I never quite bought into the revisionist story promoted by Tom Wicker and other forgiving liberals, who decided that Richard Nixon’s achievements as a statesman outweighed the political chicanery and personal pathologies that came to a head in the Watergate scandal.
Nixon the Statesman was overrated: against the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and his epochal China trip stand five years of needlessly prolonged war in Vietnam and million more lives lost, the destabilizing bombing of Cambodia and ensuing genocide, and the bloody U.S.-sponsored coup in Chile, which launched a generation of South American military dictatorships. Not to mention, on the domestic side, the War on Drugs, which still haunts us today, Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” which perfected the subtly race-baiting dog whistle, and wage and price controls that unleashed the economic stagnation and inflation of the 1970s.
Yes, Nixon founded the EPA and signed the Clean Air, Endangered Species, and National Environmental Policy Acts, while vetoing the Clean Water Act. But he did so only reluctantly, after his adviser John Ehrlichman convinced him conservation represented good politics (fending off environmentalist Ed Muskie) and a useful distraction from the war.
Still, even reluctant environmental action looks good against Trump and company’s efforts to blow up and bury every one of those environmental cornerstones. And now Dirty Donald is doing even more to make us miss Tricky Dick, .
The presidential election of 1960 was even more of a nail-biter than this one—and Nixon’s first great political heartbreak. Pundits and pollsters, no wiser then than now, had favored him over his opponent, a Senator widely seen as a silver-spoon lightweight named John F. Kennedy. But Kennedy took the lead in the early counting and seemed to be closing in on what was then the magic 269 electoral votes needed to win. Then the tallies turned Nixon’s way in key states. Ohio, which one of the two TV networks most American relied on for their national news had called for Kennedy, swung over to Nixon, and he pulled ahead in California (where NBC and CBS predicted a Kennedy win) and Illinois.
But as election night wore on, a big dump of supposedly withheld, heavily pro-Kennedy votes came in from Cook County, Illinois—in particular Chicago, the fiefdom of the Democratic über-mayor Richard M. Daley and a city notorious for vote-fixing. Illinois was now turning toward Kennedy, who already had 265 electoral votes.
At midnight in California, Nixon, obliged to say something to his supporters, issued what his press secretary, Herb Klein, called a “half-concession.” First he tamped down boos and catcalls at the mention of his opponent’s name—just as John McCain would in his gracious concession in 2008. “If the present trend continues, Senator Kennedy will be the next president of the United States,” Nixon declared, noting that after “hard-fought” campaigns, “we unite behind the man who is elected.” If his victory is confirmed, Kennedy “will have my wholehearted support and yours too.”
Remarkably, when viewed from a time poisoned by Trump’s never-give-an-inch vitriol and slander, this half-concession turned heads in 1960. Kennedy’s aides grumbled that Nixon should have made a full concession. “Why should he concede?” Kennedy asked. “I wouldn’t.”
The next day, with a razor-thin popular-vote gap but the electoral outcome assured, Nixon issued a full concession—in a telegram to Kennedy, which Klein read to the public. Kennedy and others were appalled that he hadn’t delivered it in person (“No class!”), but the words were statesmanlike: “You will have the united support of all Americans as you lead the nation.”
In the ensuing hours and days, however, more reports of ballot skulduggery poured in, and not just from Chicago. Nixon’s campaign manager, Leonard Hall, and Sen. Thruston Morton, head of the Republican National Committee, claimed the Dems had stolen the election in multiple states and urged Nixon to contest it. Even President Dwight Eisenhower, under whom Nixon served as vice president, suggested he look into the allegations.
But Nixon declined. His motives may not have been as purely exalted as later Republicans would claim when they (somewhat invidiously) compared him to Al Gore fighting it out with George W. Bush in Florida in 2000. Klein did recall Nixon explaining at the time that “contesting it would do a great harm to the country.” And in his 1962 memoir Six Crises, written to pave the way for a political comeback, Nixon said he demurred because he feared American prestige would be damaged by suggestions that “the presidency itself could be stolen by thievery at the ballot box.”
But in a later memoir, RN, Nixon revealed another reason: “Charges of ‘sore loser’ would follow me through history and remove any possibility of a further political career.” Plus he was exhausted and depressed after a grueling race, and hardly up for a fight he knew he would likely lose.
As it turned out, his decision was a wise one. Hall and Morton announced the creation of the “National Recount and Fair Elections Committee” and sent party operatives to dig up electoral dirt in Illinois, Texas, New Jersey, Missouri, New Mexico, Nevada, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania. They came up short everywhere except Cook County and Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, which was controlled by the machine of Kennedy’s running mate, Lyndon Johnson—who’d first won his Senate seat in a highly suspect election.
In a few tiny Texas counties, votes cast far exceeded voters registered. The Republicans demanded a statewide recount, but the all-Democratic Texas Election Board had already certified Kennedy’s victory. A Republican National Committee member sued to challenge the Chicago results, but a circuit judge bound to Mayor Daley’s machine dismissed the suit. Less than a year later now-President Kennedy appointed him to a federal judgeship.
It all didn’t matter. Whatever fraud a full investigation or recount might have revealed was unlikely to change the outcome. Close though the race was in Texas, the votes in question were too few to shift it. And even with Illinois, Nixon wouldn’t have had enough electoral votes.
Earl Mazo, a reporter for the Republican-favoring New York Herald Tribune who’d written a biography of Nixon, nevertheless continued digging into the Chicago and Texas shenanigans, Pulitzer stars shining in his eyes. He found the usual scams: dead people who voted, a gutted house that was home to 56 registered voters. He also found downstate Illinois Republicans pulling the same tricks, but they didn’t have as many votes to fiddle with.
After four installments in Mazo’s planned 12-part series ran, he got a call from the vice president. Mazo later told the Washington Post’s Peter Carlson that Nixon asked him to drop the story because the country couldn’t afford a constitutional crisis at the height of the Cold War. “I looked at him and thought, ‘He’s a goddamn fool.’” When Mazo refused to back off, Nixon called the brass at the Herald Tribune, and his editors pulled him off the story.
Nixon’s motives for nixing the story and refusing the story may have been mixed. But aside from certain saints, those who do the right thing generally want to be known for doing the right thing. He protected the country and his own reputation.
Contrast that with Donald Trump, who seems to care less and less, if that’s possible, about either. Throughout the campaign he impugned the integrity of a vote that hadn’t even happened, and since then he’s only doubled down and ramped up the rage, threats, and false accusations. He and his minions are trying to suppress votes even after they’ve been legally cast and duly received, suing relentlessly (and so far vainly) to block their counting. And he’s inciting mobs and so-called militias to muster to “stop the steal,” threatening election workers and the institution of elections itself.
These tactics might be better suited to Uzbekistan or Uganda—except that they’re more brazen and desperate than the tricks dictators in such countries have to fix their elections. Trump has already said how much he envies their absolute power. It’s going to take a lot of national recovery and reconciliation and reputational repair before they’ll listen with a straight face to American preaching about free and fair elections.
I never thought I’d say this about anyone: I just wish that somewhere in the depths of his shriveled, pickled soul, Donald Trump could find his inner Nixon.