Birth: January 9, 1913 at Yorba Linda, California, U.S.
Death: April 22, 1994 (aged 81) at New York City, New York, U.S.
On the morning of April 16, 1956, Vice President Richard Nixon served notice that the vice presidency had finally become an office to be sought after by ambitious politicians rather than a position in which to gain four years of rest. After weeks of speculation that Nixon would be dropped from the Republican ticket in the coming presidential race, fueled by President Dwight Eisenhower’s comment that the vice president had to “chart his own course,” Nixon decided to force Ike’s hand. The young politician walked into the Oval Office and said, “Mr. President, I would be honored to continue as Vice President under you.” Eisenhower now had to either accept his running mate or reject him openly. Not willing to risk a party squabble during what promised to be a successful reelection bid, Eisenhower told the press he was “delighted by the news.” Richard Nixon had defied pressure to leave office voluntarily that came from within the White House, the press, and some segments of the party. In the process, he had been offered a major cabinet position and had been urged to run for a seat in the Senate. Instead, this ambitious young politician fought to remain in what had once been considered a meaningless office. Over the previous four years, Nixon had not only worked hard to promote the policies of the Eisenhower administration but had used the vice presidency to build a foundation of support among the regulars of the Republican Party that made him the early favorite for the presidential nomination in 1960. He had fought hard for the office in 1952 and was not about to let anyone but Eisenhower take it from him.
From Whittier to Congress
Richard Nixon’s career seems best described as a series of fierce political battles. Every campaign was bruising, and he never occupied a “safe” seat, perhaps only fitting for a man who had come so far, so fast. Born on January 9, 1913, to a Quaker family in Yorba Linda, California, Richard Milhous Nixon spent his childhood reading and working in the various family enterprises. As a teenager in Whittier, California, he split his time between the family grocery store and the high school debate team, where he received numerous awards. He went on to Whittier College, a small Quaker school not far from home, and then received a scholarship to attend law school at Duke University. Nixon’s academic performance was characterized by perseverance and a determination to work harder than any of his classmates. That determination pushed him to finish third in his class at Duke in 1937 but did not result in any job offers from well-known firms in New York City, as Nixon had hoped. Disappointed, he returned to Whittier, joined a small firm, and began dabbling in local politics. In 1940 he married Thelma “Pat” Ryan after wooing her persistently for more than two years.
As was the case for so many men of his generation, World War II interrupted Richard Nixon’s plans. His Quaker background made Nixon reluctant to volunteer for duty in the armed services, but in 1942, he obtained a job with the Office of Price Administration in Washington that allowed him to contribute to the war effort and gain valuable government experience. Soon, however, the call to arms became too great to resist, and in August of 1942 he joined the navy. He served in the South Pacific Air Transport Command, operating airfields during General Douglas MacArthur’s island-hopping campaign. While the war unexpectedly altered Nixon’s career path, his service record made him an even more attractive political candidate than he had been previously. Even before his discharge was official, the Committee of 100, a group of southern California business and professional leaders looking for a promising Republican candidate to sponsor against incumbent Democratic representative Jerry Voorhis, asked if Nixon was available as a congressional candidate. After brief interviews to determine that this returning young veteran held acceptably Republican views, the group helped launch a career that was more promising than they could have foreseen. Despite this impressive backing, however, the campaign against Voorhis was a hard-nosed affair that gained Nixon both ardent admirers and fierce enemies. Nothing ever came easily for Richard Nixon.
That first campaign in 1946 gave Richard Nixon the issue that would catapult him to prominence. He vigorously attacked Representative Voorhis for being dominated by Communist-controlled labor unions. Like many Republican candidates across the country, Nixon accused the Democrats of allowing Communists to enter important positions in the federal government, thus undermining American security and threatening to “socialize” the United States. As the Cold War began to heat up in Europe and Asia, the American public reacted positively to Republican appeals to throw the Communists out of government, as well as to calls for cutting back on the New and Fair Deals. Republicans swept to victory in congressional elections across the country, winning majorities in the House and Senate for the first time since 1928. Nixon rode this wave of protest, receiving a whopping 57 percent of the vote in his district. The anticommunism that won him a seat in Congress became his trademark issue on Capitol Hill when he gained appointment to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).
Formed in the 1930s to investigate the activities of Nazi and Communist organizations in the United States, HUAC had also served as a forum for attacks on Jews, civil libertarians, and labor union activists. By the late 1940s, the committee had a tarnished reputation as an ineffective and irresponsible group that was more dedicated to attracting publicity than to preserving American security. But, with public anxiety on the rise, HUAC members had the opportunity to lead the fight against domestic communism. Nixon took little part in the committee’s investigations of Hollywood during 1947, but he became the leading figure in its highly publicized investigation of Alger Hiss.
In 1948 Whittaker Chambers, an editor for Time and a former Communist, testified that Hiss, a former State Department official and adviser to President Roosevelt at Yalta, had been a Communist agent. Hiss denied the charge, but over the next year and a half, the attempt to uncover the real story thrust Richard Nixon into the spotlight. Nixon led the investigation that eventually sent Hiss to prison for perjury. The case gave Nixon a national reputation as a diligent hunter of Communists and established him as a rising, if controversial, young star in the GOP.
Nixon was not content to remain in the House of Representatives. After only four years in the House, he set his sights on the Senate seat held by Democrat Sheridan Downey. Facing a primary challenge from Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas, an aggressive opponent, Downey decided to retire and to endorse another Democrat, Chester Boddy. While Douglas and Boddy engaged in a vicious primary battle, Nixon watched and waited. When Douglas, a former actress, narrowly won the nomination, one of the nastier senatorial campaigns in U.S. history began. Nixon attacked Douglas for having voted against appropriations for HUAC and insinuated that she was a Communist sympathizer, charges that Boddy had used during the primaries. The Nixon campaign distributed pink leaflets comparing Douglas’s House voting record with that of Labor Party member Vito Marcantonio of New York, while the candidate and others referred to her as “the Pink Lady.” Douglas fought just as hard, implying that Nixon had fascist tendencies and was controlled by oil interests. She even pinned on him the label that would haunt him for years, “Tricky Dick.” When the smoke cleared, Nixon emerged with an overwhelming victory, garnering 59 percent of the vote. Nixon ran well throughout the state, exhibiting an ability to win votes in traditional Democratic areas and gaining continued attention from Republican leaders nationwide. The campaign also brought harsh criticism. For years afterward, his opponents would point to the 1950 race as an example of the mean streak they considered so much a part of Richard Nixon’s character. The victory brought him increased prestige within the Republican Party and among conservatives generally, but it also formed the foundation for his reputation as an unscrupulous campaigner.
Even a seat in the United States Senate, however, could not entirely satisfy the restless Californian. In 1951 he embarked on a national speaking tour, delivering 49 speeches in 22 states. His travels boosted his already rising popularity with Republicans, and he was soon regarded as the party’s most popular speaker. During these speeches, Nixon also showed his dexterity at reaching out to the different factions within the party. In the early 1950s, Republicans were deeply divided between the conservative party regulars, usually known as the Old Guard and personified by Ohio senator Robert Taft, and the more liberal eastern wing of the party, led by Thomas Dewey of New York. Nixon’s anticommunism appealed to conservatives, but his firm internationalism and moderate views on domestic policy also made him popular with more liberal audiences. This ability to appeal to the party as a whole would serve him well in the future. By 1952 people were already thinking of him as a national candidate. Any Republican presidential nominee would be under tremendous pressure to “balance” the ticket by finding a vice presidential candidate who would be acceptable in both the East and the Midwest. Richard Nixon’s consensus approach to Republican politics positioned him to fill that role.
Campaigning for the Vice Presidency
In 1952 the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination centered around Taft and General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Senator Taft had been an influential force in the party for more than a decade, leading the opposition to President Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal.” Eisenhower, the commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II, had been sought by both parties as a nominee ever since the end of the war. In 1952 he announced that he was a Republican and that he was willing to run. Widely, though not always accurately, considered more liberal than Taft, Eisenhower was primarily concerned that the Republicans were in danger of rejecting internationalism. After failing to convince Taft to support an internationalist program, Ike threw his hat in the ring.
The contest threatened to polarize the party, and a number of darkhorse candidates entered the Republican national convention hoping for a deadlock. The most prominent of these hopefuls was Governor Earl Warren of California. As a member of the California delegation, Senator Nixon was obligated to support Warren’s candidacy until the governor gave up the race. Nixon, however, used the train ride to the convention in Chicago to lobby his fellow delegates on behalf of Eisenhower. He argued that, when (rather than if) Warren released his delegates, they should throw their support to Eisenhower, because Taft could not win the general election. Many Taft supporters later referred to Nixon’s efforts as “the Great Train Robbery,” claiming he sold out both Taft and Warren in exchange for the vice presidential nomination. Nixon’s support for Eisenhower was sincere, but both Thomas Dewey and Ike’s campaign manager, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., had told Nixon weeks earlier that he was the probable choice if Eisenhower should win. These promises, coupled with Taft’s preference for Nixon’s California colleague Senator William Knowland, undoubtedly spurred his efforts. After Eisenhower won the nomination, he put together a list of potential running mates with Senator Nixon’s name at the top. Party leaders had already decided that Nixon was their man.
Richard Nixon was, in many ways, the ideal running mate for Dwight Eisenhower. The general indicated that he wanted someone “who was young, vigorous, ready to learn, and of good reputation.” Only on the last of these criteria was Nixon suspect, and the most outspoken critics of Nixon’s tactics were liberal Democrats who probably would not have voted for the Republican ticket in any event. Aside from providing a youthful counter to the 62-year-old Eisenhower, Nixon balanced the ticket geographically, since Eisenhower’s campaign relied heavily on New Yorkers. His nomination also indicated that California was becoming increasingly vital in presidential politics. Perhaps most important, Nixon was one of only a very few Republicans of national stature acceptable to both the Eisenhower camp and the Old Guard. His selection was intended to foster unity within the party and to calm the strife that could lead to another electoral disaster like that of 1948. Calm, however, was seldom to be associated with Richard Nixon.
On September 18, 1952, barely two months after the Republican convention and just as the campaign was beginning to heat up, the front page of the New York Post ran the headline, “Secret Nixon Fund!” The story reported that Nixon had established a “millionaire’s club” to help pay his political expenses. About 70 California businessmen contributed $100 to $500 each to pay the senator’s travel and postage bills and prepare for future campaigns. Unconcerned by the article at first, Nixon argued that the fund was hardly secret and was intended as a means of saving public funds that would otherwise have been applied to his Senate expense account. He apparently forgot that such uses of his account would have been illegal. The Truman administration had been rocked by a series of scandals over the previous two years, and one of the keys to the Republican campaign was Eisenhower’s pledge to clean the “crooks and cronies” out of Washington. The Democrats charged the Republicans with hypocritically attacking the administration when the GOP’s vice presidential nominee was taking money from business interests. Democratic leaders called on Nixon to resign, and public pressure began to build for the Republicans to come clean about the “secret fund.” The Washington Post and New York Herald Tribune joined the call for Nixon’s resignation. His candidacy was in jeopardy before it could even get started.
Eisenhower, meanwhile, remained cautious. He asserted his belief that his running mate was an honest man and that the facts would vindicate him. But Ike did not dismiss the possibility of Nixon’s resignation, saying only that he would talk with Nixon about the situation as soon as possible. When Eisenhower later told the press that the Republican campaign must be “clean as a hound’s tooth,” Nixon advisers took it as a sign that their man was in trouble with the boss. Relations between the two camps had been strained from the beginning. Some of Eisenhower’s advisers were uncomfortable with Nixon on the ticket, because they mistakenly viewed him as a tool of the Old Guard, and they would have been more than happy to see him go. For their part, Nixon’s supporters resented the disdain they felt coming from Eisenhower’s people and were angry that Ike was leaving Nixon to fend for himself. Finally, Nixon decided to force a decision by appearing on national television to explain his actions. On September 23, just hours before he went on the air, he received a call from Tom Dewey who explained that Eisenhower’s “top advisers” had decided that it would be best if Nixon ended his speech by offering his resignation. Nixon was momentarily stunned, but when Dewey asked what he was going to do, he replied, “Just tell them I haven’t the slightest idea as to what I am going to do and if they want to find out they’d better listen to the broadcast. And tell them I know something about politics too!”
What Nixon did that night saved his candidacy. From a studio in Los Angeles, Nixon gave the nation a detailed report of his financial history, everything from the mortgage on his house to the one political gift he said he intended to keep, a little dog his daughters named “Checkers.” While this reference to his dog provided the popular name for one of the 20th century’s most significant political speeches, Nixon did much more than create a colorful image. He effectively refuted the ridiculous charge that he used the fund to live a life of luxury, while deflecting the more fundamental questions involving the influence gained by its contributors—questions that the Democrats seemed to lose sight of in their haste to sensationalize the story. Nixon also challenged the other candidates to make a full disclosure of their assets, knowing that Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson had problems with a fund of his own. Finally, he urged viewers to write to the Republican National Committee to state whether Nixon should leave or remain on the ticket. He presented himself as a common American, struggling to pay the bills, doing his part to clean up “the mess in Washington,” and suffering the attacks of vicious foes.
Many observers found Nixon’s “Checkers” speech repulsive. Journalist Walter Lippmann called it “the most demeaning experience my country has ever had to bear,” and Eisenhower’s close friend, General Lucius Clay, thought it was “corny.” But the speech seemed to touch a chord in what is often called “Middle America” that elite observers failed to understand. Historian Herbert Parmet has argued that the appeal was like that of a Frank Capra movie, with Nixon playing the role of “Mr. Smith.” Nearly 60 million people watched the telecast (a record audience that would not be broken until Nixon debated John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race), and the response was overwhelming. Over 160,000 telegrams poured into Republican national headquarters, and switchboards around the country were jammed with calls to local and state party officials urging Nixon to stay on the ticket. There was little Eisenhower could do but consent. In a bold stroke, Nixon had effectively taken the decision away from Eisenhower by appealing to the party faithful. Nixon remained on the ticket, and “Ike and Dick” cruised to a comfortable victory in November.
The Eisenhower Team
Over the next eight years, Richard Nixon elevated the office of vice president to a position of importance never before seen. No previous vice president was ever as active within the administration or enjoyed as much responsibility, partly because of Nixon’s own energetic habits. He was always looking for something to do and took a keen interest in almost every aspect of government. Circumstances also played a part because of Eisenhower’s occasional health problems. Believing that Franklin Roosevelt’s failure to keep Vice President Harry S. Truman informed of government initiatives like the Manhattan Project had been dangerous, Eisenhower was determined that his own vice president would be as well informed as anyone in the administration. But the primary reason for Nixon’s activist status was that Eisenhower provided him with unique opportunities. Apart from the vice president’s constitutional role as presiding officer of the Senate, the occupant of that office can only safely take up the activities that the president indicates are appropriate. Most presidents made little use of their vice presidents. Eisenhower, however, with his military experience confirming the value of a well-trained subordinate officer, found that Nixon could be an important part of his “team” concept of presidential administration, especially since Nixon possessed many of the political skills that were lacking in some of Eisenhower’s other key advisers. Also, unlike some other vice presidents, Nixon did not represent a former or potential challenger to Eisenhower. Ike was, therefore, willing to use his youthful vice president for important tasks, and Nixon was willing to be so used. When they differed on questions of policy, there was never any question that Nixon would follow the president’s lead. Because Nixon could perform smoothly in the several roles that Eisenhower needed filled, he was able to cultivate the image of an active and important vice president.
Nixon’s most important function in the administration was to link Eisenhower with the party leadership, especially in Congress. Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., were the only former congressmen in the Eisenhower cabinet, and no one else had Nixon’s connections with the Senate. Although the Republicans held a slim majority in Congress, it was not certain that the Old Guard, many of whom were influential committee chairmen, would rally to Eisenhower’s legislative agenda. If the president was going to push through his program of “modern Republicanism” and stave off unwanted legislation, he needed a former member who could “work the Hill” on his behalf. Nixon advised Eisenhower to go to Congress “only in dramatic circumstances,” because “Truman came so often there were occasions when he didn’t have a full House,” but he need not have worried. Eisenhower had no intention of trying to dominate Congress the way his predecessors had. Eisenhower and Nixon held regular meetings with the Republican congressional leadership, but the president had little contact with other GOP members of Congress, and he seldom tried to harness public pressure against Congress to support his legislation. This approach suited Eisenhower’s “hidden hand” style of leadership, but to be effective, someone had to serve as the administration’s political broker with the rest of the Republicans. Nixon was the obvious candidate.
One of the more immediate tasks for the new vice president was to help the administration defeat the Bricker amendment. In 1951 Republican senator John W. Bricker of Ohio had introduced a constitutional amendment that would have drastically curtailed the ability of the president to obtain treaties and executive agreements with other nations. Bricker’s immediate purpose was to prohibit President Truman from entering into agreements such as the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, for fear that it would compromise the sovereignty of the United States. More generally, the Bricker amendment aimed to increase the influence of Congress in making foreign policy. Even with a Republican in the White House, Bricker refused to back away from his amendment, offering it as the first order of business in the new Congress, with the support of almost every Republican senator. Eisenhower, however, believed the amendment would severely restrict the necessary powers of the president and make the nation “helpless in world affairs.” Rather than confront his own party leadership, he hoped to delay action on the measure in order to gradually chip away at its support. He sent Nixon and others to work with Bricker on compromises and suggested a “study committee,” with Bricker as its chair, to come up with an agreeable alternative. Bricker, however, would not yield on the substance of his amendment. Finally, in 1954, after much wrangling, the administration convinced Democrat Walter George of Georgia to offer a much less stringent substitute. On the crucial roll call, the substitute received a vote of 60 to 31, falling one short of the two-thirds majority necessary for passage of a constitutional amendment. Bricker tried to revive his amendment, but too many Republicans had changed sides. Vice President Nixon had been one of the administration’s most active lobbyists in defeating the amendment without splitting the party. His other primary assignment as party intermediary proved more demanding.
Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (R-WI) had shot to fame in 1950 by brazenly claiming that the State Department was full of “known Communists.” Over the next two years, he waged a running battle with the Truman administration over its conduct of foreign policy and the loyalty of its appointees. Many Republicans and some conservative Democrats joined in this anticommunist “crusade,” believing that the nation had been betrayed at Yalta and that Truman had “lost China.” McCarthy promised to clean the Communists out of government and to end “twenty years of treason.”
When Dwight Eisenhower entered the White House, he and his advisers hoped that Vice President Nixon could keep McCarthy in line if the senator continued his attacks. The results of this strategy were mixed. Nixon was certainly the right man for the job. As historian David Oshinsky writes, “Only Taft and Nixon seemed able to reach him [McCarthy], and Taft was now too sick to try.” Nixon was also one of the few people in the nation who could safely deal with the “McCarthy problem,” because, as Eisenhower put it, “Anybody who takes it on runs the risk of being called a pink. Dick has had experience in the communist field, and therefore he would not be subject to criticism.” Nixon succeeded in convincing McCarthy not to pursue an investigation of the CIA, but the senator was soon talking about “twenty-one years of treason,” implying that Eisenhower had not stemmed the tide. Neither Nixon nor anyone else could convince McCarthy not to investigate the U.S. Army. As chairman of the Committee on Government Operations’s Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, McCarthy had wide discretion to conduct investigations, but Eisenhower publicly claimed that he would not allow members of the executive branch to testify about private conversations. He also supported army officers who refused to appear before the subcommittee. As the president did what he could to divert the hearings, he had Nixon make a national speech emphasizing the need to be “fair” in the pursuit of Communists. In the end, McCarthy went too far. The televised Army-McCarthy hearings revealed to the public a bellicose senator viciously attacking the army and the administration. As the president refused to give executive information to the committee, and as McCarthy’s public support waned, his Senate colleagues finally decided they had seen enough. On December 2, 1954, with Vice President Nixon presiding, the Senate voted 67 to 22 to condemn McCarthy’s behavior. Republicans split 22 to 22 on the vote, with Democrats unanimously in favor. Thus, after Eisenhower’s attempt to use Nixon to contain McCarthy failed, the administration had resorted instead to quiet resistance, allowing McCarthy himself to bring about his own downfall.
Adviser and Campaigner
Apart from his specific assignments, Nixon also served as the administration’s general political expert. No one in the administration had a more thorough knowledge of the way Congress worked and how to get legislation passed. He always attended cabinet meetings and contributed his insight by pointing out the political implications of any decision. He urged cabinet members to get to know the chairmen of the committees that had jurisdiction over their departments. Eisenhower’s speech writer, Emmett Hughes, described Nixon as “crisp and practical and logical: never proposing major objectives, but quick and shrewd in suggesting or refining methods.” Nixon also emphasized the need to sell “modern Republicanism” to the public. Cabinet members, he said, should not be afraid to make partisan speeches and should concentrate them in competitive congressional districts. He even suggested that they should welcome the chance to appear on such television interview shows as Meet the Press. Meanwhile, both Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles used Nixon to publicly explore policy options and propose ideas that they were wary of advocating themselves. As Ike put it, “He [Nixon] can sometimes take positions which are more political than it would be expected that I take.”
Nowhere was this approach more in evidence than on the campaign trail. The Republican strategy in 1952 had been simple. While Eisenhower ran a positive campaign that emphasized his appeal to citizens of all parties, Nixon’s job was to “hammer away at our opponents.” He quickly gained a reputation as the Republican “hatchet man,” an image that would be captured by Washington Post cartoonist “Herblock’s” portrayal of him as a mud-slinging sewer dweller, an image that Nixon deeply resented. Nixon’s campaign was a hard-hitting anticommunist assault, charging that Truman’s secretary of state, Dean Acheson, “had lost China, much of Eastern Europe, and had invited the Communists to begin the Korean War,” and calling Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson a graduate of Acheson’s “Cowardly College of Communist Containment.” But Nixon’s campaigning was hardly over after 1952. In fact, it seemed as though he were campaigning throughout his vice presidency. In 1954 he hit the campaign trail once more on behalf of congressional Republicans.
In many ways, Nixon emerged as the party’s spokesman during these years because Eisenhower was unwilling to take on that role. Eisenhower was determined to be president of “all the people,” and did not “intend to make of the presidency an agency to use in partisan elections.” Apparently, he had no such qualms about the vice presidency, and who better to rally the party faithful than Nixon, the man a contemporary observer called the “scientific pitchman of politics.” While Eisenhower would not go after the Democrats, he was quite willing to let Nixon do so. According to White House Chief of Staff Sherman Adams, “[Ike] told Nixon and others, including myself, that he was well aware that somebody had to do the hard-hitting infighting, and he had no objection to it as long as no one expected him to do it.” Nixon therefore conducted another aggressive campaign for the midterm election, covering nearly 26,000 miles to 95 cities in 30 states on behalf of Republican candidates. The outcome was not favorable for the GOP, which lost two Senate seats and 16 House seats, and Nixon received little public credit for his efforts.
Eisenhower’s ambivalence about Nixon’s attacking campaign style emerged forcefully two years later in their 1956 reelection campaign. Eisenhower told Nixon that he should try to elevate the level of his speeches and that he should avoid “the exaggerations of partisan political talk.” Unlike Harry Truman’s “give ’em hell” campaign of 1948, Ike wanted Nixon to “give ’em heaven.” This more dignified campaign style led to discussions of a “new Nixon.” He talked about “Republican prosperity” and Eisenhower’s positive accomplishments as president. It seemed that Nixon had finally decided to put away his rhetorical boxing gloves. But it was a false impression. Nixon was uncomfortable with this approach. Republican crowds did not react with the same vigor as when he ripped into the Democrats, and he found it hard to suppress his “normal partisan instincts,” and to “campaign with one arm tied behind [his] back.” Yet this was not entirely his campaign, and he had to abide by Eisenhower’s wishes. Ike, however, soon remembered why he had chosen Nixon in the first place. As the campaign intensified and Stevenson (running once more) and the Democrats stepped up their attacks on the administration, Eisenhower decided to give his aggressive vice president a bit more rope. He told him, “Look, Dick, we’ve agreed that your speeches generally in this campaign ought to be on a higher level than in the past. Still I think it’s perfectly all right for you to pick up on some of these wild charges and throw them back at the other fellow.” Eisenhower, of course, did not intend to follow this course himself. So, while Eisenhower’s staff privately worried about Nixon “running loose through the country,” the “old Nixon” reemerged with Eisenhower’s blessing and once more provided Democrats with their favorite target.
Two years later, many of Nixon’s friends advised him to stay away from the 1958 congressional elections. Despite Eisenhower’s continued popularity and his comfortable victory in 1956, Republicans had lost ground in Congress in 1954 and again in 1956. Most observers predicted further losses in 1958. Many of Nixon’s friends in the party, anticipating that he would run for president in 1960, thought that being associated with the certain disaster of 1958 would only get in the way. As Tom Dewey told him, “I know that all those party wheelhorses will tell you stories that will pluck your heartstrings, but you’re toying with your chance to be President. Don’t do it, Dick. You’ve already done enough, and 1960 is what counts now.” If Nixon did not carry the banner for the party, who would? Eisenhower was not willing to do so, and no one else could. In the end, Nixon could not resist, and he took to the campaign trail once more. He was more disenchanted with the party’s organization than ever, and the results of the elections confirmed his pessimism. (He reported to the cabinet, “There were just too many turkeys running on the Republican ticket.”) The GOP lost 13 seats in the Senate and 47 in the House while losing 13 of 21 gubernatorial races. The only really impressive victories for the Republicans were for Governors Nelson Rockefeller in New York and Mark Hatfield in Oregon, and Senator Barry Goldwater in Arizona. The press proclaimed that the big winner was Rockefeller, while the big loser was Nixon. Years later, Nixon would lament, “Perhaps Dewey had been right: I should have sat it out.” Despite the immediate disaster, Eisenhower was not the only beneficiary of Nixon’s campaigning. Rank-and-file Republicans did not forget that Nixon had tried to help, and party leaders throughout the nation owed the vice president a significant political debt. He would collect in 1960.
While Nixon’s roles as political adviser and campaigner were the most important ones in defining his place in the administration, it was his role as international goodwill ambassador that brought him the most praise. Henry Wallace had been the first vice president to travel abroad, but no one either before or since did so with greater fanfare than Nixon. On most occasions his visits were intended only as gestures of American friendship. Nixon’s 1958 trip to Argentina for the inauguration of that nation’s first democratically elected leader was one such visit. Sometimes, however, the vice president’s travels had a more substantive purpose. On his first trip abroad, to Asia in 1953, Nixon took with him a note from Eisenhower to South Korean leader Syngman Rhee. The letter made it clear that the United States would not support a South Korean invasion of the North, and Nixon was sent to obtain a promise from Rhee that such an action would not take place. Nixon visited a number of countries in Asia from Japan to Pakistan, travelling 38,000 miles. He established a practice of meeting with students, workers, and opposition leaders as well as with government officials. His openness seemed popular in most of these nations, and he developed an abiding interest in the continent and its politics. His travels gave him a reputation at home as an expert on Asian affairs that would remain with him throughout his life. He also travelled to Austria in 1956 to meet with Hungarian refugees and to Africa a year later.
But Nixon’s most famous trips were still to come. When he set off for South America in 1958, he anticipated an uneventful tour that would merely distract him from his attempts to talk the administration into cutting taxes at home. He was unprepared for the vehemence of the anti-American demonstrations he would encounter from those opposing U.S. policy toward Latin America. In Peru, Nixon was blocked from visiting San Marcos University by a crowd of demonstrators chanting, “Go Home Nixon!” He was met in Venezuela by hostile crowds that spat at him as he left his plane. In the capital, Caracas, the scene turned violent. A mob surrounded his car and began rocking it back and forth, trying to turn it over and chanting, “Death to Nixon.” Protected by only 12 Secret Service agents, the procession was forced to wait for the Venezuelan military to clear a path of escape. But by that time, the car had been nearly demolished and the vice president had seen his fill of South America. President Eisenhower sent a naval squadron to the Venezuelan coast in case they needed to rescue the vice president, but Nixon quietly left the country the next day. He returned to Washington to a hero’s welcome. Over 15,000 people met him at the airport, including President Eisenhower and the entire cabinet. Over the next few days, politicians of both parties throughout the nation praised Nixon’s courage, and congratulations poured in by the thousands. It was Nixon’s shining moment, but the respect was more the result of Americans rallying behind their vice president than any change in Nixon’s standing.
Nixon’s final trip abroad brought him more favorable reviews. In 1959 he traveled to the Soviet Union to open the United States Exhibition in Sokolniki Park in Moscow, part of a new cultural exchange program. As he and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev toured the exhibit, they engaged in a lengthy and sometimes heated debate on the merits of capitalism versus communism. Much of this debate was captured by American television, which transmitted an image of the nation’s vice president standing in a model American kitchen defending American progress against a belligerent Khrushchev. The encounter became known as “The Kitchen Debate,” and the nation once more took pride in its feisty vice president. Nixon concluded his trip with a 30-minute speech on Soviet television, becoming the first American official to address the Soviet Union in a live broadcast. He stressed “peaceful competition” between the East and West and expressed hope that the “Spirit of Geneva” would include a freer exchange of information. On his return, Nixon stopped in Warsaw, Poland, and was given a remarkable and touching reception by the people of that city, who crowded the streets, throwing roses and shouting, “Long Live Nixon.” While the trip contained little of real substance, it showed Americans an energetic young leader acting on the world stage, an impressive image and one that Nixon would try to cultivate for the future. In all, Nixon visited 54 countries and met 45 heads of state during his eight years as vice president, setting a standard difficult for his successors to match and his opponents to discount.
The vice president, of course, did not travel alone. Pat Nixon always accompanied her husband overseas and established her own role in spreading American “goodwill.” She had vigorously campaigned with him for Congress in 1946 and 1950, but by 1952 she had grown weary of politics. Still, when her husband received the vice presidential nomination, she took up campaigning with him once again. She seemed resigned to being married to a politician and concentrated on raising their two daughters, Tricia and Julie, with minimal privacy at their home on Tilden Street in Washington’s Spring Valley section. However, as Nixon biographer Jonathan Aitken noted, “Pat longed for that peace which the world of politics cannot give.” She did, however, enjoy traveling and developed a reputation as an ambassador in her own right. While the vice president met with political leaders, Mrs. Nixon visited hospitals and schools, mixing with people wherever she went. She gave the first press conference exclusively for women reporters in Japan and dined in a previously all-male club in Kuala Lumpur. Everywhere she went, she was extremely popular and only added to the positive image of her husband. If anyone deserved the title “goodwill ambassador,” it was Pat Nixon.
Apart from the jobs Eisenhower gave him, Nixon was also the presiding officer of the Senate, as provided in the Constitution. Like many of his predecessors, Nixon did not find this task to be particularly interesting. He was too energetic and ambitious to sit and listen to Senate speeches without being able either to vote or to intervene and was therefore seldom present in the Senate Chamber. After the 1952 elections, Republicans held a one-vote majority in the Senate, with 48 members; the Democrats had 47; and Wayne Morse (OR) had just left the Republican Party and intended to vote as an Independent. But when Senate Republican Leader Robert Taft died in July 1953, Ohio’s governor replaced him with a Democrat, Thomas A. Burke, shifting the one-vote majority to the Democrats. Wayne Morse made it clear, however, that he would vote with his former Republican colleagues on organizational matters, giving the Republicans exactly half the votes of the 96-member Senate, with Vice President Nixon available to break a tied vote in the Republicans’ favor. The Democrats therefore realized it would be futile to offer the resolutions necessary to give them control of the Senate’s committee chairmanships and majority floor leadership offices. For the remainder of that Congress, Nixon occasionally appeared if he thought it would be necessary to break a tie, but otherwise he customarily left after the opening prayer and majority leader’s announcements, turning over the chair to a junior member.
As the Democratic majority grew during the 1950s, Nixon spent even less time in the Senate. Because Nixon had never been known as a legislative tactician or parliamentarian, and his one constitutionally mandated job did not provide any real opportunities to use his political skills, he avoided his duties in the Senate whenever possible.
The vice president did try to take a more active role in the Senate’s deliberations on one occasion, but his effort failed. In 1957 the Eisenhower administration decided to push for a civil rights bill and anticipated that opponents of the bill would use a filibuster to kill it if necessary. Senate Rule XXII provided that cloture could not be invoked on a rules change, making it impossible to stop such a filibuster. At the opening of the first session of the 85th Congress in 1957, Senator Clinton Anderson (D-NM), in a strategy intended to make cloture easier to obtain, moved that the Senate consider new rules. Nixon—over the objections of the Republican leadership, which supported the existing cloture provisions—stated that “in the opinion of the Chair,” the membership after each election composed a new Senate rather than a continuing body. As a result, he ruled, the Senate could change the rules at the beginning of each Congress by vote of a simple majority. The Senate, however, tabled Anderson’s motion the next day by a vote of 55 to 38. Later that year, after repeated attempts to change the cloture rule in order to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson engineered a compromise that applied cloture to debate on motions for changes in rules, but declared that “the rules of the Senate shall continue from one Congress to the next Congress unless they be changed as provided in these rules.”
The other task that is inherent in the vice president’s job is, as Charles Dawes put it, “to check the morning’s newspaper as to the President’s health.” For Richard Nixon, that was not just an idle activity. On September 24, 1955, Nixon received a call informing him that the president had suffered a coronary attack. Nixon was placed in a very delicate situation. While the president was ill, Nixon needed to show that the nation’s business was being handled effectively so as not to seem weak, but if he attempted to take too much control it would arouse fears of a power grab by an overly ambitious understudy. He recognized that “even the slightest misstep could be interpreted as an attempt to assume power.” Nixon and other members of the cabinet decided to emphasize that Eisenhower’s team concept would ensure the government could operate without difficulty until the president recovered. The vice president would preside at cabinet and National Security Council meetings, just as he had done numerous times when the president had been away. White House Chief of Staff Sherman Adams flew to Denver, where Eisenhower was hospitalized, to assist the president, and when Ike was feeling better Nixon was one of the first to visit him. Still, Nixon was careful to observe proper protocol. He presided over cabinet meetings from the vice president’s chair and conducted business from his office in the Capitol. He even made sure to visit cabinet members rather than having them come to see him. As he put it, he had “to provide leadership without appearing to lead.” Nixon handled this ambiguous situation with considerable skill, leading Emmett Hughes, a frequent critic, to call it his “finest official hour.”
But while the vice president’s actions, and inaction, brought widespread praise, they also raised fears that the Eisenhower administration could suddenly become the Nixon administration, especially when the president underwent an operation for ileitis in June of 1956. Eisenhower’s health would become a primary issue in the 1956 election, as Democrats reminded voters that a vote for Eisenhower was also a vote for Nixon. Ike’s health would continue to be a subject of concern during his second term, and after Eisenhower suffered a stroke in 1957 he decided that it was time to set out procedures for how Nixon should proceed if the president were to become incapacitated. He drafted a letter stating that, if he were unable to perform his duties, Nixon would serve as “acting president” until he recovered. Eisenhower would determine when he was sufficiently able to take control once more. The agreement was strictly between Eisenhower and Nixon and therefore amounted only to a shaky precedent (although Kennedy and Johnson copied it later). Not until passage of the Twenty-fifth Amendment in 1967 was the issue of presidential incapacity officially dealt with.
Nixon and Eisenhower
In the end, Richard Nixon filled with considerable skill the roles that President Eisenhower gave him. So why did Eisenhower come close to dropping him from the ticket in 1956? Eisenhower’s opinion of his vice president was most ambiguous. The president appreciated Nixon’s efforts in carrying out his assigned tasks. He told associates, “It would be difficult to find a better Vice President” and publicly repeated such praises on a regular basis. He also “believed Nixon to be the best prepared man in government to take over [his] duties in any emergency.” This was more than just public flattery for a subordinate. Because of his wide-ranging interests and Eisenhower’s willingness, Nixon was perhaps the most informed member of the administration. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles kept him briefed on State Department affairs, and even the CIA was willing to provide outlines of its current activities. For Eisenhower, this faith in Nixon as vice president did not translate into confidence about Nixon’s potential for the presidency. He saw Nixon as a dedicated junior officer who performed his duties with skill but had not developed into a true leader. He worried constantly that his young vice president had not “matured.” Eisenhower saw the presidency as the office of a statesman rather than a partisan politician. The 1960s image of Eisenhower as being naive or nonpolitical is inaccurate, but he did believe that presidential politics was different from congressional or statewide politics. The office required a person who could rise above unseemly partisan bickering (at least in public) to represent the national interest, and he did not believe that Richard Nixon had shown that kind of potential. This was partially an unfair assessment, since Nixon’s public image as a fierce partisan was magnified by Eisenhower’s insistence on using him to conduct the president’s public political battles. Still, Nixon’s “natural partisan instincts,” as Nixon called them, were never far from the surface, and they made Eisenhower uncomfortable. In the end, Eisenhower decided that Nixon just had not “grown,” and that he was not “presidential timber.”
When Eisenhower decided to run for reelection in 1956, he also began to feel uneasy about not having established a “logical successor.” He would have liked to run with Robert Anderson, his treasury secretary, but Anderson, a Democrat, knew the GOP would never accept him. The president hoped to find a way to get Nixon off the ticket without seeming to “dump” him. As a result, when he announced his own candidacy and the press asked him about Nixon, he dodged by claiming it was “traditional…to wait and see who the Republican Convention nominates.” Since this was a “tradition” that had been broken by Franklin Roosevelt and had not been observed by Eisenhower himself in 1952, it was obvious that Eisenhower was being disingenuous. No one saw this more clearly than Richard Nixon.
Eisenhower hoped to avoid a decision by convincing Nixon to leave the ticket voluntarily. He offered to appoint Nixon secretary of defense in a new administration. He argued that Nixon’s low poll numbers might be a drag on the ticket and that Nixon needed to gain executive experience in order to improve his future prospects. Nixon replied that he would do whatever Eisenhower decided was best for the campaign, but that was exactly the decision the president was trying to avoid. He told the press that Nixon would have “to chart out his own course.” Eisenhower’s evasions infuriated Nixon, and after days of dangling on Ike’s hook, he decided to force the issue by telling the president that he wanted to run again. Eisenhower, finally forced to choose, relented.
There was one more “dump Nixon” attempt in 1956, led by Harold Stassen, Eisenhower’s “secretary of peace” and foreign policy adviser, after Eisenhower’s ileitis operation, but, by that time, Nixon already had the support of the party leadership and the convention delegates. Since Nixon had used the vice presidency to build a strong base of support within the party and to gain tremendous press coverage, the argument that he would be better off in the cabinet was simply not credible. He realized that the rest of the nation would see it as a replay of the 1944 “demotion” of Henry Wallace rather than as a move into a more responsible position. While it was not wise to say so, he also realized that he was only one uncertain heartbeat away from the presidency, and that was a chance worth taking.
Nixon, however, would have to deal with Eisenhower’s ambivalence again in 1960. Nixon was clearly the favorite for the Republican presidential nomination that year, but he faced a significant challenge from New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. Eisenhower did not openly endorse Nixon even though he certainly preferred Nixon and was furious with Rockefeller for attacks he had made on the administration. While Nixon managed to hold off Rockefeller, the governor’s criticisms pointed out what would become an essential problem for Nixon during the general election: while Eisenhower personally maintained immense popularity, his administration did not. Nixon’s campaign stressed his experience. In contrast to his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy, Nixon had met with world leaders, led sessions of the cabinet, and had better presidential “credentials” than any man in America. But this approach put Nixon in the difficult position of defending an administration for which he was not responsible. For two years he had privately urged a tax cut to stimulate the economy, but Ike would not unbalance the budget. Nixon had also urged increases in defense expenditures and an invasion of Cuba, but the president said they were unnecessary. These criticisms would be taken up by the Democrats in 1960, and Nixon had to defend the administration, even while privately agreeing with the critics. He refused campaign help from the White House staff but could not assemble a full staff to generate innovative policy ideas for fear of offending Ike. It seemed he was boxed in.
Eisenhower himself exacerbated the problem. While Nixon campaigned as an experienced leader, the press asked Eisenhower what policy suggestions Nixon had made that had been implemented. Eisenhower replied, “If you give me a week, I might think of one.” This was hardly the sort of endorsement Nixon needed—and it was not entirely fair. Elliot Richardson, who served during Eisenhower’s second term as an assistant secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, tells the story of a 1959 cabinet meeting at which Nixon stood against a majority opposed to a higher education subsidy proposal. This followed a typical pattern of cabinet disinterest in the electoral value of its decisions. Richardson reported, “Time and again I would see Nixon get up from the table after Cabinet meetings so tense that beads of sweat were standing out on his brow.” At the 1959 meeting, Nixon realized that a record of support for this legislation would be highly desirable in his 1960 presidential campaign. Consequently, he structured that day’s discussion so that the opponents had to acknowledge that the bill would have little immediate budgetary impact, that it established no new precedent for federal support of education, and that it indeed met an important national priority. Eisenhower reluctantly added his support.
Eisenhower mostly stayed out of the campaign until the last weeks, when he made several speeches on Nixon’s behalf. His reluctance was due as much to Nixon’s determination to run his own campaign as to Ike’s ill health or indifference. The race itself was one of the closest in American history. It featured two bright young candidates who evinced an unbounded optimism about the nation’s future squaring off in the historic television debates that captured the attention of the nation. In the end, Kennedy won by the narrowest of margins, but Nixon had run a highly competent campaign in spite of the handicaps of representing a minority party, being tied to an unpopular administration, and facing a charismatic opponent. He also was attempting to become the first sitting vice president to be elected president since Martin Van Buren. In light of these obstacles, it is amazing that he came as close as he did to winning, but he had been campaigning almost continuously since 1946, developing an ability to discern voters’ concerns. He also devised innovative campaign techniques, using television and advertising, that allowed him to address those concerns. Only the magical charm of Jack Kennedy could finally defeat him.
Most of Nixon’s opponents hoped that his career was over, but more perceptive observers knew better. As Republican Congressional Campaign Committee chairman William Miller said, “Any man who, at 47, comes within 300,000 [sic] votes of winning the presidency—for a party that is greatly outnumbered—has to be reckoned with. It’s far too early to bury Dick Nixon.” Nixon, however, soon walked into another disaster. He returned to California and challenged Democratic governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown in the 1962 gubernatorial race. Amid speculation that he only wanted the office as a step toward another presidential race, Nixon was defeated soundly and responded with a vitriolic “last” press conference in which he blamed the media for his defeat and declared, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” But his retirement proved temporary, as he staged a remarkable comeback to gain the GOP nomination in 1968 and to win the presidency amid the national turmoil over the Vietnam War. Nixon’s presidency would be marked by a new spirit of detente with the Soviet Union and by the establishment of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, but all would be overshadowed by the tragedy of Watergate.
President Nixon was accused of using his office to cover up crimes in his reelection campaign, including a break-in at Democratic national headquarters in the Watergate office building, and misusing federal funds to influence government witnesses. Under threat of impeachment, Richard Nixon, in 1974, became the only president in American history to resign from office. This time, his retirement was permanent, but he remained in the public eye as a prolific author and one of the nation’s most cogent commentators on international politics. He even served as an informal adviser to many of his successors. Richard Nixon died on April 22, 1994, at the age of 81.
Nixon’s opinion of the vice presidency changed with his situation. Early on, he declared, “I like it much better than service in the House or Senate. In the vice presidency you have an opportunity to see the whole operation of the government and participate in its decisions.” But at other times he was frustrated about being Eisenhower’s “hatchet man.” Appropriately, his opinion of his chief also fluctuated. Nixon admired Eisenhower’s political savvy, calling him a “far more complex and devious man than most people realize, and in the best sense of those words.” But, Nixon was also deeply hurt by Eisenhower’s unwillingness to come to his support in the 1952 fund crisis, the “dump Nixon” movement of 1956, or his own election bid in 1960. As a Nixon aide put it, the vice president’s opinion of Eisenhower went from “hero worship, to resentment, to hero worship, to disenchantment.”
Yet Nixon’s fortunes were intimately tied to Eisenhower’s coattails. Years later, in 1968, Nixon would remind crowds that he “had a good teacher,” and could still exhort crowds, “Let’s win this one for Ike!” One of his first acts as president-elect would be a public visit to the dying general. But it was never a comfortable situation. When reporters in 1960 asked Nixon what president best fit his idea of being “good for the country,” Nixon praised Woodrow Wilson but settled on Theodore Roosevelt. Significantly, he did not mention Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Franklin Roosevelt had briefly envisaged expanding the vice presidency by making it a kind of “assistant presidency,” with greater executive responsibilities. This is not the role that Eisenhower intended for Nixon. In fact, in 1959 Eisenhower proposed to his cabinet that he recommend legislation to create an office of assistant president. He envisioned perhaps two assistants, one dealing with foreign policy, the other with domestic matters. Nixon was horrified, arguing that the change would make the vice presidency even more superfluous than it already was. More important, Secretary of State Dulles was equally mortified, and the plan was quickly dropped. Eisenhower’s suggestion revealed that he never really considered Nixon a potential executive assistant.
Nixon did expand the visibility and duties of the vice presidency as none of his predecessors had, but those new duties were of a personal nature rather than an inherent part of the office, because they resulted more from the particular needs of President Eisenhower than from a reconstructed vision of the vice presidency. As a result, the changes in the office were limited and unique to the situation. Nixon’s new jobs were overwhelmingly political, as party liaison, campaigner, and goodwill ambassador, although he did have a few executive functions. He established an important precedent by presiding over 19 cabinet meetings and 26 meetings of the National Security Council. He also chaired the president’s Committee on Government Contracts and the Cabinet Committee on Price Stability, but these jobs were minor, because it was Nixon’s political role that mattered to the president. Not many presidents would need this kind of political troubleshooter, because Eisenhower was unusual in his lack of connections with his own party. Only the role of goodwill ambassador was really the kind of task future vice presidents could be expected to fill with regularity. The vice presidency had become more visible, but whether it would continue to be more important would depend on the needs of future presidents.
When Eisenhower hoped Nixon would take a cabinet spot, he had worried that “Nixon can’t always be the understudy to the star.” But Nixon was not even really the understudy. He was one part of Eisenhower’s “team.” His position on that team was one to which he was well suited, thus his determination to stay. He was constantly campaigning for Eisenhower and for other Republicans, but he realized that he was also campaigning for Richard Nixon. He had discovered how to turn the vice presidency into a platform for greater ambitions, but he was always dependent on Eisenhower’s needs. Nixon was right that he could not truly chart his own course. Luckily for him, the course laid out by Eisenhower was one Nixon wanted to follow, because it pointed toward the White House.