“A great, bad man”
Richard Nixon saw himself as a great statesman, a giant for the ages, a general who could command the globe, a master of war, not merely the leader of the free world but “the world leader.” Yet he was addicted to the gutter politics that ruined him. He was—as an English earl once said of the warlord Oliver Cromwell—“a great, bad man.”
In Nixon’s first State of the Union speech, he said that he was possessed by “an indefinable spirit—the lift of a driving dream which has made America, from its beginning, the hope of the world.” He promised the American people “the best chance since World War II to enjoy a generation of uninterrupted peace.”
But Richard Nixon was never at peace. A darker spirit animated him—malevolent and violent, driven by anger and an insatiable appetite for revenge. At his worst he stood on the brink of madness. He thought the world was against him. He saw enemies everywhere. His greatness became an arrogant grandeur.
By experience deeply suspicious, by instinct incurably deceptive, he was branded by an indelible epithet: Tricky Dick. No less a man than Martin Luther King Jr. saw a glimpse of the monster beneath the veneer the first time they met, when King was the rising leader of the civil rights movement. “Nixon has a genius for convincing one that he is sincere,” King wrote in 1958. “If Richard Nixon is not sincere, he is the most dangerous man in America.”
Nixon had that genius, a genuine conviction that he could change the world. He was also a most dangerous man.
He had vowed all his political life to fight communism; then he clinked glasses with the world’s foremost Communist tyrants in China and Russia. He gambled on their good faith; he had hopes that they would help him out of Vietnam. He lost that bet. Had he won, he might have remade the political map of the planet. In the long run, at best America broke even after Nixon went to the capitals of world communism. He returned with treaties and statements signifying comity and coexistence, but these liaisons were fragile. They were political communiqués, not peace deals. Russia and China were our greatest foes then; they remain America’s strongest opponents today.
Nixon was realistic about America’s relations with them. “We are still dealing with governments that are basically hostile to us,” he said in May 1971, each word recorded on tape. “Those Chinese are out to whip me.” As for the Russians, he called their leaders gangsters. He predicted that mutual mistrust would prevail. “They particularly won’t believe me,” he said in the Oval Office that same spring. “You see, they really think I’m a tricky bastard. And they’re right.”
But Nixon wanted to give the American people what he had promised: an honorable end to the war in Vietnam. If he achieved that goal, he calculated that he could win reelection by a landslide so enormous that the landscape of American politics would be forever altered. And that was why Nixon went to China.
Nixon’s geostrategic gambits were a great success with the majority of the American people. “Nixon went to China” remains a catchphrase for politics as the art of the possible. If America’s cold warrior in chief could champion détente, easing tensions with the United States’ nuclear-armed adversaries, then anything was possible.
The political and social crises Nixon faced still confront the country today. He faced them with his genius for appearing sincere.
Equal justice under law, words engraved on the entrance to the Supreme Court, was an elusive ideal. The civil rights laws of the 1960s were barely four years old. Nixon was given to making racist remarks in private; he tried with all his might to dismantle the new federal agencies designed to enforce racial equality and social justice. He supported desegregation in principle, because the Supreme Court demanded it, but in practice, and in detail, he resisted it.
Nixon confided in private that he would always favor the economic interests of corporations over the environment. But when Americans realized they were ruining the air they breathed and the water they drank, they marched in great numbers in the name of saving the earth. In response, Congress passed the strongest environmental laws in American history. To his credit, Nixon signed them, along with rules and regulations to enforce them. Yet he believed, as he said, that “the environment is not an issue that’s worth a damn to us.”
Nixon said time and again that he really didn’t give a damn about the domestic issues of the day. He contended that the country could run itself without a president to watch over every picayune political problem. He embraced economic policies that were “in the long run . . . a catastrophe,” in the words of George P. Shultz, his treasury secretary. Unemployment and inflation nearly tripled during the Nixon years; this led to the longest recession in four decades.
His clashes with the courts left lasting wounds on the American body politic. He had an abiding contempt for Congress, and he treated most of his Cabinet with cool disdain. His conferences with congressional leaders and Cabinet members and the National Security Council were show-and-tell sessions, not the time or place for policies to take shape. These full-dress meetings were shadow plays. He had reached his life-or-death resolutions before they convened.
Nixon would appear to hear out his most senior military, diplomatic, and intelligence chiefs. But he didn’t want advice or counsel from the Pentagon or the CIA, where there were men who had devoted their lives to Vietnam since Americans first left footprints in the mud back in 1954. The sword of war and the shield of national security were his alone to wield.
“Nixon never trusted anybody,” wrote Richard Helms, his CIA chieftain, one among the many leading figures of his administration who would face the prospect of prison for protecting the president from the consequences of his secrecy and deception. “He was constantly telling people that the Air Force in their bombings in Vietnam couldn’t hit their ass with their hand, the State Department was just a bunch of pinstriped cocktail-drinking diplomats, the Agency couldn’t come up with a winning victory in Vietnam.”
The president’s harangues went “on and on and on,” Helms remembered. Nixon ranted: “They are dumb, they are stupid, they can’t do this, and they can’t do that.” These same generals, spymasters, admirals, and ambassadors were America’s point men in an increasingly impossible war. Nixon’s lack of faith in them was immutable—and, ultimately, mutual.
This mistrust led him to deceive his Cabinet, the Congress, and the citizenry about the course of the war as he charted it. He saw himself as commander in chief not only of the army and the navy, as the Constitution says, but of all the American people. He was the leader of a worldwide battle where the future of the nation was at stake. His enemies abroad and his enemies at home, he felt, were conspiring to bring the United States to its knees.
Nixon believed to the marrow of his bones that the Soviets, the Chinese, the North Vietnamese, and the Cubans were secretly financing the American antiwar movement, which could mobilize a million marchers at a month’s notice. These people were mainstream citizens, not mad bombers. Yet while Nixon was still getting his bearings as president, a small faction of the radical left, a few hundred people, broke away to form a revolutionary gang called the Weathermen. The marchers carried placards; the Weathermen preferred Molotov cocktails. They set off small bombs inside the Senate and the Pentagon; the FBI never caught the bombers. The Weathermen declared war on the government; Nixon called them terrorists. The response he demanded—a series of illegal break-ins and warrantless wiretaps—would result in the indictments of the leaders of the FBI, not the bombers they pursued.*
Nixon insisted that the CIA and the FBI discover the sources of underground Communist support for American peace groups. Where was the evidence? His intelligence chiefs reported that none existed. Yet Nixon convinced himself that the capital was besieged by Americans who had formed enemy battalions financed by Moscow and Beijing and Hanoi and Havana. He saw the antiwar movement as the fifth column of international communism.
Washington became a combat zone when the radical left confronted Richard Nixon. Tear gas hurled by police against protesters wafted through the windows of the Justice Department headquarters, gagging Attorney General Mitchell. Army soldiers in full combat gear camped on the fourth floor of the Executive Office Building, next door to the White House, to protect the president from attack. The days of rage and fear passed for the protesters. But not for Nixon: he was scarred by a quarter century of political warfare against his enemies. He stayed on high alert.
Nixon saw the clashes he faced in Washington and around the world as a continuing constitutional crisis. He compared them to the Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln suspended the law of habeas corpus, the ancient writ that allows anyone under arrest to appear before a court. Lincoln’s act was unconstitutional, but he believed—and Nixon agreed—that there were times when a president had to break the law to save the nation.
“When the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” Nixon insisted. “Actions which otherwise would be unconstitutional could become lawful if undertaken for the purpose of preserving the Constitution and the nation,” he said. “This nation was torn apart in an ideological way by the war in Vietnam, as much as the Civil War tore apart the nation when Lincoln was president.”
So no one could question Nixon’s actions in the name of national security—not the courts, not the Congress, and certainly no citizen. And Nixon defined national security as far more than the powers of America’s soldiers and spies to fight their enemies abroad. It included the powers of a secret police, the power to spy on American citizens, to break into their homes, to tap their telephones, to burglarize their offices, seeking evidence of sedition and treason. For Nixon, every American citizen and every elected official who opposed the war in Vietnam was an enemy, no less than a soldier of the army of North Vietnam, and he stood surrounded by foes left and right, the lone warrior.
Nixon believed that “it was ‘me against the world,’ ” said Robert Finch, who served him for many years as a campaign manager, Cabinet officer, and presidential counselor.
The president, the pillar of national security, was undermined by his own political insecurity. Against all evidence that he would win an overwhelming reelection, he compulsively spied on his political opponents and sought secret cash contributions to shore up his campaign coffers. Against the law, he paid hush money to the crew of washed-up CIA and FBI agents arrested for the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington. Against all logic, he wiretapped his loyal aides and compulsively tape-recorded his own complicity in the concomitant crimes, conspiracies, and cover-ups that destroyed him.
What drove him to political suicide? That was one secret Nixon hoped he might take to the grave.
He is buried next to the tiny wooden house where he was raised in Yorba Linda, California, amid what once were citrus groves coaxed from the dry land roughly forty miles southeast of Los Angeles, enclosed on the grounds of his presidential memorial and library. He was born more than a century ago, in 1913, on the eve of the First World War. Fewer than three hundred souls then inhabited Yorba Linda, most barely scraping by on what little the land could provide. Today it is a well-to-do suburb with landscaped lawns; the median household income exceeds one hundred twenty thousand dollars. One thing is unchanged: a railroad line runs through the heart of town, and as a child, Richard Nixon heard a locomotive’s lonesome whistle, and he wondered if that train would carry him away and where it might take him.
“He hears the train go by at night and he dreams of faraway places where he’d like to go,” Nixon said, in a rare invocation of his childhood memories. “It seems like an impossible dream.”
He and his four brothers were named after British kings by a pious mother and a hot-tempered father with a sixth-grade education who barely made a go of it as a greengrocer. “He had a lemon ranch,” Nixon remembered. “It was the poorest lemon ranch in California, I can assure you. He sold it before they found oil on it.” Richard’s childhood was unhappy. Two of his siblings died young. He strove with quiet desperation to escape the depths of the Depression, to invent a new life outside the dusty and desolate confines of his youth.
Twenty years old when President Franklin D. Roosevelt first took office in 1933, Nixon put himself through the local college in Whittier. He tried out for the football team, but was consigned to the bench as a water boy. He won a full scholarship to Duke University’s law school by dint of hard work and ambition, but no great opportunity awaited him after his 1937 graduation. He sought positions at prestigious New York law firms, but received no offers. He applied to be an agent at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but received no reply. Only one man, a twenty-seven-year-old assistant law professor at Duke named Kenneth Rush, saw the potential in Nixon. Rush advised his student to go back to California and get into politics.†
Nixon suffered another series of humiliations after returning home. He established a small law practice in Whittier, but writing wills and contracts bored him. His political aspirations were diminished. “The last thing my mother, a devout Quaker, wanted me to do was to go into the warfare of politics,” Nixon recounted. (She dreamed he would become a missionary in Central America.) He courted the woman he would marry one day, Thelma “Pat” Ryan, but that day was long in coming.
She turned him down repeatedly when he asked for a first date; two years passed before his immediate attraction to her became mutual. They married in 1940 and their union lasted more than fifty years. Though she despised the darker side of politics, detested pressing the flesh on the campaign trail, and despaired at the pain her husband suffered in pursuit of power, she stayed with him in victory and defeat, stoic and steadfast in the solitary confinement of their marriage.
Commissioned as a navy lieutenant after Pearl Harbor, Richard Nixon served as a supply officer in the South Pacific, but never saw a moment of combat. When the war ended in 1945, he had no great prospects. Seven years later, he was on the way to the White House as the running mate of Dwight D. Eisenhower, America’s greatest military hero.
Nixon’s rise has few parallels in American politics. A member of a local Republican committee who knew Nixon from college urged him to run for Congress. Nixon challenged a popular Democratic incumbent in the November 1946 election. The contest coincided with the rising dawn of a great fear: that the Soviet Union would challenge Christian civilization in the United States, its spies and subversives burrowing into American institutions from college campuses to the chambers of the State Department and the corridors of the Pentagon.
Nixon ran as one of the first cold warriors. He fiercely attacked his opponent as the tool of Communist-controlled labor unions. He won handily. So did Republicans across the country: the party took control of both the Senate and the House for the first time in two decades.
By the time Nixon arrived in Washington, the war on communism was on in full. He sought and won membership on the newly revitalized House Un-American Activities Committee. Nixon and the committee’s Republican staff would be supplied, in secret, with information from the FBI. That information, once Nixon grasped its significance, would soon propel him to power.
On March 26, 1947, the committee’s members heard rare public testimony from the FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, who already had run the Bureau for twenty-three years. He called upon them to summon “the zeal, the fervor, the persistence, and the industry to learn about this menace of Red fascism,” and to beware “the liberal and the progressive who have been hoodwinked and duped into joining hands with the Communists.”
Nixon took these words as his political credo. He and Hoover spoke one on one at the hearing’s conclusion. They had an instant and instinctive meeting of the minds. The director urged Nixon to be on the lookout for Communist infiltration of the American government. Heeding Hoover, Nixon soon rose to nationwide fame hunting traitors and spies. Thus began an alliance that would last a quarter century. Nixon became a leading figure in the Cold War’s culture of espionage and counterespionage, where bugging, break-ins, and wiretaps without warrants were weapons of political warfare. As president, Nixon would call Hoover “my closest friend in all of political life.”
As the Cold War intensified and the Korean War erupted, Nixon won election to the U.S. Senate in 1950, catapulted upward by his relentless pursuit of Alger Hiss, a hunt for which Nixon received great acclaim and immense publicity. Hiss was a pillar of the Eastern Establishment, that congregation of well-raised, well-educated men who had ruled much of Washington for a generation; Nixon despised them by instinct. Hiss had been a standout at the State Department during World War II; he helped organize the Yalta Conference, where President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Generalissimo Joseph Stalin met for the last time in the closing months of the war; he was a political architect of the blueprint for the United Nations.
When Nixon began hunting him, Hiss was running the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The endowment’s chairman was John Foster Dulles, a Republican stalwart who would become President Eisenhower’s secretary of state and, in time, a confidant to Richard Nixon.
The Hiss case was the first crisis by which Nixon defined his political life. The accusation that Alger Hiss had been a secret agent of the Soviet intelligence service seemed incredible. Nixon hunted him relentlessly, often ruthlessly, with the single-minded determination of a Hollywood homicide detective. He was convinced that the case involved “the security of the whole nation and the cause of free men everywhere.”
Hiss faced one hostile witness, Whittaker Chambers (a Time magazine editor who had worked for the Soviet underground in the 1930s), and one deeply hidden shred of evidence that could condemn him as a spy. As a witness, in the judgment of J. Edgar Hoover, Chambers had three strikes against him: his past life as a Communist spy, his secret life as a homosexual, and his occasional mistruths under oath. The evidence of Chambers’s espionage was too important a secret to reveal. And though Hiss had been mentioned under a code name in a Soviet intelligence communiqué decoded by the military intelligence service that evolved into today’s National Security Agency, the existence of that service and its work could not be disclosed in open court.
Hiss never could be tried for espionage. So Nixon, in his own words, convicted him in the press. He set a perjury trap for Hiss. In sworn testimony, Nixon caught him in a series of seemingly evasive statements about the most obscure details of his relationship with Chambers. Then he used his allies among the corps of Washington reporters and his contacts in the FBI to smear Hiss in the newspapers. Hiss was indicted for perjury by a federal grand jury in December 1948 after denying under oath that he had given State Department documents to Chambers. The jury was hung. Hiss was convicted at a second trial in January 1950.
The publicity was priceless for Nixon. And he was right about Hiss. Soviet intelligence records released sixty years later established that Hiss had worked with the Communist underground before World War II. Chambers had lied to the grand jury, too, but without penalty. No prosecutor would take the political heat of a perjury case against Nixon’s star witness.
“The Hiss case brought me national fame,” Nixon wrote in Six Crises. “Two years after that, General Eisenhower introduced me as his running mate to the Republican National Convention as ‘a man who has a special talent and an ability to ferret out any kind of subversive influence wherever it may be found, and the strength and persistence to get rid of it.’ ” By November 1952, still shy of forty, Nixon was Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president. Six years later he decided to seek the presidency himself.
That was the sixth crisis.
Nixon believed to his dying day that Senator John F. Kennedy stole the 1960 presidential election from him. Nixon lost by 118,550 votes among 69 million cast. A shift of fewer than 14,000 votes in three crucial states could have given him a political victory in the Electoral College. In two of those states, Illinois and Texas—where powerful Democratic political machines were controlled by Chicago’s mayor, Richard J. Daley, and Kennedy’s running mate, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson—the Republicans claimed evidence of vote fraud.
Nixon was convinced that Kennedy’s millions and political manipulations had provided the margin of victory. Nixon’s supporters urged him to mount a legal challenge to the election. But he decided, after agonizing, that “even suggesting that the presidency itself could be stolen at the ballot box” would do “incalculable and lasting damage throughout the country.”
He vowed he would not be outdone again. But he would suffer one final humiliation when he returned to his home state of California to run for governor in 1962. He lost convincingly, by nearly three times the number of voters who had opposed him for the presidency.
He had been up all night and he had been drinking when he conceded defeat. “For sixteen years, ever since the Hiss case, you’ve had a lot of—a lot of fun—that you’ve had an opportunity to attack me,” he told the reporters gathered around him. “But as I leave you I want you to know—just think 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.”
After that, Nixon’s daughter Tricia wrote, there was a terrible sadness in him, and the sadness went on for years.
Copyright © 2015 by Tim Weiner
* Terrorism started showing its modern masked face in 1970. Arab radicals seized international flights and held Americans hostage. An Iraqi planted a car bomb at New York’s Kennedy Airport; his target was the Israeli leader Golda Meir. American Zionists tried to kill Soviet diplomats in the United States. The Palestinian gang Black September murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Germany and assassinated the American ambassador in Sudan. Nixon set up the first presidential commission on terrorism in 1972. It met once; nothing came of it. Each crisis was addressed as it arose, without a policy or a strategy. The Weathermen killed no one but themselves, due to their incompetent bomb making and their persistent intake of psychedelic drugs.
† This foresight proved fortuitous for both men. President Nixon returned the favor three decades later, by appointing Rush, a chemical company executive without experience in government, as the American ambassador to West Germany and then, by turns, deputy secretary of defense and deputy secretary of state.