The Political Rise of Richard Nixon


By Patrick AllittEmory University

Richard Nixon, a Quaker, who was also a World War II veteran, made his political reputation as a harsh anti-Communist Republican congressman in the late 1940s. Despite his eight years of experience as vice president, he narrowly lost to John F. Kennedy in the election of 1960. Repairing his political image, he made a comeback and won the presidency in the election of 1968.

Photo of Nixon smiling with raised hands, standing in the middle of a crowd of people, while campaigning in 1968.
After having lost to John F. Kennedy in the election of 1960, Nixon made a comeback and won the presidency in the election of 1968. (Image: Ollie Atkins/Public domain)

Nixon’s Rise and Fall

Accepting the largely bipartisan Cold War consensus, Nixon continued the American role in Vietnam, accepted much of the heritage of the Great Society from Lyndon Johnson, and even tinkered with the idea of a guaranteed national income. By his later Republican successors’ standards, he was a center or even liberal Republican.

His opponent in the 1972 election, George McGovern, was the weakest Democratic candidate in years, perhaps in the century, whom Nixon would certainly have defeated in a fair fight. Nixon’s unnecessary decision to eavesdrop electronically on the McGovern campaign in the Watergate complex during the summer of 1972 led to the arrest of his agents, the ‘plumbers’.

Nixon won easily that fall, but was ruined by an escalating series of revelations over the next two years. They showed that he’d known of the break-ins almost from the beginning, and that he’d tried to orchestrate a cover-up. Congressional investigations and an imminent impeachment finally forced him to resign in disgrace in the summer of 1974.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd EditionWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Nixon’s Early Career

Photo of Nixon smiling and meeting people while campaigning for the Senate.
In 1950, Nixon campaigned for a Senate seat from California. (Image: National Park Service photographer/Public domain)

Nixon’s early career had marked him as a very able and talented politician. He first entered Congress in 1946. He came from California, and was a graduate of Whittier College, which is in southern California, and then of Duke University Law School. He also had a distinguished military record from the Pacific theater in World War II.

He first became prominent in national life because of his support for Whittaker Chambers in the Alger Hiss espionage case.

In 1950, after two terms in the House of Representatives, Nixon campaigned for a Senate seat from California. He campaigned against a woman called Helen Gahagan Douglas, and made the classic allegation of that year, 1950, that she was ‘soft on Communism”, and actually mixing Red-baiting with sexism.

Nixon as Vice President

Nixon was Eisenhower’s running mate in 1952, and was able to fight off various challenges to his candidacy. Eisenhower himself had previously had no political experience except in strictly military-related matters. He’d always maintained the principle that the soldiers must not get involved in politics. As a career soldier and one of the premier American generals of World War II, he’d stayed out of it. Both parties wanted Eisenhower, but the Republicans finally got him. Nixon was brought onto the ticket, really, as the ‘hatchet man’, to do the hard political work, and to enable Eisenhower to seem to be above the fray.

During his eight years as president, Eisenhower restricted Nixon’s actual political role. It’s often the case that the vice president is in a constricted position. Johnson was kept very much in the background by Kennedy; Truman had been kept completely in the background by Roosevelt; and, similarly, Nixon was kept in a strictly subordinate role by Eisenhower.

Eisenhower passed the mantle to Nixon in 1960, but Nixon lost in one of the narrowest elections of the century to John F. Kennedy. In 1962, attempting to repair his political fortunes, he ran for the job of Governor of California, but lost again to Edmund Brown, Sr., and seemed to be finished. Not many candidates can lose two elections, first a national one, then a local one, and revive their careers.

Nixon’s Comeback Plan

After his defeat in 1962, Nixon moved to New York and worked through much of the 1960s as a lawyer, while always planning a comeback and building up his sources of support inside the Republican Party. The fact that the Republican’s presidential candidate in 1964, Barry Goldwater, lost disastrously, made him the senior presiding Republican who was still standing in the aftermath of that debacle.

So it was, from 1964, that he was able to rebuild his plausibility as the man around whom the Republican ranks could gather. In the election of 1968, he was able to do that, taking advantage of the social upheavals of the decade to strengthen the Republican Party in general, and his own role within it.

He realized in 1968 that white southerners were now willing to vote Republican. One of his strategists was Kevin Phillips, who had written a very influential book, The Emerging Republican Majority, noting this trend that the Democratic white South had been absolutely solid for the best part of a century, ever since the end of Reconstruction, but that as the Democrats progressively endorsed civil rights legislation, and as they endorsed the idea of encouraging black votes, southern whites were going to be disillusioned and leave the Democratic Party, and the Republicans could pick them up instead.

Southern white Democrats certainly were fiercely opposed to policies like affirmative action and, therefore, were that much more ready to vote Republican.

Nixon’s Win

Nixon, in his campaign of 1968, appealed for the support of what he called the ‘silent majority’, that is people who weren’t out demonstrating in the streets, but nevertheless had jobs and adhered to traditional American values, which, he said, “are being violated by the radical extremists”.

One of his challengers in 1968 was George Wallace, the Alabama segregationist, who had now become an independent candidate for the presidency. One of Nixon’s principal issues was law and order, but that was one of the issues that Wallace was also pursuing.

In the end, though, Nixon was able to win the victory. He got 31 million votes; Wallace got about 10 million. The Democrats, after their very, very bruising and destructive convention in Chicago that summer, and disillusioned by the fallout from the Vietnam War, which had progressively demoralized the Johnson presidency, were defeated.

Common Questions about Richard Nixon

Q: Which two elections did Nixon lose before he moved to New York?

In 1960, Nixon narrowly lost to John F. Kennedy. In 1962, he ran for the job of Governor of California, but lost again to Edmund Brown, Sr.

Q: Who was Kevin Phillips?

Kevin Phillips was one of Nixon’s strategists. He had written a very influential book, The Emerging Republican Majority, where he noted the trend of white southerners now willing to vote Republican.

Q: Who were the ‘silent majority’?

The ‘silent majority’ were people who weren’t out demonstrating in the streets, but nevertheless had jobs and adhered to traditional American values.

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