1968, is one of the worst years in American political history. The year began with the stunning Tet Offensive, which more than any other event, changed public opinion on the Vietnam War. Within weeks, President Lyndon B. Johnson took the extraordinary step of announcing that he would not seek nor accept the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. The Democratic Party was divided between the Johnson wing of the party and the younger, anti-war wing of the party. In April, the nation was stunned when Martin Luther King Jr., the single most important civil rights leader in the country, was gunned down in Memphis, TN. Riots broke out throughout the nation. In June, Robert Kennedy, a symbol of hope and new leadership for America was murdered by an Iranian extremist while campaigning in Los Angeles. In July, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was overcome with riots and violence. A compromise candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey was nominated for president. A radical Independent candidate, Governor George Wallace of Alabama, the original #MAGA candidate, ran on a platform of "segregation forever!" Out of this chaos, America looked to a man they knew. A man with a long political career. A man who promised to have a "secret pan" to end the war in Vietnam. A man who promised to represent the "silent majority" of Americans and restore "law and order". The American people elected Richard Milhous Nixon.
To many Americans, Nixon is the standard of presidential failure. After all, the scandal that brought him down, Watergate, has become part of the American lexicon. However, the truth is that Richard Nixon has a long list of achievements as President of the United States. In fact, as far as a resume goes, Richard Nixon's credentials were pretty good leading into his election in 1968. Nixon served in the Navy during WWII and entered politics shortly thereafter. In the U.S. House of Representatives, Nixon gained national attention for his hard-line against supposed communist sympathizers within the government. In 1950, he was elected to the Senate were he was known for his conservative politics. Because he was young, conservative, and from the important state of California Nixon was chosen as Dwight Eisenhower's running mate in 1952. Despite a few missteps (see "Checkers Speech"), Richard Nixon was elected Vice President of the United States under the extremely popular President Eisenhower. Nixon would serve as America's second in command for 8 years before running for President in 1960. In 1960, the somewhat awkward Nixon competed against the young, exciting, inspirational John F. Kennedy. Nixon lost in what would be the closest election in American history.
Following his defeat, Richard Nixon went home to California where he ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor. Lashing out at the media for what he perceived as a liberal bias, Nixon famously told reporters "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore." Nixon's political career appeared to be over. The 1960s, in many ways, was an era of liberal change. Civil rights, voting rights, Medicare, Medicaid, and numerous other liberal causes were championed by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The Republicans had no answer. There flirt with the far-right in 1964 turned out to be a disaster when their candidate, Barry Goldwater, was defeated in a landslide. However, as the 60s neared an end, the war in Vietnam, the changing civil rights movement, the student movement, and a divided Democratic party gave Nixon the opportunity he needed to return. He was elected in 1968, marking one of the most unlikely political comebacks in American history.
As mentioned before, Richard Nixon had quite a few significant achievements as President. Here are a few of the highlights:
- Vietnam: Nixon ended the war in Vietnam. His plan for "peace with honor" worked....sort of. Yes, the United States was not successful in Vietnam. We lost. However, Nixon, through extensive bombing, Vietnamization, and a controversial (perhaps illegal) expansion of the war into neighboring counties did bring the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table. Nixon ended the draft and brought thousands of brave servicemen and women home from a place they probably shouldn't have been in the first place.
- Environment: Richard Nixon, a Republican, created the EPA. Times have changed.
- Cold War: Nixon normalized relations with the People's Republic of China. Prior to 1972, the United States had virtually no relationship with communist China. The most ardent opponent of communism was now shaking the hand of Chairman Mao. Controversial in its day, the visit to China opened the door for more normal relations which eased tensions and have made the United States and China, despite our many differences, strong trading partners. What's more surprising than his visit to China, was Nixon's visit to Moscow. Relations with the Soviet Union improved under Nixon as he pursued a policy of detente. The easing of relations allowed for more diplomacy and ultimately a reduction in arms between the two superpowers.
With a list of accomplishments like these, it's hard to imagine how a man so successful could be remembered as a failure. The answer is character. Richard Nixon, though a cunning and crafty politician and diplomat, was not suited for the presidency. The President of the United States is not simply the CEO of the country. The President must be more. We don't elect presidents to run our country, we elect them to lead our country. Leadership is the fundamental element of a successful presidency. The bedrock of true leadership is character. Richard Nixon was not a leader and his personal demons ultimately sank his presidency.
Heading into the 1972 election, Nixon had every reason to feel optimistic. His approval rating was high, his agenda was being fulfilled, and the Democrats remained a party in search of an identity. But optimism was not a quality that Nixon had in abundance. The President had spent his whole life looking over his shoulder, paranoid as to who might try to bring him down. He lacked self-confidence, held grudges, and resented people who he thought portrayed him unfairly. He had few close friends, even those with who he spent the most time remarked how little they actually knew him. Over the course of his political career he had amassed a list of enemies. This "enemies list" was made up of journalist, politicians, public figures, and anyone else who Nixon was convinced was out to get him. Unless you're Arya Stark, an enemies list is not the sort of thing one should take pride in. As a result of his paranoia, and obsessed with rooting out supposed leakers within the White House, Nixon went so far as to wiretap the White House so that there would be recordings of his phone calls and private conversations in the Oval Office. It would be these tapes that would be his undoing.
If one examines the history of the Watergate scandal, you might be surprised that for months it was only covered on the back pages of America's newspapers. The scandal took months to gain the attention of most Americans. The extent to which Nixon was involved in the actual crime at the Watergate is still a matter of debate, however, how the President handled the crisis is crucial to understanding his undoing. As Congress, using their oversight authority, tried to discover the truth about the extent of the Watergate break in, testimony revealed the existence of Nixon's secret tapes. When Congress demanded that White House recordings be turned over to investigators, Nixon refused. It was executive privilege he claimed. When Special Counsel for Watergate Archibald Cox learned of the tapes, he subpoenaed the recordings. Nixon refused and ordered Cox to drop the subpoena. When Cox refused, Nixon ordered his Attorney General to fire Cox. The AG refused and resigned. Nixon ordered the Deputy AG to fire Cox. He refused and resigned. Finally, Nixon ordered the Solicitor General to fire Cox. He did and Nixon was in trouble. You can't fire the person investigating you.
Over the course of the next few months, numerous Nixon associates were indicted for interfering with the investigation. Nixon eventually was forced by the Supreme Court to release tapes that proved his role in trying to cover up the break in and obstruct the investigation. As the weeks passed and more associates were facing jail time, it became evident to Republican members of Congress that Nixon was a liability for their party in the 1974 midterm elections. The chairman of the Republican National Committee, future President George Bush, asked Nixon to resign. Meanwhile, Congress drew up articles of impeachment. Before Congress could vote to impeach the President, Nixon resigned, becoming the only President to do so.
Richard Nixon will forever be remembered as a symbol of presidential corruption, scandal, and failure. This is truly unfortunate because it overshadows his very real achievements as President of the United States. Nixon's story serves to remind us, yet again, that the Presidency requires more than political success. It requires more than business acumen or intelligence. The Presidency requires wisdom, character, and humility. In short, the Presidency requires leadership. Richard Nixon for all of his political gifts, was no leader.