August 8, 1974
The story of Richard Nixon’s rise to the office of president is a peculiar one. He was already, but the time he was elected to the office in 1968, a man out of step with his times. He lacked the easy connective glamour of the man who beat him for the office in 1960, John Kennedy, and he lacked the outsized personality of the man who preceded him, Lyndon Johnson. He lacked the hero status of the man who chose him to be his vice president, Dwight Eisenhower, and he was not particularly lucky. And yet he prevailed in an election year of particularly acute crisis by defeating Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and won reelection by a landslide against a very liberal candidate, George McGovern, in 1972. He did what virtually all parties wanted done, which was to extract the United States from Vietnam, in 1973, and yet in 1974, he abruptly resigned from office. No president had done so previously and none has done so since.
Nixon was born to a poor and very religious family in California in 1913, and spent many of his formative years in the area south and east of Los Angeles. His family ran a gas station and small grocery store and so as a teen Richard would drive to Los Angeles to get vegetables for the market, which he would wash and display before going to school. He had four brothers, one of which died very young. Richard was studious and hard working, and when he graduated from high school he had to turn down the opportunity to go to Harvard (where John Kennedy went a few years later) in order to help with the store and take care of another sick brother. Instead of Harvard, he went to Whittier College, gradated with a degree in history in 1934, and then went on to Duke Law School.
After a short stint in Washington DC, he returned to Whittier and began to practice law there. He met his future wife in a production at a local theater (that he had any ambition as an actor is uncharacteristic) and they married in 1940. Over the following years, they had two daughters. He served in the US Navy during WW2, and had various administrative roles such as negotiating contracts and preparing manifests.
After the war, a friend called him and suggested he move back to California from Washington and run for Congress, which he did. Nixon represented the 12th district, an office currently occupied by Nancy Pelosi. As a young congressman, he took positions that were stridently anticommunist and that positioned him for a run as a senator from California, again, in a state that now has two very stridently progressive senators. He won that race by a wide margin, and he was then tapped to be the Vice President by Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.
In 1960, Nixon’s winning streak came to an end when he lost a close race to John Kennedy for the presidency. There were well-known irregularities in the vote, especially in Chicago which was run by the Democrat machine of the Daley family, but lore has it that Nixon did not pursue legal remedies in order to spare the nation a scandal. He returned to California and wrote a book, and in 1962, ran for governor of California and lost to Pat Brown (father of Jerry Brown).
After six years of ‘wilderness’ Nixon ran for the presidency again in 1968, and prevailed. The United States was wracked with changes in the culture and economy and Nixon unapologetically positioned himself as a point of American stability. He was reelected by a landslide in 1972.
It is here that several currents converged to undermine Richard Nixon.
First, there is little argument that Nixon was hated by certain quarters of the American political establishment, by the press, and by a portion of the American public. He was a Republican and he ran against the Kennedy brand, and that alone was grounds enough. He was ardently anti-communist and was involved in prosecuting communist sympathizers in the 1940s and 1950s. Again, that was not forgotten by the American left. He was of the GI Generation and came to power at the moment of ascendency of the Baby Boomers who made their presence known in 1968. He presented himself as perfectly honest in an age of cynicism, and nothing he could do would have abated the deep well of animosity directed at him.
He certainly tried to align with the forces that hated him. In 1971, he signed the 26th Amendment that lowered the voting age to 18 from 21. He negotiated an end to the Vietnam War in 1973 and the draft was ended even before that. He was a force in establishing the Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA) and he was liberal enough to open the United States to China in 1972.
However, regardless of what he did or said, he was aligned on the wrong side of a deep cultural divide that had opened up in American politics and that canyon has not closed. He could never, regardless of what he did or how many hours he was on television, become a ‘star’ in the way Kennedy was, or a beloved figure or close the cultural gap and in 1972, the fatal event occurred that would result in his resignation in two years.
On June 17, 1972, five men broke in to the offices of the Democratic National Committee which was housed in the Watergate Hotel. Those burglars were caught. It has since been established that they were seeking to tap the phones used by the Democrats. These men were not under the control of Richard Nixon and he did not authorize the action, but they were part of an organization known as the Committee to Reelect the President. That committee was referred to as ‘the CRP’ but was mocked to the point that history recorders the org as being known as ‘CREEP.’ The CRP had some reckless men involved including a FBI man named G. Gordon Liddy. Liddy was in control of the men who broke into the Watergate offices, and his connection to CRP and Nixon was the thread that unraveled Nixon and his tenure in office. That path was made easier by the involvement of Mark Felt, a man who Nixon passed over to direct the FBI when J. Edgar Hoover died in 1972. Felt was an informant for two reporters from the Washington Post, and was known only for a code name Deep Throat, taken from a popular 1970s porn movie, for decades.
In time, it was revealed that Nixon had a taping mechanism in the Oval Office, and a recording of his conversation with H.R. Halderman, his Chief of Staff, on June 23, 1972, just days after the break in, was released. This established that Nixon knew of the burglary in a period he had denied knowledge, and he was complicate in covering it up. That recording, combined with other cover-up efforts, combined with visceral hatred of Nixon, sealed his fate, and he resigned before he could be formally impeached.
Vice President Gerald Ford took over from Nixon, but he was a lame duck from the first day, and this was not lost on the North Vietnamese. There were many consequences to President Nixon’s resignation, but none more immediate than the action of the North Vietnamese who saw in Nixon’s downfall, a green light to violate the peace agreement they had signed the year before and prepare to overrun South Vietnam. The leadership in the North may have seen the treaty as a short term deal anyway, but with Nixon’s fall, the fate of South Vietnam was sealed and the North Vietnamese forces launched the attack on the South the following spring. By the end of April 1975, President Ford could only watch, along with the rest of the world, the brutal horror of South Vietnam’s fall, which was particularly brutal in the capital city of Saigon. Saigon’s final hours before it was ‘rebranded’ in the name of the north’s leader, Ho Chi Minh, are recorded for all time in hours of television footage which was watched live across the United States, presumably by Nixon as well from his home in California. He wrote several books and gave many interviews, but died in 1994 after trying to rehabilitate his name. He is buried at the Nixon library in Yorba Linda, California.
Nixon’s fall set the pattern for congressional investigations of the executive branch of government that followed, and was a turning point in the American political system. It has become more venal and poisonous since then. The impeachments of both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump grew from the fall of Richard Nixon. ‘Getting Nixon’ intoxicated the American left, and the consequences are still with us. Nixon is gone, but the Nixon era is not.