Richard Nixon: “There can be no whitewash in the White House”.

Richard Nixon, 37th President of the USA, with Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, 1972. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Richard Nixon: “There can be no whitewash in the White House.”

“When the President does it, that means that it’s not illegal.” Richard M. Nixon

Watergate. No matter where you start when looking at the life of Richard Nixon (1913-1994), you end up back at ‘Watergate’. If you’ve ever wondered why the media always seem to stick the word ‘gate’ on the end of any scandal, then it’s down to Nixon and events between 1972 and 1974. (Actually, if you’ve ever wondered why there is someone called ‘Milhouse Van Houten’ in ‘The Simpsons’, I suggest that you look no further than Nixon, as that was his middle name – although he spelt it ‘Milhous’.) Nixon was involved in many other important events, like the Vietnam War and détente with the USSR and China, but we’ll leave those out of this section so as to concentrate on this central moment. Be warned here – you will need to be alert and ready to check out a number of other things if you want to understand what went on but it is worth it. Nixon is a fascinating character and his life reads as a modern parable, an insight into how power and obsession can corrupt and destroy the most capable people. First of all, a few pictures of our subject with some key people; Nixon knew everybody.

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Nixon as Vice-President to President Eisenhower (Author: White House; Source: here)

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Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover (Author: White House; Source: here )

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Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev (Author: NARA; Source: here)

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Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev (Author: Oliver F. Atkins; Source: here)

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Nixon and Mao Zedong (Author: White House; Source: here)

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Nixon and Elvis Presley (Author: Oliver F. Atkins ; Source: here)

 

‘Watergate’ was the name of a building or rather a complex of buildings in Washington DC, the US capital, which included the headquarters of the Democratic Party in the USA. It contained a hotel, apartment blocks, shops and offices, parts of which were used by the Democrats. (It’s worth noting that it’s in the ‘Foggy Bottom’ section of the city. Things like that don’t normally bother me, and I know it shouldn’t be funny, but somehow it is.) Anyway, in the summer of 1972, as the campaign for that year’s Presidential Election was getting underway, a group of men broke into Watergate. They were caught, tried and imprisoned but there was a slight problem: it was noticed that nothing had been stolen even though they had been in the building for some time. Although this seemed a little strange, the police did not seem too bothered and things looked set to drift away into a low level story. The story went quiet for a while but two journalists with ‘The Washington Post’, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, set about an investigation that eventually revealed one of the most important cover-ups in history. Their work led to the White House and to the Oval office itself, to the President. In simple terms, Richard Nixon had wanted to know exactly what Senator George McGovern and the Democrats planned to do so that he could match and beat their ideas, so guaranteeing victory. And to do this, he was willing to authorise criminal activity, oversee a major cover up to make sure it never came out and mislead the US Congress and the people in the process. It would eventually bring him down.
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The Watergate Complex, Washington, D.C.. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

But why did Nixon do this in 1972? The answers to this question take us into the heart of one of the most fascinating politicians of the century as, on paper, it just did not make sense. In the summer of 1972, Nixon was miles ahead of McGovern in the polls. Nixon was walking towards a second term in office on the back of his foreign policy which had seen dramatic breakthroughs in relations with the Communist superpowers, both the USSR and China. The Democrats were in disarray after lots of in-fighting over several years, much of it linked with the Vietnam War and the rise of ‘issues’ to do with civil rights, feminism and gay rights. Senator George McGovern was chosen to fight Nixon but he was always trailing in the polls; he led a divided party and lacked support and credibility with the media and on the country. In November 1972, Nixon cruised to the expected and massive victory, winning 49 of the 50 states and receiving over 60% of the vote. The result was never in doubt, a landslide, and Nixon rode back into the White House on a high tide of public approval. Yet, less than two years later, in August 1974, Nixon would be forced to resign as he faced impeachment (being put on trial as President for lies, cover-ups and misleading congress) for spying on the Democrats. Why did he do it when he was so strong? Why had he taken such a risk when he held such a strong hand?

Although the above things are true, life is rarely simple especially when power is involved – and ego – and dreams – and fear – and status. History is usually shaped by people operating at the most basic human levels, and many powerful people are flawed, confused and as mixed up as the majority of people. History is often the equivalent of ‘dogs pissing up trees and blokes measuring their willies’, as it has been put, quite crudely but accurately. In other words, history is often about control and status: the control of territory and the status that comes from being more powerful than others. ‘Mine is bigger than yours, I control a bigger space than you…I am better than you and have more power than you…I am great.’ Basic it may be but Nixon fits these images rather well and the language he used was much stronger than ‘pissing’ and ‘willies’, I can tell you.

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Richard Nixon campaigning for re-election in 1972. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

To understand why President Nixon, the most powerful man in the world, who was at the height of that power in 1972, should choose to take such a huge risk as to bug his rival’s offices requires some background. The truth is that many powerful people do not always feel powerful – or secure or in control. And at times, those in power also come to believe that they are beyond normal restrictions and rules, able to demand and get what they want as their extraordinary influence becomes ‘normal’, just a part of their job. Others in power need to push the boundaries and limits so as to get a ‘buzz’, an adrenalin rush, a sense of danger to fight off boredom or routine. Stars of sport, film and music often live lives of glamour that others envy and desire but it can simply become a routine – while at the same time being something fragile and easily lost. Some turn to drugs, others to sex, others to crime – the patterns are well established. Boredom and a desire to control are an interesting combination, especially when mixed with a desire for greatness, the wish to take what you have and make it a sort of monument to your achievements. Think of this as we look at Richard Nixon and Watergate.

Richard Nixon came from a poor Californian family. Born in 1913, he was a bright child growing up as one of four brothers. Two brothers, Arthur and Harold died young (Arthur aged 7 and Harold at 24). Harold’s death in particular hit Richard hard creating a passion for action, achievement, strength. His actions and behaviour were tinged with vulnerability and the sense that nothing could be taken for granted; death or other shocks could come from anywhere. Alongside this, the key influence in his life was his mother, Hannah Milhous Nixon, feeding his huge determination and commanding great loyalty as well as fear. Nixon’s upbringing as a Quaker was also significant, rather puritanical and based on strict values, so that the family had a hatred of drinking and swearing, both of which became rather important later on.

The young Nixon was a very bright student, winning a scholarship to the famous Harvard University which he could not take up because the family was so poor. This missed opportunity denied him a natural way forward in life and fed in to a sense of injustice and the idea of the world being against him. It was one of the things that would later feed in to his hatred of the posh, privileged, well-to-do East Coast families who had such influence in Washington. Those privileged classes would come to be epitomised by the Kennedy family from Massachusetts.

Despite the setback of not getting to Harvard, Nixon went to a local college and did very well although he had to carry on working at the family store. In 1934, he won a scholarship to Law School, eventually becoming a lawyer. He served in the Navy (just like the future President Jack Kennedy) during World War II before winning election to the House of Representatives in 1946. He was soon making a name for himself by becoming involved in one of the high-profile spy cases of the post-war era. Nixon joined the investigations of the HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Commission), looking into the accusations against Alger Hiss, whose story is worth knowing as it provides important background for the rise of Joe McCarthy.

Alger Hiss (1904-1996) was an official with the US Federal Government who had been involved in setting up the United Nations, amongst other things. In 1948 he was accused of being part of a Communist group which had infiltrated the government. Hiss denied it but was put on trial. He denied all charges. A document allegedly produced on his typewriter was presented as key evidence, although such a thing could quite easily have been faked. Hiss was eventually found guilty of perjury (lying and misleading the court) but not guilty of the actual charges. Hiss’s conviction came on 25th January, 1950, just two weeks before McCarthy would make his claim of wide scale Communist infiltration into the US Government. Hiss went to prison for nearly four years and his career was ruined, one of the first to suffer as part of the new ‘Red Scare’ of the post-war years.

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Alger Hiss on trial. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Richard Nixon was one of the politicians who was convinced that communists had become powerful within the government. He fought hard against President Truman over his actions in Korea, claiming the President had been too weak and too slow in standing up to Communist expansionism. Likewise, he was one of those who accused Truman of being responsible for the “loss of China” when Jiang Jieshi’s Chinese nationalists, who had been supported by the USA, were defeated by Chairman Mao’s communist forces. The Chinese Revolution saw China, the largest population in the world, become Communist on 1st October, 1949, a clear sign to many in the West that Communism was on the march and the so called ‘domino-effect’ was happening. The facts were that China bordered the USSR, controlled most of the Asian coast of the Pacific and reached south to border French Indo-China and India, and these were all of concern to the US administration. The blame for the fall of China was put on Truman for being too soft on Communism abroad and at home. Richard Nixon was one of the anti-Red politicians and he went on to become a firm supporter of Joe McCarthy and the Communist ‘witch hunts’.

Ambitious for power, Nixon used his higher profile and status within the Republican Party to run for Senator of California in the elections of 1950. In the wake of the Hiss trial and that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, another very high profile spying case, many American voters were anxious about anyone with even slightly ‘left of centre’ policies. Nixon made out that his opponent, Helen Douglas was, if not a Red, then certainly a ‘pink’; his actual phrase about the former actress was that she was ‘pink, right down to her underwear’, meaning perhaps that she kept her ‘true’ Communist sympathies hidden away. Nixon won but Douglas’ nickname for him, ‘Tricky Dicky’, would stay with him for the rest of his life. But he had made a huge step in his political career by becoming a Senator at the age of just 33.

In 1952, Richard Nixon took a major step up the political ladder when he was the surprise choice as running mate for the Republican candidate, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was standing for the presidency. Eisenhower had a military background and had no links to either political party. In 1952 it was known he would probably stand for election but it was unclear if he would be a Republican or a Democrat. Whichever he chose, he was certain to be the favourite as he was a national hero after commanding Allied Forces at D-day and being the first leader of NATO. Nixon was chosen to be Vice-President as he was the young rising star of the Republican Party. He was the darling of the right-wing (McCarthy supporters loved him) while Eisenhower was a ‘softer’ Republican. Nixon would go on to play a key role in the Eisenhower administration over the next eight years, taking a major interest in foreign policy. Nixon was intelligent and ambitious but he did have a darker, nasty side. One incident worth noting in all this is that there were accusations made against Nixon in 1952 regarding his expenses and campaign funds. It’s not the fact that he was accused but the way he handled that is so interesting. Nixon went on TV to make a statement and he took his six year-old daughter’s dog, called ‘Checkers’, with him. In these early days of TV, he manipulated the situation by creating the image of a lovely, happy, nice man, playing with a lovely happy, cute dog. ‘Aaaahhhh’, the people sighed, ‘How could a man with such a nice dog be anything but trustworthy?’ And so he got away with it, possibly setting a dangerous precedent and creating a sense of his own cleverness and talent.

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Eisenhower and Nixon with King Saud of Saudi Arabia in 1957.(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Throughout this time, Nixon was striving for power. Nothing was ever quite enough to satisfy his drive to overcome his impoverished background and prove his intelligence. In foreign affairs in particular he developed an expertise beyond that of most members of the Government. He was popular but wanted more; for the greatness he desired, the greatness that would really get back at East Coast liberals and privileged classes, Nixon needed the top job as President. And for true greatness, he knew that he would need to be re-elected so as to serve two terms. In 1960, as Eisenhower stood down after eight years, Nixon was chosen to be the Republican candidate and it seemed to be his job for the taking. In challenging Nixon, the Democrats went to the son of one of the richest men in the USA, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, (usually known as JFK or ‘Jack’).

Jack Kennedy was privileged, one of those East Coast clans that Nixon had decided to hate from nearly three decades earlier. The head of the Kennedy dynasty, Joseph Kennedy Snr., was a multi-millionaire and one of the richest men in the USA. He was from an Irish-Catholic family who had made it big in Boston, Massachusetts, building a fortune from finance (gambling on the stock market) and alcohol (he gained rights to distribute Scottish whisky after prohibition). He was also rumoured to have links with the Mafia and other gangsters during the prohibition era and was certainly well connected in official circles too. Such a wealthy and privileged background saw the Kennedy children have a golden life, the best schools and a couple of years living in London when Joe Kennedy became the US Ambassador. But despite the many advantages dealt to JFK by birth, Nixon was a far better politician, more experienced, a better debater and with a stronger grasp of policy, and he was a clear favourite to win the White House in 1960.

The turning point in 1960 is always said to be the first of the televised debates. Fifty years before they appeared in the UK, these debates started in the USA, with Nixon-Kennedy becoming prime time viewing. Little planning was considered at the time but what happened in the first debate set in train a process which has turned such events into a small industry. Arguments about who stands where, the height and angles of the podium, who speaks first, the colour of ties, the amount of make-up and the heat of the studio are just some of the factors considered. And it all goes back to 1960. So, what happened and how does it link with Watergate?

Richard Nixon was not as tall as Jack Kennedy. He was not as handsome as Kennedy. He did not dress as well as Kennedy. But Nixon knew far more than Kennedy and could run rings round him with his arguments and grasp of facts. And Kennedy knew all this. And his advisers did. And his Dad did. So during the campaign and in the build-up to the debates, Joe Kennedy hired a TV crew to go round with his son, filming events and then distributing them to the news shows. They showed them and it became free advertising for Kennedy. Most of these clips showed him smiling, greeting happy crowds and standing alongside his beautiful wife, Jacqueline.

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John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie. (Author: Abbie Rowe; Source: here)

The first TV debate was held on 26th September 1960. The view on this debate is that Nixon did not perform well, giving a mediocre performance by his high standards, but he had been ill, coming out of hospital only a few days earlier after a bout of ‘flu’. But most people still believed he out-performed Kennedy in the debate about domestic affairs. Certainly those listening on radio believed that Nixon won the debate. But TV audiences differed. They gave it to Kennedy, not for his arguments but because of looks and image. Kennedy stood straight and tall while Nixon slouched over the podium. Kennedy looked cool and smart while Nixon sweated badly in a creased suit. Kennedy smiled and cracked jokes while Nixon scowled and gave long detailed answers that went over some people’s heads. In its simplest form, many TV viewers said they would rather go for a beer with Kennedy than with Nixon.

What was going on? Well, one reason why Kennedy stood tall was because he had a bad back, a chronic injury from WWII, while Nixon slumped forward as he was recovering from flu. But people judged by such looks. Next, Kennedy was simply taller and better-looking than Nixon, and he had grown up with a different sense of style and the experience of meeting many people. Nixon, in contrast, also had a terrible problem with sweating, something that plagued him throughout his career. Under the hot TV lights, recovering from flu, it was worse than ever at that debate. People did not see or judge based on sweat on the radio, of course, but it affected the opinions of the TV viewers. Kennedy was more charming than Nixon but he had less to say, so he went for short, simple answers that made sense to people rather than dealing with the big, complicated issues which Nixon did. Kennedy’s witty openers won people over while Nixon’s analysis lost them. The reality is that people who don’t understand the issues get one vote each, just as those who do understand the issues get one vote each. Kennedy won that first TV debate through image not content and many people did not bother to watch the other three debates, which Nixon was thought to have won. They made their minds up early: Kennedy would do. It was a classic case of perception being more important than reality.

Nixon lost the 1960 election, ‘his’ election, to Kennedy, the rich boy from the East Coast who had all the help and luck in the world. He lost by 120 000 votes or just 0.2% of the vote. Nixon was devastated. Privilege, looks and luck had beaten him; he felt cheated and betrayed by the system. After considering alternative options, he stepped back from front-line politics. He was not yet 50 and could find a new way forward. He considered standing again in 1964 but sympathy for the Democrats following Kennedy’s assassination meant there was no way the new President, Lyndon B. Johnson, could lose, so Nixon stayed in the wilderness. The Kennedy assassination served to remind him of the way unpredictable events could shatter your plans. Nixon stayed away from Washington politics but maintained his interest and involvement in foreign affairs. He was a major critic of Johnson’s policy in Vietnam, for instance, demanding more force against the Viet Minh and the North Vietnamese. With the war not going well and with a lot of support from businessmen and some Republicans, a return to the Presidency looked like a possibility in 1968.

1968 saw the Vietnam War going badly for the USA and when President Johnson announced that he would not seek the Democrat nomination to run in 1968, Nixon got involved. The Democrats were struggling and needed a candidate to unite them otherwise Republican victory looked possible. Things suddenly turned against Nixon and the Republicans when Bobby Kennedy, the popular younger brother of Jack Kennedy, announced that he would stand for the Democrat nomination. History looked as if it might repeat itself at the election and a second presidential defeat for Nixon to a Kennedy would mark the end of his Presidential ambitions and his political career. But the ‘gods’ (or the ‘devils’) smiled on Nixon, as Bobby Kennedy became the fourth high-profile assassination in the USA in the 1960s. Following JFK in November 1963, Malcolm X in February 1965 and Martin Luther King in April 1968, Bobby Kennedy was killed in June 1968 in Los Angeles, having just won the Democrat nomination for California.

In the absence of Kennedy, the Democrats were divided. Hubert Humphrey was the candidate but Senator George Wallace of Alabama stood as an independent Democrat, really as an alternative for the Southern Democrats. The Democrat vote was split, allowing Richard Nixon to become President. He defeated Humphrey by just 500 000 votes. Nixon won comfortably on States (31 – 19 against the combined number for Humphrey and Wallace) but on votes he won only 43% and he was only 0.7% ahead of Humphrey. In total he was over 9 million votes (or 13%) behind when the two Democrats were added together. This would trouble him greatly in the approach to the 1972 election, seeking re-election, with a second term, and the dream of greatness, within his grasp. Insecurity walked with him at his Inauguration in January 1969.

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Nixon’s inauguration, January, 1969. (Author: Oliver F. Atkins; Source: here)

When it came to the next election in 1972, Nixon was frantically busy in the months leading up to it. As well as the ordinary day to day aspects of being President, he was trying to get ‘peace with honour’ in Vietnam so that the US could withdraw without appearing to have lost or deserted its ally in South Vietnam. He was trying to address issues in the Cold War by improving relations with both China and the USSR, building tension between them through negotiations and trying to get their help in putting pressure on the Communists of North Vietnam to cut a deal. His visits to Chairman Mao Zedong in China and Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow had captured the world’s imagination. He had been given pandas by Mao, vodka and hugs by Brezhnev and there were deals on nuclear weapons to be signed. In the midst of all this, Nixon felt a mix of elation, power and anxiety. He was so busy he often lost track of what was going on so he took to taping all of his conversations and meetings in the Oval Office (his main office) in the White House. He was also keen to get on with the ‘big’ stuff of government, Vietnam and the Cold War, without having to worry about the election too much. But the memories of 1960, the fateful assassinations of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, the close-run election of 1968 and his own deep insecurities and desperate dream of being ‘special’ would not let go. And so he approved the bugging of the Watergate Building in the summer of 1972.

A group of ex-CIA agents and Cuban exiles did it. They were called ‘The Plumbers’ and they broke in to the Watergate Building to bug the Democrat offices on 17th June, 1972. They got caught when a piece of tape was found holding a door lock closed. No one thought too much of this burglary except for young journalist with ‘The Washington Post’, called Bob Woodward, who became suspicious because nothing seemed to have been taken during the ‘burglary. The idea of this being a ‘burglary’ did not quite add up. Still no one seemed too bothered and it looked like it would all fall away even after the ‘plumbers’ were convicted. Another journalist, Carl Bernstein, joined Woodward to investigate the story but they made little progress at first. Eventually an FBI Informant, using the codename ‘Deep Throat’, a reference to a porn movie of the time, gave them details that linked the incident to the White House and so developed one of the most famous political tales of all time. Enquiries continued into 1973 and 1974 which led to high-profile arrests and took the story into the ‘Oval Office’ itself. Nixon was implicated and two of his senior aides, John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman, ended up in prison.

The investigation had not been able to find Nixon’s role in ‘Watergate’ as there was no clear trail to him. However, Nixon’s fate was sealed when a junior official in the White House, Alexander Butterfield, said that the President had tapes of all of his conversations. The Supreme Court demanded these tapes but they were refused. Eventually they got some, then a few more, then others with sections missing. In early August 1974, the ‘smoking gun’ tape was passed to prosecutors, giving clear evidence that Nixon had known about and authorised the break in. In the chaos that followed, the noose tightened around Nixon, especially as many of the tapes could not be played on TV because they contained so much swearing and profanity. Edited versions with the famous ‘expletive deleted’ subtitle horrified and scandalised the USA. Along with revelations about Nixon’s heavy drinking, the swearing would have had his mother turning in her grave. The imagined disappointment that Mrs. Nixon might have felt were as nothing compared with the anger and humiliation her son experienced when Richard Nixon was forced to resign from the Presidency. At 9 pm, East Coast Time, on 8th August, 1974, Richard Milhous Nixon became the only US president to be forced to resign. All his dreams and ambitions had ended in the ultimate disgrace.

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Nixon’s resignation speech, 8th August, 1974. (Author: White House photo, Courtesy Richard Nixon Presidential Library; Source: here)

Nixon was immediately replaced by his vice-president, Gerald Ford, who went on to lose the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer from Georgia. Ford’s first act as President was to give a full pardon to Nixon. In the Communist world, Brezhnev and Mao were bewildered by what had happened as it seemed as nothing compared to what they considered logical and reasonable. The people of America felt anger, betrayal and horror at what had happened. Woodward and Bernstein were awarded prize after prize for their journalism.

And Nixon went home to California where he had lots of time to think. No doubt he went back over the things that had brought him to Watergate. Jealousy, fear of failure, ambition and the dream of being special were just some of the things that would have gone through his head. And some important faces, too, from his mother and brothers, to Alger Hiss and Joe McCarthy, to Jack and Bobby Kennedy.

Maybe his most nagging thought in those dark times was, ‘If only I didn’t sweat so much…’ It’s strange how life often turns on such small matters.

 

Find out more

Film: ‘Nixon’ by Oliver Stone (Certificate 15, Eiv, 1995). Typically robust approach to film making by Oliver Stone which emphasises many of the deep-seated flaws in Nixon’s personality with much being made of his childhood and his relationship with his mother.

Film: ‘All the President’s Men’ (Certificate 15, Warner Home Video, 1976). Famous Oscar winning film about the investigation into Watergate by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of ‘The Washington Post’.

Film: ‘Frost-Nixon’ (Certificate 15, Universal pictures UK, 2009). Interesting film version of the play about the interviews between a relatively unknown David Frost and Richard Nixon. Nixon ends up being led into far more revealing comments than expected.

Book: ‘The Arrogance of Power’ by Anthony Summers (Phoenix Press, 2000.) An interesting if clearly critical study of Nixon highlighting many of the Presidents failings and the more murky side of his personality and relationships.

Book: ‘The Presidents: The Transformation of the American Presidency from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama’ by Stephen Graubard (Penguin, 2009). A fascinating study of changes in the Presidency including the impact of Nixon.

 

 

 

 

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