Just one footnote to the presidential race in 1960 between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon that I discussed in the last entry. I was still living at home in Brooklyn with my parents. (Yes, I put off growing up into a mature adult as long as I could. Some say there are still unresolved issues in that regard.) This would be the first election I was eligible to vote in, since the voting age was still 21 at that time. So imagine my excitement when the Kennedy campaign came to Brooklyn on a cold October day, and there was JFK standing up in a convertible limo with the top down, waving to the crowds as his motorcade rolled through the streets very near to my residence. Up until then, men always wore hats, especially in cold weather. You can see evidence of that if you ever watch movies made before the late 1950s. But JFK went hatless, mainly to show off his great looks and thick shock of hair. That started a new fashion trend almost overnight, where men started giving up wearing their hats, and the male hat industry quickly went out of business.
We left off last time with Richard Nixon winning the 1968 presidency in a close race with Hubert Humphrey. Now everyone knows that Nixon had to resign the presidency in disgrace over the Watergate scandal. But what most people don’t appreciate was that Nixon accomplished huge achievements during the time he was in office. If not for Watergate he could have been considered one of our greatest presidents. First, Nixon finally got us out of Viet-Nam, which was deeply dividing the nation. We had been involved in Viet-Nam since the 1950s, and huge protests against the war continued almost on a weekly basis. The generals in command were calling for another 200 thousand troop increase to go along with the 500 thousand troops already there. Instead Nixon started withdrawing troops and eventually signed a peace treaty with North Viet-Nam that enabled us to extricate ourselves from that horrible mis-adventure. By the time it was over, the war had cost us 58,500 American dead, with hundreds of thousands more wounded, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese dead. Nixon being able to finally end that misguided effort was huge. Today we have peaceful relations with Viet-Nam and it is considered a valuable trading partner. In the end, all that loss of life and destruction was really in vain.
Nixon’s next huge achievement was opening up diplomatic relations with Communist China, who along with the old USSR, was considered our implacable enemy. Nixon had a reputation for being a hardline anti-communist, so that he was able to pull off ending the cold war, at least with China, was almost unthinkable at the time. Today China is one of our largest trading partners, and holds about a trillion dollars of our debt. Nixon also established the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which consolidated and expanded public social services . The Education part was eventually split off and became a separate department, while the rest of HEW has now become the Department of Health and Human Resources. Nixon even wanted to institute universal health care, but it was the Democrats in Congress that balked because they felt his bill didn’t go far enough. Although he talked as a tough conservative, Nixon presided over an enlargement of social benefits almost to the degree that Lyndon Johnson or even FDR did. As I’ve said, his accomplishments were huge.
Nixon’s Achilles heel, however was that he was deeply paranoid. He felt he was continually besieged by people hostile to his administration, despite all his accomplishments. He kept enemies lists and made secret recordings of conversations he had with visitors to the White House. In 1972, he ran for re-eletion against a largely unknown liberal Senator from South Dakota named George McGovern. McGovern was a decent and sincere man, but the Democrats went into their full incompetency mode, including not nominating McGovern during their convention until about 2 in the morning when everyone was asleep and could not hear his acceptance speech. As a result, Nixon won in a mammoth landslide, capturing 49 out of 50 states. However, during the election, a curious event occurred that would eventually destroy the Nixon presidency.
Late in the campaign season, a group of third rate Republican hacks one night broke into Democratic campaign headquarters in the Watergate apartment complex in Washington DC. God knows what information they were hoping to learn or steal, especially since it was obvious at the time that Nixon would win by a landslide. If Nixon had come out at the time that the break-in was discovered, and stated that he in no way authorized or condoned the break-in, and the perpetrators would be punished to the full extent of the law, his presidency would have been unscathed. But Nixon’s paranoia would not allow him to do that. Instead he and his closest White House advisors went through elaborate schemes to try to cover-up any higher Republican involvement in this third-rate burglary. The more the story made the news, the more elaborate the cover-up became. Finally, the entire story became public thanks to the diligence of two “Washington Post” reporters, and several Congressional and judicial investigations. Nixon’s involvement, not in the crime, but in the coverup became evident, and he was forced to resign the presidency.
Since Nixon’s Vice President also had to resign his office due to a different scandal, the Republicans chose Gerald Ford, who was their leader in the House, to take over the presidency. Ford was a decent and moderate Republican and his basic honesty helped clean up the mess in Washington and restore the people’s faith in their government. But Ford made one crucial mistake that cost him the Oval Office when he ran for election in 1976. He had given Nixon a pardon from any possible prosecution connected to Watergate for the rest of Nixon’s life. The public was still in an unforgiving mood as it related to Watergate, and thus elected a largely unknown peanut farmer who managed to become Governor of Georgia named Jimmy Carter. The Democrats were so delighted that they had a Southern Governor who not only wasn’t a racist, but had actually championed civil rights, that they practically handed Carter the nomination on a silver platter. Carter’s presidency would also end in failure, but like Nixon, he had several significant achievements which we will pick up with next time. It is interesting to note, however, that two Republican presidents, Nixon and Ford, would likely be drummed out of today’s tea-party, Rush Limbaugh dominated Republican Party.