Richard Nixon is synonymous with the Watergate scandal – one of the greatest crises that the presidency has ever faced. Yet in other respects his time in office was not without its achievements.
It was he who eventually disentangled the US from its disastrous involvement in Vietnam – although not before a bloody and much criticised widening of the conflict into Cambodia and Laos. (Some 20,000 US servicemen, and innumerable South-east Asians, were killed during the Nixon presidency.) He also contributed significantly to a reduction of tensions with China and the USSR, laying the foundations for diplomatic relations with the former with a visit to Beijing in 1972 and holding a series of summits with Leonid Brezhnev that culminated in the signing of the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. He also encouraged Henry Kissinger, his Secretary of State, to negotiate disengagement agreements between Israel, Egypt and Syria after the Yom Kippur war.
Domestically, he dealt firmly (some would say too firmly) with anti-war protests, and appointed several conservative judges to the Supreme Court, but also undertook what he described as "government reform such as this nation has not witnessed in half a century". He increased social security spending, introduced forms of affirmative action for racial minorities, passed new anti-crime laws and launched a broad environmental programme. He also ended conscription, attempted to put limits on wage and price increases, and took a surprisingly progressive approach to the chronic problems of inflation and unemployment.
His prospects of re-election in 1972 were excellent, and it was surprising that he felt the need for the systematic dirty tricks (carried out by a secret White House team known as "The Plumbers") that led to the Watergate break-in, cover-up and scandal. It has been suggested that he had never got over his close and controversial defeat in the 1960 election by John F Kennedy, and was determined not to leave anything to chance. A dark, driven man – a former lawyer who grew up in a strict, working-class Quaker family in southern California – he had been associated with scheming and rule-bending for much of his political career: from his enthusiastic work for the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the late Forties to the time he had to appear on television in 1952 to defend himself against charges of fund-raising irregularities, to the eight years he served as the vice-presidential "bad cop" to the benign President Eisenhower. He believed that the 1960 election had been stolen from him, and he lacked the moral fibre to resist the temptation to steal one back.
The denouement is well-known. A bungled burglary at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee headquarters on 17 June 1972 was followed by clumsy attempts by the White House to conceal its involvement, and by the slow, relentless exposure of the cover-up by the Washington Post. Nixon brazened it out until 9 August 1974, when, with impeachment looming, he announced that he would stand down for the good of the nation.
His successor, Gerald Ford (who had only taken over the vice-presidency after the resignation of Spiro Agnew over unrelated corruption charges), issued a presidential pardon for any crimes he might have committed while in office. Twenty other people were eventually convicted of criminal offences relating to Watergate.
Nixon never really seems to have accepted that he had been discredited, and he found a role for himself after his resignation as an expert on foreign affairs. He visted 18 foreign countries in the first decade of his retirement and met with 16 heads of state. He died in 1994.
Opinion remains divided as to whether his was a successful presidency ruined by a single fatal flaw; or whether his resignation actually created a misleadingly positive impression of his achievements, by leaving his successor to sort out the problems that were building up in the economy. The fairest verdict can probably be found in Jimmy Carter's words: "He's disgraced the presidency."
In his own words
"America's record in this century has been unparalleled in the world's history for its responsibility, for its generosity, for its creativity and its progress. Let us be proud that our system has produced and provided more freedom and more abundance, more widely shared, than any other in the history of man."
"Once a man has been in politics, once that's been in his life, he will always return if the people want him."
"I played by the rules of politics as I found them."
"When the president does it, that means that it's not illegal."
"A man is not finished when he is defeated. He is finished when he quits."
"I am not a crook."
"What in the [EXPLETIVE DELETED] caused this?"
"I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as President, I must put the interest of America first...
"Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow...
"By taking this action, I hope that I will have hastened the start of that process of healing which is so desperately needed in America.
"I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision. I would say only that if some of my judgements were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the Nation."
(Resignation statement, 9 August 1974)
In others' words
"The irony about Nixon is that his pre-Watergate record is a lot better than most liberals realise. It was Nixon, after all, who opened the door to China and who eventually brought the troops home from Vietnam." Thomas P O'Neill
"Richard M Nixon has acted in a manner contrary to his trust as President and subversive of constitutional government, to the great prejudice of the cause of law and justice and to the manifest injury of the people of the United States." House Judiciary Committee, articles of impeachment, 1974
"Richard Nixon is a no-good lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he'd lie just to keep his hand in." Harry S Truman
"In 200 years of history, he's the most dishonest president we've ever had. I think he's disgraced the presidency." Jimmy Carter
"It was a Greek tragedy. Nixon was fulfilling his own nature. Once it started it could not end otherwise." Henry A Kissinger
"Nixon's grand mistake was his failure to understand that Americans are forgiving, and if he had admitted error early and apologised to the country, he would have escaped." Bob Woodward
Nixon was the first president to visit all 50 states.
Accused of financial impropriety while running as Eisenhower's vice-presidential candidate in 1952, he famously defended himself on television, itemising all his assets and explaining that the only one that was a gift was a spaniel puppy called Checkers – which, he tearfully declared, his daughters would keep, come what may. The public loved it.
On failing to be elected Governor of California in 1962, he seemed to announce his retirement from politics, telling reporters: "You won't have Nixon to kick around any more because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference."
He was the second Quaker president, after Herbert Hoover. Unlike Hoover – who had observed the Quaker ban on oaths by using the words "I affirm" rather than "I swear" in the presidential – Nixon used the words "I swear".
As a student, he was known as Gloomy Gus.
His great-grandfather was killed in the Battle of Gettysburg (and would thus have been among those honoured by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address).
In 1970, Elvis Presley visited the White House to talk about drugs – and gave Nixon a gold revolver.
In his early career as a lawyer, Nixon refused to work on divorce cases, claiming that he was "severely embarrassed by women's confessions of sexual misconduct".
He was in Dallas on the day that John F Kennedy was shot.Reuse content