Nixon Always Returns
(With Apologies to Winston Groom)
Itell people in my American History II class that Richard Nixon always returns. Most of the students are too young to get what I mean.
But guess what? He’s back! (And no, I don’t mean his ghost is kicking around San Clemente.)
Just look around. This week marked the 45th anniversary of the Watergate burglary, which brought down Nixon’s presidency. Documentaries of the event are making the cable rounds, and news shows are comparing the scandal in the Donald Trump administration to that of Nixon’s.
Of course, Nixon frequently rematerialized when people thought he was gone for good.
Case in point, the 1952 presidential election when Nixon was Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate. Eisenhower — Ike — had led the Allies to victory over Germany in World War II. He was a shoe-in to win the presidency. Nixon had gained a modicum of fame as a California representative hunting down Communists in the early days of the Cold War.
In late summer 1952, the press got wind of a Republican fund — with some $18,000 in it! — that donors had raised to help Nixon with campaign expenses. The public howled. Nixon was corrupt and lining his pockets, his opposition charged. Ike, always rather ambivalent toward Nixon, considered dumping him from the ticket.
Nixon took charge of the matter, and he booked national air time on television. On September 23, 1952, he went live and delivered a remarkable speech. He explained the purpose of the fund, and that it was no secret. He outlined his and his wife, Pat’s, living expenses, which he described as modest. Despite charges that donors had given Pat a mink coat, Nixon explained that Pat had only a “respectable Republican cloth coat.”
But there was one gift the Nixon’s had accepted. A Republican donor had heard Nixon’s girls, Tricia and Julie, wanted a dog, and he had sent them a Cocker Spaniel puppy. They named it Checkers for its black and white spots. “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.
The speech went on a few minutes more, but the Checkers line cemented it. From then on it was the “Checkers Speech.” It boosted Nixon’s popularity and convinced Ike to keep him on the ticket.
The day before, Nixon was effectively gone. And just like that, he was back!
Now consider the 1960 presidential election. After eight years as a dutiful vice-president, Nixon assumed he was heir apparent to the Oval Office. But he faced a challenge from Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy.
Nixon had all the chops — experience in foreign policy, tough on Communism, etc. — but Kennedy had all the pinache. Famous and rich family, beautiful wife, war hero. (Both men were in the navy in World War II, but Nixon was a logistics officer and Kennedy captained a PT boat — that got smashed by a Japanese cruiser, forcing him and his crew to hide on an island, forcing Kennedy to save them, forcing him to have a better war story than Nixon.)
The two agreed to a televised debate — the first ever in a presidential race. Both men were relatively young, in their 40s, but Kennedy, all fresh-faced and blonde, looked much younger than Nixon, all dour and five-o’clock-shadowed. Remarkably, the man who had used television artfully for the Checkers Speech was a disaster for the debate. Nixon refused to shave before the debate to lessen his shadow, and he rejected face powder to damp down his shine. Under the hot studio lights he sweated, making it appear that he was hiding secrets. (But hey, can you really help whether you sweat on national TV while running for president?)
Nixon “lost” the debate, and he lost the presidency, too. The first didn’t necessarily cause the latter, but it didn’t help. And just like that, Nixon was gone.
But Nixon returned for the 1962 California gubernatorial election. Nixon ran to unseat incumbent California governor Pat Brown (yes, current Cali governor Jerry Brown’s dad). Nixon didn’t really care anything about California politics, and most voters thought he was just looking for a stepping-stone back into national politics. Which was true. Nixon lost by five big points.
But that’s not what’s famous about this race. The day after he lost, Nixon met reporters in a combative little encounter. At the end he told them, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”
Boom! That line became as famous as the Checkers Speech. And just like that, Nixon was gone — again.
Of course, dramatic changes were coming. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Republican Barry Goldwater, in a disastrous election, couldn’t unseat Lyndon Johnson from the presidency in 1964. Johnson was immensely popular as the torch-bearer for the fallen young Kennedy. He had pushed through Congress the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The next year he scored the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Then he double- and tripled-down on American involvement in Vietnam (you know, to halt the spread of Communism), and his presidency went into the toilet. After Communist North Vietnamese and Viet Cong handed Americans a stunning surprise with the Tet Offensive in January/February 1968, Johnson announced he would not seek re-election. After that, the Democrats’ probable presidential nominee was the wildly popular Bobby Kennedy. But he was assassinated in June.
And just like that, Nixon was back. Securing the Republican nomination in late summer 1968, Nixon went on to beat Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Independent George Wallace in a handy electoral victory.
I’ll save you the blow-by-blow of Nixon’s presidency. Suffice it to say that he promised to get the U.S. out of Vietnam and unite the divided country. He did neither. Well, he got us out of Vietnam, but not until after he had won re-election. Gee, thanks.
Nixon was pretty much sure to win re-election in 1972, but he was the only person in the world who didn’t know it. His White House all-purpose goon squad — known as the Plumbers — burgled the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C., to plant bugs (okay, electronic listening devices — we used to call them bugs). That way, Nixon and his cronies could hear what the Dems were doing, and who they planned to nominate.
But a security guard (not Forrest Gump) caught the burglars on June 17, 1972. Everything unravelled. Media and Congressional investigators piled on over the next two years, and evidence led to the White House ordering, paying for, and then covering up the break-in. Secret tapes (SECRET TAPES!) in the Oval Office implicated Nixon in the whole scheme.
By August 1974, Congress was ready to impeach and remove Nixon from office. Nixon was falling apart. He drank. He wandered the White House at night, talking to paintings.
Beating Congress to the punch, Nixon resigned. On August 9, after handing the presidency to his vice-president, Gerald Ford, and after a big, sweeping wave on the steps to Marine One, Nixon boarded the helicopter. And just like that, he was gone — again.
Would Nixon ever return? I already told you — yes! It took a while, but yes. Ford pardoned Nixon for his involvement in Watergate (an act which cost Ford election in his own right in 1976), and Nixon had to undergo an operation for phlebitis. He laid low for a few years, then gradually reappeared.
Nixon, who had opened the door with Red China and brokered detente with the Soviet Union, had always been best at foreign policy. He returned to both China and the USSR as private citizen Nixon. He gave advice on foreign policy to Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. (Jimmy Carter was too close to the Watergate years to have much to do with him.)
Nixon authored ten books — ten! — after his presidency, and he appeared with British television host David Frost in the remarkable Frost-Nixon interviews.
On April 22, 1994, after suffering a stroke, Richard Nixon died. He was buried on the grounds of his presidential library in Yorba Linda, California, where his wife, Pat, had been interred a year earlier. While he did not get a full state funeral, all living former presidents were in attendance. President Clinton and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger spoke.
And just like that, Richard Nixon was gone.
But of course, Richard Nixon always returns. Always. And he has done so yet again. I seriously doubt that the ghost of Nixon is wandering the White House, but it does seem like Donald Trump has found the man’s playbook. Lies? Check! Obfuscation? Check! War against the media? Check! Ranting at the television? Check! Shady staffers? Check!
And the legacy of Nixon is always with us. He pounded the last nail in the coffin of Americans’ trust of politicians. He ushered in the age of constant investigative journalism. And his downfall made it clear that, as they say, no one, not even the president, is above the Constitution.