Richard Nixon on Leadership

Richard Nixon


Tom Wolfe in his biography of Richard Nixon seemed to have summed it up best. When people looked at Nixon, they saw themselves; when they looked at Kennedy, they saw whom they wanted to become.

Lesson No. 1: Set High Goals by sharing a Vision

Richard Nixon seemed to have a flawed vision of himself and of America. He claimed to speak for the "silent majority" but never quite clearly communicated anything positive that he really believed in. Richard Aitkins argues that early in life Nixon seems to have thrown in his lot with the "have nots" building on the politics of resentment. As a freshman at Whittier College, he helped organize the Orthogonians, a men's club of strivers in contrast to the existing Franklins who had it all. "Orthogonal" meant "Square Shooters," Nixon explained in his memoirs; and in the college yearbook, Franklins were pictured in tuxedos while Orthogonians wore open-necked shirts, reflecting students working their way through school.

The Franklin Orthogonian distinction of the have-have notes seemed to have been a constant dichotomy in Nixon's life. He ran against Jerry Voorhes, a millionaire banker's son, for Congress and then Helen Gehagan Douglas, a celebrated actor, for Senate. His first major victim was the aristocratic Alger Hiss in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Then Adlai Steven and John F. Kennedy could be seen as Franklins. Good things seemed to come very easily to them. He had to work for what he got.

Nixon's Crises

Richard Nixon suffered from feelings of inadequacy and self-worth. He is the only president who saw a psychiatrist. Before assuming higher office as president, he did see one on an informal basis. Unfortunately, when this was discovered, he found it politically necessary to stop seeing him and deny that he saw him for this reason. Nixon tried to change his feelings and the way he did things but in the end, he could not escape his destiny. He was unable to break free of the demons that haunted him. Some people have speculated psychologically that Nixon was trying to make up for the death of two brothers who died during his childhood.

Richard Nixon viewed life as a battle and crisis as a challenge as reflected in a book he once wrote, My Seven Crises. He was determined to prove his worth, particularly to himself. Nixon was reluctant to show weakness or to give up. Richard Nixon felt if he made the supreme effort, he could accomplish anything.

Richard Nixon had a grandiose vision of America. Yet the means to achieve it always seemed to be flawed. He got us out of Vietnam but he took so long to do it that he was more reviled than any president who got us involved in the first place. The man who gave us detente with our Cold War enemies did not handle Watergate well. Although he campaigned to bring America together, he did not succeed in the end giving himself inner peace or the reconciliation the country desired.

Lesson 2: Be persistent

Richard Nixon was the come-back kid. He married Pat Ryan even though she turned him down for a date more than twenty times in a row. Congressman Nixon discovered the pumpkin papers that proved Alger Hiss was a liar before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Senator survived charges of a political slush fund to become president. He revived his political career even though he announced he was leaving politics behind him in 1962 after failing to be elected governor of California. Nixon persisted in getting an honorable peace in Vietnam and starting detente with China and the Soviet Union. Nixon's persistence propelled him to the top of the political heap.

Lesson No. 3: Put Yourself in the Other Fellow's Shoes

Nixon was the only president that attended an integrated school as a child. In 1960, Martin Luther King endorsed Nixon for president. Martin Luther King, Sr. that is, Martin Luther King's father that is. Nixon and Sammy Davis, Jr. embraced each other. Nixon had attended law school in the South and knew how others thought. Whereas Kennedy relished confronting the South, Nixon managed to integrate more schools with no confrontation. He made the South part of the national political process as part of his Republican strategy.

Long before Nixon was elected president, Nixon put himself in Mao's shoes. He figured that China would not be happy with Vietnam expanding in Southeast Asia just as the U. S. would not be happy with Mexico taking over countries in Latin America. Nixon knew that historically China distrusted Russia. He was able to play Russia and China off against each other to bring about detente.

Lesson No. 4: Set an Example by Becoming a Role Model

Richard Nixon could have been a positive example: a poor boy who made good. He was the twentieth century's equivalent of being born in a log cabin. His father built the house from mail-order supplies. Nixon had to get up early in the morning to sell pies and groceries while tending to brothers that suffered from tuberculosis. He attended school shoelessly. Richard Nixon worked his way through Whittier College when his family could not afford to supplement a Harvard scholarship. He attended Duke University Law School on a scholarship. Nixon served honorably in the armed forces during World War II even though he was a Quaker. Nixon then went on to become a Congressman, a Senator, and a Vice President in six years between 1946 and 1952!

When he finally became President of the United States, he self-destructed -- he apparently could not believe his own good fortune -- that hard work had brought to the top of the heap. Instead, he disgraced himself, relegated to his own special Hell, forced out of the office to avoid impeachment, and no one to blame but himself. Watergate should have been another Checkers incident but Nixon for reasons that he could only know did not handle the issue well.

Lesson No. 5: Be a Life-Long Learner

Richard Nixon was recognized by both his parents as the most gifted of all their children. They were dedicated that their sons got the best education. Hannah, his mother, taught Richard to read before he went to school. She taught Richard her love of classics, languages, and history. By the age of five, he was solidly grounded in the 5 R's. Richard Nixon became an avid reader of children's encyclopedias, history stories, and adult periodicals. Richard practiced public speaking and was called upon by his parents' friends to recite poetry and to give speeches. Throughout his life, Nixon had the ability to quickly master the issues, analyze them, and be on top of the game.

Lesson No. 6: Doing the Little Things Lead to the Big Things

Richard Nixon's cover-up of the Watergate Affair led to his resignation in 1974. If he had taken responsibility for the affair when it first surfaced and he had no direct involvement, things would have gone well for him. The more he denied, the less the American public trusted him as he declared, "Your president is not a crook.". As a result of a third-rate burglary at the Democratic Party headquarters by CREEP (Republican Committee to Reelect the President).

Lesson No. 7: Be a Great Communicator

Richard M. Nixon's "Checkers" speech of 1952 was his finest moment. The press charged him with concealing a political slush fund. Eisenhower seemed to be backing away from his own vice-presidential running mate and asked him to speak to the American public. The Democrats did not say anything because Adlai Stevenson had the same type of funding.

Richard Nixon appeared on national television to defend himself. As Nixon explained, a group of his supporters had organized a fund to pay his political expenses instead of the taxpayers. Nixon summarized his personal assets and liabilities. He revealed his income tax to the public for the first time and every major politician running for president has been forced to do so ever since. He said he was proud his wife wore only a 'respectable Republican cloth coat,' a jab at the Truman administration in which some people had received mink coats as gifts. The "Checkers' of the speech was a cocker spaniel given the Nixon children by a man in Texas, about whom Nixon said,' Regardless of what they say about it, we're going to keep it.'" Nixon asked people to send telegrams to the Republican National Committee. Eisenhower met with Nixon declared him, "He's my boy."

Even more important, Richard Nixon knew when not to communicate. In 1962, Nixon seemed to let at the press that they would not be able to kick him around anymore. When Nixon's political career emerged Phoenix-like a few years later, the reporters analyzing the speech discovered there was nothing they could use against him.

Lesson No. 8: Don't Learn the Wrong Lessons From Failures and Mistakes

Until the Checkers speech, Nixon had had a good relationship with the press. He blamed the press for creating this political crisis. After that, he never again trusted the press instead of building bridges to reporters that he felt would give him a fair shake.

Richard Nixon knew politics was a rough game when he entered it. He gave as good as he got. In his first campaign for the Senate, Helen Douglas Gallagher, his opponent, threw the dirt first and gave him the nickname of "Tricky Dick." In 1960, Richard Daley stole the election for John F. Kennedy by stuffing the ballot box in Chicago. Nixon could have demanded a recount but he felt the country would have been seriously damaged politically if he mounted a challenge, whether it would have been successful or not. For sake of national unity, he did not do so. However, in the future, he seemed to overlook what people did in his name which lead to the Watergate scandal.

Unfortunately, Nixon did know when to quit when he was ahead. Because his enemies had been vindicative, he did not know when to let go. He unscrupulously used the federal bureaucracy to punish people whom he perceived to be his enemies. The "Enemies List" he created became a roll call of honor. Instead of the Watergate crisis providing another problem that he could overcome, it precipitated his resignation. As a result, Nixon saw Watergate as a conspiracy by his enemies to force him to resign instead of taking responsibility for an action committed by low-ranking operatives. His coverup of the crime proved to be undoing.

Lesson No. 9: Don't Play a Lone Hand

Richard Nixon declared he was an introvert in an extrovert world. He was generally unable to open himself up to people. He had colleagues and even fewer friends. Being a politician did not come naturally to him. Nixon had friendships that he took him as he moved around in his career. If he had the ability to ask others for their frank advice and opinion, he might have finished his term as president.

Lesson No. 10: Show Compassion

Richard Nixon was considered to be a cold, calculating politician. He did not use Eisenhower to campaign for him active during the 1960 election at the secret request of Ike's wife who felt that the campaign would weaken her husband's health. Nixon ran for president in 1960, Mrs. Eisenhower begged the minimal use of her husband as a campaign because of his history of heart attacks. Nixon honored her wish even though it was evident that in some crucial moments, the use of the general would have made a crucial difference in the final outcome.

Nixon won a scholarship to the newly opened Law School of Duke University in Charlotte, North Carolina. He developed a reputation for having an "iron but" since he concentrated so much on his studies in the library. One of the things he used to do every morning was helping someone with crutches make it up the steps to the law lecture room every day.

Richard Nixon was accused of being a blind political partisan. When he became president in 1968, he re-appointed a Democrat to the FCC. He did so because a mutual friend begged that the man had no other job prospects available and he had a lot of personal financial problems.


Richard Nixon had a fairy-tale life that did not have a fairy-tale ending. The title of his life story should have been poor boy makes good. Because Nixon believed he was a loser, he became one. Nixon did the nation a lot of good but not himself.

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