Facts About the Life and Presidency of Richard M. Nixon

37th President of the United States

President Richard Nixon Vetoing Health and Education Bill
President Richard Nixon Vetoing Health and Education Bill. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Richard Nixon was the 37th President of the United States, serving from 1969 to 1974. As a result of his involvement in the Watergate campaign scandal, a cover-up of illegal activities connected with his committee to elect the president, he was the first U.S. president to resign from office.

Fast Facts: Richard M. Nixon

  • Also Known As: Richard Milhous Nixon, “Tricky Dick”
  • Birth: January 9, 1913, Yorba Linda, CA
  • Death: April 22, 1994
  • Parents: Francis “Frank” A. Nixon and Hannah Milhous Nixon
  • Education: Whittier College, Duke University Law School (1937)
  • Spouse: Married Thelma Catherine "Pat" Ryan 1940
  • Children: Tricia (born in 1946) and Julie (born in 1948)
  • Term of Office: January 20, 1969–August 9, 1974
  • Number of Terms Elected: 2 terms; resigned during second term 
  • Famous Quote: "The people's right to change what does not work is one of the greatest principles of our system of government."

Growing Up a Poor Quaker

Richard M. Nixon was born on January 19, 1913 to Francis “Frank” A. Nixon and Hannah Milhous Nixon in Yorba Linda, California. Nixon’s father was a rancher, but when his ranch failed, he moved the family to Whittier, California, where he opened a service station and grocery store.

Nixon grew up poor and was raised in a very conservative, Quaker household. Nixon had four brothers: Harold, Donald, Arthur, and Edward. (Harold died of tuberculosis at age 23 and Arthur died at age seven of tubercular encephalitis.)

Nixon as Lawyer and Husband

Nixon was an exceptional student and graduated second in his class at Whittier College, where he won a scholarship to attend Duke University Law School in North Carolina. After graduating from Duke in 1937, Nixon was unable to find work on the East Coast and thus moved back to Whittier where he worked as a small-town lawyer.

Nixon met his wife, Thelma Catherine Patricia “Pat” Ryan, while the two played opposite one another in a community theater production. Dick and Pat were married on June 21, 1940 and had two children: Tricia (born in 1946) and Julie (born in 1948).

World War II

On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the US Naval base at Pearl Harbor, ushering the United States into World War II. Shortly afterwards, Nixon and Pat moved from Whittier to Washington D.C., where Nixon took a job at the Office of Price Administration (OPA).

As a Quaker, Nixon was eligible to apply for an exemption from military service; however, he was bored with his role at the OPA, so he instead applied for entrance into the United States Navy and was inducted in August of 1942 at the age of 29. Nixon was stationed as a naval control officer in the South Pacific Combat Air Transport.

While Nixon did not serve in a combat role during the war, he was awarded two service stars, a citation of commendation, and was eventually promoted to the rank of lieutenant commander. Nixon resigned his commission in January 1946.

Nixon as Congressman

In 1946, Nixon ran for a seat in the House of Representatives from the 12th Congressional District of California. To beat his opponent, five-term Democratic incumbent Jerry Voorhis, Nixon used “smear tactics,” insinuating that Voorhis had Communist ties because he had once been endorsed by the pro-labor organization CIO-PAC. Nixon won the election.

Nixon’s tenure in the House of Representatives was notable for his anti-Communist crusading. Nixon served as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), responsible for investigating individuals and groups with suspected ties to Communism.

He was also instrumental in the investigation and conviction for perjury of Alger Hiss, an alleged member of an underground Communist organization. Nixon’s aggressive questioning of Hiss at the HUAC hearing was central to securing Hiss’ conviction and gained Nixon national attention.

Nixon's Senate Campaign Poster
Nixon's Senate Campaign Poster. Wikimedia Commons 

In 1950, Nixon ran for a seat in the Senate. Once again, Nixon used smear tactics against his opponent, Helen Douglas. Nixon was so overt in his attempt to tie Douglas to Communism that he even had some of his flyers printed on pink paper.

In response to Nixon's smear tactics and his attempt to get Democrats to cross party lines and vote for him, a Democratic committee ran a full-page ad in several papers with a political cartoon of Nixon shoveling hay labeled “Campaign Trickery” into a donkey labeled "Democrat." Under the cartoon was written “Look at Tricky Dick Nixon’s Republican Record.” Despite the ad, Nixon went on to win the election.

The nickname "Tricky Dick" stayed with him.

Running for Vice President

When Dwight D. Eisenhower decided to run as the Republican Party's candidate for president in 1952, he needed a running mate. Nixon’s anti-Communist position and his strong base of support in California made him an ideal choice for the position.

During the campaign, Nixon was nearly removed from the ticket when he was accused of financial improprieties, specifically for using an $18,000 campaign contribution for personal expenses.

In a televised address that became known as the “Checkers” speech, delivered September 23, 1952, Nixon defended his honesty and integrity. In a bit of levity, Nixon stated that there was one personal gift that he just wasn't going to return—a little Cocker Spaniel dog, whom his six-year-old daughter had named "Checkers."

"One other thing I probably should tell you because if we don't they'll probably be saying this about me too, we did get something—a gift—after the election. A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was?
"It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he'd sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl—Tricia, the 6-year-old—named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're gonna keep it."

The speech was enough of a success to keep Nixon on the ticket.

Vice President Richard Nixon

After Eisenhower won the presidential election in November of 1952, Nixon, as Vice President, focused much of his attention on foreign affairs. In 1953 he visited several countries in the Far East. In 1957 he visited Africa; in 1958 Latin America. Nixon was also instrumental in helping to push the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through Congress.

In 1959, Nixon met with Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow. In what became known as the “Kitchen Debate,” an impromptu argument erupted over the ability of each nation to provide good food and a good life to its citizens. The profanity-laced argument soon escalated as both leaders defended their country's way of life.

As the exchange grew more heated, they began arguing over the threat of nuclear war, with Khrushchev warning of “very bad consequences.” Perhaps feeling the argument had gone too far, Khrushchev stated his desire for “peace with all other nations, especially America” and Nixon responded that he had not been “a very good host.”

When President Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in 1955 and a stroke in 1957, Nixon was called on to assume some of the President’s high-level duties. At the time, there was no formal process for transfer of power in the event of presidential disability.

Nixon and Eisenhower worked out an agreement that became the basis for the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified on February 10, 1967. (The 25th Amendment details presidential succession in the event of the President’s incapacitation or death.)

Failed Presidential Run in 1960

After Eisenhower completed his two terms in office, Nixon launched his own bid for the White House in 1960 and easily won the Republican nomination. His opponent on the Democratic side was Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy, who campaigned on the idea of bringing a new generation of leadership to the White House.

The 1960 campaign was the first to make use of the new medium of television for advertisements, news, and policy debates. For the first time in American history, citizens were afforded the ability to follow the presidential campaign in real time.

Nixon-Kennedy Presidential Debate
Nixon-Kennedy Presidential Debate. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

For their first debate, Nixon chose to wear little makeup, wore a badly selected gray suit, and came across looking old and tired against Kennedy’s younger and more photogenic appearance. The race remained tight, but Nixon eventually lost the election to Kennedy by a narrow 120,000 popular votes.

Nixon spent the intervening years between 1960 and 1968 writing a bestselling book, Six Crises, that recounted his role in six political crises. He also ran unsuccessfully for governor of California against Democratic incumbent Pat Brown.

The 1968 Election

In November of 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson assumed the office of the presidency and easily won re-election in 1964.

In 1967, as the 1968 election approached, Nixon announced his own candidacy, easily winning the Republican nomination. Faced with mounting disapproval ratings, Johnson withdrew as a candidate during the 1968 campaign. With the withdrawal of Johnson, the new Democratic front-runner was Robert F. Kennedy, younger brother of John.

Nixon on the campaign trail in 1968
Richard Nixon gives his trademark "victory" sign on the campaign trail in 1968. Wikimedia Commons 

On June 5, 1968, Robert Kennedy was shot and killed following his victory in the California primary. Rushing now to find a replacement, the Democratic Party nominated Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, to run against Nixon. Alabama Governor George Wallace had also joined the race as an independent.

In another close election, Nixon gained the presidency by 500,000 popular votes.

Major Events During the Nixon Presidency

Major domestic accomplishments during Nixon's presidency included Neil Armstrong's and Buzz Aldrin's historic walk on the moon in 1969; the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970; and the passage of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1971, which granted 18-year-olds the right to vote.

Nixon's focus on foreign relations had him initially escalating the Vietnam War as he implemented a controversial bombing campaign against the neutral nation of Cambodia to disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines. Later, however, Nixon was instrumental in withdrawing all combat units from Vietnam and by 1973, he had ended mandatory military conscription. Fighting within Vietnam finally ceased when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975.

In 1972, with the help of his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, President Nixon and his wife Pat embarked on a week-long trip to China in order to establish diplomatic relations. Resentment between China and the U.S. had lingered following the Korean War, during which China had fought against U.S. forces. The visit marked the first time a United States President had visited the Communist nation, which was then under the control of Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong. Nixon's visit was an important step in improving relations between these two powerful nations.

The Watergate Scandal

Nixon was re-elected President in 1972 in what is considered one of the largest landslide victories in United States election history. Unfortunately, Nixon was willing to use any means necessary to ensure his re-election.

On June 17, 1972, five men were caught breaking into the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C to plant listening devices. Nixon’s campaign staff believed the devices would provide information that could be used against the Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern.

While the Nixon administration initially denied involvement in the break-in, two young newspaper reporters for the Washington Post, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, obtained information from a source known as “Deep Throat” who became instrumental in tying the administration to the break-in.

Nixon remained defiant throughout the Watergate scandal, and in a televised statement on November 17, 1973, infamously stated, “People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook. I’ve earned everything I’ve got.”

During the investigation that followed, it was revealed that Nixon had installed a secret taping system in the White House. A legal battle ensued with Nixon reluctantly agreeing to the release of 1,200 pages of transcripts from what became known as the “Watergate Tapes.”

Mysteriously, there was an 18 1/2 minute gap on one of the tapes which a secretary claimed she had accidentally erased.

Impeachment Proceedings and Nixon’s Resignation

With the release of the tapes, the House Judiciary Committee opened impeachment proceedings against Nixon. On July 27, 1974, with a vote of 27 to 11, the Committee voted in favor of bringing articles of impeachment against Nixon.

On August 8, 1974, having lost the support of the Republican Party and facing impeachment, Nixon delivered his resignation speech from the Oval Office. When his resignation became effective at noon the next day, Nixon became the first President in United States history to resign from office.

Nixon’s Vice President Gerald R. Ford assumed the office of President. On September 8, 1974, President Ford granted Nixon a “full, free and absolute pardon,” ending any chance for an indictment against Nixon.

Retirement and Death

After his resignation from office, Nixon retired to San Clemente, California. He wrote both his memoirs and several books on international affairs.

With the success of his books, he became somewhat of an authority on American foreign relations, improving his public reputation. Toward the end of his life, Nixon actively campaigned for American support and financial aid for Russia and other former Soviet republics.

On April 18, 1994, Nixon suffered a stroke and died four days later at the age of 81.