On November 5, 1968, Republican Richard Nixon accomplished perhaps the greatest comeback in American political history, narrowly defeating his Democratic rival, Hubert Humphrey, to become the thirty-seventh president of the United States. Only eight years earlier he had lost his first attempt at the presidency to John F. Kennedy in a devastating fashion. The election was extremely close, but clearly some voting shenanigans in Illinois, orchestrated by the Democratic Party machine in Chicago, played a role in his defeat. Two years later he lost badly in the race to become the governor of California. Bitter at how the press had hounded and provoked him throughout the race, he addressed the media the day after this defeat and concluded by saying, “Just think of how much you’re going to be missing. You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”
The response to these words was overwhelmingly negative. He was accused of wallowing in self-pity. ABC News ran a half-hour special called “The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon.” A Time magazine article on him concluded: “Barring a miracle, Richard Nixon can never hope to be elected to any political office again.”
By all accounts his political career should have been over in 1962. But Richard Nixon’s life had been an endless series of crises and setbacks that had only made him more determined. As a young man his dream was to attend an Ivy League school, the key to attaining power in America. Young Richard was exceptionally ambitious. His family, however, was relatively poor and could not afford to pay for such an education. He overcame this seemingly insuperable barrier by transforming himself into a superior student, earning the nickname “Iron Butt” for his inhuman work habits, and managed to land a scholarship to the law school at Duke University. To keep the scholarship he had to remain at the top of his class, which he did through the kind of hard work few others could endure.
After several years in the U.S. Senate, in 1952 Dwight D. Eisenhower had chosen him to be his running mate as vice president on the Republican ticket, but quickly regretted the choice. Nixon had kept a secret fund from the Republican Party that he had supposedly used for private purposes. In fact he was innocent of the charges, but Eisenhower did not feel comfortable with him, and this was the excuse to get rid of him. Cutting him loose in this way would almost certainly ruin Nixon’s political career. Once again he rose to the challenge, appearing on live television and delivering the speech of his life, defending himself against the charges. It was so effective, the public clamored for Eisenhower to keep him on the ticket. He went on to serve eight years as vice president.
And so, the crushing defeats of 1960 and 1962 would again be the means of toughening himself up and resurrecting his career. He was like a cat with nine lives. Nothing could kill him. He laid low for a few years, then came charging back for the 1968 election. He was now the “new Nixon,” more relaxed and affable, a man who liked bowling and corny jokes. And having learned all the lessons from his various defeats, he ran one of the smoothest and savviest campaigns in modern history and made all of his enemies and doubters eat crow when he defeated Humphrey.
In becoming president, he had seemingly reached the apex of power. But in his mind there was yet one more challenge to overcome, perhaps the greatest of all. Nixon’s liberal enemies saw him as a political animal, one who would resort to any kind of trickery to win an election. To the East Coast elites who hated him, he was the hick from Whittier, California, too obvious in his ambition. Nixon was determined to prove them all wrong. He was not who they thought he was. He was an idealist at heart, not a ruthless politician. His beloved mother, Hannah, was a devout Quaker who had instilled in him the importance of treating all people equally and promoting peace in the world. He wanted to craft a legacy as one of the greatest presidents in history. For the sake of his mother, who had died earlier that year, he wanted to embody her Quaker ideals and show his detractors how deeply they had misread him.
His political icons were men like French president Charles de Gaulle, whom he had met and greatly admired. De Gaulle had crafted a persona that radiated authority and love of country. Nixon would do the same. In his notebooks he began to refer to himself as “RN”—the world leader version of himself. RN would be strong, resolute, compassionate yet completely masculine. The America he was to lead was riven by antiwar protests, riots in the cities, a rising crime rate. He would end the war and work toward world peace; at home he would bring prosperity to all Americans, stand for law and order, and instill a sense of decency the country had lost. Accomplishing this, he would take his place among the presidents he revered—Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson. And he would will this into existence, as he always had done.
In his first months he moved quickly. He assembled a top-notch cabinet, including the brilliant Henry Kissinger as his national security adviser. For his personal staff he preferred clean-cut young men who would be fiercely loyal to him and serve as tools to realize his great ambitions for America. This would include Bob Haldeman, his chief of staff; John Ehrlichman, in charge of domestic policy; John Dean, the White House counsel; and Charles Colson, a White House aide.
He didn’t want intellectuals around him; he wanted go-getters. But Nixon was not naive. He understood that in politics loyalty was ephemeral. And so early on in his administration he installed a secret voice-activated taping system throughout the White House that only a select few would know about. In this way he could keep discreet tabs on his staff and preemptively discover any possible turncoats or leakers among them. It would provide evidence he could use later on if anyone tried to misrepresent any conversations with him. And best of all, once his presidency was over, the edited tapes could be used to demonstrate his greatness as a leader, the clear and rational way he came to his decisions. The tapes would secure his legacy.
As the first few years went by, Nixon worked to execute his plan. He was an active president. He signed bills to protect the environment, the health of workers, and the rights of consumers. On the foreign front, he struggled to wind down the war in Vietnam, with limited success. But soon he laid the groundwork for his first visit to the Soviet Union and his celebrated trip to China and signed into law an agreement with the Soviets to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons. This was just the start of what he would bring about.
And yet despite the relative smoothness of these first years, something strange began to stir within Richard Nixon. He could not shake these feelings of anxiety, something he had been prone to his entire life. It started to come out in his closed-door meetings with his personal staff, late at night over some drinks. Nixon would begin to share with them stories from his colorful past, and in the process he would go over some of his old political wounds, and bitterness would rise up from deep within.
He was particularly obsessed with the Alger Hiss case. Alger Hiss was an important staffer in the State Department who in 1948 had been accused of being a communist spy. Hiss denied the charges. Dapper and elegant, he was the darling of the liberals. Nixon, at the time a junior congressman from California, smelled a phony. While other congressmen decided to leave Hiss alone, Nixon, representing the House Un-American Activities Committee, kept investigating. In an interview with Hiss, as Nixon reminded him of the law against perjury, Hiss replied, “I am familiar with the law. I attended Harvard Law School. I believe yours was Whittier?” (a reference to the lowly undergraduate college Nixon had attended).
Relentless in his pursuit of Hiss, Nixon was successful in getting him indicted for perjury, and Hiss went to prison. This victory made Nixon famous but, as he told his staff members, it earned him the eternal wrath of East Coast elites, who saw him as the unctuous upstart from Whittier. In the 1950s these elites, many of them Harvard graduates, quietly kept Nixon and his wife, Pat, out of their social circles, limiting Nixon’s political contacts. Their allies in the press ridiculed him mercilessly for any misstatement or possible misdeed. Yes, Nixon was no angel. He liked winning, but the hypocrisy of these liberals galled him—Bobby Kennedy was the king of political dirty tricks, and yet what reporter publicized this?
As he went deeper and deeper into these stories night after night with his staff, he reminded them that this past was still very much alive. The old enemies were still at work against him. There was CBS correspondent Daniel Schorr, who seemed to hate Nixon with unusual zeal. His reports from Vietnam always managed to highlight the worst aspects of the war and make Nixon look bad. There was Katharine Graham, the owner of the Washington Post, a newspaper that seemed to have a personal vendetta against him going back many years. She was the doyenne of the Georgetown social scene, which had snubbed him and Pat for years. Worst of all, there was Larry O’Brien, now the chairman of the Democratic Party, who as a key adviser in the Kennedy administration had managed to get Nixon audited by the IRS. As Nixon saw it, O’Brien was the evil genius of politics, a man who would do anything to prevent Nixon’s reelection in 1972.
His enemies were everywhere and they were relentless—planting negative stories in the press, procuring embarrassing leaks from within the bureaucracy, spying on him, ready to pounce on the slightest whiff of scandal. And what, he would ask his staff, are we doing on our side? If his team did nothing to respond to this, they would have only themselves to blame. His legacy, his ambitions were at stake. As the stories began to pile up of antiwar demonstrations and leaks about his administration’s Vietnam War effort, Nixon became red-hot with anger and frustration, the talk with his staff heating up on both sides. Once, as Colson talked about getting revenge on some particularly nettlesome opponents, Nixon chimed in, “One day we will get them— we’ll get them on the ground where we want them. And then we’ll stick our heels in, step on them hard and twist—right, Chuck, right?”
When informed that many of the staff at the Bureau of Labor Statistics were Jews, he felt that was probably the reason for some bad economic numbers coming from there. “The government is full of Jews,” he told Haldeman. “Most Jews are disloyal.” They were the mainstay of the East Coast establishment that worked so hard against him. Another time he told Haldeman, “Please get me the names of the Jews, you know, the big Jewish contributors to the Democrats. . . . Could we please investigate some of the cocksuckers?” Auditing them would be in order. He had other harsh ideas for how to hurt Katharine Graham and embarrass Daniel Schorr.
Nixon also began to feel increasingly anxious about his public image, so critical to his legacy. He badgered his staff, and even Henry Kissinger, to promote to the press his strong leadership style. In interviews, they should refer to him as Mr. Peace, and Kissinger should not be getting so much credit. He wanted to know what the elites at the parties in Georgetown were saying about him. Were they finally changing their minds in any way about Richard Nixon?
Despite his nervousness, by 1972 it was clear that events were lining up well for him. His Democratic opponent in his reelection bid would be Senator George McGovern, a diehard liberal. Nixon was ahead in the polls, but he wanted much more. He wanted a complete landslide and mandate from the public. Certain that men like O’Brien had some tricks up their sleeve, he began to rail at Haldeman to do some spying and get some dirt on the Democrats. He wanted Haldeman to assemble a team of “nutcutters” to do the necessary dirty work with maximum efficiency. He would leave the details up to him.
Much to his chagrin, in June of that year Nixon read in the Washington Post of a botched break-in at the Watergate Hotel, in which a group of men had attempted to plant bugs in the offices of Larry O’Brien. This led to the arrest of three men—James McCord, E. Howard Hunt, and G. Gordon Liddy—with ties to the committee for the reelection of President Nixon. The break-in was so badly done that Nixon suspected it was all a setup by the Democrats. This was not the efficient team of nutcutters he had advocated.
A few days later, on June 23, he discussed the break-in with Haldeman. The FBI was investigating the case. Some of the men arrested were former CIA operatives. Perhaps, Haldeman proposed, they could get top brass in the CIA to put pressure on the FBI to drop the investigation. Nixon approved. He told Haldeman, “I’m not going to get that involved.” Haldeman responded, “No, sir. We don’t want you to.” But Nixon then added, “Play it tough. That’s the way they play and that’s the way we’re going to play it.” Nixon put his counsel, John Dean, in charge of the internal investigation, with clear instructions that he should stonewall the FBI and cover up any connections to the White House. Anyway, Nixon had never directly ordered the break-in. Watergate was a trifle, nothing to tarnish his reputation. It would fade away, along with all the other dirty political deeds never discovered or recorded in the history books.
And indeed he was correct, for the time being—the public paid little attention to the break-in. Nixon went on to have one of the biggest landslides in electoral history. He swept every state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. He even won over a large percentage of Democrats. He now had four more years to solidify his legacy and nothing to stop him. His popularity numbers had never been higher.
Watergate, however, kept coming back to life and would not leave him alone. In January 1973, the Senate decided to launch an investigation. In March, McCord finally spilled the beans, implicating various members of the White House staff in the ordering of the breakin. Hunt began demanding hush money to not reveal what he knew. The way out of this mess was simple and clear—hire an outside lawyer to do an internal investigation of the break-in, with the full cooperation of Nixon and his team, and bring all the details to light. Nixon’s reputation would suffer, some would go to prison, but it would keep him politically alive, and he was the master of coming back from the dead.
Nixon, however, could not take such a step. There would be too much immediate damage. The thought of coming clean about what he knew and had ordered frightened him to death. In meetings with Dean he continued to discuss the cover-up, even suggesting where they could come up with hush money. Dean cautioned him to not get so involved, but Nixon seemed oddly fascinated by the growing mess he had created, and unable to pull himself away.
Soon he was forced to fire Haldeman and Ehrlichman, both of whom had been deeply implicated in the break-in. It was an ordeal to get him to personally fire them, and when it came to delivering the news to Ehrlichman, he broke down and sobbed. But it seemed that nothing he did could stop the momentum of the Watergate investigation, which got closer and closer to Nixon, making him feel like a trapped rat.
On July 19, 1973, he received the worst news of all: the Senate committee investigating Watergate had learned of the secret taping system installed in the White House, and they demanded that the tapes be handed over to them as evidence. All Nixon could think about was the intense embarrassment that would ensue if the tapes went public. They would make him the laughingstock of the world. Think of the language that he had used and the many harsh things he had advocated. His image, his legacy, all the ideals he had striven to realize, it would all be ruined in one fell stroke. He thought of his mother and his own family—they had never heard him speak as he had done in the privacy of his own office. It was as if he were another person on those tapes. Alexander Haig, who was now his chief of staff, told Nixon he had to tear out the taping system and destroy the tapes immediately, before receiving an official subpoena.
Nixon seemed paralyzed: Destroying the tapes would be an admission of guilt; perhaps the tapes would exonerate him, as they would prove he had never directly ordered the break-in. But the thought of any of these tapes becoming public terrified him. He went back and forth on this in his mind, but in the end he decided to not destroy them. By invoking executive privilege he would resist handing them over.
Finally, as pressure mounted, in April 1974 Nixon decided to release edited transcripts of the tapes in the form of a 1,200-page book and hope for the best. The public was horrified by what it read. Yes, many had thought him slippery and devious, but the forceful language, the swearing, the sometimes hysterical, paranoid tone of his conversation, and the utter lack of compunction or hesitation in ordering various illegal acts revealed a side of Nixon they had never suspected. Even members of his family were shocked. When it came to Watergate, he seemed very weak and indecisive, not at all the de Gaulle image he wanted to project. He never once showed the slightest desire to get at the truth and punish the wrongdoers. Where was the man of law and order?
On July 24 came the final blow: the Supreme Court ordered him to hand over the tapes themselves, and among them would be the recorded conversation of June 23, 1972, in which he had approved of
using the CIA to quash the FBI investigation. This was the “smoking gun” that revealed his involvement in the cover-up from early on. Nixon was doomed, and although it was against everything he believed in, by early August he decided to resign.
The morning after he delivered his resignation speech to the country, Nixon addressed his staff one last time, and fighting to control his emotions, he concluded, “Never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” Along with his family, he then got into the helicopter that was to take him into political exile.