Forty years ago, Richard Nixon resigned from the Presidency. He was the first president to do so, and hopefully the last. In my studies of the presidency one of the fundamental questions is how much to attribute to the man, and how much to the moment. With Nixon, perhaps as much as anyone who has occupied the nation’s highest office, the man himself is front and center.
Although he served two terms as vice president, and his disgrace as president played a role in re-shaping the vice presidency, I didn't write much about him for my dissertation. I had a draft case study about him, but chose not to finish it – he was not particularly influential as VP (I’ll discuss that below.)
But the big reason I didn’t write about Nixon is because one of the keys to finishing a dissertation is to avoid rabbit holes. A rabbit hole is an intriguing area of inquiry that is related to your dissertation, but tangential to your main theme. But you start poking into it and then you fall inand can't get out.
Iran-Contra was one such rabbit hole. I had to address it, but I couldn't write a whole separate book about it. Richard Nixon was another. Once you start writing about Nixon, he is so fascinating, brilliant, and conflicted, and the events around him are so complicated that it's easy to get sucked in and never, ever come out.
Nixon As Vice President
Nixon was not influential. Eisenhower, when asked about Nixon's accomplishments famously said, "Give me a week and I'll think of one."
Eisenhower apologized to Nixon for that and stated that Nixon had been more involved than any previous Vice President. This may have been true (strictly speaking it wasn't there had been a pair of influential Vice Presidents much earlier in U.S. history), but being more significant and involved than his predecessors was vaulting a pretty low bar.
He rarely exercised influence, although Nixon’s counsel on strictly political matters - particularly dealing with the Senate, was appreciated. My hypothesis proposes that Nixon should have been an influential vice president, since he served an outsider vice president. But this was not the case for several reasons. Eisenhower was an anomaly among outsider presidents in that he was not a governor, but rather had been a general so his outsider knowledge was on national security affairs. Further, as a national hero governing in a period of economic prosperity, he was relatively free of political pressures. No matter what Eisenhower did, his approval ratings were strong because of his personal standing. On many occasions Nixon offered Eisenhower practical political advice – such as supporting a hike in the minimum wage, or proposing aerospace programs that would have helped Nixon in California in the 1960 elections. Eisenhower was a traditionalist on economics and didn’t need the political benefits of these policies, which his economic counselors advised against.
Nixon labored under other difficulties as vice president. He did not have much staff, had limited access to the president (he saw Eisenhower a few times a week - as opposed to modern VPs who might see the President a few times a day), and did not have a West Wing office. It is an interesting question if, given those vantages, Nixon could have slowly won allies on Eisenhower’s staff. With an office in the West Wing he might have had a better sense of the state of play of issues, and - combined with access to the President and White House staff - been better able to offer useful, relevant advice. Nixon was an impressive capable guy – if anyone could have pulled it off, it would have been Nixon.
(It's also worth noting that Eisenhower fundamentally saw the Vice President as part of the legislative branch, so this may have also shaped his his thinking about the vice president's role.)
But this only puts him on a par with all of the other vice presidents. In fact, according to Jeffrey Frank’s fascinating Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage, being Eisenhower’s vice president was not an easy gig.
First, in an important way Nixon did play an increased role as VP. He was the political hitman, the road warrior on the campaign trail. Eisenhower didn't want to sully himself with politics - it went against his public image as a genial national hero. Further, Eisenhower suffered health problems. So Nixon hit the road, putting in weeks of 16-hour days on the campaign trail. Nixon was a capable campaigner, but it was hard work for him. Further, being the political hitman, throwing "red meat" to the party's base, painted him as a cruel, unsophisticated idealogue to everyone else. it was an image that stuck and haunted him.
If Eisenhower had been merely ambivalent about Nixon, that would have been manageable. Instead, nearly from the beginning, but particularly after a story broke that Nixon had a slush fund, had reservations about Nixon. The slush fund story wasn’t significant – many politicians had funds donated by wealthy supporters to augment their staff allowances. But Eisenhower’s support ranged from lukewarm to ambivalent until Nixon delivered the career saving Checkers speech. But in 1956, Eisenhower again toyed with dropping Nixon, hinting that Nixon should consider a cabinet post in the next administration. Nixon engineered a write-in campaign for himself in the New Hampshire primary, which highlighted his strength with the party base. (Eisenhower may have been a brilliant natural politician, but Nixon had a much better sense of the tough business of politics.)
But then even after the issue seemed settled, White House staffer Harold Stassen ran a campaign to dump Nixon from the ticket. Eisenhower eventually shut Stassen down – but Stassen remained in the White House.
Even Nixon’s finest, most substantial moments as vice president were painful and difficult as when he had to appear to be in charge when Eisenhower was ill. Nixon chaired cabinet and national security council meetings and had the difficult task of showing the American that their government was still working, but without appearing to be taking usurp the Presidency (such appearances have sunk other careers.) At the same time, Nixon had to oversee cabinet members and other key advisors who were Eisenhower's contemporaries and allies. John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower's Secretary of State, who became close to the Vice President, praised Nixon's performance in this difficult situation.
It should be emphasized that at other times Eisenhower did praise and thank Nixon. He saw Nixon's 1960 defeat as a personal failure. Eisenhower had wanted to do more campaigning for Nixon, but because of worries about the President's health Nixon did not ask for much help.
One can have some sympathy for Nixon here. He was not quite 40 when chosen to be vice president and he was serving with a world-renown, all-American hero, at the peak of his powers. Vice presidents occasionally can have “wait a minute” moments with the president. But it is difficult to imagine the relatively young Nixon having one with Eisenhower. Eisenhower was occasionally supportive of Nixon, but the vice president was never in the inner circle golfing, playing bridge, or socializing with the president. And Nixon knew it. He was desparate for the President's approval, but when it came it was always half-hearted.
It could not have been an easy thing for Nixon to manuever around Eisenhower - who beneath his genial veneer and standing as a national hero was a brilliant strategist. Nixon wrote that Eisenhower was "a far more complex and devious man than most people realized."
It is easy to mock Nixon’s lack of charisma – although next to JFK, few would appear as anything but a wallflower. Yet Nixon won elections. Only FDR ran on the ticket of a major party for a national office as many times (5) and no one served more time in a national office than Nixon (13 years, 8 months – just edging out FDR who served 12 years and 2 months).
He won through brains and hard work.
Nixon was brilliant. Imagine if, after nearly a decade in the political wilderness, Dan Quayle had schemed and plotted his way to the presidency in 2000 or Gore had done so in 2008. That was Nixon. After a very close loss to Kennedy in 1960 and then an embarrassing loss in the 1962 California gubernatorial campaign (after which he gave his famous press conference stating, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore”) somehow Nixon maneuvered his way to the presidency in 1968.
Alan Greenspan, in his memoir wrote that Nixon was, alongside Bill Clinton, the most brilliant president he had worked with – but that he occasionally launched into strange ugly tirades. And that raises the other side of Nixon, the darkness, the shadow in his person. Jon Stewart’s America: (The Book), mentions Nixon’s 1960 debate with JFK in which voters made an utterly superficial decision that turned out to be completely correct. There was something off about Nixon.
The charm that came easily to Kennedy, Roosevelt, Clinton and many politicians, eluded Nixon. They could win people over effortlessly. When Nixon tried, it was an effort and it repelled as much as it attracted. He came off as trying to hard. Think in your own life. People who awkwardly try to win you over are assumed to "have an angle" and "be on the make."
Nixon was clearly a striver. He did everything right, punched every ticket, but on a fundamental level people did not like Richard Nixon. He wanted the sorts of things that politicians want. But in pursuing them a bit too obviously, people assumed he was up to something.
When his efforts failed, because of these suspicions, Nixon - realizing that doing everything right was not enough and the devious "Tricky Dick" emerged.
This is the stuff of novels - how each of us contains our opposite. Many great politicians, like Eisenhower, are genial on the outside but tough and even callous in private. For Richard Nixon, the devious schemer was on the surface. We (the collective American people - not me personally, I was a kid when Nixon resigned) saw the schemer beneath the earnestness. Did we press him towards it, or merely see what was already there.
As a scholar of the vice presidency, I can't help but wonder: Did Eisenhower see what the American people seemed to suspect? Did his rough, cavalier treatment of Nixon shape the devious flawed Nixon who threw away his Presidency in a bizarre - and frankly unneccessary - conspiracy?