Watergate: Richard Nixon’s Political Suicide
By Paul Ewing
July 17, 2011
Tragic character flaws of the kind that brought down Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex brought down Richard Nixon. Greek drama focused on hubris or excessive pride. If one has this character flaw, then nemesis or downfall inevitably follows. Pride goeth before a fall. Shakespeare’s tragedies painfully show us the inevitable downfall caused by flaws like excessive ambition in Macbeth, jealousy in Othello, and narcissism in King Lear. My thesis? Richard Nixon harbored all these flaws because he exhibited them in his political career.
My research began with Professor James Shenton of Columbia College. Professor Shenton delivered a lecture on “Richard Nixon and Watergate” for The Teaching Company’s History of the United States. I’d like to start with some of Shelton’s observations and then branch off into a few other sources.
Professor Shenton starts off with the admission that “Any discussion of Richard Nixon is guaranteed to generate a great amount of heat” That’s probably because Richard Nixon was the only American President ever removed from office. He could have faced criminal prosecution and jail time.
Shenton asks a very pertinent question, “What exactly explains this stunning career, a career that brought him to the very apogee of politics and then plunged him into the depths of humiliation?” I argue it was a seriously flawed character.
First off, Nixon had a terrible inferiority complex. He was a dirt-poor Quaker whose abusive father lost the family ranch and was forced to become a grocer. Some sources suggest that Francis Nixon, the father, beat his boy, Richard. Nixon’s mother, Hannah, was a strict Quaker who instilled in her son a strong sense of guilt Hannah taught her son that if he should face damnation, he, himself, would be the cause of it.
One might compare Richard Nixon’s dirt-poor origins with those of Abraham Lincoln’s. Yet the two men emerged from the punishing ordeals of their poverty in two radically different ways. Lincoln endured his trials with a very healthy sense of humor and developed empathy and humility as a consequence of his own suffering. Nixon battled his way out of poverty with a sense of himself as underdog, victim, and pariah. Shenton says he couldn’t laugh, conducted himself in a rigid, uptight manner. Poverty drove both Lincoln and Nixon to aspirations of political power. In his practice of politics, Nixon offered no quarter, showed no mercy, went for the throat. Lincoln on the other hand forgave and forgot in defeat or victory. Nixon lacked totally Lincoln’s flexibility.
Murray Kempton in America Comes of Middle Age plugs the character of Nixon into the entire decade:
The Fifties were not the Eisenhower years but the Nixon years. That was the decade when the American middle-class in the person of this man moved to engrave into the history of the United States, as the voice of America, its own faltering spirit, its self-pity and its envy, its continual anxiety about what the wrong people might think, its whole peevish resentful whine.”
Nixon went to his hometown college of Whittier, definitely not Ivy League. He failed to gain admission to the ‘social fraternity’ at Whittier so he created his own. John Fitzgerald Kennedy went to Harvard Law School, Nixon to Duke. Nixon worked his way through both college and law school; Kennedy didn’t have to work. Shenton claims that Nixon was “haunted by the knowledge that he was marginal.”
Nixon’s physical appearance also contributed to his sense of inferiority. In the 1960 Presidential Debates, the first ever televised:
“The thick curls of black hair, the bushy eyebrows, and the five-o-clock shadow enveloped Nixon in an aura of gloom He scowled and frowned, prematurely creasing his forehead and cheeks”
Nixon’s beard figures into the title of an interesting book Nixon’s Shadow: the History of an Image by David Greenberg. Nixon desperately wanted Kennedy’s handsome charisma but no matter how hard he tried he could not achieve it. H.R. Haldeman, White House Chief of Staff, put it this way:
[Nixon] ‘took pains with his public image; he dressed neatly and conservatively, handled himself calmly in public…and yet, no matter what he did, he seemed to come across as flat, unattractive, unappealing.”
Those who watched the debates on television thought Kennedy won; those who heard it only on radio perceived Nixon as the winner. Could this be because of appearance?
Nixon had pasty skin and a 5 o’clock shadow, sweated and looked somewhat sickly and even haggard, and appeared glowering and angry at times. Kennedy, by
contrast, appeared relaxed, vigorous, and fit.
See for yourself by watching the video clips provided by the source below. Also, see photos 2 and 3 in the Appendix to this paper.
So much for poor self-image, self-pity and resentment, how did Nixon manifest his character flaws in politics? In 1946 the Republican Party tapped Nixon to run against a shoe-in Democratic incumbent, Jerry Voorhis, for the 12th Congressional District in California. In the debates Nixon painted his opponent as an ineffectual, elitist intellectual and even worse, a Communist sympathizer. Like Ronald Reagan, Nixon cut his political teeth in the heyday of McCarthyism. (See first photo in Appendix). He achieved the overthrow of Voorhis by using the scapegoat, witch-hunt tactics of McCarthy himself. In 1973 Martha Mitchell, wife of Attorney General John Mitchell, had this to say about Nixon’s style of politics: “He bleeds people. He draws every drop of blood and then drops them from a cliff. He’ll blame any person he can put his foot on.” Excessive ambition? It would appear so. The thing is to win, no matter what it costs, no matter whom you destroy.
Nixon’s star rose when he was elected as a Republican Senator in 1950. When it came time for Eisenhower to pick a running mate, he chose Nixon in 1952. Early in the campaign, Nixon was accused of taking political bribes from contributors. Eisenhower was prepared to dump him as an extreme liability. But Nixon begged Dwight to let him go on TV to plead his case before the nation. The result was the famous “Checkers” speech in which Nixon paraded before the nation his wife, his girls, even the family dog “Checkers” (a gift) in a maudlin display of victimization and self-pity. Guess what? The viewers bought it! Must have been the “Queen For a Day” factor!
Being Vice President of the United States is one of the worst jobs in politics. Franklin Delano Roosevelt treated his Vice Presidents (including Harry Truman) like “mushrooms,” kept in deep bullshit, in the dark. Under Eisenhower Nixon fared no better. Nixon was not included in Eisenhower’s inner circle and felt himself marginalized as usual.
But in 1960 Nixon was nominated as the Republican candidate to run against Kennedy. Kennedy defeated Nixon by the narrowest of margins by 112,827 votes or .0.1 % of the popular vote.
In 1962 Nixon ran for governor in California and got creamed by Pat Brown. Against the advice of his political advisors, Nixon went on National TV and told the American people in his self-loathing way, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more?” You might think that this was the final self-prophecy of political doom for Richard Nixon. But never underestimate the man’s all-consuming ambition. He needed politics like a shark needs to swim through salt water to stay alive. In 1963, three years into his Presidency, Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated Kennedy. Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson became President. Nixon’s best chance for the Presidency came with that bullet and the failure of leadership of Lyndon Baines Johnson that followed it.
Johnson’s failure to win a war in Southeast Asia combined with his attempt to wage a “war on poverty” proved to much for one man (or nation) to take on. In a way, Johnson and Nixon both became pariahs. Outside the Oval office, protestors chanted, “Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” In March 31, 1968, Johnson announced on national television: “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my partyFor another term as your President.”
Nixon’s time had come! In 1968 by a narrow margin he defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey and American Independent George Wallace for President. He had made it! But ultimately he would undo everything he had achieved.
If you look at his accomplishments from 1968 to 1972, one could say, especially domestically, that Nixon was a successful President. And surprising he started many programs that would appear “liberal” for example, the Clean Air and Water act, Medicaid, and a fair minimum wage for all. Most radically, he made peace overtures to the Communist Premier Brezhnev with his policy of “détente” or relaxation of Cold War tensions.
When the ’72 Presidential campaign rolled around, Richard Nixon sat in the catbird seat. He had achieved many successes in his first term of office. A huge contingent of the American public supported him. But best of all, the Democrats chose to make the left wing, loved-by-hippies Eugene McCarthy their choice as the man to run against Nixon. Shenton says that if Nixon could have handpicked the Democrat he could beat, it would have been McCarthy.
Nixon had the whole situation in hand and he threw it away by ordering CREEP, the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, to burglarize the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. Why?
In Nixon: A Psychobiography, Volkan, Itzkowitz and Dod take us back to Shakespeare’s King Lear for they suggest that Richard M. Nixon was a classic narcissistic personality.
What are the traits of such a personality disorder? The two characteristics I find most compelling are:
1) A grandiose self, convinced of his moral and political excellence, bent on the utilization of ruthless power at all costs.
2) A hungry self, crippled with the paranoid distrust of others, trapped by behavior that led to his own destruction.
There was absolutely no need for the President to fear being beaten by Eugene McCarthy. Had Humphrey been the candidate, it might have been a different matter. But Nixon had it in the bag. Why couldn’t he accept that? Why would he orchestrate a criminal fiasco so stupid that it would guarantee his removal from office if discovered, as it would be?
My answer to the question of what drove Nixon to Watergate was that he had character flaws of a serious and tragic nature: hubris, excessive ambition, narcissism, jealousy but most important of all a pathological sense of inferiority.
I’d like to conclude with some important questions raised by Nixon: A Psychobiography. Keep in mind the above character flaws and I think it will be easier for you to answer the questions:
- “Why did he appear very moralistic and ‘clean’ while he bypassed personal integrity and frequently used ‘dirty’ words while talking with his staff and others?”
- “Why did he order the bombing of Cambodia when many of his aides advised him not to do so?”
- “Why did Nixon hold onto the Watergate tapes instead of destroying them?”
- “Why would a man with as much intelligence as Nixon had, and with the ability to govern the most powerful nation on earth, behave at times ‘irrationally’ and in a self-destructive manner?”
Allow me to propose some answers to these well-framed questions. Why did he try to appear moralistic when he spoke foul language and acted immorally? I think he was playing a narcissistic con game with the people around him and with the entire electorate. Why did he order the bombing of Cambodia when advised not to? Pure hubris, arrogance, a sense of superiority that goes along with an inferiority complex. Why would he hold onto the Watergate tapes? Consider the sense of guilt that pervaded the man’s life? By not destroying the tapes he condemned himself to the hellfire and damnation that his mother Hannah had warned him about. Why would a man with as much intelligence as Nixon behave irrationally and in a self-destructive manner? If you want the answer to that question I suggest you read again Sophocles Oedipus Rex or Antigone. Look for answers in Shakespeare’s King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello. In doing so you will discover that Richard Millhouse Nixon was a classic tragic hero.
“But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:”—monologue, Act I, Scene I, Shakespeare’s Richard III
Nixon in ’46 as Communist baiter.
1960 first televised Presidential Debate between Nixon and Kennedy
 Shenton, “Richard Nixon and Watergate,” History of the United States, edition 1, Teaching Company Lecture 65)
 Murray Kempton, America Comes of Middle Age: Columns, 1950-1962. Boston: Little, Brown, 1963.
 David Greenberg, Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image, New York, NY, W.W. Norton, 2003
 David Greenberg, Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image, New York: W. W. Norton, 2003.
 “Kennedy Nixon Debates.” Mary Ferrell Foundation, http://www.maryferrell.org/wiki/index.php/Kennedy-Nixon_Debates
United States Presidential Election of 1960, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_1960
 Shenton, op. cit.
 Vamik D. Volkan, Norman Itzkowitz, Andrew Dod, Richard Nixon: a psychobiography, New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
 Vamik D. Volkan, Norman Itzkowitz, Andrew Dod, Richard Nixon: a psychobiography, New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.