Anyone who’s a fan of one of my favourite TV shows, Futurama, will be familiar with the popular caricature of Richard Nixon – jowly, cold, and taking his revenge upon the world with a giant, robotic body. He was the ‘Bush’ of American politics before H.W. was even in the White House and embodied everything liberal Americans love to hate about the Republican Party. Or did he?
Quotes from Futurama like “Don’t make me get Cambodian on your ass” and “I’ll cut taxes for the rich, and use the poor as a cheap source of teeth for aquarium gravel” make me laugh but they very inaccurately evoke a presidency supposedly defined by the Vietnam War and what people like to look at as ‘typically Republican’ plutocracy. They distort the fact Nixon was the president who grew up in a poor Quaker household, pulled America out of Vietnam and desegregated Southern schools.
One man with insight to this ‘other Nixon’ is Jonathan Aitken, who was unusually given unfettered access to the man to write his 1993 biography Nixon: A Life and organised itineraries for the ex-president’s visits to the United Kingdom in 1976 and 1980. The ‘boogeyman’ Nixon of media lore is not one Aitken was familiar with, he says, with many of his achievements overshadowed by the Watergate scandal.
“Nixon had a good record on civil rights and that was because he was brought up in a Quaker home,” he says, “where his Quaker mother [Nixon’s father was a Methodist who converted to Quakerism] and particularly his Quaker grandmother treated black people as equals – and that was something very real in the Nixon household. Nixon grew up as a young man respecting the black population and particularly the aspirations of black people in America much more than most other politicians.”
Far from merely high-minded words, however, Nixon’s convictions were translated into action over civil rights for African-Americans, both during his tenure as Vice President under Dwight Eisenhower and under his own presidency – though this has been sadly forgotten in the standard interpretation of the Nixon years, Aitken says.
“This is the question people never get the answer to: who desegregated Southern schools in America? The answer is not Eisenhower, despite Little Rock [in which the National Guard was called to prevent African-Americans going to an all-white school in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957]. Neither Kennedy nor Johnson desegregated Southern schools – Nixon was the president who did that. He did it quietly, but very effectively. His human rights and civil rights record is better than people so often give him credit for.”
Nixon’s poor upbringing also gave him a characteristic which was also seen in Margaret Thatcher – a strong desire to see people achieve their aspirations through their own efforts whatever their backgrounds, and a suspicion of the privileged few. This expressed itself humerously, Aitken says, during a visit he organised for the former president to the Oxford Union in 1976.
“When we arrived at the Union, it was packed, there was pretty much pandemonium in the garden leading to the entrance. It was quite rough – there were a lot of students jostling and shouting and the police had to step in and protect the president. He suddenly turned round to the people chanting and said ‘These are all from the Ivy League I bet!’ because there were some American voices chanting. He did have a resentment against them but not against Oxford – it was quite different.”
It has sometimes been said that the true test of a man is his resolve in defeat rather than victory and, well before the infamous and supposedly ‘stolen election’ of 2000, Nixon lost to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race, which was also marred by allegations of vote-rigging in the Democrat states of Texas and Illinois, where the results were almost too close to call. In this crisis, Aitken says, Nixon acted as the statesman rather than the politician – which may explain how he was able to be possibly the greatest ‘Comeback Kid’ in political history eight years later.
“He behaved extremely well in the aftermath of the 1960 election; it was tantalisingly close and the equivalent to an MP winning with a one or two vote majority. There was quite a lot of evidence to suggest the vote in Illinois and Texas was stolen by the Democrats. Eisenhower was still the president and very much wanted to challenge Kennedy’s victory but there was no mechanism for doing so – it would have had to have gone through the state legislatures et cetera.
“Nixon, after thinking about it, perhaps thought the election had been stolen from him but, perhaps with an eye to the future, he said America was the greatest democracy in the free world and, if all of the world and emerging countries looked at them and saw some ghastly, sordid squabble about a handful of votes and how the election could not be decided because the loser was challenging the result, that would be bad for America’s image in the world.
“Many felt passionately that Nixon was wrong but he said, whatever happened, he was not going to challenge the result. That was a statesman-like view which probably did help him become president in the end. If he had challenged the election, who knows how the courts would have ruled. Nixon would have just looked a sour, bad loser. He made a good decision and took a statesman-like position.”
Jonathan Aitken was elected to Parliament in 1974 and served as Minister of State for Defence Procurement then Chief Secretary to the Treasury under John Major between 1992 and 1995. Prior to his political career, he had served as a war correspondent in Vietnam and Biafra. He published Nixon: A Life in 1993 and was one of the few biographers with which Nixon granted interviews.
This interview originally appeared as part of a series on Parliament Street.