I was asked to review any U.S. President or Roman Emperor. Considering the large number of people who could fit either of those descriptions, I had a tough time picking one. I figured it would be better to do a president than an emperor, since a lot of my writing skews toward ancient subjects, and it would be nice to have some variation. I wouldn't feel right about reviewing the current president since his administration isn't over yet and I don't want to give praise or condemnation without all the facts being in. My first instinct was to review George Bush -- whom I have always greatly admired -- but given his recent death, there's a ton of renewed interest in the man with a correspondingly large number of opinion pieces out there about him currently. Instead, I decided to take a look at the president whose name has become a byword for corruption and who is to date the only man to resign that office: Richard Nixon.
Twenty five years after Nixon's death, his role in the Watergate scandal still dominates all discourse about him. He would probably consider this a grave injustice, and while he would to some extent be correct, he would also have nobody but himself to blame for it. Nixon would also concede this fact, and indeed he did so on multiple occasions in the years after he left office. Nixon's self-awareness was one of his defining characteristics and the fact that it served him so poorly at the time when he needed it the most was perhaps the greatest irony and tragedy of his life; and for a man whose life was filled with both irony and tragedy, that's really saying something.
Ricardus Molendinus Victor
One reason why I chose Nixon for this challenge was because even though I picked an American president rather than a Roman emperor, there is so much about Nixon as a historical figure that recalls the Caesars. An idea that I have toyed with for many years is to write a modern version of Plutarch's Parallel Lives; the book, for those unfamiliar with it, features comparisons of famous Romans with classical Greeks that Plutarch felt they resembled in some way. My concept would be to compare all of the American presidents with figures from the ancient world. John F. Kennedy was like the emperor Titus: a young leader from a privileged background with a serious military career who was beloved by the people but died tragically early. Abraham Lincoln was like the emperor Aurelian: he came to power at a time of chaos, reunited a fractured realm, and was murdered. If Nixon resembles any emperor, it is Tiberius.
Tiberius was the second Roman emperor. He was intelligent and capable but also deeply insecure. Some years before his ascension to the highest office, he withdrew completely from politics because he felt that an ungrateful public did not deserve him. He was acutely cognizant of the fact that he was not widely loved. He was paranoid and he turned the apparatuses of the state against his enemies, both real and perceived. He went through periods of morbid depression. He empowered sycophantic subordinates to act in extra-legal ways without much direction or supervision, which caused a scandal and led to his losing credibility as a leader.
However, he also had a distinguished career before becoming emperor. Once he attained that position, he maintained the power and prestige of the empire in the face of multiple external threats. He preferred non-military solutions to foreign policy problems unless there was no other option. He took steps to ensure that the Roman economy remained strong even if his methods for doing so were not necessarily popular. There are of course significant differences between Nixon and Tiberius, mainly the fact that Nixon (as far as we are aware) did not execute people for treason on flimsy pretexts and then steal their money. Tiberius was also a depraved, perverted old man, whereas Nixon was not. But one further thing that they do have in common is that they are not considered great leaders despite their accomplishments.
And Nixon was quite accomplished. He is so far the only person to have been elected to two terms as vice president and two terms as president. In the 1972 election, he won nearly 18 million more votes than his opponent, which is still the widest margin of victory in terms of absolute numbers in any presidential election. He was the first Republican presidential candidate to win every state in the South; of course, this was the same election where he won a total of 49 out of 50 states, exceeding the previous record of 48 out of 50 set by Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. When Dwight Eisenhower -- the American Trajan -- selected Nixon as his running mate in the 1952 election, Nixon was only 39 years old, making him one of the youngest vice presidents in history. He had been elected to what had previously been a reliably Democratic seat in the House of Representatives in 1946 at the young age of 33 and he was elected to the Senate in 1950 at the age of 37; the fact that he went from complete political obscurity to vice president in six years is pretty remarkable. And these are just some of his electoral accomplishments; these are achievements that the public gave to Nixon.
Nixon was 28 years old when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and launched America headlong into World War II. He was a Quaker and as such could have been exempted from military service. Additionally, his health problems and the fact that he was by this time a government employee (albeit a minor one) meant that he had multiple excuses to not be drafted. Instead, he volunteered for the Navy and repeatedly requested combat assignments. The closest he got was coordinating supplies and logistics in the Pacific, but his desire to put his life on the line for his country even when he had every reason not to demonstrates the almost religious reverence that Nixon had for the idea of public service.
Even though Nixon is regarded as dour and vindictive -- and he was definitely both of these things -- his personality and motivations were much more complex than the caricature of "grumpy old white guy." Nixon was born into poverty; his later success was by no means assured. Indeed, his existence in general was by no means assured as two of his brothers died very young (one at 7 and another at 24) and he himself was a sickly young man. Nixon's academic skill earned him a scholarship to go to Harvard University, but he ultimately declined the offer because of the hardship his absence would have imposed on his family and particularly his mother, to whom he was very devoted. He attended Whittier College where his modest background caused the school's literary societies to snub him; his response was to start his own (which still exists today). He carried this disdain for wealth and privilege for his entire life and it manifested itself as a belief that an elite class in American society was out to ruin him.
As you might expect, Nixon's election to the House of Representatives was his first brush with national fame. His election campaign in 1946 was hard-fought. The campaign was marked by insinuations that his opponent, Jerry Voorhis, was somehow affiliated with (or at least soft on) communists. Nixon won by a healthy margin.
This same year also saw John F. Kennedy win his own first election to the House of Representatives. The relationship between Nixon and Kennedy is one of the most fascinating aspects of both of their lives. On the surface, they had virtually nothing in common. Most obviously, Nixon was a Republican and Kennedy was a Democrat. Their backgrounds could not have been more different; Nixon was from the West while Kennedy was from the East. Nixon experienced the desolation of the Great Depression first-hand while Kennedy famously was not even aware that there had been a Great Depression until he learned about it at school. But the two formed an unlikely friendship when a representative from Pennsylvania was asked by some of his constituents to invite what he considered the two most promising new Congressmen from the 1947 Congress to give an address before a civic group. He picked Nixon and Kennedy and they shared a train compartment together on the way back from the event. According to Nixon, they stayed up all night talking and realized they had a great deal in common. Both had served in the Navy. Both had lost older brothers. And, as Nixon would later say, "he was shy, and that sometimes made him appear aloof. But it was shyness born of an instinct that guarded privacy and concealed emotions. I understood these qualities because I shared them."
Early Political Career
At any rate, Nixon made his name as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was set up in the late 1930s to investigate communist, fascist, and pro-Nazi groups and individuals. After the end of World War II, however, the committee's focus shifted almost exclusively to what was perceived as a malign communist influence in the United States government and later the entertainment industry. Nixon was an ardent anti-communist and in 1948 he was given the responsibility for running an investigation on behalf of the HUAC into whether the ex-State Department employee Alger Hiss had been a spy for the Soviet Union.
Hiss represented everything that Nixon loathed in a human being. He was from exactly the same type of background as the people who had spat on Nixon in his youth: from old money and well-connected, he seemed to effortlessly glide through a life of bureaucratic achievement. Much of the evidence against Hiss in the case came from Whittaker Chambers, an admitted former communist spy who contradicted himself during his testimony and whose trustworthiness was highly questionable. I won't get into the particulars of the episode, but to this day, there is no widespread agreement as to whether Hiss was really a spy for the USSR. He was eventually convicted of perjury after two trials for denying that he had been after Chambers admitted to perjury himself and produced evidence that seemed to corroborate his new claims. Nixon's dogged pursuit of Hiss against the wishes of the Truman administration and the faith he placed in the unreliable Chambers made him the subject of scorn in the press. The print media was undoubtedly biased toward Hiss because as a career diplomat, he knew how to work a room and play to his audience. This was the genesis of Nixon's adversarial relationship with the media, which he came to identify with the elite class that caused him so much angst.
After winning two elections as a representative, Nixon sought the GOP's nomination for California's Senate seat that would be contested in the 1950 election. He worked hard to secure the nod and his campaign's superior organizational skills caused all of his opponents (except for a couple of fringe candidates) to drop out of the primary process. He would win the primary in a landslide and go on to face Democratic Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas in the general election (although Douglas' own nomination was significantly more difficult). This election campaign showed Nixon at his rawest and most aggressive. He had been convinced that Republicans were at a disadvantage nationwide in the run-up to the 1950 election and that the only way he could win was to fight like his life depended on it. This campaign is legendary for its nastiness.
Since Nixon had made his career up to that point as a warrior against communism, the natural thing to do was to associate Douglas with communism. Despite the fact that she had been in politics longer than Nixon, she was completely unprepared for and unable to respond to the vitriolic attacks that Nixon and his operatives unleashed against her. She probably would not have suffered the full brunt of Nixon's wrath if not for two things. First, she tried to get ahead of Nixon on the anti-communist front by saying that his votes in Congress had denied support to US allies in Europe and Asia, claiming Nixon had some responsibility for the onward march of communism on those continents. Next, and more offensively to Nixon, she implied that Nixon possibly had Nazi sympathies or tendencies by calling him a "young man in a dark shirt," and allusion to the Italian Blackshirts and the Nazi Brownshirts. Nixon ramped up his attacks on her after these episodes, saying that she was "pink right down to her underwear." At a rally for Douglas, Nixon's agents passed out pink flyers that associated Douglas' voting record in Congress with that of Vito Marcantonio, a New York representative who was probably the most overtly pro-communist politician elected to a national office in the history of the United States.
The campaign was an absolute disaster for Douglas. She received little to no support from the Democratic Party apparatus, partly because the in-fighting that marked the Democratic primary had alienated many party members who would have otherwise been at her disposal. Ronald Reagan, then a Democrat (and a personal friend of Douglas), became a Nixon supporter after hearing him speak against Douglas' supposed friendliness toward communism. Douglas and her surrogates accused Nixon's campaign staff of calling half a million people and telling whoever answered the phone that Douglas was a communist. John F. Kennedy personally delivered a check for $1,000 to Nixon's office to be used in his Senate campaign; this was a huge sum of money for an individual political contribution in those days. In the event, Nixon won the election with almost 60% of the vote. The Senator that he was to replace, Sheridan Downey, resigned after the election and Nixon was appointed to fill the vacant seat in December of 1950.
Vice Presidency and Aftermath
Nixon's next battle against the elites came during the run-up to his selection as Eisenhower's running mate. Eisenhower for his part was fairly ambivalent about Nixon and indeed seems not to have really cared who wound up as the Republican vice presidential candidate as long as whoever it was didn't hurt his electoral chances. The media discovered that Nixon was reimbursed for his various campaign expenses by money from a fund that some of his supporters made for him. Many in the press raised questions as to whether this could be considered a potential form of bribery or at least inappropriate. The fund was neither secret nor illegal and Nixon chafed at the idea that (a) people in the media were calling for Eisenhower to drop him from the ticket and (b) Eisenhower was considering it. Nixon saw this as an attack on his integrity by the elites and their servants in the press, so he fired back.
In what has now become known as the Checkers speech, Nixon appealed directly to the American people through a television broadcast. The speech is famous today for two statements: first, Nixon proudly said that his wife "doesn't have a mink coat...but she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat;" and second, that irrespective of calls for him to drop out of the race or return any of the money from the fund, he would not return a cocker spaniel named Checkers that a supporter gave to him because his kids loved it. People today have this mistaken impression that this is basically the extent of the address and that voters were such unsophisticated morons in the 1950s that Tricky Dick was able to win them over by making a joke about his kids and a dog. The fact that it's generally called "the Checkers speech" is actually a testament to the fact that the press was hostile toward Nixon because it completely misrepresents and minimizes the real point of the speech (and for his part, Nixon detested the fact that people called it that). In some ways, it was a precursor to the media's characterization of Jimmy Carter's so-called "malaise speech" that was chiefly about the American reliance on foreign sources of energy but somehow became twisted into a depressing lecture about how Americans are a bunch of oafs who need to get over themselves.
In actuality, Nixon's speech was a detailed accounting of his finances, including assets, liabilities, and his salary as a Senator. The point he was trying to make was that he was not independently wealthy and that it was better to use this fund for his political needs than it was to charge the taxpayer for them. The fund itself had been the subject of an independent audit whose summation he read. More significantly, though, he used the speech as an opportunity to attack his elitist enemies. He noted that he refused to simply put his wife on the government payroll in his office to double-dip, which is what the 1952 Democratic vice presidential candidate John Sparkman did. He sharply rebuked a statement allegedly made by the head of the Democratic National Committee at the time to the effect of "if a man couldn't afford to be in the United States Senate, he shouldn't run for the Senate." He remarked "I believe that it's fine that a man like Governor Stevenson, who inherited a fortune from his father, can run for President...but I also feel that it's essential in this country of ours that a man of modest means can also run for President" before pointing out that Stevenson also had a similar campaign fund (unstated, though, was the fact that Stevenson's was significantly larger than his own).
The most revealing statement in Nixon's speech, though, was this:
Now let me say this: I know that this is not the last of the smears. In spite of my explanation tonight, other smears will be made. Others have been made in the past. And the purpose of the smears, I know, is this: to silence me; to make me let up. Well, they just don't know who they're dealing with. I'm going to tell you this: I remember in the dark days of the Hiss case some of the same columnists, some of the same radio commentators who are attacking me now and misrepresenting my position, were violently opposing me at the time I was after Alger Hiss. But I continued to fight because I knew I was right, and I can say to this great television and radio audience that I have no apologies to the American people for my part in putting Alger Hiss where he is today. And as far as this is concerned, I intend to continue to fight.
The speech was a massive success, which to Nixon vindicated both the propriety of his actions and his belief that there was a very broad segment of American society that understood and supported him in his war against the elites. Eisenhower was convinced of the necessity of keeping Nixon on the ticket by the massive outpouring of support he received in the wake of the speech. Eisenhower and Nixon won the 1952 election, of course, and they won again in 1956. Nixon won the Republican nomination for president in 1960 and lost in a very close election to John F. Kennedy. Despite the very real possibility of electoral fraud in some states that Kennedy won -- enough electoral votes to have changed the outcome of the election -- Nixon refused to contest the result because he firmly believed that doing so would diminish the office of the presidency and America's prestige on the world stage. This was in spite of the fact that the 1960 campaign became progressively more and more negative as it went on with personal attacks being lobbed against the candidates by their respective surrogates, which terminated the friendship of Kennedy and Nixon.
Nixon was drafted to run for governor of his home state of California in 1962. He was not enthusiastic about the prospect of another election and he did not really want to be governor, but he felt that it was his duty to the Republican Party to answer the call if he was truly their best prospect for winning the election. And at that time, as unbelievable as it is today, California was a Republican stronghold. Nixon ultimately lost the election in a major upset. Shortly after the results were known, he gave a rambling, unscripted address to the press where he bitterly excoriated them for their hostility toward him and famously said "you don't have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference." The sentiment that Nixon's political career was definitively over after this meltdown found its fullest delineation in a tacky ABC documentary released less than a week after the election called "the Political Obituary of Richard Nixon," which featured commentary from some of Nixon's harshest critics, including Alger Hiss. The public's reaction to the program was almost entirely negative, demonstrating again that Nixon was maybe on to something.
Originally, this was supposed to be one writeup about my thoughts on Nixon as a president. I realized that there was no way to cover Nixon as a president without covering Nixon before the presidency; it's impossible to judge the great and terrible aspects of the Nixon regime without contextualizing Nixon as a man, so this will span multiple writeups. There are certain things that are wrong regardless of context; I'm not endorsing Kant's idea of the categorical imperative, because I do believe there are circumstances where the ends justify the means, but it requires a type of karmic balancing. Some of Nixon's legally and morally questionable actions pass the test and others do not.
Nixon's political career up until 1968 was both typical and atypical. Many veterans have been elected to office shortly after their service and this was especially the case with returning World War II veterans. However, Nixon's meteoric rise to political stardom was fairly unique. He was the second youngest person to have ever served as vice president, having been elected at the age of 39 and inaugurated at the age of 40.
But perhaps even more remarkably, given his youth and the fact that he had only been in government for six years up to that point, Eisenhower trusted him with a variety of tasks not normally delegated to vice presidents. John Nance Garner, the first of Franklin Roosevelt's three vice presidents, described the office as "not worth a bucket of warm piss." Nixon was a very visible and active public face of the administration in international affairs, most famously in Moscow at the opening of the American Exhibition there in 1959. Nikita Khrushchev was on-hand for the event as well, and he began an unscripted debate with Nixon about the relative merits of the American and Soviet systems in front of the press. Instead of being confounded, Nixon countered with a strident and confident defense of the American way of life and American technological innovation. A lesser politician would probably have been baited into an angry fight or would have babbled confusedly, but Nixon spoke like he had prepared for it.
More seriously, Nixon kept the White House under control during two major health scares that Eisenhower experienced while in office. At that time, there was no legal mechanism for the continuity of government in the event of a president's incapacitation, but Eisenhower had prepared Nixon for such an eventuality by having him chair cabinet meetings if he was absent. Nixon was also a tireless advocate for the Eisenhower administration, even if he did not necessarily agree with all of Ike's policies or philosophies.
Assessing Nixon's pre-presidential career is not as difficult as assessing his presidency. As an ardent anti-communist, Nixon's legislative career was inextricably linked to the Red Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The major piece of legislation that he is known for sponsoring was a bill that would have required all members of the Communist Party of the United States to register with the attorney general. The bill passed the House but failed in the Senate. For as long as I've been politically conscious, I've been opposed to communism for a variety of reasons, but I also support the right of anyone to be a communist (or really a member of just about any political party or organization) without interference from the government. The notion that someone should have to be put on some kind of a list maintained by the government because of their political beliefs is abhorrent to me and the fact that the bill ultimately failed is good.
Later, though, a similar bill known as the McCarran Internal Security Act -- not sponsored by Nixon -- would pass both the House and the Senate; Truman vetoed it but both houses of Congress voted to override the veto. This bill strengthened the existing Smith Act, which provided criminal penalties for people who were members of what were deemed "subversive" political organizations, communist and otherwise. This again is something I find strikingly offensive, not just because it's morally wrong, but because it's unconstitutional. That a constitutional conservative -- and lawyer -- like Nixon would support such a law is deeply disappointing.
On the other hand, though, I do not think there was anything wrong with Nixon's pursuit of Alger Hiss. In this instance, the issue was not whether Hiss was a communist, but rather whether his political views led him to commit espionage against the United States on behalf of the Soviet Union. He was not some insignificant clerk, either: the man had been at the Yalta Conference with Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin and he was involved in the negotiations for what eventually became the United Nations. Soviet espionage against the United States was aggressive at this time; spies working on behalf of the USSR had infiltrated the Manhattan Project, and as a result the only dictator on the planet who could rival Adolf Hitler in terms of bellicosity and bloodlust acquired nuclear weapons in 1949. That Hiss may or may not have been a communist is immaterial when the stakes are that high. Hiss maintained until his death that he had never spied on the US for the Soviets, but of course he would. Questions about his guilt are still unresolved today but I find the evidence fairly compelling because while a lot of it is circumstantial and some of the witnesses weren't entirely credible, the number of coincidences and/or conspirators needed to explain away all the evidence pointing to his guilt is improbably high.
There is of course the argument that Nixon's involvement in the Hiss case was stark opportunism. However, it is entirely possible to do a good thing for cynical reasons. There are a ton of corporations that donate to charity solely for the tax benefits of doing so, but that's still money being put to good work. John McCain became a champion of campaign finance reform after he was implicated in a campaign finance scandal, likely to make it seem as though he was really and truly chastened by the experience; it was still a good deed. I don't doubt that there was an element of opportunism to Nixon's actions in the Hiss affair, but considering how serious the issue of Russian spying was in the early days of the Cold War, it's hard to fault Nixon for taking an active role in trying to uncover it.
I'm of two minds about Nixon's Senate campaign against Helen Douglas. First, he clearly went after her way too hard for her supposed communist sympathies. She was obviously not a communist and Nixon's campaign was nothing more than fear-mongering. But at the same time, Douglas made the mistake of trying to suggest that Nixon was some type of crypto-fascist and almost invited the attacks by asserting that Nixon was somehow soft on communism. She was in effect also betrayed by fellow Democrats, including the sitting president, who for various reasons didn't think it was desirable to support her candidacy. Nixon's campaign tactics were probably dirty but they were not unheard of.
Nixon's performance as vice president, though, was admirable because he served as an effective substitute for Eisenhower in moments of crisis and he demonstrated quick thinking and calm under pressure. He also faithfully carried out Eisenhower's directives. The only other modern vice presidents I can think of who were as involved and essential to their presidents would be George Bush and Joe Biden.
His "last press conference" was not his finest moment. Not so much because he attacked the media, but rather because he attacked the media in a bitter, passive aggressive way. His monologue was obviously largely improvised and while he was probably frothing at the mouth with anger before he came out to talk, by the time he actually started speaking, he came across as more sad than anything else. While this was before the time that saying "yeah" too loudly became a reason to kill someone's political career, it was unbecoming for a man of his stature to do what he did in the way that he did. He, in effect, made a spectacle of himself. The fact that he was able to come back from that is a testament to his skill as a politician.
On the whole, there is much to admire about Nixon as a man and as a politician, even before his rise to the presidency. There was a major component of luck involved in his ascent but he repeatedly won because he ran better campaigns than his opponents. He was certainly one of the shrewdest, most intelligent, and most creative presidents of the 20th century, but he was all of these things well before attaining that office. His harsh, rough-and-tumble campaign style revealed his iron determination. But with the exception of his defeat in 1962, Nixon was never a sore loser when things didn't go his way. His very well-developed sense of duty and obligation as well as his respect for the institutions of the United States in his pre-presidential career went beyond a surface level flag-waving and evinced a type of reverential patriotism that isn't taken seriously anymore. Had Nixon been less pessimistic and more personally confident, it's entirely possible that Watergate would never have happened and we would rank him very highly in lists of the greatest American presidents. As it stands, though, if the seeds for his later downfall were not necessarily sown during his early career, the soil had certainly already been laid.