Murray, KY – As former Vice President Richard Nixon stood on the stage on November 6, 1968 as the new president-elect, his victory marked the culmination of the greatest political comeback in U.S. political history. With his wife and daughters in tow Nixon beamed, "Having lost a close one eight years ago, and having won a close one this year, I can say this-----winning is a lot more fun." However, he was to become president over a divided America in less than two months. His administration would become ground breaking, yet controversial. The War in Vietnam, civil rights, and a growing sense of national vulnerability awaited the 56 year old politician as he prepared to replace Lyndon Johnson as Commander in Chief.
Nixon's political journey was typical of the American dream. Having grown up in a working class family in Yorba Linda, California, Nixon worked his way through college and law school; he was known as a very skillful debater and orator whose keen logic and thoughtful deliberation won him the admiration of his friends and detractors alike. His election to the U.S. House in 1946 was part of the era that landed several World War II veterans in the nation's capital, including his future nemesis John F. Kennedy.
Nixon's election to the U.S. Senate in 1950 was won after a long and bitter Cold War era struggle with his Democratic opponent, Helen Gahagan Douglas. And in less than two years, he ended up as General Dwight Eisenhower's running mate in the 1952 election. However, allegations of financial impropriety almost lead to his dismissal from the ticket. But Nixon demonstrated his ability to rise to the occasion with his famous "Checkers" speech in which he said that he would not return the gift of a cocker spaniel that a businessman had given to his daughters. It was a touching and sentimental speech that set the stage for his political career.
After eight years as vice president, Nixon was poised for the Oval Office in 1960. However, after a disappointing showing in a number of the presidential debates against Senator John F. Kennedy, Nixon lost the presidency by a razor thin margin, prompting many of his supporters to call for a recount. Instead, Nixon disappeared from the national scene and focused upon a run for the California governorship. Here, Nixon was handily defeated by Pat Brown, prompting an angry tantrum before the cameras.
An angry and deflated Nixon criticized the media for the coverage of his campaign. He concluded his bitter remarks by saying, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore, because gentleman this is my last press conference."
The die was seemingly cast. Nixon's rise to national prominence had come to an end.
But the events of the 1960s forced the country to take a new look at this historic figure. The war in Vietnam, riots in the cities, and a divided electorate seriously damaged the Democrats' chances at another electoral victory. And the Republican Party was very leery of nominating another doctrinaire conservative as it s nominee as it had four years earlier with Senator Barry Goldwater.
Sensing this as a new political opportunity, Nixon began to reshape his image. He hired media and commercial consultants to recast and script his appearances. His published articles on foreign policy gave him the aura of an expert when such expertise was desperately needed. And outside events, like the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, gave Americans the desire for modern civility. Richard Nixon sought to reconcile these factors into a brilliant television era campaign for the presidency.
So as Nixon stood on the stage that Wednesday morning, and flashed that famous V- for Victory sign, he must have thought how long and tortuous his journey had been. But more importantly, he was also thinking about the great challenges that his administration would have to face and that his legacy would depend in large part on whether he could meet the test of presidential leadership in perilous times.