The Dirty Tricks of Richard Nixon

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The campaign against Hubert Humphrey, and the campaign against Kennedy, who by the time of the time piece had already been assassinated, further represent an important turning point in Nixon’s life and political career. Before the 1960 election, making use of petty, quasi-illegal dirty tricks was a means of victory for Nixon – he had scarcely lost an election before then and was seen as a powerful, young, up-and-coming politician. However, following the losses to Kennedy and Brown, Nixon’s use of political dirty tricks seemingly becomes more calculated and long-term. Understanding the context of the presidential victory over Hubert Humphrey is essential to understanding the use of dirty tricks in that campaign.

In 1968, Lyndon Johnson dropped a bombshell: ''I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President'. There has been much debate over the years on why this decision was made when LBJ was clearly the front-runner for the next year’s election. Just before his decision, Johnson had commissioned a poll in which the public overwhelmingly voted in favor of Johnson’s reelection. Chief of Staff James Jones states that “the real reason for Mr. Johnson’s withdrawal was Vietnam”, which had been a “blot on his Administration”. Jones further acknowledges that by deciding not to run, LBJ was able to focus all his efforts on ending the war (Jones, NYT, 1988). LBJ, however, would not be able to end the war. He had announced a bombing halt, and had been on the cusp of bringing the North and South together for talks, but mysteriously, it seemed to many, those talks never materialized. One of the reasons for this seemingly mysterious dissolvement of peace talks was Richard Nixon, the front-runner for the Republican nomination for President.

As Thomas writes, “Months before Nixon learned that a bombing halt was imminent, he had set up his own back channel to Saigon”. This channel had been made possible through the work of a woman many simply called 'The Dragon Lady'. Her name was actually Anna Chennault, and she had come to the United States after marrying the World War II ace Claire Chennault. After Claire died in 1958, Anna moved to Washington, and soon became deeply involved in the political circles of that time. This allowed her to rub shoulders with men such as John Kennedy, LBJ, Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. She was aligned most closely politically with the Republican Party, and supported Nixon as he ran for president. When LBJ announced the bombing halt, Nixon saw it as a dirty way to promote Humphrey’s candidacy – if the Democrats could end the Vietnam War, the voters would choose them over the Republicans. Therefore, Nixon was determined to ensure that no peace would be made – he himself was running on the policy of being the one to end the war. It was clear to him by this point that if the bombing halt and peace talks were to commence, Nixon would likely lose the election. His lead was already slipping away. Thus, he sent Chennault to South Vietnam, with the intention of her working covertly with the South Vietnamese government until they were convinced that the best way forward would be to ignore LBJ’s call for peace talks and instead wait for a Republican president – Nixon – to end the war. After days of secret back-channel negotiations, the South Vietnamese government responded to LBJ to say that they would not sit down with him for talks. The peace talks thus derailed, Nixon won the election by “just enough.” It is clear that LBJ suspected Nixon all the while. In 'Richard Nixon: A Life', John A. Farrell writes, “With transcripts of FBI wiretaps in hand, Johnson blamed Nixon for strangling a chance for peace” (pg. 343). However, LBJ never told the public of his suspicions, and instead accepted the falling through of negotiations as something that came about legally and without covert intervention. Yet it is clear today, as well, that Nixon almost certainly played a major role, personally, in derailing the peace talks. In RN, Farrell writes, “Haldeman’s notes from the 1968 campaign show how Nixon personally directed the skullduggery – conducting backstage negotiations with a foreign country in violation of U.S. law”.

The actions that Nixon committed during this election were treasonous, yet nonetheless they were effective, granting Nixon just enough of a lead in the polls to win the election. It should be noted that during his first four years in office, Nixon achieved a number of policy successes that are now all but lost to history due to the overshadowing nature of the Watergate scandal. He began the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and passed into law the National Environmental Policy Act. Furthermore, he “ordered federal agencies to shed surplus properties – which were transformed into parks, for families to enjoy”. He also worked to desegregate schools in the South, although this is less clear if this is more of political tactic to gain support below the Mason-Dixon line or if it was based in a legitimate desire for racial equality. During these first four years, his greatest diplomatic triumph came at the end of his first term, when, in 1972, he became the first U.S. president to visit mainland China, where he met with Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong. This opening of the previously closed communist China gave Nixon substantially more negotiating power in the Far East. He furthermore helped to lessen Cold War tensions through his policy of détente and his meeting with the Russian premier Leonid Brezhnev, bringing the world back from the brink of nuclear war, which is where it had been under Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile crises. These diplomatic triumphs, however, were to be eventually overshadowed by the break-in that occurred on June 17, 1972, and the ensuing scandal.

On June 17, 1972, five men were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Office Complex in Washington, D.C by security guard Frank Willis. At the time, it seemed to be an isolated event, perhaps carried out by disillusioned anti-Communists. Nothing appeared to be stolen, and, according to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, it seemed to be a rather unimportant burglary. Yet in court, the first link to the White House was realized when the chief burglar, James McCord, revealed that he had formerly worked for the CIA. Over the following two years, Woodward and Bernstein would “follow the money,” as Deep Throat advised, working to expose the inner dirty workings of the Nixon administration to the public. It turned out that first and foremost, there was a secret slush fund in the administration, controlled by the top of the president’s men: HR Haldeman, Chief of Staff; John Dean, Counsel to the President; John Ehrlichman, Assistant for Domestic Affairs; and Gordon Liddy, chief operative of the “Plumbers unit” in the White House. This slush fund was a collection of campaign donations to Nixon, that evidently were not being used in the way they were intended. It transpired that these funds were used for secret hush payments to men whom Nixon did not want going public. These men included the Watergate burglars.

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As the trial, led by Judge John Sirica, progressed, more information came out about the nature of the Nixon White House that had been previously unknown. It became clear for the first time to the public that Nixon was not a politician who had ran by all the rules and was solely interested in the betterment of the United States. Rather, he was paranoid – paranoid that some one would take his power from him, that he would lose an election. For years, he had engaged in what he called 'ratfucking', series of small dirty tricks that were meant to discredit or disgrace his opponents. Examples include moving the location of a convention, so when the candidate showed up, nobody would be there; or ‘leaking’ fake information about the candidates, so that they would be discredited in the eyes of the public.

The Watergate scandal is important in relation to Nixon’s dirty tricks because it was the first instance where in trying to win an election, Nixon managed to do so but got caught. It was a moment that Nixon spent the rest of his life trying to explain away, but it remains that what the public remembers of Richard Nixon was the Watergate scandal, his claim that he was “not a crook,” and the lies that brought down his presidency. It would be impossible for one to say definitively that Nixon would not have won had he not had access to Murray Chotiner and other fixers and had he not been intent on cheating to win his elections. Yet given the situations of the elections in which he most powerfully abused his power – 1968 and 1972 – it is clear those elections would have been much closer had Nixon not tried to fix the results. In the 1968 election, Nixon had to ensure that he could run on the slogan of ending the war, so he committed what turned out to be treason to ensure victory. In 1972, Nixon was worried the front-runner, Ed Muskie, had a chance at beating him, so he commissioned the Muskie letter , which effectively ruined Muskie’s candidacy. These election results may have been very different had Nixon not acted the way he did – thus the use of dirty tricks in these campaigns is monumental in history. Nixon’s legacy remains one of scandal and corruption, of a man who was so paranoid and greedy for power that he was willing to go to any reach to ensure that he remained in control. However, this legacy is based largely on the cause for his resignation – the Watergate scandal, and the lies that were told by the administration to try to pull the wool over the eyes of the investigation. Although the victory sign that he threw as he boarded the Air Force One helicopter to end his tenure as president remains his trademark, a man seemingly victorious even as he resigns from the most powerful position in the world, his career in politics spanned many decades longer than the six or so years he spent in the White House. Most know him as the man behind Watergate, but in fact he was the secretive, paranoid man behind years of dirty dealings and cheap shots that got him from being a poor son of a violent father in Whittier, California, to being President of the United States of America. His use of dirty tricks got him the glory he desired over forty years of incredible political success, but it eventually made him what he was most paranoid of – a pariah as the only man to resign the presidency.

By the time Nixon resigned in disgrace, even some of his formerly staunchest supporters did not support him any longer. In fact, one of the reasons he chose to resign was he had been told by a number of his Republican friends in Congress that if he did not resign, he would certainly be impeached. Yet justice in the courts was never really brought against Nixon: for better or for worse, Ford pardoned him in 1974, only a month after Nixon’s resignation.

The Watergate scandal is important in relation to Nixon’s dirty tricks because it was the first instance where in trying to win an election, Nixon managed to do so but got caught. It was a moment that Nixon spent the rest of his life trying to explain away, but it remains that what the public remembers of Richard Nixon was the Watergate scandal, his claim that he was 'not a crook', and the lies that brought down his presidency. It would be impossible for one to say definitively that Nixon would not have won had he not had access to Murray Chotiner and other fixers and had he not been intent on cheating to win his elections. Yet given the situations of the elections in which he most powerfully abused his power – 1968 and 1972 – it is clear those elections would have been much closer had Nixon not tried to fix the results. In the 1968 election, Nixon had to ensure that he could run on the slogan of ending the war, so he committed what turned out to be treason to ensure victory. In 1972, Nixon was worried the front-runner, Ed Muskie, had a chance at beating him, so he commissioned the Muskie letter , which effectively ruined Muskie’s candidacy. These election results may have been very different had Nixon not acted the way he did – thus the use of dirty tricks in these campaigns is monumental in history.

Nixon’s legacy remains one of scandal and corruption, of a man who was so paranoid and greedy for power that he was willing to go to any reach to ensure that he remained in control. However, this legacy is based largely on the cause for his resignation – the Watergate scandal, and the lies that were told by the administration to try to pull the wool over the eyes of the investigation. Although the victory sign that he threw as he boarded the Air Force One helicopter to end his tenure as president remains his trademark, a man seemingly victorious even as he resigns from the most powerful position in the world, his career in politics spanned many decades longer than the six or so years he spent in the White House. Most know him as the man behind Watergate, but in fact he was the secretive, paranoid man behind years of dirty dealings and cheap shots that got him from being a poor son of a violent father in Whittier, California, to being President of the United States of America. His use of dirty tricks got him the glory he desired over forty years of incredible political success, but it eventually made him what he was most paranoid of – a pariah as the only man to resign the presidency.

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The Dirty Tricks of Richard Nixon. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 23, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-dirty-tricks-of-richard-nixon/
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