.