Richard Nixon

"Nixon's the One"

part 1, 2, 3

Richard Nixon was defeated in the 1960 presidential race, but he re-emerged to win the campaign in 1968.
Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress

No one thought Republican Richard M. Nixon would run for office again. In 1960, Nixon lost the election to John F. Kennedy by the smallest margin of any presidential race in American history. Two years later, Nixon suffered another big loss, this time to Edmund Brown in his bid to be governor of California. It looked like Nixon would be out of politics for good.

"You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore," he famously told reporters at a press conference after his defeat in 1962. "This is my last press conference."

But in 1968, Richard Nixon won the presidency in a hard-fought campaign. He was reelected by a landslide four years later. Historian Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, says Nixon's victory in 1968 was "one of the most improbable comebacks in American political history." Nixon made it, Perlstein says, "by working three times harder than any mortal human being."

Richard Nixon grew up in the small town of Whittier, California. The family scraped for money, but Nixon excelled in school and got a law degree from Duke University. After World War II, Nixon was practicing law when an old friend from Whittier asked him to run for Congress. At age 33, Nixon was elected to the House of Representatives and his career in politics was born. In 1952, General Dwight D. Eisenhower chose Nixon to be his running mate on the GOP presidential ticket. Nixon served two terms as vice president in the Eisenhower administration.

After his 1962 defeat in the California governor's race, Nixon returned to private law practice. But he never really left politics. In 1964, Nixon hit the campaign trail for wildcard Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. Many GOP leaders abandoned Goldwater when they saw he was going to lose badly to incumbent Lyndon Johnson. Then, in 1966, Nixon campaigned hard again. This time he delivered hundreds of speeches for any GOP candidate who asked. Republicans made huge gains in Congress that year, and if there was one single person to thank, it was Richard Nixon.

Nixon intended to call in some chits.

On February 2, 1968 Nixon announced he was running for president. Six weeks later, he triumphed in the Republican primary in New Hampshire, winning 79 percent of the vote. The victory was big, but the reaction from pundits was small. As Perlstein writes, "The tea-leaf readers barely paid attention." Richard Nixon "was still their favorite joke."

A campaign button for Nixon and his running mate Spiro Agnew in 1968.
Courtesy Hudson Library and Historical Society

Democrats didn't take him seriously at first either. Although the Democratic Party was broke and voters were rebelling against Johnson, Democratic leaders figured the election was theirs to lose. Historian Lewis Gould says all the tumult and tragedy of the Democratic nomination process made it seem at the time like the national election was "a contest primarily for the soul of the Democratic Party." As Gould writes, "The issue seemed to be how liberal the United States would be in the future," not how much power Democrats could retain in Washington.

On November 5, Democrats would learn just how much they had lost touch with voters.

Meanwhile, Richard Nixon was anything but out of touch. The weeks and months he spent stumping for Goldwater and other GOP contenders gave him an up-close view of something lost on the liberals: White Americans were getting tired of them. Rick Perlstein says Nixon could see that voters "were angry at liberalism, angry at race riots in the city, and angry at violence on campuses."

In a world that seemed to be falling apart at the seams, Perlstein says, "Richard Nixon reestablished himself as a figure of destiny by speaking to people's craving for order."

Accepting the Republican nomination for president at the convention in Miami, Nixon spoke to what he called "the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators." The first civil right in America, Nixon said, was the right to be free from the violence of civil unrest.

During his campaign, Nixon repeatedly called for "law and order." He pledged that under his administration, "We shall reestablish freedom from fear in America so that America can take the lead of reestablishing freedom from fear in the world."

Continue to part 2