Richard Nixon, on Ronald Reagan possibly appearing as a witness before the House Labor Committee, after meeting Reagan for the first time in 1947.
Early in life, Reagan was what he would later call a “hopeless” liberal and a major supporter of Harry Truman. In 1950, Reagan campaigned in California for Democratic Congresswoman (and fellow actor) Helen Gahagan Douglas in her race for the United States Senate against Nixon.
They’ll never give us credit for [what we accomplished]…We’re out now, so they try to stomp us…kick us when we’re down. They never let up, never, because we were the first real threat to them in years…
I knew what it was like. I’d been there before…What starts the process, really, are the laughs and snubs and slights you get when you are a kid. Sometimes, it’s because you’re poor or Irish or Jewish or Catholic or ugly or simply that you are skinny. But if you are reasonably intelligent and if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence, personal gut performance, while those who have everything are sitting on their fat butts.
You were a good athlete but I was not, and that was the very reason I tried and tried and tried. To get discipline for myself and to show others that here was a guy who could dish it and take it. Mostly, I took it. You’ve got to be tough. You can’t break, my boy, even when there is nothing left…Some people think I should go stand in the middle of the bullring and cry, ‘mea culpa, mea culpa,’ while the crowd is hissing and booing and spitting on you. But a man doesn’t cry. I don’t cry.
On November 8, 1960, millions of Americans went to the polls in what would become one of the closest Presidential elections in American History: John Fitzgerald Kennedy versus Richard Milhous Nixon.
That morning, Kennedy voted in Boston and Nixon voted in Whittier, California. The candidates had spent months canvassing the nation, working to get every last vote — and every last vote was needed. For the past several weeks, Kennedy and Nixon had criss-crossed the country, debated one another, and been working non-stop to be elected the 35th President of the United States.
After they voted that day, there were results to monitor, precincts to watch, election day problems to take care of, and many other things to worry about. Imagine being on the cusp of the Presidency — with a 50/50 chance of being elected the next President of a superpower in the grip of the Cold War, with the threat of Communism and nuclear weapons hanging over your head, and the hopes of hundreds of millions of people pinned on either your victory or defeat. Imagine being in the position of John F. Kennedy or Richard Nixon on November 8, 1960. What would you do?
John F. Kennedy put the control of his campaign in the hands of his younger brother, Bobby, and then took a nap.
And Richard Nixon took a road trip to Mexico.
Once Nixon voted that morning at a private home in a quiet Whittier neighborhood, he had been scheduled to head to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles (where Bobby Kennedy would be assassinated eight years later) for the Election Day vigil and the long wait for the returns which would indicate whether he would be moving into the White House or facing an early retirement.
Nixon was finished voting by 8:00 AM and hopped into his black Cadillac limousine to be driven to the Ambassador. Several blocks away from the polling place, Nixon ordered the limousine to stop. Along with a military aide and a Secret Service agent, Nixon jumped out of the limo and into a white convertible follow-up car driven by an officer from the Los Angeles Police Department. Nixon took the LAPD officer’s place, got behind the wheel and ditched the press which had been following him.
Driving to La Habra, California, Nixon made a quick visit with his mother, making sure she had voted for her son in the Presidential election. Nixon drove south along the Pacific Coast Highway, with no specific destination. He stopped for gasoline in Oceanside and told a gas station attendant — startled to see the Vice President of the United States on a joyride on the very day that he stood for election as President — “I’m just out for a little ride.” Nixon confided that it was his only source of relaxation.
As the group of four men, with Nixon in the driver’s seat, reached San Diego — over two hours away from Nixon’s campaign headquarters at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel — Nixon pointed out that he hadn’t been to Tijuana in at least 25 years.
As David Pietrusza wrote in his recap of Nixon’s road trip, “Richard Nixon — the ultimate control freak — was winging it on the most important day of his life.” Not only that, but the sitting Vice President of the United States and the man who many Americans were choosing to become the next President, impulsively decided to leave the entire country while those voters were still at the polls.
In Tijuana, Nixon and his party headed to a restaurant called Old Heidelberg. Despite the fact it was owned by a German, Border Patrol agents told Nixon that it was the best place in Tijuana for Mexican food. Joined at the last moment by Tijuana’s Mayor, Xicotencati Leyva Aleman, Nixon, his military aide, a Secret Service agent, and an average LAPD officer ate enchiladas in Mexico while John F. Kennedy took a nap in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.
When Nixon’s press secretary Herb Klein was asked about the missing candidate, he had to tell reporters that Nixon often took some private moments on hectic days such as Election Day. Really, though, Klein had no clue where Nixon was, eventually admitting that the Vice President was “driving around without any destination”.
After lunch in Tijuana, Nixon and his companions headed back north towards the United States border crossing. The LAPD officer took over driving duties as Nixon sat in the convertible’s passenger seat. A shocked Border Patrol guard shook hands with the Vice President and asked the man who was currently on the ballot for the Presidency, “Are you all citizens of the United States?”.
Nixon and company drove to the Mission of San Juan Capistrano, which Nixon called “one of my favorite Catholic places” on the day he faced the only successful Catholic candidate for the Presidency in American History. Nixon took his three companions on a quick, informal tour of the Mission. “For a few minutes, we sat in the empty pews for an interlude of complete escape,” Nixon later recalled.
The missing candidate and his three road trip buddies arrived back in Los Angeles before the election results started rolling in. Nixon had to explain his trip to reporters who had been searching for him all day. “It wasn’t planned. We just started driving and that’s where we wound up.”
In his Memoirs, Nixon didn’t go too far into explaining why he escaped on Election Day, but a paragraph about that day is pretty illuminating:
”After one last frenetic week, it was over. Since the convention in August I had traveled over 65,000 miles and visited all fifty states. I had made 180 scheduled speeches and delivered scores of impromptu talks and informal press conferences. There was nothing more I could have done.”
Except escape to Mexico while JFK slept.
I never liked (John F.) Kennedy. I hate his father. Kennedy wasn’t so great a Senator…However, that no good son-of-a-bitch Dick Nixon called me a Communist and I’ll do anything to beat him.
Harry Truman, on why he was supporting JFK in 1960 despite having some reservations about whether Kennedy was prepared for the job.
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It’s really tough. They are the longest hours of your life. You are so tired. You just want the goddamned thing over. The most grueling campaign was 1960 because of the mistake I made with the 50-state strategy…In ‘68, I just drove around on Election Day. The day is the worst because there isn’t a goddamn thing you can do. I watched people drive by, and I thought, ‘How many of these people did I reach?’ You really wonder because inside you are paralyzed with worry. You want to think that all of the effort was worth something to somebody.
Richard Nixon, to Monica Crowley, on what goes through a Presidential candidate’s mind on Election Day, October 30, 1992
He has one of the most magnetic personalities that I have ever confronted. When you are close to Nixon he almost disarms you with his apparent sincerity. You never get the impression that he is the same man…who made a tear-jerking speech in the 1952 campaign…And so I would conclude by saying that if Richard Nixon is not sincere, he is the most dangerous man in America.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., after meeting then-Vice President Richard Nixon, 1957
In my essay, Waking Up In Dallas, I noted that John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, who faced off in the 1960 Presidential election, had once been close friends dating back to when they were freshmen in Congress in 1947. Although their relationship was changed by the 1960 Presidential campaign, Nixon was deeply troubled by Kennedy’s assassination and wrote Jacqueline Kennedy this letter hours after President Kennedy’s death:
In this tragic hour Pat and I want you to know that our thoughts and prayers are with you.
While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents I always cherished the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to the Congress together in 1947. That friendship evidenced itself in many ways including the invitation we received to attend your wedding.
Nothing I could say now could add to the splendid tributes which have come from throughout the world to him.
But I want you to know that the nation will also be forever grateful for your service as First Lady. You brought to the White House charm, beauty and elegance as the official hostess of America, and the mystique of the young in heart which was uniquely yours made an indelible impression on the American consciousness.
If in the days ahead we could be helpful in any way we shall be honored to be at your command.
Several weeks later, the widowed former First Lady responded to Nixon’s letter. Jackie’s response was handwritten, featuring the odd punctuation she often used in her handwritten notes, and remarkably prophetic. A year earlier, Nixon had announced that he was leaving politics after a disastrous loss in a bid to become Governor of California. Coming just two years after his narrow defeat to JFK, Nixon’s political career looked to be finished. He and his family moved to New York where Nixon joined a prestigious law firm and seemed to be removing himself from the political world.
Even in the midst of her mourning, Jackie recognized that JFK’s death might be the opening Nixon would need to make a political comeback and finally realize his goal of becoming President. Jackie might have recognized this before Nixon did himself. Her political instincts were sharp and her foresight was incredible, but her letter was also heartbreaking as she warned of the dangers that could come with the Presidential prize:
(Punctuation, phrasing, and spelling is as it was in Jackie’s original handwritten letter.)
Dear Mr. Vice President —
I do thank you for your most thoughtful letter —
You two young men — colleagues in Congress — adversaries in 1960 — and now look what has happened — Whoever thought such a hideous thing could happen in this country —
I know how you must feel — so long on the path — so closely missing the greatest prize — and now for you, all the question comes up again — and you must commit all you and your family’s hopes and efforts again — Just one thing I would say to you —if it does not work out as you have hoped for so long — please be consoled by what you already have — your life and your family —
We never value life enough when we have it — and I would not have had Jack live his life any other way — thought I know his death could have been prevented, and I will never cease to torture myself with that —
But if you do not win — please think of all that you have — With my appreciation — and my regards to your family. I hope your daughters love Chapin School as much as I did —
Jackie Kennedy’s predictions in her heart-wrenching letter were correct. In 1968, Nixon was elected President.