The son of Quaker parents, Nixon grew up in the southern California city of Yorba Linda. Early on he proved himself to be a stellar student, attending Whittier College and graduating from Duke University Law School with honors. Nixon then joined the Navy and served during World War II as a lieutenant commander in the Pacific theater. After the war, he gravitated toward Republican politics, joining the post-war anti-communist crusade.
In 1950, Nixon ran against Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas for a seat in the House of Representatives for California, earning the less-than-complimentary nickname Tricky Dick during the campaign for his ruthless red-baiting of his opponent, including alleging that Douglas was pink down to her panties. He won and gained national attention when, as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Nixon relentlessly grilled Alger Hiss, a Roosevelt New Deal liberal and former secretary general of the United Nations, at a hearing regarding allegations that Hiss facilitated communist infiltration of the U.S. government. Hiss, legally immune from espionage charges, was later convicted of perjury. The conviction, despite Hiss’ denial of any wrongdoing, equaled an admission of guilt in the eyes of hard-line anti-communists. Largely due to his record of relentlessness in combating communism, Nixon earned the vice-presidential spot on the Republican ticket with Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952.
Early on in his career, Nixon was shadowed by allegations of accepting inappropriate campaign funding from big business and the Mafia. During his 1952 vice-presidential campaign, Nixon tried to dispel those accusations in what became known as the Checkers speech. The name was derived from a dog, named Checkers, that was given to his daughter by a corporate supporter. Playing on sentiment for his little girl, Nixon adamantly vowed to keep the dog. Americans charmed by Nixon’s heart-warming, seemingly old-fashioned values helped vote the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket into the White House.
On the whole, though, Nixon did not owe his success in politics to personality or charm; in fact, some staunch supporters described him as cold, aloof, crude, arrogant and paranoid. Even Eisenhower claimed that his vice president would never win the presidency because the people don’t like him. In 1968, Nixon proved his former boss wrong, but left the office in disgrace in 1974.
As president, Nixon engaged a group of men whose sole mission involved plotting ways to discredit his political opponents. In 1972, this group, known as The Plumbers, was caught burglarizing the Democratic National Committee Headquarters located in the Watergate Hotel. Whether Nixon authorized the burglary is not known, but he did attempt to cover up the crime, using the CIA to derail the FBI’s investigation of the burglary and other illegal activities committed by his aides and political cronies. The press gradually uncovered details behind the burglary, including the existence of a secret slush fund used to finance the operation, collected and managed by campaign officials and Nixon’s attorney general.
In 1973, the Senate established the Select Presidential Committee to investigate what had become known as the Watergate affair. During the investigation, an aide revealed the existence of recordings of Nixon’s Oval Office conversations. Armed with damning testimony including Nixon’s own statements on tape, Congress began the official impeachment process; in 1974, before it was completed, Nixon resigned. His successor, Gerald R. Ford, took the controversial step of pardoning Nixon.
The Watergate scandal has understandably overshadowed Nixon’s achievements while in office. His legacy includes affirmative action, welfare reform and desperately needed pollution-control measures. During Nixon’s ecologically friendly presidency, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act, which created the Environmental Protection Agency, and amended the Clean Air Act. Congress also passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 and followed with the Endangered Species Act in 1973. On the foreign-affairs front, Nixon took bold steps toward resuming diplomatic relations with China and the Soviet Union, becoming the first president to visit either country since the beginning of the Cold War. In his later years, subsequent presidents consulted Nixon for his expertise in international affairs.