Richard Nixon and His Hot Li’l Paws
Welcome back to Hello Down There! It’s Your Friend, History! Last time, I talked about Nixon’s meteoric rise from a nobody living next to a mink farm to Vice-President of the United States. Today I’ll tell you how he tried and failed to parlay that position into one with any real power.
By 1960, Dwight Eisenhower’s brand of baby-headed charm had won him two massive electoral college victories, both with double-digit margins in the popular vote. Unfortunately for the Republican party in general and his ambitious vice-president in particular, his popularity was turning out to be non-transferrable. During his time in office, the country saw a significant decline in Republican power. In 1950, there were 30 Republican governors and 26 Republican-controlled state legislatures. After the 1958 midterms, there were only 14 Republican governors and a pitiful 7 legislatures. With the party weakened at the state level, much of the local infrastructure Nixon would have relied on for his presidential run was insufficient or missing.
He was at a disadvantage even in his home state, partially because he had made enemies of a number of powerful California Republicans, but also because of what was known as “The Big Switch.” Bill Knowland — on whose shoulder Nixon had so recently cried — had forsaken his Senate seat to run for governor despite the fact that the position was already held by a Republican. Eisenhower mused to his diary, “In his case there seems to be no final answer to the question ‘How stupid can you get?’” The governor was pressured into running for the now-open Senate seat to avoid an ugly primary, and both men lost horribly, an embarrassment that severely weakened the Republican Party in California.
Nixon was running for president as the experienced candidate, a contrast that was easy to draw against a comparatively youthful, unremarkable legislator like his opponent, Senator John Kennedy. Nixon had started in the House the same year as Kennedy, advanced quickly to the Senate, and then used that position as a springboard into the vice presidency, advancing impactful legislation and leading headline-grabbing investigations along the way. Kennedy, by contrast, was seen by many of his peers as lazy and unimpressive. His own running mate had described him as “pathetic,” and, more colorfully, as, “a young whippersnapper, malaria-ridden and yellow,” a reference to the chronic health issues he sought to obscure.
Unfortunately for Nixon, his attempts to portray his partnership with Eisenhower as an asset — or even as a partnership — were hampered by Eisenhower himself. Asked to name a contribution Nixon had made during their time in office, he replied, “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”
Blatant disrespect aside, the Eisenhower connection may not have been the winning argument Nixon hoped it would be. The U.S. was in a recession, and the Soviets had recently become the first nation to launch a satellite into space, rattling Americans and allowing Kennedy to claim that Eisenhower was losing the Cold War arms race. Nixon pushed Eisenhower to make policy decisions that would help his campaign, like boosting military spending and enacting financial policies intended to strengthen the economy, but Eisenhower refused. One administration official recalled watching Nixon leave cabinet meetings “literally shaking with tension” because of the perceived damage to his chances.
Nixon was well-known as a dirty campaigner, but he was determined to shed this image during his presidential run, pushing the idea of a “New Nixon,” who would be a more convincing and appealing statesman. The strategy left him bland, ineffectual, and stressed by the effort it took to suppress his personality. He had multiple angry outbursts on the campaign trail, including one occasion when he got mad over scheduling issues and began to kick the occupied car seat in front of him with both feet for miles on end. When the car finally stopped, the poor aide seated in front of him abandoned his broken chair and stalked off without looking back.
Nixon was a control freak who insisted on essentially running his campaign himself, meaning that he was routinely overwhelmed and that major decisions couldn’t be made promptly because he was often unreachable. One aide said, horribly, “RN wants, as always, to hold all the reins in his own hot li’l paws.” Another aide, who would later go down in flames during the Watergate scandal, said that anyone in such a high-stress position would need a diversion. “For some people,” he said, “it’s exercise; for some people it’s sex; for some people it’s reading Western novels.” He continued that for Nixon, “it was sitting talking about things that don’t matter very much.”
The first Nixon-Kennedy debate, notorious for ushering in a new era of televised politicking, wasn’t meant to happen at all. Nixon and his advisors had agreed that debating Kennedy would lend the youthful upstart legitimacy by putting him on the same level as the sitting vice-president, which is exactly what happened. Seeing Kennedy more than hold his own reassured voters who were concerned about his inexperience. Kennedy was tanned, well-rested, and at ease on the stage, while Nixon was underweight and fresh off a hospital stay from an infected wound in his knee — a wound he had re-injured on his way into the studio. He refused to allow professionals to apply makeup because he was afraid of seeming effeminate — Kennedy had made fun of an opponent for exactly that during the primary. Then, seeing that Kennedy had cosmetics of his own, Nixon sent an aide to a drugstore for something to cover his five o’clock shadow. Inexpertly applied, it made him look even worse. In a bizarre display of naivete from a known cynic and paranoiac, he asked Robert Kennedy, his opponent’s campaign manager and brother, how he looked, and Kennedy assured him that he looked great. When the debate started, the mayor of Chicago, a prominent Democrat, said, “My God! They’ve embalmed him before he even died.”
Perhaps the only sign of life from this apparently corpse-like figure was his profuse sweating. His people had gotten to the studio early to turn the temperature as low as possible to avoid this well-known problem of his, but Kennedy aides had discovered it and cranked the temperature back up, leading to shots of Nixon desperately wiping his face with a handkerchief. Preoccupied with demonstrating the gentle “New Nixon,” he frequently agreed with Kennedy, utterly failing to make the case for his own candidacy.
After the disastrous showing, one of Nixon’s aides asked him to explain his decision to debate, and instead of answering, he simply stood still, staring silently into the night sky as rain began to fall down on him.
Race, unsurprisingly, was a major issue in the 1960 presidential election. More surprising might be the fact that Nixon had at the time a fairly respectable reputation on civil rights. An honorary member of the NAACP, he was supported by Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King Sr. As vice-president, he presided over the Senate and had used this role to facilitate the passage of the 1957 civil rights bill, the first to pass since 1875. The Senate had been, for decades, the burial ground of civil rights bills due to a powerful contingent of Southern Senators who filibustered any bills that came to the floor. Their numbers were strong enough to thwart votes to end debate, which required a two-thirds majority. In theory, this rule could be changed. If a vote to do so was held at the beginning of a session, it would require only a simple majority to pass. However, the Southerners argued that the Senate was in one continuous session since only one-third of Senators were up for election at any given time.
Nixon, in his capacity as president of the Senate, ruled that a new session had, in fact, started. The Southerners were able to defeat the motion to change the rules of the filibuster, but the margin of victory was smaller than it had been the last time it was attempted, a sign that their strength was waning. Seeing that they were testing their luck, they turned to other tactics to weaken the bill. Nixon also ruled that the 1957 bill should go straight to the Senate floor rather than being diverted to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was run by a segregationist. The bill was substantially weakened by the time it passed, but the fact of its passage was significant.
During the election, Nixon and Kennedy both hoped to straddle the line on civil rights to avoid alienating either northern black voters or southern white ones. The race issue came to a head when Martin Luther King Jr was arrested during a sit-in and sentenced to four months of hard labor due to an unpaid ticket. There was a very well-founded fear that the prominent civil rights leader would be lynched if not freed from jail. Both candidates felt the pressure to respond. Nixon’s friends pushed him to reach out to King’s wife, Coretta, but he refused, issuing no public statement beyond “No comment.” Kennedy, by contrast, called King’s wife after being encouraged by his brother-in-law. Robert Kennedy was angry at first, but ultimately decided to see the disruption as an opportunity. The Kennedys intervened on King’s behalf, and he was released 12 days before the election. King’s father, a Nixon ally, said, “I had expected to vote against Senator Kennedy because of his religion. But now he can be my President, Catholic or whatever he is. …. I’ve got all my votes and I’ve got a suitcase and I’m going to take them up there and dump them in his lap,” to which Kennedy responded, “Imagine Martin Luther King having a bigot for a father. Well, we all have our fathers, don’t we?”
The election was too close to call until noon the next day. JFK won by less than 1%, with 34,221,000 votes to Nixon’s 34,108,000. The results were controversial, with Republicans pushing for investigations and recounts. Their skepticism was justified, with the numbers in Illinois and Texas being particularly suspect. Lyndon Johnson, the new vice-president-elect, had a reputation for election fraud. He had proudly embraced the nickname “Landslide Lyndon,” after winning a Senate seat with the aid of 200 votes cast 6 days after election day. The votes were recorded in the same handwriting, in alphabetical order, running from A to Z and beginning again at A when the determined fraudster fell short. Twelve years later, Johnson was still close to George Parr, the Texas boss who had facilitated the fraud. The same precinct that had delivered the votes for Johnson’s Senate seat reported 1145 votes for Kennedy vs 45 for Nixon. Another precinct had 86 registered voters yet reported 147 votes for Kennedy and 24 for Nixon.
Nixon eventually shut down the calls for recounts. Depending on who you talk to, this was either a noble display of concern for the voters’ faith in the electoral process, or a practical decision based on the desire to avoid looking like a sore loser and possibly exposing Republican voter fraud.
Although Nixon pushed his cohorts to accept the results of the election, he struggled to take his own advice. He would spend the rest of his life complaining about the election that had been stolen from him, nursing a powerful contempt for the Kennedys. A close aide referred to his “Kennedy fixation,” and a journalist said there was something “not rational” about his perspective on the family. His friendship with John Kennedy had died a painful death, one Kennedy was apparently unconcerned about, saying, “If I’ve done nothing for this country, I’ve saved them from Dick Nixon,” who he said had “no taste” and “no class.”
Despite Kennedy’s contempt, he did reach out to Nixon for advice in the early days of his presidency. In spring of 1961, Kennedy signed off on a CIA operation to invade Cuba. An army of American-trained Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs and were quickly defeated by Cuban forces. It was a major embarrassment for Kennedy, who called Nixon after the plan blew up in his face. Nixon made sure to note that during the call, Kennedy “said ‘shit’ six times!” Because that’s what was important.
In 1962, in a desperate bid to stay relevant, Nixon entered the gubernatorial race in California, challenging Pat Brown, the Democratic incumbent. He announced his candidacy at a rally with cheerleaders who chanted, “Nixon is blue hot!” to avoid using the word “red,” with its dangerous Communist associations. Brown was polling poorly, but Nixon’s campaign faced major challenges from the start. By 1962, there were 1 million more Democrats than Republicans in California. In addition, the Kennedys provided Brown with assistance ranging from advice to opposition research. Many voters suspected — apparently correctly — that Nixon didn’t really care about the governorship and was only using it to launch a second attempt at the presidency. Nixon didn’t help himself, refusing to speak to representatives of local newspapers by saying, “I wouldn’t give them the sweat off my balls.” In one appearance, he even said, “When I become president,” and then, in an attempted correction, “governor of the United…”
The Cuban Missile Crisis put the final nail in the coffin of the Nixon campaign. In October of 1962, Kennedy announced that the Soviet Union had installed missiles in Cuba, close enough to target the United States, plunging the nation into thirteen days of existential terror before a resolution could be negotiated. Kennedy flew Brown out to the White House to consult on the issue, boosting his campaign and his national profile. Nixon would claim later that Kennedy had somehow timed the crisis to hurt him, which it undoubtedly did. Less than two weeks after the crisis was resolved, Brown beat him by almost 300,000 votes, to the satisfaction of Democrats and Nixon’s many Republican enemies.
Nixon said losing the governorship after losing the presidency was “like being bitten by a mosquito after being bitten by a rattlesnake,” but he also had a bit of a public meltdown, so who’s to say, really. When the time came for him to concede, everyone agreed that he was too much of a mess to face the reporters himself, and his press secretary was sent out. At the last minute, he decided that he wanted to speak after all, shouldering his aide aside to deliver a speech blaming media bias for his loss. After a rambling performance, he concluded, “I want you to know, just think how much you’re going to be missing. You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” Afterward, he said to his press secretary, “I know you don’t agree. I gave it to them right in the ass. It had to be said, goddammit.” The speech was portrayed as much more unhinged than it actually was, but it was certainly not something a politician would want to be known for. A few days later, ABC ran a special called “The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon.”
Kennedy boasted about Nixon’s destruction on a call with the victorious Pat Brown, saying, “I killed him, all you have to do is bury him,” and “you reduced him to the nuthouse.” Later, en route to Eleanor Roosevelt’s funeral, Kennedy sat with another Nixon enemy, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and giggled over newspaper clippings about Nixon’s defeat and subsequent meltdown.
If Nixon’s political career was dead and buried in 1962, by 1968, it would kick its way out of its coffin, claw through six feet of mud and dirt, and burst, gasping, into the light, a disconcerting resurrection I’ll discuss next time.
Richard Nixon: The Life by John Farrell
The Arrogance of Power by Anthony Summers
California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown by Ethan Rarick
The Passage of Power by Robert Caro
Eisenhower: The White House Years by Jim Newton