In writing this blog, I realize that my grandfather is now spinning in his grave. His always said that he wanted the words NEVER VOTED FOR NIXON inscribed on his tombstone.
Despite what would be my grandfather’s objections, Richard Millhouse Nixon is absolutely worthy of mention in a series on persistence.
Born to a poor Quaker family in California Richard Nixon rose quickly, fell dramatically, rose again only to fall further.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American Life. I doubt Richard Nixon ever read that. After graduating from Wittier College, serving heroically in the Navy and obtaining a law degree from Duke Law School, Nixon was first elected to congress when he was 33. Ironically, it was the same year as his future nemesis, John F. Kennedy.
While in the House of Representatives, Nixon’s rise was sharp due to his service on the House Un-American Activities Committee and the outing of Alger Hiss as a communist.
Using his newfound fame as a springboard, Nixon ran for the Senate in 1948 at the age of 35. He ran a great campaign labeling Helen Gahagan Douglas (a former mistress of LBJ) as pink right down to her underwear. One need not agree with his tactics to see the brilliance of shifting attention away from his lack of a record and onto his opponent’s weaknesses. This shift helped him win the 1948 election and beat his then friend, JFK to the Senate.
Young, charismatic and with a reputation as a street fighter for conservative issues, Nixon was a logical choice in 1952 to help balance the Republican Party’s Presidential ticket with the older, moderate Dwight D. Eisenhower at the top.
From the beginning, his rough personality ruffled feathers and he almost suffered his first big fall when he was accused of taking kickbacks and establishing a slush fund. It was only a televised speech when he once again shifted attention away from himself and on to his family pet, their dog named Checkers, that saved him from being dropped from the ticket.
At the age of 38, Richard Nixon became our second youngest Vice President in our nation’s history.
It was quite a remarkable rise for a man with such humble beginnings. In the ten years between 1942, when Nixon first came to Washington DC to work for the Navy Department and 1952, he was elected to the House of Representatives at when he was 33, Senator when he was 35, and Vice President when he was 38.
And Then he lost.
The election of 1960 should have been the crowning of Richard Nixon’s career. The popular Vice President of a popular President should have easily beaten the catholic Senator of Massachusetts. But John F. Kennedy was no ordinary candidate and edged Mr. Nixon in a very close election.
In 1962, defeated, Nixon ran unsuccessfully ran for Governor in his home state of California. He lost again and this time added insult to injury by holding a disastrous press conference when he announced that the press “wouldn’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Before he was 50 it seemed that his star had burned too brightly as the media once again wrote his premature obituary.
Then, in 1968, using a strategy that had become a hallmark of Nixon campaigns, he was able to find the right issue to distract, divide and discourage enough voters to make himself a viable candidate for President: Race.
As American cities burned over civil rights, Richard Nixon proclaimed himself to be Law and Order Candidate of America’s Silent Majority and with Hubert Humphrey refusing to distance himself from an unpopular President and an unpopular war, and George Wallace taking enough white working class Democrats away, it was a message that resonated. He carried states that hadn’t gone Republican since Reconstruction and was elected President.
One might pick up on my cynicism in writing of Nixon’s victory. I do little to hide it. I believe he as able to exploit some our worst fears by appealing not the better angels of our nature but to something darker to win election to the Highest Office in the Land. I have very little respect for the tactics he used to get there and those are reasons why my Grandfather despised the man so much. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a tremendous amount of respect for the perseverance and yes, persistence that he showed in overcoming one of the biggest falls in American Political History.
Once President, his crowning achievement came in 1972 when he was reelected in a landslide. He was for a time, validated. That was until the Watergate Scandal forced him to resign in disgrace. This was a fall to big that no amount of persistence could save him from.
His methods notwithstanding, the resourcefulness and hard work that Nixon showed between 1962 and 1968 is impressive and makes him a true Profile in Persistence.