President Richard Nixon: A Great Leader?
Richard Milhous Nixon was born in Yorba Linda, a small town in Southern California in January 9, 1913. At the time his father was citrus farmer in the area. After being hit with an unseasonably cold winter the farm suffered. By age 6 his family his family moved to Whittier, California, where his father opened a small grocery store.
In 1918 when Richard Nixon was 12 years old, his youngest brother died at the age of 7 from tuberculosis. This tragic loss was extremely hard on the family especially Richard, however the loss gave him the will and determination to try to help his parents heal by replacing their heartache with pride from Richard’s accomplishments and successes. He was very bright and hardworking, not only in school, but he helped his father with the grocery store as well. He woke up every morning at 4:00 am to drive to Los Angeles to get produce and bring it back to the store to get it set up for the day. Afterwards, he went to school and did his homework only to return to the store to work every afternoon. In school he joined every organization he could and eventually became president of each organization. This was not because he was popular, but people had a certain respect for him. It was very hard for a young Richard Nixon to make true friends. He was seen as very serious and focused.
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During his time in high school his family faced another tragedy. His oldest brother, Harold, also contracted tuberculosis. Harold was the polar opposite from Richard. He was popular, friendly, and outgoing, where Richard was more of a loner and unapproachable. Their mother took Harold to Arizona to care and others suffering from tuberculosis with the hopes of a more successful recover in a dryer climate. This was very hard on the family emotionally and financially. Richard continued to do well in high school and graduated best all-around in his class. He was given a tuition paid scholarship to Harvard, but due to his family caring for his ill brother, they were unable to afford room and board. Having to turn down this scholarship was a major blow to Richard.
In the fall of 1930 Richard Nixon started in Whittier College where he excelled in his studies. Again, he joined everything he could, even football, even though he was rarely given a chance to play. While he was in his third year of college, his family brought Harold home. Their mother’s birthday was approaching, and Harold asked Richard to drive him to the store to get her a mixer for a birthday present. On his mother’s birthday, Harold was determined to have the strength to get up and give her the present himself. That day he died in her arms.
Richard Nixon, devastated of the loss of another brother, his oldest, now becomes even more determined to become the perfect son thinking it will help his parents heal from the painful loss. After he graduated Whittier College as a four-year honor student, he went to Duke University to receive a law degree. Even with competition much tougher at Duke, Nixon still remained driven and graduated third in his class.
After graduating with a law degree, he returned to Whittier, California at 24 years old to join a small law firm. He married Pat Ryan in 1940, and not long after they married, he and Pat moved to Washington, DC. He began working for the Office of Price Administration. This was a time when America was at war and Nixon volunteered to join the Navy. He could have refused war service because he was a government employee and a Quaker, but Nixon knew by this point that he wanted a future in politics, so to him refusing to join the military was not an option.
While in the Navy, Nixon became a great poker player who became very skilled at bluffing. He came home from the war with $10,000 that he won from a game, and he used his winnings to fund his first political campaign for California’s 12th congressional district, which he later won. In 1948 he was so well-liked that his congressional seat was uncontested. He later began campaigning for the Senate and won, and in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower even selected him as his running mate for the presidential election. Nixon was known to seek out and destroy reputations of every opponent he faced throughout his political career, while portraying himself as “holier-than-thou” (Ambrose). This tactic backfired when he was accused of using campaign funds for himself and giving special treatment to those who donated to the fund. In order to secure his seat on the ballot for vice president, Nixon became the first politician to use national television to reach supporters and plead his case. This speech, now famously known as the Checkers Speech, was a bold move that was a huge success because it reached the public on a personal level. He went on national television and disclosed all of his financial information from how much they paid for rent, to how much life insurance they had, and also all of their debt that was owed. At the end of the speech he told the nation the story of a black and white Cocker Spaniel named Checkers that was a gift from a campaign donor. He said that his daughters loved Checkers and that was the only donation that he was keeping and would be returning no matter what anyone said. Not only was this audacious move a triumphant success, but Eisenhower and Nixon won the election in an overwhelming victory.
Nixon served as Eisenhower’s Vice President for 8 years, but it was not until 1955 when Eisenhower had a heart attack that Nixon was suddenly in charge of the nation. It was then that he proved to the nation that he could handle the presidency. As Ambrose explains, “Nixon won praise from all quarters for his calm, skillful conduct in the crisis; a 1958 trip to South America, where communist demonstrators threatened to kill him, but he stood up to them, to his own great political advantage back in the States; and a 1959 trip to Russia where he engaged in a heated debate with the Soviet dictator and was so successful that he was called ‘the man who stood up to Khrushchev” (Ambrose).
The years during Nixon’s eight years as Vice President under Eisenhower were peaceful years for America, so it was thought that Nixon could win the 1960 presidential election against John F. Kennedy. Nixon resented Kennedy because came from a wealthy and affluent family. In November of 1960 Kennedy won the election in one of the closest elections to date. After his defeat, Nixon left politics to return to practice law in California, but only briefly. That lasted about a year and a half before he had the urge to get back into politics, and this time he was running for Governor of California. He lost badly this time, and in one of his most famous and calculated statements, he told the press in a statement to, “think 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.” He knew that other Republicans also felt that the press was biased with the Democratic party and this was his chance to confront them on national television.
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He then moved to work in a high-profile law firm in New York where he continued to prepare himself by learning foreign policy abroad to once again enter back into politics and become President. By 1967, Richard Nixon was back. He won the Republican nomination in August of 1967. “He campaigned as the champion of the ‘silent majority’ –ordinary Americans who believed that change had gone too far –and called for a renewed commitment to “law and order“ (Foner 1011). He was elected president in 1968 not only because of this commitment to restore law and order, but also because he promised to end the Vietnam War. “Nixon pledged during the campaign that he could achieve ‘an honorable peace’ in Vietnam. (The standard phrase later became ‘peace with honor’)” (Monje). It was not until early 1973 that the he was able to establish the Paris Peace Agreement that ended the war. As Foner explains about the Vietnam War, “The only war the United States has ever lost, Vietnam was a military, political, and social disaster. By the time it ended, 58,000 Americans had been killed, along with 3 million Vietnamese” (Foner 1023).
In 1971, there was a newspaper article outlining the past United States government administrations’ negotiations with Vietnam. Nixon became afraid that these past diplomatic negotiations would become public knowledge and hurt his current negotiations. The justice department tried to get an injunction against the production of any more of these articles to try to stop anymore leaks. This was when he established a Special Investigations Unit, known as “the Plumbers”, because stopping leaks would be their main task. The Nixon administration started tapping the telephones of the reporters because he felt they sided with the anti-Vietnam people. They broke into a psychiatrist office to try to get dirt on Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. They wiretapped foreign embassies.
All of these crimes led up to the start of Nixon’s downfall, which was the scandal we know today as Watergate. In 1973, five men were arrested after breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex. Immediately, it was apparent that this was tied to the White House. One of the items they seized during the arrest was a telephone book with the phone number to the White House along with the direct extension to the head of the Plumbers’, Chuck Colson. As Mendolsohn describes, “it became increasingly clear that the Watergate burglary was one of several illegal operations that the president’s reelection committee had financed and organized” (Mendolsohn). Nixon did not originally know about the Watergate burglary, but as soon as he did, he “plotted a cover-up operation to prevent any connection between the burglars and his campaign” (Mendolsohn). It almost worked, except for the fact that Nixon taped all of his presidency at the Oval Office of the White House. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that the tapes did not belong to him and must be submitted into evidence. The calls for his impeachment began mid-1973, and the first article of impeachment came in on July 27. Two more articles were approved and more began to come in, but deliberations stopped on August 8, 1874 when President Nixon resigned from office.
Nixon became the only president to resign from office in disgrace, and unfortunately that became his biggest claim to fame. Even with all of the mistakes made by the Nixon administration, they also had many achievements. Nixon’s administration started the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He asked Congress to establish pension reform to protect Americans from losing their pension if they lost their jobs. Nixon signed an executive order to continue the Philadelphia Plan which helped to increase employment of minorities on federal construction projects. He signed legislature on behalf of American Indians improving federal Indian policies, and he increased funding to African American colleges. Additionally, he funded the National Endowment for the Arts.
I do not feel that Nixon was ever a “crook”, but his drive to always win was enough temptation for him to be guilty of an abuse of power. He did not collect any major payouts from being President. He never released any national security secrets for bribe monies. He did not transfer missile technology, and he did not start any wars for the purpose of profiting. Among his greatest achievements he was instrumental in reducing nuclear arms and tensions with China and with the Soviet Union. He is also known for ending the Vietnam War, although it was one of the longest and costliest retreats in our history.
President Nixon was a visionary and winning meant everything to him. I would not consider him as having the best leadership skills; however, he was driven, brilliant, and demanding, and more importantly he kept the world at peace while in office with his knowledge and understanding of international affairs. He was often described with the phrase “when he was bad, he was really bad, but when he was good, he was great.”
- Ambrose, Stephen E. “Nixon: An Important but Not a Great President.” World & I, vol. 9, no. 7, July 1994, p. 88. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=khh&AN=9407182988&site=ehost-live.
- Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty an American History. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2017.
- Mendelsohn, James. “Of Washington D.C. and Watergate.” Barbara Jordan, Jan. 2000, p. 136. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=khh&AN=8821071&site=ehost-live.
- Monje, Scott C. “CONFRONTATIONS WITH COMMUNISM: Richard Nixon: The ‘Silent Majority’ and ‘Vietnamization’.” Defining Documents: The 1960s, Apr. 2016, pp. 128–137. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=khh&AN=127106183&site=ehost-live.
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