More than any other public figure, Richard Nixon represents the popular conception of the politician. He has participated in and been at the center stage of every single Presidential election in this country since 1952 with the exception of the 1964 election. He has been pronounced politically dead and politically unbeatable: his political positions have shifted from being the leading anti-communist politician of the 1950’s to the first President since the advent of the Cold War, to change the policy towards Communist China.
When Richard Nixon ran for President in 1960 he had the advantage of having been in the public eye for 8 years as vice-president and having the support of Dwight Eisenhower a very popular President. However, Nixon had weathered a number of major storms in order to get into the position he was in a 1960. In 1952, immediately after the Republican nomination in which Nixon was selected as Vice-President, a scandalous slush fund for Nixon became a widely spread political rumor. Many people, including leading Republicans called for Nixon to step down. However, defying political odds, Nixon went on television to explain his position. Appealing directly to homespun American values, Nixon made his famous Checkers speech. It not only saved his position also made him something of a celebrity.
In 1956, when Eisenhower was up for re-election, talk again began of dumping Nixon. This sentiment was strengthened by the fact that in 1955 Eisenhower had a heart attack and the serious possibility that the President might die while in office was raised. Certain Republican leaders felt that Nixon was not prepared to assume Presidential responsibilities. However, partly with the support of Eisenhower, and partly by the toning down of Nixon’s previous anti-communism, Nixon once again became respectable enough to keep the Vice-Presidency.
The fact that nixon was able to keep the Vice-Presidency accomplished both his successful capturing of the Republican nomination in 1960 and his status as frontrunner in the initial months of the contest with John Kennedy.
Early in the 1960 campaign the two candidates agreed to a series of debates. These debates were a first in the annals of American politics and threatened to be the single most important factor in deciding the outcome.
The first debate caused the tremendous controversy over the question of Nixon’s make-up. Due to a series of circumstances, Nixon’s facial make-up was so minimally and poorly applied that Nixon appeared to many as having somewhat of a grisly, unshaven look. Unfortunately for Nixon, this image directly corresponded to the type of image so prominent in cartoons by Herblock portraying Nixon the anti-communist demagogue. By 1960, this harsh style of politics was very much out of favor, and much of the campaign Nixon tried to project an entirely different public image. However, that simple facial presence in the first debate went a long way towards keeping the old Nixon on everyone’s mind.
What is striking about the 1960 campaign was the relative similarities between the two candidates. On most issues, the two candidates saw eye to eye. In all the debates hardly an issue seemed to emerge that seriously divided the two candidates.
However, one issue did pop up during one of the debates. At one point, Kennedy made a reference to the situation in Cuba. He expressed direct support for a possible invasion of Cuba. Nixon immediately condemned Kennedy’s position as reckless and provocative. What is ironic is that many saw the perspective positions on Cuba a certain reversal of roles with Kennedy and Nixon. What turned out to be even more ironic is that while Nixon was condemning Kennedy’s position he was perfectly aware of the preparations his own administration was making with regard to Cuba: namely support for a refugee invasion. This fact is also ironic in terms of what later happened at the Bay of Pigs.
In what turned out to be an exceedingly close race, Nixon lost out in his first bid to become President. Still very much desirous of achieving the Presidency, Nixon ran for Governor of California in 1962 against the then Governor Pat Brown. In a bitterly contested election, Nixon was badly defeated. On election night when the returns came in, he made his famous remarks about how the press would no longer have Nixon around to attack. It seemed as if his Presidential quest was at an end.
The year of the Republican right wing was 1964. With careful preparation and organization, reminiscent of the Kennedy strategy in the 1960 Democratic nomination, Barry Goldwater became the Republican nominee. At that Convention, liberal and conservative forces seemed fully and irrevocably split. Nixon, however, came out of the situation with a vastly strengthened hand. Nixon for the first time politically found himself in the middle ground, flanked on the right by Goldwater and on the left by Rockefeller. Playing a shrewd and calculated political game, he carefully steered between the two positions. In terms of the Goldwater right, Nixon maintained his ties and popularity both by supporting Goldwater after he received the nomination and because the fond memories of Nixon leading the attack against Alger Hiss still persisted.
However, Nixon still kept ties with the Rockefeller left wing of his party. He was capable of doing this by acting the part of middle man, so essential to those who wished to see the re-establishment of Republic unity. Further, Nixon would no longer be considered the most extreme and right wing figure in his party, an image he had been trying to live down in 1960 and since.
In 1966, Nixon was once again prominent during the election period. This time, he barnstormed the country campaigning for local Republican candidates. The 1966 elections were crucial because 1964 had been such a disaster for the Republican Party not only because of Johnson’s landslide win against Goldwater, but because many Democrats had been elected in the wake. Although the Republicans did not score the gains they wanted in 19656, the Republican Party was getting in better shape for 1968. Foremost in the minds of local Republicans was Richard Nixon both because he somehow stood outside of the 1964 fiasco (or acted more statesmanlike) and because of the help he offered in 1966. By the winter of 1967, Richard Nixon was the frontrunner of his party for its Presidential nomination.
Through a series of impressive victories in primary elections which knocked a number of other candidates including George Romney, Richard Nixon was by far the front-runner by Convention time. The Republican Convention, after Nixon reestablished his primacy against the Rockefeller/Scranton left and the right now led by Governor Reagan of California, now faced the task of unifying for the election. Nixon chose Spiro Agnew of Maryland as his running mate, apparently as a peace offer to the Rockefeller camp. He had John Lindsay give Agnew’s nominating speech to demonstrate Republican unity. In this low-keyed unified Republican Convention, Nixon emerged in sharp contrast to the bitterly split Democratic Party.
In 1968, the key issue was the War in Vietnam, and underlying that the civil conflict that was tearing apart the country. The War issue was so deep that it forced President Johnson to step down. Violence in this country claimed both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy amongst its victims. The Democratic Convention both inside and outside the Convention hall was a wild melee demonstrating the country’s disunity. Further the Democratic nominee, Vice-President Humphrey was in a terribly weak position. Without much of any position of his own, he still inherited the unpopularity of the Johnson administration. Nixon once again was the frontrunner.
Nixon’s campaign strategy evolved around two main aspects: he had a secret strategy to end the War in Vietnam, and he “would bring us together.” Both strategies showed Nixon in a low-key role and as a statesmanlike figure. He could claim interest with regards his Vietnam policy both because he said nothing concrete and because he had nothing to do with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The country which was so incredibly tired of the War was ready to at least give credence to the Nixon message.
In terms of bringing the country together, Nixon offered no concrete proposals. However, once again he came across as the underplayed non-controversial candidate in this conflict prone year, which was quite a switch from his previous political images. He was now the new Nixon, softspoken, moderate, a unifier, as opposed to the old Nixon who was extreme, vitriolic and antagonistic.
What probably was most advantageous to Nixon in the 1968 campaign was that he was not Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey not only inherited the war policy of Johnson, but in order not to discredit his own position as Vice-President, tried to steer clear of the key issues of 1968. He wound up in the strange position of advocating a “politics of joy” in a year in which practically no one was very joyful.
Another aspect of the 1968 campaign was Nixon’s effective use of the media. After years of practice in the many campaigns he had run, by 1968 Nixon had wielded together a most effective and sophisticated media campaign. Use of advertising slots, sponsored programs, and, in general, a most impressive use of television projected the new Nixon image.
When the votes were all counted Nixon had finally achieved his long sought wish: the Presidency. His margin was a lot slimmer than most people had expected. Everyone waited to see what Nixon the President would be like.
Nixon’s secret plan to end the War in Vietnam turned out to be the program of Vietnamization: namely replacing American troops with those of South Vietnamese troops, continuing the air war, and, as in the case of Cambodia and Laos, expanding the war as well. Though the issue of the year in 1971 seemed to be subsiding, with the offensive of the North Vietnamese and Nixon’s strategy to mine North Vietnamese harbors and reinitiate the air war over the North, the war in Vietnam once again threatens to be a major issue during the 1972 elections, though this time with Nixon trying to defend his policy.
One of the most remarkable developments in the Nixon Presidency has been the summit diplomacy enacted during the past year. Summit diplomacy had been in the making all during the Nixon Presidency and was likely timed to coincide with the approach of the 1972 elections.
The trip to China not only took a long time in planning but held the headlines for nearly a year. Nixon was no longer simply a statesman; he was now engaged in nothing less than spectacular politics. He undertook the trip assured that his right wing in the Republican Party would not desert him when push came to shove, an assumption that seems accurate in spite of the Ashbrook candidacy.
Further, the trip to China reinvoked the image of big power global politics that seemed to have been suspended during the Vietnam War. What it would accomplish in material terms remained to be seen.
The trip to Russia and the various agreements that were signed in Moscow also signify a return to the traditions of big power diplomacy that had been so prevalent in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. However, these meetings had never taken place in such a spectacular manner and one which assured Nixon a maximum amount of media coverage.
The new Nixon of 1968 – the statesman and non-extremist – had added some entirely new qualities that would clearly mark the Nixon of the 1972 Presidential election. Nixon was now spectacular and unpredictable, having such men as Henry Kissinger and John Connally in his retinue; both dashing public figures. He had more than ever before become a media personality.
Since 1960, Richard Nixon has undergone a number of changes both in his image and political presence. He is basically a political opportunist – that is, someone who will shift according to the way certain thing are going. However, that opportunism is always modified by his desire to come off as the striking and winning figure he sometimes has been, though not always. Whether the voters will return him to office is hard to say at this point. Very few incumbent presidents have ever been defeated in an election. However, a lot also depends on Nixon’s opponent. Finally, in spite of all the images and television personalities, a lot still depends on the issues, and what might be happening this coming November in that far off place in Asia called Vietnam.