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Nixon: From rags, to riches, to resignation

On this day (Jan. 9) in 1913, Richard Milhous Nixon was born into the Quaker family of Frank and Hannah Nixon in Yorba Linda, Calif.

From this humble but respectable beginning, the intelligent, hardworking, and highly disciplined Richard Nixon ascended the political ladder to become the 37th U.S. president. However, accompanying these admirable traits were others that have made Nixon the most controversial, complex and at times hard-to-like of any of the 43 U.S. presidents.

He was overly introverted, shy, insecure, socially inept, vindictive, suspicious, unforgiving and self-pitying. These largely negative traits (flaws?) largely are the reason why his steady climb to the presidency was so “rocky” – a political career full of notable achievements, but also of almost devastating political defeats.

Today, Nixon, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is either hated or beloved; there is seemingly no middle ground regarding either of their historical reputations.

Nixon’s life story is a true “rags to riches” saga. Always an excellent, hard-working student, he graduated from Whittier High School first in the class of 1930. At Whittier College, he graduated second of 85 students in the class in 1934. He then applied for and received a scholarship to the Duke University Law School, from which he graduated third of 25 students in the class of 1937.

Admitted to the California bar in late 1937, Nixon commenced his steady climb to political prominence. He practiced law, worked briefly in Washington for the Office of Price Administration, and then spent four years in the U.S. Navy as a supply officer.

By 1946, Nixon had the credentials (i.e., a law degree and honorable military service) thought to be necessary to run for political office in post-World War II America. In 1946, he was elected (re-elected in 1948) to the U.S. House of Representatives, where, serving on the now infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, he gained the reputation, particularly from his role in the Alger Hiss spy case, of being a leader of the anti-Communist movement of the late 1940s, which evolved into the “McCarthy witch-hunts” of the 1950s.

Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1950, he continued his anti-Communist crusade, which made him an ideal Republican vice presidential candidate to run with the more moderate Republican presidential candidate, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Easily elected in 1952 (re-elected in 1956), the Eisenhower-Nixon team governed effectively during the halcyon decade of the 1950s. Groomed to be Ike’s successor, Nixon narrowly was defeated in 1960 by John F. Kennedy in what was the second closest presidential race in modern American history (the first being the controversial George W. Bush-Albert Gore election of 2000).

Defeated in the 1962 California governor’s race by Pat Brown, Nixon spent the next six years resurrecting his political reputation. By 1968, when he finally won election as president, he had successfully shed the image of the irresponsible demagogue and devious politician (“The Old Nixon”) and presented the American public with a new image of a responsible, widely experienced conservative statesman (“The New Nixon”).

It is now apparent that during the Nixon presidency (1969-1974), the American people saw frequent glimpses of both “The New Nixon” and “The Old Nixon.” However, it is now obvious that “The Old Nixon” usually prevailed, and this led to Nixon being the only sitting president to have resigned, as he did Aug. 9, 1974, under the eminent threat of successful impeachment.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” He is available for tutoring, talks and workshops on American History. Reach him at demjcm@comcast.net

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