How Personality Defeated a President: Nixon’s Resignation – History Essay
Richard Milhous Nixon, 37th President of the United States, became the only American President to ever resign from office on August 9th, 1974. The contributing factors
that led to his resignation cannot be boiled down to any single event. Rather, his brutish (or some other adjective) personality and unorthodox viewpoints led to his political retreat. The very existence of the Watergate scandal, a key event in the downfall of Richard Nixon as president, can be attributed to his overwhelming paranoia and his legitimate belief that some of his political enemies were evildoers. To overcome these enemies, he felt that he needed use any and every political weapon at his disposal to secure his place as president, with no regard to the legality of such measures. Nixon also believed that as president of the United States he was allowed to break certain laws and that he was exempt from investigation. Each of these traits alone is not uncommon in other politicians and world leaders; it’s the combination of these factors that led to Nixon’s resignation.
Unsurprisingly, his formative years influenced his eventual emotional issues and dubious morals. Nixon grew up in an environment devoid of affection. Bryce Harlow, an aide to Nixon, believed that he “as a young person was hurt very deeply by somebody… a sweetheart, a parent, a dear friend, someone he deeply trusted. Hurt so badly he never got over it and never trusted anybody again” (Gould 151). Long-fostered paranoia was one of Nixon’s dominating characteristics throughout his years as both Vice President and President. In fact, he saw his political rivals not just as threats to his position as president, but hostile towards him as a person. He saw himself as “facing enemies who he believed would stop at nothing” to ruin his political career. His beliefs stretched as far as viewing his political enemies as evil. Historian Lewis L. Gould states that indeed, “Nixon’s crime ridden presidency was the fulfillment of a career driven by paranoia and a dark view of his political adversaries” (151).
As a result of his paranoia, Nixon firmly believed that the media was always working against him. According to political Journalist Theodore White, Nixon got an unrealistically positive reception from the press when he was a young politician from the Los Angeles Times (I think you italicize here), a publication whose praise carried much weight in public opinion on politics. When a management change occurred at the Times, journalists began to report on him negatively, and this was the beginning of his distrust for the media (White 67). Nixon felt, in fact, that the entire “political universe …was hostile to him and all his goals” (Gould 150). During his first term as president, the media was not overly critical of him or his administration. In fact, Historian Godfrey Hodgson goes so far as to say that “the Administration, all things considered, got a remarkably easy ride from the press” (Hodgson 380). But that didn’t matter to Nixon; he still believed that the press was out to get him.
Paranoia alone, of course, does not stand as a reasonable factor in Nixon’s resignation; he is surely not the only world leader to have been cautious of his political surroundings. What made Nixon’s elevated mistrust of his political “enemies” important to his eventual stepping down from office was the fact that it motivated him to tap phone lines, spy on opposing candidates and media persoNnel, and otherwise sabotage the efforts of his rivals. As Theodore White writes, “The news system as a whole… would become, in his mind, his prime enemy from the campaign of 1952 until the time when his bitterness moved his administration from morbid hatred of that system to crime in pursuit of its practitioners”. (White 69).
Nixon mistakenly believed that illegal methods were the only means of success for attaining and holding the presidency. After running for political office five times, he had seen every dirty trick in the book. (More than five lines gets indented)
“Nixon was convinced that all measures were justified to retain political supremacy. In his view, Kennedy and Johnson had used illegal methods against him in the 1960 and 1968 campaigns, and their friends would use them again to oppose his presidency if they had the opportunity. He therefore resolved to use the same weapons once he held power. The result was a presidency that moved inexorably toward illegality from its earliest days.” (Gould 150).
Had Nixon used illegal methods simply to obtain power, his fate as the only man to resign as President of the United States would not have been so concrete. However, rather than give up the trickery that brought him to power in the first place, he continued the practice throughout his years in office. Nixon saw the Presidency as a vehicle for a permanent political campaign, and corruption as the propellant. Although he was by no means the first president to make a political decision based on how the public would perceive him, he was the first president to completely do away with national interests in favor of approval ratings in order to keep his foothold on the presidency.
Even if the principle was often violated, the notion existed that the president should govern in a style that subordinated partisan considerations to that national interest.
Between inauguration and the start of a reelection campaign, for example… the president should not always be thinking of how a second term could be won. Under Nixon, this concept, timeworn and obsolete as it had become, vanished. The campaign never stopped, and the presidency itself emerged as an extension of that effort”. (Gould 150)
As Nixon was well aware, past Presidents had not been averse to some legally questionable actions. Both Kennedy and Johnson had used the same dirty tricks that Nixon used to get elected, and neither resigned. Had Nixon followed their model and the law, he may have lived out his Presidency uneventully. His fear of losing power caused his desperate lawbreaking to continue. Ironically, his desire to hold onto power was ultimately his undoing.
For most leaders accused of scandalous activity, resignation is rarely the outcome. As Theodore White notes “The clumsy break-in at Democratic headquarters in 1972 by Nixon men was technically criminal but of no uglier morality than the spying at Barry Goldwater’s headquarters which Howard Hunt of the CIA had supervised for Lyndon Johnson in 1964” (White 325). What made Nixon’s activity lead to his resignation was the fact that did not fear any repercussions from engaging in such illegalities. He believed so fiercely in the secrecy of the Presidency that he never feared the repercussions of having machines recording self-incriminating evidence in the White House. After being accused of seeing himself as “above the law” by Dan Rather, Nixon stated the following:
The President… has a responsibility to this office to maintain the separation of power and also maintain the ability of… this President [and] future Presidents to conduct the office in the interests of the people. Now, in order to do that, it is essential that the confidentiality of discussions that the President has… be uninhibited, that they be candid” (Coleman 352)
Because he never personally felt that the tapes would ever be heard by a Supreme Court, he didn’t fear the illegal activities that forced his resignation in 1974.
However, in conjunction with his valuing of the secrecy of the presidency, it should be noted that at times Nixon did not even recognize that his actions were criminal. On April 29th of 1973 Nixon released most, but not all, of the relevant portions of the tape recordings of his conversations in the White House. In a speech he delivered the same day he declared that “I want there to be no question remaining about the fact that the President has nothing to hide in this matter” (White 296). When he said this, according to Nixon’s attorney J. Fred Buzhardt, “he really thought he was innocent… he didn’t think he had done anything of a criminal nature or an impeachable nature. That was the problem.” (White 296).
None of these factors by themselves are enough to indicate that Nixon’s tenure as president was to end the way it did; it is the combination of all of these factors that led to the resignation of Nixon. The President’s paranoid personality was not enough on its own to lead to his downfall, but it did contribute to his resorting to illegal activity. He truly believed that his enemies were out to get him, and that he had to win the hearts of Americans by any means necessary. Even this illegal activity was not enough to cement his downfall, but it must be considered with another important factor: Nixon’s views of the legal leeway his position granted him caused him to believe he was immune from punishment for his actions. His denial stopped him from realizing how incriminating the evidence truly was, and the weight of that evidence eventually put enough pressure on Nixon to convince him to resign as President. Common thought dictates that the Watergate scandal is the event that led to Nixon’s resignation, and to a certain degree that statement is correct. Not only would the Watergate scandal have been less likely to occur without Nixon’s strange and suspicious personality and personal views, but it would also have been less likely to become a political disaster after the event.
Gould, Lewis L. The Modern American Presidency. University Press of Kansas,
Hodgson, Godfrey. America in Our Time. New York, Doubleday: 1976.
The Nixon Presidential Press Conferences. Coleman Enterprises, New York:
White, Theodore H. Breach Of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon. Atheneum, New