Most of my readers will probably look at this question and think that it is one of those silly questions or messages where someone asks or says something odd or outrageous just to see how I might respond. It’s funny to imagine Richard Milhous Nixon simply having rap music explained to him.
But, in reality, Nixon actually did mention the possibility of him becoming a rapper if rap had been popular when he was young. At Nixon’s Presidential Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California, visitors used to be able to tour the exhibits while listening to the 37th President of the United States guide you via an audio recording (I’m not sure if you can still take the tour guided by Nixon’s voice; when I visited Yorba Linda in 2004, I just did a self-guided tour). The small house that Nixon was born in stands on the grounds of Nixon’s Library, and visitors listening to the audiotape while making their way through the house had their attention directed to several musical instruments that belonged to the Nixon family. When the former President referenced the instruments (on the audiotape) and mentioned his lifelong love for music, Nixon added, "I have often though that if there had been a good rap group around in those days, I might have chosen a career in music instead of politics."
Was he serious? No, of course not. Nixon did have an appreciation for music, and was confident enough in his abilities as a pianist that he played in public from time-to-time. But Nixon was also notoriously awkward and uncoordinated; he usually needed help to open bottles of any type and was so inept when it came to technology that it really is entirely possible that the infamous 18½-minute gap on the Watergate tapes was the result of Nixon clumsily erasing and/or taping over part of the recording.
One of the most crucial building blocks that make up the foundation of a good rapper is rhythm. Not only was Richard Nixon completely absent of rhythm but his lack of coordination actually made anyone around him seem awkward and out of place. Oddly enough, the rest of Nixon’s story resembled that of many contemporary rappers — as a young man, he faced quite a bit of adversity, growing up in an impoverished family on the West Coast (WESTSIDE!) and losing two brothers at a young age. He also had a way with words that very well could have translated into success for rap music in a different time period. While attending high school, Nixon represented the West Coast on the national level in debate/oratory contest. Later, he became the captain of the debating team at Whittier College and coaches marveled at his unique ability to successfully take on any viewpoint on any of the subjects up for debate.
It’s certainly a funny and outlandish image to picture Richard Nixon as a rapper. It’s even funnier to try to figure out who Tricky Dick’s favorite rapper would have been (I’m going to guess Mystikal just because it’s the strangest combination I immediately thought of). But, unfortunately, he wasn’t serious about wanting to be a rapper. And while his verbal skills and talent as an orator could have made him a dangerous freestyler and potential success in rap battles, the complete absence of rhythm would have been a lethal handicap to his reputation as an MC.
(Just out of curiosity, though, what would the best rap name for Richard Nixon be? Just his old-fashioned “Tricky Dick” moniker? “DJ Watergate”? “Presidential MC?” “DJ POTUS?” Since Nixon tried so hard during his lifetime to get his initials over like TR, FDR, JFK, and LBJ, how about “MC RN”?)
All the President’s Men (BOOK | KINDLE) didn’t have enough political intrigue for you?! It’s literally a book entirely focused on political intrigue and featuring groundbreaking investigative reporting by two relatively young and low-level journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post. I mean, the main subject of the book is the biggest and most serious political scandal in American history, an attempt at covering up the scandal (making things even worse), and eventually led to the first and only resignation of the President of the United States.
I’m not really sure what could possibly be added to that in order to make it “sexier” or increase the level of political intrigue. Strippers and Godzilla? Did we need a drunken, obscenely nude Richard Nixon lighting a bonfire on the South Lawn of the White House and then tossing the Watergate tapes into the flames from the Truman Balcony while he fired round-after-round into the air from a shotgun and screamed, “I WON 49 STATES IN 1972! IF YOU WANT ME OUT OF OFFICE, YOU BEST BRING SOME FIREPOWER, PACK A LUNCH, AND KISS YOUR MAMA GOOD-BYE!”
All the President’s Men (BOOK | KINDLE) is one of the most interesting, influential, and important books ever written about a President, the Presidency, or American politics in general. And Woodward and Bernstein followed it up with The Final Days (BOOK | KINDLE), which I’ve always found to be even more fascinating than All the President’s Men.
Maybe those two books didn’t feature the political intrigue that you are used to, but you might be watching too many dramatic political thrillers on television. All the President’s Men and The Final Days recount things that actually happened in real-life.
All good questions.
1. LBJ worried about the repercussions throughout the country if he exposed what was going on. Remember, this being 1968, the country was in a great deal of turmoil. I think LBJ worried that he’d be tossing a lit match into a country already soaked in gasoline which desperately needed stability, no matter who was elected. Just trying to neatly explain the whole deal would be difficult, as well, because the Chennault affair was quite complicated and the fact that Nixon might have secretly sabotaged the peace talks would require some hardcore evidence if it was the President of the United States publicly making the accusation.
First and foremost, LBJ would have to explain how this information came to his attention, and any of those revelations would have caused outrage. Was it from the fact that the United States was spying on the South Vietnamese, our supposed allies? Was it from spying the North Vietnamese or the Chinese? Was it from the fact that the U.S. had wiretapped the phones of Anna Chennault, a naturalized American citizen and working journalist? Was it possibly from wiretaps that allowed the Johnson Justice Department or FBI or whomever to listen in on phone calls made by the Republican Presidential nominee (Nixon) and the Republican Vice Presidential nominee (Spiro Agnew) as well as their top aides (mainly future Attorney General John Mitchell)? Perhaps it was a little bit of all of those things. No matter what, the answer wasn’t pretty, and it wouldn’t have been a smooth ride for President Johnson either.
On top of all that, any revelation by LBJ would have come late in October 1968, and it would have come across as a blatant October Surprise, even if it was absolutely right to blow the whistle. Again, the country was in turmoil, LBJ had made the decision not to run again in March, Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in April, Bobby Kennedy was killed in June, and the riots following Dr. King’s assassination and police brutality during the Democratic National Convention were still fresh in American minds. It could have been seen as a last-gasp effort by LBJ to hold on to power by making these very serious allegations — LBJ privately used the word “treason” — in the hope of winning the election for Hubert H. Humphrey just a few days later.
2. No, it didn’t really make a difference in the war, and it probably didn’t make a difference in the peace talks, either. They were stalled and I doubt there was going to be a magical change of events before the election. As you mentioned, the Vietnamese on both sides of the war were not clueless about the Presidential election. I’m pretty sure that both sides were wanting to see if they could get an even better deal from Nixon if he won the election without having to be pushed in that direction. If Nixon hadn’t come to the table with an even better offer once he was inaugurated, the Vietnamese could have reverted back to the previous deal agreed upon under the Johnson Administration because it was no secret that the United States wanted to end the war and end it quickly. Our government — throughout history — has been naive, over and over again, in thinking that our political process and the events taking place in American politics aren’t observed as closely by other countries or governments as we observe them.
3. I think Richard Nixon was probably one of the most brilliant men to ever serve as President but — like Bill Clinton, who is also near the top of the list when it comes to most intelligent Presidents — he couldn’t help doing stupid things. Sometimes, when you’re smarter than almost everybody else, you do dumb things because you believe others wouldn’t think you’d ever do something so dumb. People like that can justify anything to themselves. I can tell you exactly how Nixon probably justified it to himself. He likely told himself that he lost to JFK in 1960 because of dirty tricks in Illinois and in Texas, LBJ’s home state, but that he kept quiet about it. He probably told himself that LBJ was the incumbent President of the United States and that LBJ was unfairly (in Nixon’s mind) placing the power of the Presidency behind Hubert H. Humphrey (who happened to be Vice President, an even closer way to tie him to the Administration) and would do everything he could to defeat Nixon, just as the Kennedys and their allies had done in 1960. He probably decided that if dirty tricks were going to be played, he wasn’t going to get beat again and sent back into the corporate world like after 1960. And after telling himself all of these things, Nixon had convinced himself that the world was against him, that his back was against the wall, that the Democrats were once again trying to yank the Presidency from his hands, and that it was not going to happen this time.
Listen, if I think about something long enough and run it over in my head again-and-again, I can justify just about anything to myself and convince myself that it is in my best interests. And I’m not nearly as brilliant as Nixon was, and I’d like to think that I’m not nearly as vindictive, either. Nixon was on a whole different level, in terms of intelligence, resentment, or ruthlessness.
Oddly, he had one hell of a dance party. Now, you won’t find many sources that confirm this, but believe me, as soon he got back to La Casa Pacifica, Richard Milhous Nixon cranked up some Tony Orlando & Dawn and got the fuck down. And he really didn’t stop dancing until he decided that he needed to get focused and prepare himself for the Frost/Nixon interviews. In 1977. So, he basically danced until Jimmy Carter was inaugurated. Don’t get me wrong, though — Dick Nixon wasn’t dancing out of joy; Dick Nixon danced out of pain.
The 37th President of the United States was hysterical. Crumpled in a leather chair in the Lincoln Sitting Room, his favorite of the 132 rooms at his disposal in the White House, Richard Milhous Nixon called for his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Nixon was drinking, Nixon was exhausted, Nixon was physically and mentally unwell and, hours earlier, Nixon had finally realized that he had no other choice but to become the first President in United States history to resign his office.
A Presidential resignation was so unthinkable that nobody had ever agreed on how a President even resigns his office. Is his resignation effective the moment he makes his decision? Does he have to sign anything? If so, who does he hand his resignation into? What happens to his things? His belongings, his property, his papers? Is the Secret Service responsible for his protection? How does he even get home after leaving the White House? In fact, after making the decision to step down, Nixon questioned whether a President could resign at all. None of these questions had ever been contemplated until it became apparent that the Watergate scandal and subsequent cover-up was fatal to the Nixon Administration.
When Kissinger answered the President’s summons on the evening of August 7th, 1974, he found that Nixon was nearly drunk, sitting in a darkened room, and lost in thought. Throughout the nearly 200 years of America’s life only 35 other human beings had held the office that Nixon was holding and Nixon was in the unique position of being the only one to decide on resignation. Nixon was the only person in the history of human existence that had to do what he was forced into doing.
Nixon was a ferociously introspective person — a man who hated people but loved politics. Not only did he love politics, but he was extraordinarily skilled at it. Some would say that Richard Nixon was a terrible politician, but the results prove otherwise. When he was 33 years old Nixon was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. At 38 he was one of California’s United States Senators. Before he turned 40, he was elected Vice President of the United States alongside Dwight Eisenhower. A bad politician doesn’t accomplish that much that quickly. Nixon was narrowly defeated for the Presidency in 1960 by John F. Kennedy and lost a race for Governor of California in 1962 to incumbent Pat Brown, but a bad politician would not have won his party’s nomination for either of those offices.
The most overlooked barometer of Nixon’s political skill is the fact that he ran for President in three different elections (1960, 1968, and 1972), won two of them, and lost the popular vote in 1960 to John F. Kennedy by just .2% nationwide. During Richard Nixon’s career, more Americans cast votes in favor of sending him to the White House than Franklin Delano Roosevelt who won an unprecedented four terms. Over three elections, Nixon received 113,059,260 votes for President — nearly 10 million more than FDR (103,419,425 votes over four elections). A bad politician couldn’t trick people into casting 113 million votes to make him their leader and allow him to become the most powerful man in the world.
Yet, for all of Richard Nixon’s immense political skills, intelligence, ability, and achievements, he allowed his uncontrollable paranoia to destroy him. Nixon didn’t need help to win re-election in 1972, but he authorized dirty tricks against the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic nominee, George McGovern. Nixon and his top aides covered up the break-in at the DNC headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., and by the summer of 1974, it was revealed that a secret White House taping system held evidence of the cover-up. Still, Nixon continued to fight, believing that he could win back the American people and once again come back from disaster as he had done many times before. This time was different, however. There was no comeback from this scandal. If Nixon did not resign, he would be impeached and found guilty in a Senate trial. If Nixon did not resign, he would probably go to prison. When the impossibility of survival was finally understood by the President, the man who had told Americans “I am not a quitter” realized that he had to quit.
In the last days of July 1974, most of President Nixon’s aides came to the conclusion that Nixon’s position was untenable and that resignation was imminent. When Republican Congressional leaders indicated that they would no longer support Nixon and would vote for articles of impeachment, all hope was lost and Vice President Gerald Ford — in office for less than 8 months — began preparations to assume the Presidency. Nixon held out the longest, but he was so out of touch that he was losing the ability to exercise the powers of his office. For weeks, the day-to-day operations of the White House — and, really, the Presidency itself — were handled by General Alexander Haig, a four-star Army general and the White House Chief of Staff. Haig was a longtime holdout in the futile attempt to save Nixon’s Presidency, but the damning evidence that was revealed almost daily in the final weeks of Nixon’s administration left Haig no choice but to attempt to orchestrate a somewhat dignified exit for Nixon and smooth transition for Ford.
At times in those last few weeks, Nixon brooded in the Lincoln Sitting Room or his secret hideaway office in the Old Executive Office Building across the street from the White House. Even in the Washington summer, Nixon would sit in one of the two rooms with a fire burning in the fireplace scribbling memos to himself on his familiar yellow legal pads. The President would drink scotch and get drunk quickly; he was famously unable to handle his low-tolerance for alcohol very well. Often, an aide or valet would find Nixon loudly blaring his favorite music — the score from the 1950’s documentary “Victory at Sea”. Other times, Nixon would listen to the tapes from his Oval Office recording system that were bringing his Presidency down around him, rewinding, fast-forwarding, listening again-and-again to his own voice saying the things now coming back to haunt him.
Aides throughout the White House and staff from other departmental agencies worried about the President’s ability to function and continue to lead the country while in his current mental state. Discussions were quietly held about whether it was necessary to attempt to invoke the 25th Amendment of the Constitution, which calls for the Vice President to assume the powers of the Presidency if the President is somehow incapacitated and unable to discharge the heavy everyday responsibilities of his office. Nixon was barely sleeping, drinking heavily, and making bizarre, rambling late-night phone calls to subordinates throughout the Executive Branch of the United States government. Nearly everyone who knew his condition questioned the President’s capacity to function.
There were also serious questions about whether or not Nixon, in a desperate attempt to hold on to power, might use the military to protect himself and the White House. Tensions were already high in the streets of Washington, D.C. with protesters loudly demonstrating and calling for Nixon’s resignation. High-ranking officials in the Department of Defense and the White House privately worried about the possibility that Nixon would ring the streets around the White House with tanks and armored personnel carriers, ostensibly to protect the Executive Mansion from acts of civil disobedience, but also to set up a fortress-like barrier that might allow him to remain in the White House in the case of a Congressional or Supreme Court-ordered removal from office.
Most startling of all is the fact that in the week before his resignation, Nixon’s inability to efficiently or appropriately wield executive power had dwindled so far that Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger urged General George S. Brown, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to not take military orders directly from the President. In an attempt to save the country from any extra-constitutional power grab by a desperate President, the military chain-of-command took the extra-constitutional step of removing the President from the loop. Schlesinger also investigated what his options would be if troops had to forcibly remove the President from office. The Defense Secretary’s plan was to bring the 82nd Airborne to Washington from Fort Bragg, North Carolina if that was necessary.
While Nixon’s aides and fellow government officials worried about his mental health and ability to lead, Nixon’s family worried about his physical well-being. The President was exhausted, erratic, and not sleeping well at all. He downed sleeping pills, drank scotch, and continued sitting alone in one of his two favorite offices. Nixon attempted to put on a brave face for his family, but they too were weary of the process and his wife Pat’s health was already precarious. Nixon sometimes found solace in the company of his daughters Tricia and Julie and their respective husbands, Edward Cox and David Eisenhower (grandson of the late President Dwight Eisenhower).
Yet the toll was terrible on the family and while Nixon’s daughters were supportive and urged him to continue fighting, both Cox and Eisenhower felt that their father-in-law needed to resign for the good of the country and the good of their family, and worried that the President might not leave the White House alive. On August 6, 1974, Edward Cox called Michigan Senator Robert Griffin, a friend of Nixon’s who was urging resignation. Notifying the Senator that Nixon seemed irrational, Griffin responded that the President had seemed fine during their last meeting. Cox went further and explained, “The President was up walking the halls last night, talking to pictures of former Presidents — giving speeches and talking to the pictures on the wall.” Senator Griffin was flabbergasted and even more taken aback when Cox followed that bombshell with a worried plea for help, “The President might take his own life.”
White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig also worried about suicide. A few days earlier, the despondent President and his Chief of Staff were alone when Nixon started talking about how disgraced military officers sometimes fall on their sword. To Haig, the Army General, Nixon said, “You fellows, in your business, you have a way of handling problems like this. Somebody leaves a pistol in the drawer.” Haig was stunned. Then sadly — bitterly — Nixon said, “I don’t have a pistol.”
Haig was trying to steer the President towards as dignified of an exit as possible in such a dire situation. Already dealing with the first Presidential resignation, what he definitely wanted to prevent as Chief of Staff was the first-ever Presidential suicide. Haig worked with the President’s Navy doctors to limit Nixon’s access to pills and tranquilizers. When Haig mentioned his worries about a Nixon suicide to White House counsel Fred Buzhardt, Buzhardt said he didn’t think Nixon was the type to commit suicide. Buzhardt believed Nixon was actually a deeply religious man privately, but the White House counsel also thought that Richard Nixon would continue fighting, as he always had, until the ship went down. Alexander Haig just wanted to keep the President alive.
In his office in the Old Executive Office Building on the evening of Tuesday, August 6th, Nixon met with Haig and Press Secretary Ron Ziegler to inform them that he was definitely resigning before the end of the week and that he would announce the decision in a speech to the nation on Thursday evening from the Oval Office. Nixon, Haig, and Ziegler discussed ideas for the resignation speech and during a moment of contemplative silence, Nixon looked up at his two loyalists and said, “Well, I screwed it up good, real good, didn’t I?”.
The morning of August 7th began with Haig notifying Vice President Ford that Nixon’s resignation was imminent and that Ford would be assuming the Presidency within 48 hours. Though Nixon had told Haig and Ziegler that his decision was irrevocable, the last obstacle to resignation was still Nixon’s indecisiveness, which was a result of the unwavering support from his daughters, Tricia and Julie. Throughout the day of August 7th, Nixon seemed calm, but said more than once that he had not made up his mind about resignation yet, which worried his exhausted Chief of Staff. Haig had barely slept over the last four days and he hoped that the President’s meeting with Senate leaders that afternoon would seal the resignation decision. It did. During the meeting, Nixon learned that he had virtually no support in either the House of Representatives or the Senate and that staying in office would damage him personally and be dangerous for the country. After the meeting, Nixon told his loyal secretary Rose Mary Woods that he had no other choice but to resign, and then he directed her to inform his family. Nixon’s family learned of his final decision from his secretary, and she also told them that the President didn’t wish to discuss the situation when they met for dinner later. Before Nixon sat down to eat with his family that night, he simply said, “We’re going back to California.”
It was after dinner that night when Nixon summoned Henry Kissinger to the Residence of the White House and sat with his Secretary of State in the Lincoln Sitting Room. Though the two leaders had worked tirelessly together on foreign policy during Nixon’s administration, they didn’t necessarily like each other. Nixon was often jealous of Kissinger’s popularity and dismissive of his personality. Kissinger thought the President was bitterly mean at times, and unnecessarily paranoid about Kissinger’s loyalty. They worked well together, but more often than not, they downplayed the other’s role in crafting the administration’s foreign policy when speaking to others. Nixon didn’t trust Kissinger and Kissinger was often angered by Nixon’s irrational behavior, especially in the past few days as the Secretary of State believed the President’s problems had paralyzed the country’s foreign affairs.
On this night, however, Nixon and Kissinger simply talked. They discussed their accomplishments, their failures, their philosophies and disagreements, and Nixon urged the diplomat to stay on as Secretary of State and provide Gerald Ford with the same service he had provided Nixon. Sitting there in the smallest room of the White House, Nixon asked Kissinger about how he would be remembered. Although he had made mistakes, he felt that he had accomplished great things for his country. Nixon was worried that his legacy would be Watergate and resignation, but he desperately wanted to be thought of as a President who achieved peace. Kissinger insisted that Nixon would get the credit he deserved.
President Nixon started crying. At first, it was a teary-eyed hope that his resignation wouldn’t overshadow his long career, but soon, it broke down into sobbing as the President lamented the failures and the disgrace he had brought to his country. Nixon — a man who never wore his Quaker religion on his sleeve — turned to Kissinger and asked him if he would pray with him. Despite being Jewish, Kissinger felt he had no choice but to kneel with the President as Nixon prayed for peace — both for his country and for himself.
After finishing his prayer, Nixon remained in a kneeling position while silently weeping, tears streaming down the large jowls often caricatured by political cartoonists. Kissinger looked over and saw the President lean down, burying his face in the Lincoln Sitting Room’s carpet and slamming his fist against the ground crying, “What have I done? What has happened?”. Nixon and Kissinger both disliked physical affection and Nixon in particular hated being touched, but Kissinger didn’t know any other way to console his weary, broken boss. Softly patting Nixon’s back at first, Kissinger embraced Nixon in a hug and held the President of the United States until he calmed down and the tears stopped flowing. Kissinger helped Nixon up to his feet and the men shared another drink, talking openly about what role Nixon could have in the future as a former President.
When Kissinger returned to his office a little later, he couldn’t even begin to explain what had happened to his top aides, Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger. Kissinger was saddened and shocked, and Eagleburger noted that he had never seen the Secretary of State so moved by something. A few minutes later, Nixon called Kissinger’s office and Eagleburger listened in on the call on another extension. The President was clearly drunk and again thanked Kissinger for visiting him, imploring him to help Ford in the same way he had helped Nixon.
Before hanging up, Nixon pleaded with Kissinger, “Henry, please don’t ever tell anyone that I cried and that I was not strong.”
It is telling that even while losing control and finding himself at the end of his rope, President Nixon was concerned about looking weak. Throughout his long career, Nixon saw himself as a fighter and tried to portray himself as such. But Nixon also proudly saw himself as a man who had to earn everything he achieved, without any help from anyone else, and despite obstacles constantly being thrown in his path. Nixon felt that the media was out to get him because he wasn’t charismatic or flashy like his old rival, John F. Kennedy. Nixon felt that there was something sinister behind every issue he faced, and he went too far in his attempt to destroy those that he felt were trying to destroy him.
Before leaving the White House on August 9th, 1974, Nixon made an impromptu speech to White House employees in the East Room of the mansion. It is one of the most revealing speeches of any President at any time in history, and it is Nixon without his guard up; Nixon with nothing left to lose. He talked about his family, his achievements, and his appreciation for the people who worked in his administration. He rambled at times, and he was clearly saddened by the situation. And, towards the end of his speech, Richard Nixon — with just minutes left in his Presidency — seemed to have finally learned his lesson:
“Always give your best, 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.”
With that, Richard Milhous Nixon and his family walked out on to the South Lawn of the White House, accompanied by the man who would soon assume the Presidency, Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty. As he boarded the Presidential helicopter, Marine One, Nixon turned around to face the cameras and the White House and the country, smiled wanly, defiantly thrust his trademark peace sign salute into the air over his head and waved goodbye to the Presidency and hello to history.
He apologized during the famous Frost/Nixon interviews. I’m sure part of being sorry was because he got caught and part of it was because David Frost broke him down and got it out of him, but when I’ve watched the footage of it, I’ve always thought he was genuinely remorseful because, quite frankly, Nixon wasn’t a good enough actor to fake the emotion that he shows when he’s apologizing in that interview.
I agree — I think LBJ would have won in ‘68 if he had run. First of all, Hubert Horatio Humphrey, of all people, almost pulled off the victory over Richard Nixon in 1968. Humphrey lost the popular vote by a margin of just over 500,000 votes — in an election where George Wallace won nearly 10 million votes. Despite his Civil Rights accomplishments, I think Johnson would have neutralized Wallace in some of those Southern states. In fact, it’s very possible that a heavyweight like LBJ in the race would have kept George Wallace from launching a bid as serious as he actually did in 1968. Wallace won 46 Electoral votes (all of them being states of the Deep South) and I don’t think that would have happened with LBJ in the race.
Wallace was a big factor in the race, but another big factor was the battle for the Democratic nomination and the turbulence surrounding the primaries, RFK’s assassination, and the battles between Chicago police and anti-war protesters outside of the Democratic National Convention. If LBJ had been the candidate, there would have been no primary fight, and the DNC would have been much more disciplined. There definitely still would have been anti-war protests, but instead of seeming to add to the chaos of the Democrats’ nomination process, it would have come across differently.
And the biggest difference would have been the difference between Lyndon Baines Johnson on the campaign trail and Hubert H. Humphrey on the campaign trail. On television, LBJ often came across wooden and uninspiring, but he was something altogether different while campaigning. More importantly, LBJ wouldn’t have rolled over and just let Nixon get away with any Nixonian dirty tricks. LBJ could play just as dirty, and he would have if it meant the difference between four more years and a forced retirement. LBJ was the incumbent President of the United States and the head of the Democratic Party; he controlled the party apparatus would have known who to use the power of his office and his power of the Democratic Party to propel him to victory if it was kept close.
It definitely would have been closer than the 1964 election; LBJ wouldn’t have cruised to a landslide over Nixon in 1968 like he did over Barry Goldwater four years earlier, but I do think LBJ would have beat Nixon. In the election that we did get — a three-way race between Nixon, Humphrey, and Wallace — the Electoral College results were Nixon 301, Humphrey 191, Wallace 46 (270 votes needed to win). Nixon won the popular vote in 1968 over Humphrey by only a few hundred thousand more votes than Kennedy beat him in 1960 (one of the narrowest victories in American history) and George Wallace claimed 9.9 million votes. As I said, in my opinion, if LBJ had run in ‘68, Wallace either wouldn’t have run or he wouldn’t have been able to get ballot access in all 50 states. Either way, he wouldn’t have won 9.9 million votes and I don’t think he would have won any of the five states that he did actually win in ‘68 (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi). LBJ would have built a powerful voter registration and get out the vote organization in those Southern states with large African-American populations whose right to vote was signed into law and protected three years earlier by LBJ. I think that those new voters, in addition to the Democrats who remained Democratic voters in the South despite LBJ’s Civil Rights policy, would have put those states in the Democratic column. Wallace also won one of North Carolina’s 13 Electoral votes in ‘68.
If it was just LBJ vs. Nixon, I think LBJ would have won all of the states that Humphrey won (Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia) as well as the states that Wallace won (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi). I also think that LBJ would have won 11 of the 32 states that Nixon won majorities in over Humphrey (Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia). In many of the 32 states that Nixon won in the actual 1968 election, his margin of victory was slim and Wallace’s removal from the equation likely would have swung more votes into the Democratic column than the Republican, resulting in a swing of those 11 states. The popular vote margin would still be pretty close, but LBJ would win majorities in most of the major states (those with the most Electoral College votes). In a straight LBJ vs. Nixon matchup in 1968, I think the Electoral College result would be: LBJ 381, Nixon 157.
And, yes, this question motivated me to actually go back and re-figure the 1968 Presidential election’s Electoral College map state-by-state. Don’t say I never did anything for you guys.
37th President of the United States (1969-1974)
Full Name: Richard Milhous Nixon
Born: January 9, 1913, Yorba Linda, California
Political Party: Republican
State Represented: New York (1st term: Nixon was practicing law and living in New York when he was elected in 1968) and California (2nd term: Changed his official residency back to California during his Presidency)
Term: January 20, 1969-August 9, 1974 (Resigned)
Age at Inauguration: 56 years, 11 days
Administration: 46th and 47th
Congresses: 91st, 92nd, and 93rd
Vice Presidents: Spiro Agnew (1969-1973; Resigned) and Richard Nixon (1973-1974; Assumed the Presidency upon Nixon’s resignation)
Died: April 22, 1994, New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, New York City, New York
Age at Death: 81 years, 104 days
Buried: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda, California
2012 Dead Presidents Ranking: 24 of 24 [↔]
It’s impossible to rank Nixon without considering Watergate. The crime and the cover-up brought down his Presidency, ended his political career, and changed the power of the Presidency for years. It also robbed the world of one of the most brilliant minds when it came to foreign policy. That untapped potential — like the political brilliance of Bill Clinton that was hindered due to the Lewinsky scandal — is one of the most disappointing aspects of Nixon’s legacy. If Watergate could be wiped from the record and Nixon had been able to complete his second term, he’d undoubtedly be much higher up in the rankings because he did have major accomplishments and he significantly expanded the power of the Presidency. Unfortunately for Richard Nixon, his legacy is dominated by his scandals, and the very manner in which he used the office of the Presidency which he had so greatly expanded resulted in his successors being handcuffed by severely diminished Presidential power in order to limit the chance of the same excesses seen in the Nixon Administration.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: Not Ranked
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: Not Ranked
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: 34 of 38
1990: Siena Institute: 25 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 36 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 25 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 20 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 32 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 27 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 30 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 23 of 40
I’d have to say that the Nixon Administration was the most corrupt Presidential Administration in American history. Ulysses S. Grant and Warren G. Harding both had their reputations tainted by scandals during their Administration, but that was mainly due to the fact that they were poor judges of character when it came to their political appointments. Grant wasn’t personally corrupt, and while Harding’s many infidelities (and active efforts to keep those matters private) were wrong, he wasn’t personally responsible for the scandals that took place while he was President. That shouldn’t excuse either Grant or Harding — they were either naive and too trustworthy of shady characters and friends, or they were too ignorant about the opportunities for corruption and criminality that they were providing to those shady characters and friends. That’s why Grant and Harding are almost universally ranked amongst the worst Presidents in history.
Richard Nixon, however, can’t claim that he just hired some crappy officials. He did that, too, but he was also deeply involved in scandalous activities and then allowed his Presidency to be dominated by his efforts at covering up his Administration’s scandals. Watergate, of course, is the centerpiece of the Nixon Administration’s scandals, but there were shady things happening as he was running for President in 1968. As Election Day approached in 1968, Nixon’s opponent, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, was closing the gap between the two of them and making Nixon worry that ‘68 might be a repeat of Nixon’s razor-thin loss to John F. Kennedy in 1960. When it appeared that negotiations to end the Vietnam War were coming close to being a reality, Nixon used secret contacts to inform the South Vietnamese that if they stopped negotiating with LBJ and held out until after the election, Nixon would give them a better deal than President Johnson would. This happened just days before Election Day — an “October Surprise” — and probably ensured a Nixon victory. LBJ found out what Nixon and his aides were doing, but he decided against exposing Nixon even though he said privately that Nixon had “blood on his hands” and was committing “treason”.
All that happened before Nixon was even ELECTED, so being privately accused of treason by the President of the United States was probably not the best signal that the country was embarking upon a golden era of the Presidency. The details of the Watergate scandal are well-known, so I won’t rehash them, but Nixon’s direct involvement and the fact that several high-ranking members of Nixon’s Administration tied to the Watergate break-in and cover-up ended up in prison definitely puts him at the top of the list, in my opinion.
There are also other reasons why Nixon belongs at the top of the list of most corrupt Administrations. Nixon, of course, didn’t start the Vietnam War, but the bombings and incursions of Cambodia and Laos were and are controversial escalations of the conflict. There was also the “Enemies List” and other abuses of power, like directing the IRS, CIA, and FBI to go after his opponents (to be fair, Nixon wasn’t the first President to do that, either, but it was still wrong) or simply target them for harassment via a domestic surveillance apparatus that was used solely for political purposes. The Saturday Night Massacre was part of the Watergate scandal, but if that happened today, the cable news networks would explode. I mean, imagine if President Obama appointed a special prosecutor to investigate whether something illegal involved in the release of Bowe Bergdahl and then just fired him when it seemed that the direction was going in a direction that he didn’t like. That’s what happened in the Saturday Night Massacre, but worse — Nixon ordered the Attorney General to fire the special prosecutor, but the Attorney General refused, so Nixon fired the special prosecutor himself and then fired the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General. If that happened now, it would break the internet.
The scandals of the Grant and Harding Administrations resulted in a few officials going to prison. Nixon’s scandals resulted in the indictments of nearly 100 Administration officials (mainly due to Watergate) and legal actions against many organizations and corporations (largely related to illegal contributions and violations of campaign finance laws). Indicted officials from Nixon’s Administration included Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had to resign in disgrace after striking a plea deal to avoid prison on bribery charges, Treasury Secretary John Connally (the same John Connally who was shot when JFK was assassinated), Attorney General John Mitchell (spent nearly two years in prison), Attorney General Richard G. Kleindienst (yes, two of the people appointed by Nixon to serve as the nation’s top law enforcement officer were convicted of criminal charges and Nixon fired another AG for not helping him out during the Watergate battle), Commerce Secretary Maurice H. Stans, White House Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman (spent 18 months in prison), and numerous other high-ranking White House aides, many of whom spent time in prison, paid large fines, or both.
President Nixon probably would have ended up being indicted himself if President Ford had not pardoned him. His reputation took a hit and history will never judge him without including the word “Watergate” in the first paragraph, but in many ways he was lucky because he avoided the massive legal fees and threat of imprisonment that he could have faced without a pardon. And Nixon was lucky in other ways, too. There have always been questions about whether Nixon avoided paying taxes that he might have owed because some of his income tax returns seemed fuzzy to a lot of people. Nixon was also accused of ordering “security improvements” at his homes that were paid for and constructed by the government and either unnecessary, improper or flat-out illegal. Eventually, Nixon reimbursed the government for the expenditures at his homes in San Clemente, California and Key Biscayne, Florida, but there were even questions about how he obtained his homes.
Since this has been an attempt at giving a quick rundown of the Nixon Administration’s scandals instead of a definitive history, you can probably see why I think his Presidency was the most corrupt. It’s frustrating to imagine how good of a President that Nixon might be remembered as without any of these scandals because even with them, he’s still not at the very bottom of the list. He did accomplish some very important things and he was incredibly capable, so it’s really a shame that it’s impossible to look at Nixon without seeing that giant stain that he stamped on his own legacy.