The contradictions of Richard Nixon
Published 10/08/2014 | 02:30
Forty years ago today, a stunned nation watched Richard Nixon stroll across the White House lawn and board a helicopter that would usher him into the political wilderness. There was quite simply no precedent for what America was witnessing: Nixon was the first US president ever to resign, and only did so to avoid the shame of impeachment.
Watergate would become the most famous scandal in presidential history, and Nixon spent the rest of his life trying to rehabilitate his tarnished image. He had some success, and, by the time of his death in 1994, he had become a semi-beloved elder statesman. But Richard Nixon died believing he had been fundamentally misunderstood by America, and he may have had a point.
He spent much of his political life in the shadow of the Kennedys, and was often compared with them to his detriment. Bobby, Jack and Ted were young, tanned, hirsute and handsome, and oozed the charisma Nixon so fatally lacked. To the rising countercultural movement of the 1960s, the Kennedys seemed like the underdogs, fresh and untried, while Nixon looked and sounded like a tricky, Eisenhower-era hack.
Nobody seemed to notice that the Kennedys were the rich kids who'd had everything handed to them on a plate, while Nixon had overcome dust-bowl poverty and childhood illness on his way to the top. As a teenager, he'd risen daily at four to drive his father's truck to the vegetable market before heading off to school, but nevertheless emerged as a star student, winning a scholarship to law school.
After being elected to Congress in 1946, he made his name as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee, but was careful to keep his distance from Senator Joe McCarthy's wilder excesses, and voted liberally on some key issues, including civil rights.
In 1952, Richard Nixon was selected by Dwight Eisenhower to be his running mate in the presidential elections. He proved a more than competent vice president, and entered the 1960 presidential race as narrow favourite over the dashing but hopelessly inexperienced Democratic candidate John F Kennedy.
In many ways, Nixon's career was defined and circumscribed by two fateful small screen appearances. The first came on September 26, 1960, when he and Kennedy met for the first ever TV presidential debate. Nixon looked tired and sweaty, whereas JFK, already a master of the new medium, nodded and smiled in all the right places.
Nixon's campaign never recovered, and he spent much of the 1960s outside politics before returning triumphantly to win the presidential race in 1968. He won again, by a landslide, in 1972, and the same year achieved an astonishing breakthrough by establishing friendly relations with China. He had real vision internationally, and made overtures to Moscow as well as courting Egypt as a potential honest broker in the Middle East.
Vietnam was a constant thorn in his side, though he was quick to point out that it had been Kennedy who'd first sent in the troops. But worse trouble was waiting in the wings.
On the night of June 17, 1972, five men were caught breaking into the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington. Though the FBI discovered a link to a White House fixer called E Howard Hunt, the connection was hastily covered up by the Nixon administration, and might have stayed buried if it hadn't been for the stubbornness of two cub reporters at The Washington Post.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein showed great diligence in following a money trail back to the CIA, the State Department and ultimately the White House.
The Watergate scandal rumbled through 1973 and into 1974, and led to the revelation that Nixon had bugged phones in the White House. When these tapes were eventually made public, they painted a most unflattering portrait of a chippy, resentful and deeply prejudiced man.
There was little public sympathy for Nixon when he said farewell to the White House in 1974, but he wasn't quite finished with the spotlight just yet. In 1977, David Frost paid him $600,000 to do a series of TV interviews. And after boring his subject to death for several hours, Frost suddenly rounded on Nixon and got him to admit that he'd "let down the country".
This second vital TV moment ultimately worked in Nixon's favour, and the sight of a slick Brit in a fancy suit dressing down a teary old man rallied many ordinary Americans to his side.
His last great hope was that he would be remembered for his political achievements, but this was an impossible dream.
The words Nixon and Watergate will forever be synonymous.