Richard Nixon: the rise and fall of an American president

In the annals of political scandals, one name stands above all others: Watergate. Writing in BBC History Revealed, Nige Tassell reveals how this botched burglary turned Richard Nixon from one-time darling of American politics into one of the least-popular US presidents of the 20th century

Photo of Richard Nixon at a rally in 1968

“I, Richard Milhous Nixon, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

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These were the words by which the 37th US President was sworn in on 20 January 1969. Five and a half years later, these words would ring hollow.

Nixon’s journey to the White House had followed a somewhat more serpentine route than the limousine ride along Pennsylvania Avenue that took him to his new home later that day. In 1942, after five years of practising law in his native California, he headed east to Washington to take employment in the federal government. There his political career would both be patiently made – and then carelessly smashed.

After serving in the US Navy during World War II, Nixon sought public office for the first time. He successfully ran for the House of Representatives in 1946, defeating the Democratic incumbent Jerry Voorhis in the elections for California’s 12th congressional district.

His victory was, to a great extent, down to his legal training, to the way his lawyer’s mind worked. Nixon argued that, by supposedly being endorsed by a communist-connected group (a false accusation), Voorhis must be sympathetic to the communist cause and harbour leftwing tendencies. Nixon’s logic chimed with the electorate who elected him to power. He had publicly shown himself to be staunchly anti-communist, a stance that saw him swiftly co-opted onto the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, as well as co-sponsoring anti-communism bills in Congress.

Until this point, Nixon’s profile was largely limited to the Californian district he represented and to the political community in Washington. He became nationally known through his dogged pursuit of Alger Hiss, an ex-employee of the State Department suspected of being a Soviet spy. That Hiss was convicted of perjury – relating to his passing of government papers to a senior editor at Time magazine who had previously been a communist spy – was due to Nixon’s dog-with- a-bone tenacity.

The Hiss case cemented Nixon’s reputation as an unyielding enemy of communism (Photo by Getty)
The Hiss case cemented Nixon’s reputation as an unyielding enemy of communism (Photo by Getty)

Why was Nixon called Tricky Dick?

Nixon’s strong and very visible anti-communist outlook ensured his comfortable reelection in 1948. After serving two terms as a congressman, he stood for the Senate. His campaign against the Democrat candidate Helen Gahagan Douglas was bitter and acrimonious, and earned him the nickname that would intermittently shadow him for the rest of his political life: Tricky Dick.

His political acumen in his Senate campaign was, again, shown to be the product of his courtroom experience. By indicating that his opponent’s voting record as a Congresswoman mirrored that of another Democrat popularly believed to have communist sympathies, Nixon argued that she must be cut from the same cloth. He walked the election.

Nixon only served a third of his senatorial term. This wasn’t due to scandal or controversy; quite the opposite. His hefty support in California (the most populous state in the country and thus the state with the largest collection of Electoral College votes), combined with his anti-communist rhetoric and actions, made him the ideal running mate for Dwight D Eisenhower’s presidential election campaign. The partnership of Eisenhower’s war hero and Nixon’s youthful politico (he was still only 39) was the dream ticket. Even a modest controversy involving Nixon’s campaign expenses couldn’t derail the duo, and they swept to power.

Eisenhower’s war hero and Nixon’s youthful politico was the dream ticket

Nixon, vocal in denouncing the spread of global communism as a senator, was handed an unprecedented workload for a vice-president when it came to foreign policy. And when, in 1955, Eisenhower suffered a heart attack, Nixon assumed the role of commander-in-chief during the President’s six-week hospitalisation. Praised for confidently stepping up to the plate, no-one would have had any doubt that this was a man who fancied the Oval Office as his own one day.

Eisenhower and Nixon drinking tea
Eisenhower and Nixon toast a second term in office in 1957. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When did Nixon become president?

In 1960, four years after the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket had secured its second term, the vice-president did indeed throw his hat into the ring. He was a shoo-in for the Republication Party presidential nomination and faced the preferred Democrat candidate, the dashing John F Kennedy, for the ultimate prize. Political historians believe that one particular televised debate between the pair cost Nixon the election. In the era of black-and-white television, Kennedy’s dark suit made him appear more commanding compared to the gaunt-looking Republican, whose mid-tone jacket somewhat blended into the studio backdrop. The election result was narrow – and rather discoloured by claims of vote rigging in key Democrat states – but Kennedy took the presidency. Nixon’s seemingly unstoppable march to the White House had been halted in its tracks.

Nixon and his family retreated to California where he returned to practising law, as well as writing a volume of memoirs. It looked for all the world as though his political career was prematurely over. As he sat down at his typewriter, he admitted as much. “Although anyone who goes through a presidential campaign feels immediately afterward that he has lived enough for a lifetime, I still did not believe I had reached the point in life for memoir-writing.”

Within two years of his defeat to Kennedy though, Nixon was again seeking public office. But his defeat to Pat Brown for the governorship of his beloved California was surely the death knell of his political ambitions. Surely.

Nixon’s seemingly unstoppable march to the White House had been halted in its tracks

Nixon showed himself to be a loyal Republican, lending substantial support to the party during the 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater and during the mid-term elections two years later. He had decided not to run for the White House in 1964 as he viewed, in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, that the Democrats, in the form of vice-president Lyndon B Johnson, would be near impossible to beat. Goldwater’s heavy defeat vindicated the decision.

By the time the next presidential campaign came around, Nixon was ready to re-enter the fight, the year 1968 was a tumultuous one in the US, a 12-month period pockmarked by assassinations (those of both Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy), demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and violence at the Democratic National Convention. The country was in turmoil and Nixon took full advantage, appealing to what he called “the great silent majority”, the moderate conservatives confused and appalled by so much social unrest. He pledged to reduce crime and bring an end to the war in Southeast Asia.

With Johnson withdrawing from the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination at an early stage, Nixon’s chief opponent was the incumbent vice-president, Hubert Humphrey. But there was also a third candidate – former Alabama Governor George Wallace, standing for his American Independent Party. Wallace’s presence on the ballot paper split the traditional Democrat vote in the southern states, helping the Republicans to return to the White House after an eight-year absence. For Nixon, that limousine ride back down Pennsylvania Avenue to his new home had been a long time coming.

Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal

Nixon’s departure from the White House, on 9 August 1974 was not as leisurely and as triumphant as his arrival had been half a decade earlier. Looked on by family, political colleagues and White House staff, he wearily climbed the five steps of the presidential helicopter parked on the south lawn. He turned to wave defiantly and – a little curiously bearing in mind the circumstances – offer a wide smile.

Nixon departing the White House
Believe it or not, this is Nixon departing the White House for the last time – all smiles (Photo by Bill Pierce/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

As the helicopter rose into the sky, the President – disgraced by the wrongdoings, deception and illegality at the heart of his administration – would have gazed down on the Capitol, the scene of his two inaugurations. At the first, he had declared that “our destiny offers not the cup of despair but the chalice of opportunity”. Yet he was leaving the highest office in the land in the deepest despair, at the lowest ebb that it had ever been.

The evening before, Nixon had made a televised address to inform the nation of his intention to resign the presidency. His speech showed signs of the similar defiance shown the following day on the helicopter steps, keen to linger on his accomplishments in office rather than the shame under which he was departing. He spoke of “a time of achievement in which we can all be proud, achievements that represent the shared efforts of the administration, the Congress and the people”.

While his presidency wasn’t without successes (an example being a hugely symbolic visit to China), history will always view Nixon’s administration as having more in the debit column than the credit. Just a few months into his first term of office – and despite acknowledging that “the greatest honour history can bestow is the title of peacemaker” – he authorised the secret carpet-bombing of Cambodia. But the most politically damaging of his immoral practices was the scandal that dwarfed all other scandals: Watergate.

In the presidential election of November 1972, Nixon redrew the political landscape. Forty-nine states voted for him; the electoral map turned almost exclusively Republican red. Only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia filed a Democrat victory. But it would later transpire that this extraordinary landslide may not have been secured by means completely above board.

In June of that year, five men had been caught breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, which were in the Watergate complex of buildings in Washington. It had all the hallmarks of a political burglary: documents had been photographed and phones tapped. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein revealed that one of the burglars was on the payroll of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (derisively known as CREEP). The revelations caused panic within Nixon’s staff.

Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
Woodward (left) and Bernstein uncovered a scandal of such magnitude that ‘gate’ is now used to describe any outrageous controversy (Photo by Bettmann/Contributor, via Getty Images)

Woodward and Bernstein’s source for their continuing stream of stories surrounding the break-in was a reliable one: a shadowy figure named Deep Throat who was only identified in 2005 to be FBI associate director Mark Felt. Felt had access to all of the investigation’s ongoing findings and, through the two twentysomething reporters, found a channel by which he could circumnavigate any White House decrees.

Despite the Washington Post’s hard-hitting headlines (‘FBI Finds Nixon Aides Sabotaged Democrats’ is just one example), the President continued to cruise towards that landslide re-election, issuing a string of denials that seemed to assuage any doubters among the electorate. It wasn’t until spring 1973, a few months into Nixon’s second term, that the official investigation gathered pace. The burglars had pleaded guilty at the start of their trial in January; by March, one of them – a former CIA operative called James McCord – revealed that the burglary wasn’t a CIA mission, but did confirm that government officials were involved. The federal investigation now focused its crosshairs on those surrounding the President.

The following month, White House counsel John Dean, the President’s closest legal advisor, began cooperating with the investigators, while still in his position – and still the main individual charged with keeping Nixon’s name out of the whole affair. His testimony was dynamite, shifting their angle away from the actual events before and during the Watergate break-in and towards a conspiracy at the very pinnacle of US politics. Particularly powerful was Dean’s confession that he had directly discussed the cover-up with the President on no fewer than 35 occasions.

When did Nixon resign?

The heat was very much being turned up. In an attempt to diffuse the mounting tension, Nixon fired Dean on 30 April 1973, the same day that the resignations of two other high-ranking White House advisors – John Ehrlichman and Harry ‘Bob’ Haldeman – were announced.

A significant development came in July when the investigation learned that the Oval Office was fitted with a secret taping system, which allowed Nixon to record all conversations and phone calls. Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox subpoenaed the recordings, to which the White House responded with transcripts, not the actual tapes. A few months later, Cox was dismissed by the President, an event known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

Nixon continued to maintain that he only had knowledge of the break-in after the event. In November 1973, he held a televised press conference in which he fiercely denied any wrongdoing on his part: “People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.” The same month came the discovery that more than 18 minutes of the White House tapes were blank. A secretary claimed she’d wiped them accidentally, but the excuse, not overwhelmed by credibility, served to cast more suspicion onto Tricky Dick.

The legal fight over the release of the tapes continued well into 1974 until, in July, the Supreme Court decreed that the full tapes, and not selected transcripts, must be released. The discovery of the so-called Smoking Gun Tape – in which Nixon could be heard suggesting the CIA instruct the FBI to halt their investigation into the Watergate break in on the grounds of national security – marked the point of no return for the doomed President.

With support from his fellow Republicans in Washington having dissolved, and the realisation that he faced almost certain impeachment in Congress, Nixon fell on his sword, announcing his resignation in that televised address. The helicopter’s departure from the White House lawn the following morning drew to an end arguably the most ignominious episode in 20th-century presidential history.

What happened to Nixon after Watergate?

When Gerald Ford succeeded the departing Richard Nixon in the White House, he noted “our long national nightmare is over”. This declaration, though, didn’t stop Ford fully pardoning his predecessor within the first month of his presidency, thus removing any threat of Nixon being indicted.

As well as penning several books, in 1977 Nixon took part in a series of television interviews with David Frost during which he spoke at length about Watergate. After being shunned by world leaders in the immediate post-Watergate years, Nixon’s reputation was somewhat revived in the 1980s when he undertook a number of overseas trips, including visiting Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow.

Nige Tassell is a journalist specialising in history

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This content first appeared in the February 2019 issue 65 of BBC History Revealed