Characteristics of Richard Nixon

Instructor: Harley Davidson

Harley has taught university-level History classes and has a Ph.D. in History

Richard Nixon's presidency ended in political disgrace, but beneath the scandal was a deeply complex human story. This lesson details the most important aspects of Nixon's personality and how they shaped his controversial political career.

Richard Nixon's Characteristics

In contemporary American politics, the name of Richard Nixon, 37th President of the United States from 1969 to 1974, has become synonymous with political scandal and boundless ambition. On June 17, 1972, burglars under the employ of Nixon associates broke into the Watergate Hotel in order to plant wiretaps in the Democratic National Committee's headquarters. After two years of investigation, Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974. While the Watergate scandal defined Nixon's presidency and his public image, Nixon's personality reflected a far more complex man.

A Rags to Riches Story

Nixon came from a poor farm family in California, meaning that he had to rely on his own intelligence and hard work to succeed in life. He earned excellent grades throughout grade school and was highly successful in student elections, but was forced to turn down a scholarship from Harvard because his family could not afford to send him there by train. Instead, he settled for Whittier College, and then attended Duke University Law School. After fighting in the Pacific Theater in World War II, Nixon then served in the House of Representatives and the Senate for California, served as Vice-President under Dwight D. Eisenhower, and then ran an unsuccessful 1960 Presidential campaign against John F. Kennedy. Throughout his political rise, Nixon had a single-minded focus on political success and protecting his position. This was reflected in the more negative and famous aspects of his personality.

Ambition, Paranoia, and Media Distrust

Nixon was a deeply insecure man who possessed a persecution complex and this shaped his interactions with political opponents and the press. He was a fierce political fighter, believing that each of his political battles possessed the highest stakes. Branding himself as an anti-communist crusader in the 1940s and 1950s, Nixon then ran on a platform of squashing the counter-cultural elements of the 1960s and standing up for an under-represented 'silent majority'. This proved to be an effective political strategy because it painted the picture that he and his supporters were victims of the same persecution.

Nixon was obsessed with his with public appearance and his standing versus past presidents. During the televised Kennedy-Nixon debate, Nixon had been compared unfavorably to the younger, handsome Kennedy and many experts believed that this unfavorable comparison swung the election in Kennedy's favor. Nixon ordered his aides to remove pictures of older presidents from the White House and hired Roger Ailes, who would later go on to found Fox News, to craft his public image. But while Nixon attempted to present a positive, controlled image to the public, Nixon's ambition and paranoia dominated his most controversial political actions.

Nixon versus Kennedy was the first televised Presidential debate in American history
Kennedy and Nixon 1960 debate

Nixon achieved his ultimate political success during the 1968 Presidential Election versus the Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey. It was here that Nixon engaged in arguably his most controversial plot which undermined President Lyndon Johnson. His campaign adviser, Anna Chennault, established a back-channel communication with the South Vietnamese to prolong the Vietnam War until Nixon was in office. Nixon placed his own ambition ahead of the lives of American servicemen so that he could be the one to negotiate an end to the conflict. Scandals like this, and most famously Watergate, came to the attention of the American press and reinforced Nixon's distrust of outsiders.

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