Richard Nixon's Political Hinterland: The Shadows of JFK Adn Charles De Gaulle

By Roper, Jon | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Richard Nixon's Political Hinterland: The Shadows of JFK Adn Charles De Gaulle


Roper, Jon, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Each president enters the White House to be confronted by the reputations of those who already have held the office. It is commonplace to ask the new incumbent which predecessors are to be admired. For Richard Nixon, the presidents included among his personal pantheon were Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Yet, his political career was shaped also, inevitably, by less publicly acknowledged influences. Two of these can be teased from Nixon's writings: from his first book, Six Crises, and, more speculatively, from his post-Watergate book of memoirs. Between them these works illustrate the political affinities that Nixon felt for two contemporary leaders: John F. Kennedy and Charles de Gaulle. Whereas Six Crises is a manifesto that makes clear that Nixon regarded himself at least as Kennedy's equal as America's cold war heroic leader, the memoirs reveal a conception of personal destiny wrapped up with a sense of national honor that suggests an idea of Nixon as an American de Gaulle. Kennedy and de Gaulle thus become significant parts of the political hinterland from which Richard Nixon's image of presidential leadership was fashioned.

In his closing remarks in the fourth debate between the candidates for the 1960 presidential election, Richard Nixon said, "In the years to come it will be written that one or the other of us was elected and that he was or was not a great president. What will determine whether Senator Kennedy or I, if I am elected, was a great president? ... It will be determined to the extent that we represent the deepest ideals, the highest feelings and the faith of the American people."(1) The new president would be judged by his capacity to articulate a vision and to confront gathering threats, symbolized by the contemporary fears and anxieties engendered by the nuclear age and the cold war. Nixon thus endorsed an idea that would characterize John F. Kennedy's administration: heroic leadership would be defined as a constant battle against crisis. And indeed, if successive presidents have defined their administrations "in the shadow of FDR,"(2) then it can equally be suggested that Nixon, when out of office and then as president himself, would construct a political persona too in the penumbra of JFK. Even before he was elected to the presidency, Nixon's self-image reflected this conception of the leader as hero. In this context, moreover, Six Crises is not simply a revealing counterpoint and contrast to Kennedy's Pulitzer prize-winning Profiles in Courage. It is also Nixon's effort to project himself as an American leader capable of fighting and winning the cold war.

Nixon and Kennedy shared an almost symbiotic political and personal relationship. First elected to Congress in the same year, their careers ran in parallel, until Nixon became vice president in 1952. Their paths converged in the presidential election of 1960, and following the assassination and Johnson's inheritance of the dubious legacy of Vietnam, it was Richard Nixon once more who was the ultimate beneficiary of the political dislocations and turmoil among the Democrats in 1968. Yet, whereas Kennedy had the ability to catch and thus define within his own political persona the transient spirit of his age, Nixon could not match him in this respect, as the Watergate scandal would reveal. What is relevant, however, in terms of the demands that the cold war placed on the chief executive at this time is the way in which both presidents attempted to assume the role of the nation's heroic leader.

Thomas Carlyle, in his nineteenth-century lecture On Heroes, argued that "in all epochs of the world's history, we shall find the Great Man to have been the indispensable saviour of his epoch; the lightning, without which the fuel never would have burnt."(3) Kennedy's contemporaries saw him as such a person. After the Eisenhower years, as Norman Mailer had suggested in his seminal essay on JFK, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," "it was a hero America needed, a hero central to his time. …

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