Born in 1913, Richard Nixon is among the best known personalities of the 20th century. As the 37th President of the United States, he is the only one in the country’s entire history to resign as Commander-in-Chief. This decision, as most of us know, came after the events surrounding the Watergate scandal from the early 1970s. But regardless of these events and the controversy that surrounded him afterward, there are other, lesser known things about Nixon that many people aren’t aware of. He was, after all, a highly intelligent and complex person.
10. Nixon was a Quaker
For those of us who don’t know, Quakers draw their roots from the Christian religion and first began in England in the 1650s. The official name of the movement is the Religious Society of Friends, and there are currently around 210,000 Quakers around the world. They strongly believe in peace, equality, social justice, freedom of choice, and in a strongly knit yet diverse community life. Quakers also seek to live a simple life so as to not put a great burden on the world. They believe that God is love and every person can have a strong relationship with God without the need of a religious figure, like a priest or minister. They don’t regard any book as being the actual word of God, seeing the Bible as a great inspirational book, but at the same time, seeing others in the same way. Now, even though they trace their roots back to Christianity, and outsiders see them as a branch of it, most Quakers actually see themselves as part of a universal religion that has many Christian elements to it.
Hannah Milhous Nixon, Richard Nixon’s mother, was a devout Quaker who exerted a strong influence on her husband and children. When Nixon was 9-years-old, the family moved to the Quaker community of Whittier in California. As a young boy, he attended church every Sunday, played the piano during the church services, attended chapel hours every day, and enrolled at Whittier College – which was a Quaker institution. Growing up, Nixon lived a modest life. He recalled his childhood by saying, “We were poor, but the glory of it was we didn’t know it.” But after his mother’s death in 1967, he never again attended any other church services. In his memoirs, Nixon talks about his religion and its influence on him in only three paragraphs of the book. These, together with some of the ways he acted as President of the United States, have led some to believe that he only used his pacifist religion to advance his political career and gather support for his bid at the presidency.
9. Nixon, College, Fraternities, Hazing, and Initiation Rituals
Richard Nixon would have been considered a nerd by any modern standards. He was extremely diligent and studious. And because of these traits, he was offered scholarships to both Harvard and Yale. But because of the Great Depression, and his older brother’s tuberculosis flaring up, he wasn’t able to attend either due to financial difficulties. Instead, he went to local Whittier College. And even though he had a rather withdrawn personality, Nixon joined or took part in almost every club or event in sight. Besides his usual classes and his time spent at his father’s store, Richard was also part of the college’s football team, dramatic society, the debating team, the college orchestra, student politics, the Glee Club, and attended events like basketball games, off-campus picnics, opera shows, and weekend skiing trips, among others.
As a Quaker college, Whittier forbade fraternities, seeing them as a sort of class distinction tool. But the better-off students found a loophole here and founded a men’s student society known as the Franklins instead. Its main purpose, of course, was to act as a fraternity in all but name, and show off their social elitism at every occasion. Among Nixon’s first actions as part of Whittier was to start an anti-establishment and anti-Franklins society known as the Orthogonians. Most of this society’s activities revolved around being as different as possible from the Franklins. When the “snobs” dressed in tuxedos to pose for group photographs, the Orthogonians would wear open-neck shirts. All of the society’s founding members, Nixon included, were football players.
One of the only things Nixon particularly hated about college life was the hazing rituals as part of initiation to different societies and clubs. One such Orthogonian joining ritual involved going into the woods near Whittier, digging up the corpse of a wild boar (the society’s mascot), and eating some of its raw meat there on the spot. But since wild boar corpses weren’t so easily available in California, they exchanged it for a dead dog. Since Nixon was a charter member, he never actually had to do it himself, but he had to be present whenever someone else did. One hazing ritual he did have to be involved in was when he joined the Glee Club. He had to strip naked and then sit on a cake of ice. And every time he sat up, they would take a big paddle and smack him on the butt so it would warm up. After he went through this hazing ritual, he got pneumonia. His father was outraged and intent on suing the other students, but Richard stopped him. Overall, though, he said he had a great time in college. After Whittier, we went to Duke University School of Law.
8. His First “Major” Political Victory
Throughout his college years, Richard Nixon had a visible interest in politics. He became president of his freshman class, then in his second year he became a sophomore representative on the student executive committee, and then vice president of the student body in his third year. He won that election by a landslide victory with 267 votes to 73. One of his fellow students later recalled something that Nixon said on a bus ride as part of the Glee Club trip: “You should never run for office from a city council base. If you’re going to go for politics, don’t hang about with local politics, go for the big time.” Of course, at the time, none of them had any idea of the foreshadowing they were presented with. In any case, at the beginning of his fourth year in college, he placed his bid for the student body presidency, going against a student from the Franklins. But while his opponent focused his campaign on a new student union building, old Dick Nixon focused on dancing.
Even though he was overall shy and an awkward dancer, he knew that the victory wouldn’t come from the two opposing societies themselves, but rather from off-campus voters and the girl’s dormitories. So, by focusing his campaign on the overwhelmingly popular issue of ballroom dances, not only was he able to win the election, but even swing some of the Franklins to his side. After a crushing defeat, his opponent said that, “His [Nixon’s] issue had student appeal and I guess mine was a little too practical. It was the silver-tongued orator against a babbling idiot. Even if he didn’t say anything it sounded good.”
Now, winning an election was one thing, but delivering on the promise was totally another. As a Quaker institution, Whittier forbade all ballroom dances, and because of that, Nixon’s first proposal was immediately rejected by the college president. But he then made an appeal to the trustees saying that it would actually be better and safer for the student’s moral well-being to have dances on college campus under proper supervision, rather than going off to LA to dance at those Prohibition era-style speakeasy establishments there – something that they were already doing, by the way. Amazed by his audacity of going over the college president’s head, one trustee said: “Think of the nerve of this lad, appearing before the august body of the Board of Trustees at Whittier College in a plea for no dancing on the campus which the Quakers didn’t look fondly upon at all. It took a lot of guts and nerve and crust, I think, to do that. But he did it and convinced the board that they really ought to modify their policy.”
And to smooth the transition over, Nixon came up with a face-saving compromise. Instead of asking for the board’s formal approval, Nixon requested a yearly $200 budget in order to rent the Whittier Women’s Club building for large social functions for the student body. This way, the hardline Quakers could turn a blind eye or be completely oblivious of what was actually happening at those “meetings.” And at the same time, the students could get their dances. Over the following six months of his presidency, Nixon used the $200 to organize eight ballroom dances.
7. He Ran an Orange Juice Company Once
After taking the bar exam, Nixon became a lawyer in Whittier. But being a small community, there wasn’t much work to be had and he wasn’t making much money either, leading him to be oftentimes bored. Then, in 1938, he was approached by two local businessmen who proposed that the three of them start an orange juice business. He agreed, formed a company named CitriFrost, and was elected president. The idea behind the business was to produce freshly squeezed orange juice, add some sugar and gelatin, and then quick-freeze it. It was supposed to last indefinitely, and once defrosted, it would taste just like fresh orange juice. Nixon gathered investments from mostly friends and family, added $1,000 of his own money, putting together a total of about $10,000 for the company’s capital. But things were not to last, however, as CitriFrost ran into problems soon enough.
“Our product was good, the market was there, but we were doomed to fail for reasons beyond our control,” he once recalled. Ply film, the material in which the orange juice was packed, was becoming scarce around the country as the demand for it grew. They nevertheless were able to get some good orders, but were unable to deliver as some their shipments broke down on transit. Moreover, some disgruntled employees filed a lawsuit against the company, leading to Nixon and his fellow owners to pay them out of pocket. In order to somehow save the company, he gave another $700, offered his legal services free of charge, had his father also work at the company for several weeks without pay, and finally ended up cutting and squeezing oranges himself day and night before finally closing the business down. Friends of his recalled how distraught he was about the whole affair, particularly regarding his investors. Years later he even offered to pay them back. Even though he was only in his mid-twenties, the whole affair affected him deeply and he declined any future offers of an executive position in a company.
6. He Also Applied for the FBI
As of 2014, the National Archives contains Richard Nixon’s application to the bureau. It happened in 1937, one year before the orange juice business, when Nixon was 24-years-old and just before he was about to graduate from Duke University. He was contacted for an interview one month after graduation, and even completed a physical exam at the request of the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. But as fate would have it, he didn’t receive any response back and the rest is history. Well, not exactly – there are a few other things we do know.
In 1954, when Nixon was Vice President of the USA, he spoke at the annual FBI National Academy’s graduation. Hoover was also the one who introduced him on stage, saying that it was a pleasure for him to do so, knowing that the VP had previously applied. The director also said during the graduation that Nixon, “Having already embarked upon the practice of law, the FBI’s loss ultimately became the country’s gain,” referencing Nixon’s not being part of the bureau. But at a later party during his vice presidency, Nixon approached Hoover again, wanting to know why exactly he was never notified about his application. Hoover then reopened his file at the FBI and saw that the Vice President was actually accepted, but his appointment was revoked one month later, in August 1937. The reason for not hiring him, Hoover said, was because the bureau made some budget cuts that year.
5. Ping Pong Diplomacy
Back in the early 1970s the world was more or less divided between two ideologies – capitalism and communism – as well as the often violent spheres of influence they carried with them. The Cold War was in full swing, Richard Nixon was President of the United States, and the Vietnam War wasn’t going very well for the Americans. But in a surprising geopolitical move, Nixon suddenly announced a planned trip to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for February 1972. And in doing so, he became the first ever president to visit a nation not formally recognized by the US Government. Taiwan, or officially known as the Republic of China (ROC) was, in fact, the recognized government of mainland China after Mao Zedong’s successful communist revolution of 1949. Up until that point, the US and the PRC were bitter enemies, with US troops fighting the Chinese during the Korean War in the ’50s, and again with China offering advice and aid to the North Vietnamese. And, furthermore, Nixon didn’t seem like the one suited for this kind meeting, either. During the 1940s and ’50s, he openly condemned Harry S. Truman, the then-President, for losing China to the communists.
Nevertheless, things had changed by the late ’60s, and the US and China found themselves sharing some common interests. On the one hand, the US was looking to improve relations with Asian communist states and avoid further conflicts, undermine future alliances between those states, politically isolate North Vietnam, and increase its own bargaining chip with the Soviet Union. On the other hand, China was looking for a new trading partner since its relation with the Soviets was becoming tenser because of some border disputes. By 1969, Nixon had a backchannel open with the Chinese via the Pakistani President, Yahya Khan.
To smooth these relations over for the American public watching, the two governments made use of a highly publicized international ping pong competition in Japan, where the Chinese and American teams were fraternizing in front of the cameras. Then, in 1971, China offered an invitation for the American team to visit the PRC and play a friendly match there, and one year later a rematch took place in the US. These new relations, while calming the threat of the Soviet Union, nevertheless, put Taiwan at a serious disadvantage, with Nixon no longer guaranteeing its independence – the very thing he was condemning Truman for in the decades prior.
4. Nixon and his Dog-Whistle Politics
Even before the Civil War, the country was divided between the two major political parties: the Republicans and the Democrats. But the biggest difference back then was that their roles were somewhat reversed. First, the south was largely Democrat while the north was Republican. But from an ideological standpoint, and based on their geographical location, the people living in the south and those in the north had more or less the same principles as they have today. A second major difference was that by the 1920s the Republican party – or the actual Democrats today – had become the actual party for Big Business, with wealthy industrialists, bankers, and financiers having more and more influence over the government. But with the 1929 Stock Market Crash, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a New York Democrat (ideologically Republican today), won the following election and began to drastically increase the size of the federal government in order to provide for the many impoverished Americans and bring the US out of the ensuing Great Depression. In the meantime, the Big Business Republicans began identifying themselves as the opposition to the emerging Big Federal Government, even though they were part of it up until that point and were instrumental in the Market Crash.
Fast-forward to the 1950s and ’60s and we have the Civil Rights Movement. Again, this issue was not so much about political ideology, but rather a regional one. Voters from both parties at the time were largely supportive of the movement in the north, and deeply opposed to it in the south. Then, in 1964, it was Democrat president Lyndon Johnson who signed the Civil Rights Act into law, and it was Republican nominee Barry Goldwater who opposed it. This saw a major shift in black voters from Abraham Lincoln’s GOP to the Democrats. And as a result, the white southern voters, who up until that point were devout Democrats, were now flocking to the Republicans. This shift solidified the country’s so-called Solid South electoral bloc that now votes predominantly Republican, and the “Southern Strategy” used by Big Business Republicans ever since to appeal to those voters by using this racial factor. And here’s where Nixon finally comes in.
By taking advantage of the Southern Strategy, he won the 1968 Presidential election. Mind you, by this time the boundaries between Democrats and Republicans weren’t as clearcut as they are today and the transition of voters between the parties was still taking place. These elections also saw three candidates for the presidency. It was Nixon for the Republicans, Hubert Humphrey for the Democrats, and George Wallace as an Independent. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also assassinated earlier that year, and violent riots broke out in many major cities around the country. While Democrat Humphrey focused on the Civil Rights Movement issue, Wallace was an outspoken segregationist. Wallace had almost no real chance of winning, even though he was victorious in 578 counties (all of them in the south). Nixon, however, cleverly played both sides of the fence on this one. On the one hand, he was advocating for civil rights, promoting affirmative action, and pledging an end to the draft; but at the same time he wanted to restore “law and order.”
This last one is what’s known as “dog-whistle politics.” These are political messages that use coded language in order to appeal to a certain demographic without saying the actual words. What he meant about restoring law and order was in reference to the black majority riots – a policy which resonated with many white southerners. States’ rights, welfare, and color-blindness are also used as dog-whistle politics. Anyway, by all accounts, this was a pivotal moment and an actual realigning election in American politics. Because from 1932 to 1964, the Democrats were the majority party, winning seven out of the nine presidential elections and even strongly influencing the two Republican Eisenhower administrations. After this election, however, the situation completely reversed, with seven out of the 10 elections from 1968 to 2004 being Republican and with the GOP having a strong influence on the Clinton administration.
Incidentally, the 1950s and ’60s are also considered by many to be the Golden Age of America, when the US was actually the wealthiest nation in terms of GDP per capita. And that period was governed by the then-Democrats, directly or indirectly. The biggest difference between past Democrats and present-day Republicans is that Big Business didn’t actually represent them up until around the 1968 election. During that Golden Age, there were strong labor unions, high employment rates, and taxes averaging 70 percent, and even going as high as 90 percent after several million in income. Probably one of Nixon’s most notable legacies was the transfer of Big Business to now represent the new Republican electorate, and with the big corporations doing basically nothing more than just clinging to the party’s name during the transition.
Not too many people would call Richard Nixon a radical liberal, but when it came to healthcare legislation he went far beyond even what the Affordable Care Act provides today. In 1971, Nixon proposed a National Health Strategy that required all employers to provide basic health insurance and share in the costs. Insurance companies could vary benefit packages to only a certain extent and replace Medicaid with a completely federal plan for families under a certain income level. His rationale for the plan was that, “Those who need care most often get care least. And even when the poor do get service, it is often second rate… This situation will be corrected only when the poor have sufficient purchasing power to enter the medical marketplace on equal terms with those who are more affluent.”
But after this plan failed to pass, he tried again three years later with the Comprehensive Health Insurance Plan. Here he proposed that employers insure full-time employees and share in the costs to a point, while the federal government would aid the employees. He also proposed to replace Medicaid with a plan for anyone who was not covered otherwise, or who could not be able to afford their care. This plan was also turned down.
A team of researchers from the Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit at the University of Michigan Medical School analyzed Nixon’s two healthcare plans and compared it to Obama’s ACA. Not only did they conclude that Nixon’s plans were more “liberal” than Obama’s, but it would have also covered more people, mainly because of Nixon’s decision to maintain the insurance industry’s role in the healthcare plan. Lead author of the study, Gary Freed, M.D., MPH, noted that, “We need to put health care in a historical perspective, and not go to extremes for political purposes. I would hope this history will help policy makers think about what the policy is trying to accomplish for the American people, and not turn a blind eye to proposals simply because they’re proposed by one party or the other.”
2. The Richard Nixon/Fox News Connection
What could Nixon and Fox News have in common, you may ask? The answer is rather simple – Roger Ailes – the Fox News founder and Nixon’s media consultant during his presidential campaign. Ailes was also later a media consultant for Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Rudy Giuliani, and Donald Trump. Now, even though it took another 28 years after the 1968 Nixon election until Fox News was actually founded in 1996, Ailes already had the outlines of his style of television in mind. In a memo entitled “A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News,” Ailes sought to convince Nixon to bring pro-establishment stories to TV stations around the country. One paragraph of the memo reads, “Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication. The reason: People are lazy. With television you just sit—watch—listen. The thinking is done for you.”
In a discussion between the two, Nixon reportedly said that, “It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected,” where Ailes replied by saying, “Television is not a gimmick, and if you think it is, you’ll lose again.” Ailes was also great at orchestrating all sorts of highly publicized political spectacles. He was the one who came up with the idea of hosting live presidential Q&A sessions in high schools and colleges, as well as another well-known ‘gimmick’ for Nixon with the lighting of the White House Christmas tree. Here, a 6-year-old boy was supposed to actually do it, but Ailes came up with another idea. He argued that by letting the boy light the tree, Nixon would appear weak in the face of the public, but if he did it himself, he would appear as too authoritarian by going in front of the boy. So, Ailes proposed that they both do it together – and in front of the cameras, of course.
1. Did He Actually Do It?
The almost unimaginable complexity and scale of the events surrounding the Watergate scandal are far beyond the scope of this list and we won’t be getting into them here. But it is, nevertheless, important to note that Richard Nixon wasn’t actually charged for ordering the Watergate Hotel break-in, nor for trying his hardest to cover up all the illegal activities the White House and other political figures were involved in during the 1972 election. He actually resigned before that could happen. Official investigation began in mid-1973, led by Senator Sam Ervin and Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. They were able to prove the connection between the Watergate break-in, the White House, and the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP), even if Nixon tried to disrupt the FBI investigation by using the CIA – who themselves refused to follow the president’s orders. Then, some of Nixon’s White House members began to ‘abandon ship’ and directly implicate him in the whole affair, and even mention the existence of recording devices from within the White House – put there by Nixon himself.
The tapes were subpoenaed, but Nixon refused to hand them over. He also fired the Attorney General, his deputy, and Cox, which stirred outcry around the country. The tapes were finally released in July 1974 and a section in there proved controversial. That segment proved that Nixon was aware of the cover-up as of mid-1972. He was then forced to step down or face impeachment, and after his resignation he was replaced by his former vice president, Gerald Ford, who, only one month later, officially pardoned Nixon. Now, did he actually do it? Most likely, but because of the former vice president’s pardon, there’s no official verdict. 10 other conspirators did receive jail sentences, though.