Richard Nixon was first elected to the presidency in 1968. Starting with President Lyndon Johnson's stunning decision not to seek a second term, the campaign of that year reflected the uncertainty and turmoil that gripped much of the nation. Hundreds of young Americans were dying in Vietnam. In the spring, civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. In June, Senator Robert Kennedy was shot and killed following his victory in the California Democratic primary. Nixon's eventual challenger, Hubert Humphrey, won the nomination at a chaotic and violent convention. When the dust settled, Richard Nixon was the last contender still standing. The nation around him, however, was reeling.
When President Richard M. Nixon stepped in front of the television cameras on November 3, 1969, he faced a nation sharply divided. War raged on in Vietnam, and American soldiers were dying. To read the daily newspapers and watch the nightly news was to see an administration under siege. Antiwar protesters took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands. Pundits predicted that the activists would not stop until they brought the president down.
Nixon believed that his long-standing enemies -- the elite, East Coast liberals of the media -- conspired to tell only one side of the story. Polls showed majority support for Nixon's policy of gradual withdrawal from Vietnam. So using a strategy that had served him well in the past, the president took his case directly to the people on national television.
In his address, Nixon outlined the situation in Vietnam. He warned that an early withdrawal would show weakness to Russia and China and negatively affect the Paris peace talks. And he called upon "the great silent majority of my fellow Americans" to help him "end the war in a way that we could win the peace."
The silent majority responded immediately. Telegrams and letters of support flooded the White House. A delighted Nixon, who had an obsessive hatred of the media, proclaimed that the "press corps is dying because of that speech."
Richard Nixon's tumultuous relationship with the press had begun some 20 years before, when he served on the House Un-American Activities Committee. In dramatic public hearings, Nixon helped to uncover liberal stalwart Alger Hiss's links to a Communist spy ring. Nixon became a national celebrity because of the case, but liberal commentators scorned him. From the Hiss case forward, Nixon would consider the media his enemy.
Nixon's first major clash with the press came in 1952 when he ran as Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice-presidential running mate. On September 18, the New York Post incorrectly reported that wealthy backers had set up a secret fund for Nixon's personal use. Desperate to avoid being dumped by Eisenhower, Nixon turned the media against itself on nationwide television.
Known later as the "Checkers" speech, Nixon's address of September 23, 1952, was a textbook exercise in manipulation. An accomplished debater with a flair for the dramatic, he delivered an overwrought accounting of his personal finances. He explained that his wife, Patricia Nixon, did not have a mink coat, but a "respectable Republican cloth coat," and said that one gift he had received, a cocker spaniel named Checkers, was adored by his children. "Regardless of what they say about it," Nixon said, "we're going to keep him."
The calculated emotional appeal struck a chord with 60 million Americans -- the largest television audience ever. Pro-Nixon telegrams barraged Eisenhower, and the two Republicans triumphed in November. Nixon's next major television appearance did not bring such positive results.
In 1960, Nixon won the Republican presidential nomination. When his opponent, John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, challenged him to a series of televised debates, Nixon accepted, despite the fact that as the favorite he had little to gain.
The first debate, held on September 26, dramatically altered the course of the campaign. Kennedy, poised and handsome, presented a reassuring image to the record television audience. Nixon, recovering from a severe knee injury, appeared gaunt and unhealthy -- he perspired profusely and his makeup ran. Those who watched on television favored Kennedy. But listeners on the radio thought Nixon had won the debate. In the wake of the Kennedy's television performance, momentum shifted his way. Nixon lost in November -- another defeat lay ahead.
In 1962, Nixon lost the California gubernatorial race to incumbent Pat Brown. He announced his retirement from politics -- and vented his hostility toward the media. "For 16 years, ever since the Hiss case, you've had a lot of fun," he said. "Just think how much you're going to be missing. You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore."
Nixon's retirement lasted six years. In 1968, he swept to the White House amid promises of ending the Vietnam War. But his plan for a gradual withdrawal failed to satisfy antiwar activists. Nixon's silent majority speech of November 1969 brought an outpouring of support, but could not stop the nightly news broadcasts showing an American war gone horribly wrong.
On June 13, 1971, the New York Times published the first excerpt from "The Pentagon Papers," classified documents detailing Vietnam policy during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The papers, leaked to the press by a former Defense Department worker named Daniel Ellsberg, revealed public duplicity on the part of Kennedy and Johnson. Although the papers made no mention of his administration, Nixon went into a rage.
Press leaks had plagued the Nixon White House. In May, 1969, when the New York Times published a story revealing secret bombings of Cambodia, Nixon had ordered more than a dozen FBI wiretaps in an effort to track down the source of the leaks. Now more leaks threatened to disrupt his secret diplomatic negotiations with China and the Soviet Union and his covert peace talks with North Vietnam. If these nations believed that Americans could not keep secrets, talks might break down.
As leaks continued, a furious Nixon ordered the creation of a group of anti-leak operatives known as the plumbers. Among other operations, the plumbers burglarized the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist, searching for evidence that would discredit Ellsberg. They found none. Shortly thereafter, the group disbanded, but another, the Committee to Re-elect the President, took its place. On June 17, 1972, police apprehended members of CREEP in a burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices in Washington's Watergate Hotel.
Nixon neither authorized the burglary nor knew about it beforehand. Yet he feared that if anyone linked the break-in to his administration, he might lose the election of 1972. He ordered the FBI to halt its investigation of the burglary, and won re-election. But by early 1973, Watergate was a staple of the nightly news.
The Nixon White House paid hush money to the Watergate burglars and appealed to the fidelity of the President's aides. Still, under the pressure of the media and a Senate investigation, the conspiracy began to unravel. On March 23, 1973, James McCord implicated the White House in the cover-up. In April, Nixon's counsel, John Dean, revealed details of the Ellsberg break-in to investigators -- in May, a spellbound nation watched on TV as Dean testified before the Senate Watergate Committee about Nixon's role in the cover-up. The media noose grew tighter, and Nixon struggled to escape.
In Senate testimony on July 16, former White House Aide Alexander Butterfield revealed that Nixon had recorded his conversations in the Oval Office. First Senate investigators, then independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox subpoenaed the tapes. Nixon refused to surrender them, and fired Cox. Americans swamped Congress with telegrams demanding the president's impeachment.
A desperate Nixon decided to do what had worked so well in the "Checkers" and "silent majority" speeches -- go over the heads of his enemies in the media and speak to the people directly. On April 29, 1974, he announced the release of edited transcripts of the Watergate tapes. He appealed to "the basic fairness of the American people" and expressed hope that the transcripts of the tapes would suffice.
Nixon's proposal generated near-universal outrage -- the media strengthened its calls for his ouster. After Nixon lost a Supreme Court bid to keep control of the tapes, the House Judiciary Committee recommended that the president be impeached. This set the stage for the most dramatic media appearance of Nixon's career.
On August 8, 1974, Richard M. Nixon addressed the nation for the final time. "I have never been a quitter," Nixon said. "To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body, but as president, I must put the interest of America first." Facing the media which had raised him up, become his enemy, and helped to bring him down, the president resigned.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?