Monday, February 21, 2011

"Poor Richard": Nixon in Exile

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage, I describe the rise, fall and the start of the second rise of Richard M. Nixon.

By 1968, American politicians on the right right, such as California Gov. Ronald Reagan and former Vice President Richard Nixon insisted that the violence consuming America that year stemmed from permissive parents who had mollycoddled the young. Lacking discipline, those brats now protested at college campuses and refused to fight for their country in Vietnam, the conservatives claimed. The Supreme Court, dominated by liberals, had gone soft on crime. Progressives in Congress, with their welfare programs, had created a spoiled underclass that expected something for nothing and who, when they didn’t get their way, rioted.

Former Vice President Richard Nixon had been nursing personal grudges and mining white resentment since he lost his presidential contest against John Kennedy in 1960. Born in 1913 in Yorba Linda, California, the child of two intensely religious Quakers, Nixon was described by authors Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin as a “solitary and unsmiling child.” He toiled at long shifts at his father Frank Nixon’s general store and gas station. Isserman and Kazin describe Nixon’s mother as “loving but distant.” Mrs. Nixon strongly discouraged “open displays of affection.” Nixon’s father was stern. The family suffered numerous tragedies, including the deaths of two of Nixon’s brothers before he finished college. “Early on he concluded that life was a grim and no-holds-barred struggle, in which success came only to those who persevered at any cost,” the authors said.

Nixon always felt insecure about his poor parents and his education, attending small Whittier College in California rather than the prestigious, expensive Ivy League schools favored by the affluent. Nevertheless, through hard work he won a scholarship to Duke University in North Carolina, where he earned a law degree.

After serving in the Navy in the South Pacific during World War II, he returned to Whittier and practiced law with a small firm. Always ambitious, Nixon challenged incumbent liberal Congressman Jerry Voorhis, whom Nixon characterized with great inaccuracy as a supporter of “Communist principles.” Already, Nixon had acquired a reputation as a dirty campaigner, but to the young congressman this was the only way to challenge the unfair advantages of wealth and prestige enjoyed by his political opponents.

Nixon was named to the House Un-American Activities Committee, where his flair for red-baiting would get a choice platform. Nixon seized an opportunity to get attention when Time magazine editor and former communist Whittaker Chambers testified before the committee that while he was a member of the party he had helped Alger Hiss, an adviser in Franklin Roosevelt’s State Department, make copies of secret diplomatic documents. Chambers said the copies were made so he could transmit them to the Soviet government. Hiss, Chambers claimed, was a fellow communist.

In testimony, Hiss denied the charges, and he then sued Chambers for slander. With great theatricality, Nixon revealed microfilmed copies of State Department files that had been discovered, under Chambers’ direction, in a hollowed-out pumpkin at the editor’s Maryland farm.

The Pumpkin Papers, as they became known, attracted page-one headlines and Nixon promoted the evidence as proving “the most serious series of treasonable activities . . . in the history of America.” Because of the statute of limitations, Hiss was immune from espionage charges, but he was convicted for perjury and received a five-year sentence in federal prison. Hiss continued to deny the charges for the rest of his life.

Nixon won fame from his involvement in the Hiss case, which he used to his advantage in 1950 when he ran for the United States Senate against liberal Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas. Again, he smeared his opponent as a communist sympathizer, calling her a “pink lady.” Nixon won again. When he ran for president in 1952, the moderate Dwight Eisenhower picked as running mate the conservative Nixon to broaden his appeal and to help him earn California’s electoral votes.

Nixon had his first of many political near-death experiences during the 1952 campaign. News stories revealed that Nixon had received possibly illegal contributions from wealthy supporters to reimburse the California senator for his campaign expenses. Nixon defended himself on national television, misleadingly characterizing his income as meager. Referring to his wife, Nixon said his family didn’t have much money. “It isn't very much, but Pat and I have the satisfaction that every dime that we've got is honestly ours,” Nixon said. “I should say this—that Pat doesn't have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat. And I always tell her that she'd look good in anything.”

At the end of the speech, Nixon did admit to receiving from one contributor the gift of a dog for his daughters, which the children named Checkers. “And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're gonna keep it,” Nixon said.

Many establishment Republicans cringed at the scandal and what some called Nixon’s “Poor Richard” speech. Critics began calling Nixon “Tricky Dick.” Nevertheless, the Californian’s performance won support from the public and ensured he would remain on the Eisenhower ticket. Eisenhower, however, never liked Nixon and their relationship as president and vice president for the next eight years was cold.

Eisenhower did not provide enthusiastic support for Nixon during the vice president’s race against John Kennedy in 1960 and at times actually undermined him. Nixon had suggested in the campaign that he had played a vital role in shaping Eisenhower-era policy. Asked at a press conference to provide one example of when he had implemented one of Nixon’s policy suggestions, Eisenhower said, “If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.” Eisenhower’s joke made Nixon look ridiculous and added to the vice president’s lengthening list of grievances when he returned to public life in 1961.


Nixon once predicted he would literally die if he had to leave politics. He took his loss to Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election as a personal repudiation and he desperately wanted to win back public approval. In 1962, he ran for California governor against the Democratic incumbent, Edmund “Pat” Brown. A moderate on civil rights during his Senate career and a supporter of some social programs, Nixon had fallen out of touch with the right-wing drift of the California Republican Party during his sojourn in Washington. Nixon blasted the far-right John Birch Society, which claimed that a secret communist conspiracy had seized control of the federal government, that Eisenhower himself was a communist agent, and that the fluoridation of water was government adoption of socialism (and some members claimed the fluoride dulled the mind and weakened the body). Communists, they said, were poisoning American water in preparation for an invasion.

Nixon called this talk the ramblings of “nuts and kooks” at a meeting of the California Republican Assembly. Right-wingers were less than enthusiastic about Nixon, and many did not turn out on Election Day. Pat Brown, meanwhile, charged that Nixon had no interest in running for governor and that he would exploit the office in order to run for president again. Nixon lost to Brown by approximately 52 percent of the vote to 47 percent.

The failed candidate held a bitter press conference upon losing the California governor’s race. “And as I leave the press, all I can say is this: for sixteen years, ever since the Hiss case, you’ve had a lot of fun – a lot of fun – that you’ve had an opportunity to attack me, and I think I have given as good as I have taken,” he told a crowd of reporters. “ . . . [A]s I leave you I want you to know – just think of how much you are going to be missing. You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” Across the country, journalists panned Nixon’s performance at the press conference, which they said showed the man to be resentful and un-presidential. ABC broadcast a 30-minute news special, "The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon."

“Barring a miracle, his political career ended last week,” Time proclaimed. Nixon stayed in the background during the 1964 presidential campaign, although he dropped big hints that he would again accept the Republican nomination if asked. Nixon also said that if the GOP nominated Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the extremely conservative frontrunner, this development would be a “tragedy” for the party.

Yet, when Goldwater received the nomination, Nixon alone among prominent Republicans campaigned across the country for Goldwater, making 156 speeches on his behalf. Nixon realized that the conservative delegates who supported Goldwater at the 1964 Republican National Convention would be in charge for the 1968 convention. Having campaigned for both conservative and liberal Republican candidates across the country in 1964, and again in 1966, Nixon would soon collect his chits. “Every side owed him something,” historian Rick Perlstein said.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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