Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States, is one of the most controversial figures in American political history. Nixon elicits strong reactions from many people.
While some admire his foreign policy achievements, others deeply despise him for the Watergate scandal that ended his presidency. But why exactly do people hate Richard Nixon so much? This article will explore the main reasons behind the animosity towards Nixon.
Key Reasons for Dislike of Nixon
The Watergate Scandal
The biggest reason why Richard Nixon is so widely hated is the Watergate scandal – a political scandal that occurred 1972-1974 and ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation.
In 1972, five men linked to Nixon’s re-election campaign were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex. This triggered investigations that uncovered widespread abuse of power and obstruction of justice by Nixon and his top aides.
Some of Nixon’s actions during Watergate that angered people:
- Authorizing hush money to silence the Watergate burglars
- Ordering the FBI to stop investigating the crime
- Firing investigators and special prosecutors
- Trying to use the CIA to block an FBI inquiry
- Approving plans for political espionage and sabotage against Democrats
- Attempting to conceal White House ties to the scandal through lies and cover-ups
This deliberate abuse of presidential power shook the nation’s faith in the integrity of the presidency. Nixon’s hubris and disregard for ethics infuriated many Americans.
Perception as a Crook
Well before Watergate, Nixon had gained a reputation as a conniving, ruthless politician who would do anything to win.
- His first major scandal was being accused of financial improprieties related to campaign funds in 1952 – this led to his famous “Checkers speech” denying the allegations.
- During his losing presidential run in 1960, there were accusations that Nixon tried to sabotage the Vietnam peace process to politically wound the Democrats.
- After losing the 1962 California gubernatorial race, Nixon bitterly lashed out at the media in what became known as his “last press conference”, complaining they won’t “have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
This image of Nixon as a duplicitous scoundrel made it easy for people to believe the worst about him during Watergate. His persona as “Tricky Dick” endures as one of contempt for many Americans.
Violation of Public Trust
For many citizens, Richard Nixon’s behavior violated the public trust placed upon the presidency.
Despite taking an oath to “faithfully execute the office of President”, Nixon engaged in deceitful, unethical conduct for political gain. He put his self-interest ahead of the country.
This was seen as a betrayal of the lofty ideals the presidency is meant to uphold. Nixon’s tarnishing of the White House was felt as an intensely personal offense by citizens who expect integrity from their leaders.
Polarizing Personality and Politics
Nixon was a divisive figure even before Watergate due to his abrasive personality and bare-knuckle political style.
- His “Southern strategy” successfully brought formerly Democratic southern states into the Republican camp for the first time since the Civil War era. But this strategy was seen by many as pandering to Southern white resentment against civil rights advances.
- Nixon kept an “Enemies List” of politicians, journalists and celebrities to target for tax audits and other harassment.
- His Vice President, Spiro Agnew, viciously attacked the media and anti-war activists as “nattering nabobs of negativism”.
Nixon’s polarizing rhetoric and hardball tactics helped cement strong enmity from liberals, minorities, youth activists and other political opponents. Watergate reinforced their worst assumptions about Nixon.
Impact of the Watergate Scandal
The Watergate scandal severely damaged Americans’ faith in the presidency and electoral system. Here are some of the major repercussions:
Erosion of Presidential Authority
After Nixon resigned in disgrace, successive presidents were hobbled by distrust of executive power. Congress re-asserted itself against the weakened presidency through legislation such as the War Powers Act and investigations such as the Church Committee hearings.
Increased Public Cynicism
Watergate fed into growing public cynicism about government, politics and Washington D.C in general in the 1970s. Polling showed drops in voter turnout and trust in leaders post-Watergate.
Reforms to Prevent Future Abuses
The scandal led to important reforms aimed at increasing White House accountability and preventing abuses of power. This included greater transparency measures, stronger checks on campaigns and presidential powers such as war-making.
The press was lionized for its central role in investigating the scandal. Post-Watergate deference to the press emboldened reporters to take a more adversarial stance towards power.
Plummeting GOP Support
Watergate crushed public approval of the Republican Party. They suffered a landslide defeat in the 1974 midterms and loss of the 1976 presidential race. The “Watergate Babies” class of Democrats swept into office starting in 1974 pushed the House markedly to the left.
Despite the disgrace of Watergate, Nixon’s presidency had significant positive accomplishments in both domestic and foreign policy.
Détente with Soviet Union and China
Nixon’s greatest achievements were in foreign affairs – he initiated détente and arms control agreements with the Soviet Union and rapprochement with Communist China. These new relations de-escalated Cold War tensions.
Ending Vietnam War
Though Vietnam proved his Achilles’ heel, Nixon eventually did end US involvement in the war – something his predecessors could not accomplish. He initiated troop withdrawals and the Vietnamization policy to turn over combat to the South Vietnamese.
Major Domestic Policies
On the domestic front, Nixon established important environmental protections such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. He also advanced equal opportunity for minorities through affirmative action in federal hiring and contracting.
However, these policy accomplishments are often overshadowed by the Watergate debacle in assessments of Nixon’s presidency. The scandal irrevocably tainted his legacy.
Why the Intense Animosity Persists
Decades after the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon remains a reviled figure in popular memory. Here are some reasons why the animosity has endured so strongly:
- His abuses of power cut against cherished ideals of American democracy, tarnishing the presidency. The betrayal stung deeply.
- He never fully atoned for his misdeeds, often defending his own conduct and shifting blame until his death. This denied closure or contrition.
- Generational memories have kept outrage alive as Watergate passed into history textbooks and popular culture. Portrayals of Nixon reinforce the image of a crooked president.
- His polarizing approach to politics helped plant seeds of ongoing societal divides and distrust. These effects still linger in the body politic.
- Once a narrative of mistrust takes hold, it can be hard to dislodge from public consciousness even after the passage of time. Reputations are sticky.
The saga of Nixon is one of both towering heights and abysmal lows in presidential leadership. For many Americans, the depths overshadow the heights – leaving an enduring legacy of resentment.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why did the Watergate break-in happen?
The Watergate break-in occurred because Nixon’s re-election campaign decided to illegally bug the Democratic National Committee offices to gain political intelligence. This was part of a broader pattern of “dirty tricks” and sabotage by Nixon’s team against political opponents.
What evidence led to Nixon’s downfall?
Key evidence that ended Nixon’s presidency included: the White House taping system that recorded Nixon implicating himself, John Dean’s testimony detailing the cover-up, and the discovery of a erased 18 1/2 minute tape segment that Nixon’s secretary said she accidentally erased.
Could Nixon have survived the scandal by apologizing?
If Nixon had promptly apologized for the Watergate break-in early on and accepted responsibility, he may have been able to weather the scandal and remain in office. But his extensive cover-up and abuses of power ultimately made his position untenable.
Why did Gerald Ford pardon Nixon?
President Ford granted Nixon a full pardon just one month after he resigned from office in 1974. Ford justified this controversial move as an effort to help the country move on from Watergate by avoiding the prolonged drama of prosecuting a former president.
How has Nixon been portrayed in pop culture?
Nixon has been depicted in countless unflattering pop culture portrayals over the years, from the comics and cartoons of the 1970s to films like All the President’s Men, Nixon, and Frost/Nixon. These portrayals have reinforced Nixon’s image as a devious crook who abused the powers of the presidency.
Richard Nixon’s legacy is permanently scarred by the Watergate scandal, one of America’s darkest chapters of political corruption. The intense animosity towards Nixon stems both from his misconduct in office and his polarizing approach to politics.
Despite his policy accomplishments, Nixon is remembered foremost as the only president to resign under threat of certain impeachment and removal. The wounds from this traumatic period have never fully healed in the American psyche.
While the passage of time has led to periodic attempts at reevaluating Nixon’s presidency, the stain of Watergate endures as the defining event that led to his ignominious downfall.