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A Tarnished Legacy

Most people will probably recognize this relative of mine. When one thinks of this 37th President of the United States, the first thing that may spring to mind is the Watergate scandal and his subsequent resignation. Aside from that, how much does on really know about him as a person and his background prior to politics?

I suppose I have a soft spot for him. When I was born, my parents, in deciding on my name, were at a loss. They had used all the family names for my older brothers. They then decided to name me after their favorite president and his vice president (Eisenhower and Nixon, respectively).

Richard Milhous Nixon was born 9 January 1913 in Yorba Linda, California in the house built by his father on the family's lemon ranch. He was the second boy out of four. His mother, Hannah Milhous Nixon was a devout Quaker and his father, Francis Antony Nixon, converted from Methodism. Richard's upbringing was marked by evangelical Quaker observances of the time such as refraining from alcohol, dancing, and swearing.

His early life was marked by hardship. When the family ranch failed in 1922, the family moved to Whittier, CA, an area where a lot of other Quakers lived. His father opened a grocery store and gas station. Richard's younger brother Arthur died in 1925 at the age of seven, following a short illness. A spot was found on Richard's lung when when was twelve. Due to a family history of tuberculosis, he was forbidden from playing sports. It was eventually discovered to be scar tissue from an earlier bout of pneumonia.

Richard attended East Whittier Elementary School, where he was president of his eighth-grade class. His parents believed that attending Whittier High School had caused Richard's older brother, Harold, to live a dissolute lifestyle before he fell ill of tuberculosis. They sent Richard to the larger Fullerton Union High School. He had to ride a school bus for an hour each way during his freshman year and received excellent grades. Later, he lived with an aunt in Fullerton during the week.

He played junior varsity football, and seldom missed a practice, though he was rarely used in games. He had greater success as a debater, winning a number of championships and taking his only formal tutelage in public speaking from Fullerton's Head of English, H. Lynn Sheller. Richard later remembered Sheller's words, "Remember, speaking is conversation...don't shout at people. Talk to them. Converse with them." He said he tried to use a conversational tone as much as possible.

At the start of his junior year in September 1928, Richard's parents permitted him to transfer to Whittier High School. He often rose at 4 a.m., to drive the family truck into Los Angeles and purchase vegetables at the market. He then drove to the store to wash and display them before going to school. When their mother took Harold to Arizona in the hopes of improving his health, the demands on Richard increased, causing him to give up football. Nevertheless, Richard graduated from Whittier High third in his class of 207.

Richard was offered a tuition grant to attend Harvard University, but Harold's continued illness and the need for their mother to care for him meant Richard was needed at the store. He remained in his hometown and attended Whittier College with his expenses covered by a bequest from his maternal grandfather. He played for the basketball team. He also tried out for football but lacked the size to play. He remained on the team as a substitute and was noted for his enthusiasm. Instead of fraternities and sororities, Whittier had literary societies. Richard was snubbed by the only one for men, the Franklins; many of the Franklins were from prominent families, but Richard was not. He responded by helping to found a new society, the Orthogonian Society. In addition to the society, schoolwork, and work at the store, he found time for a large number of extracurricular activities, becoming a champion debater and gaining a reputation as a hard worker. In 1933, he became engaged to Ola Florence Welch, daughter of the Whittier police chief. They broke up in 1935.

He graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from Whittier in 1934. In May 1934, he saw a notice on a college bulletin board advertising $250 scholarships to attend the equally young and ambitious Duke Law School, keen to attract the best students and build a reputation as an Ivy League-caliber school in the backwoods of North Carolina. The scholarship program was known as “the meat grinder.” Competition was fierce and prospects were dim. On the first day, one of Nixon’s professors issued a dire warning about the challenges of finding legal work in the Depression: “Marry for money and practice law for love,” he advised.

But even among ultra-competitive law students, Richard’s work ethic stood out. He awoke at 5 a.m. to study before class and spent long hours, including Saturday nights, in the law library. One classmate called him “the hardest-working man I ever met,” but his dour personality led others to nickname him “Gloomy Gus.” The thin, ungainly scholar subsisted largely on Milky Way bars by day and could be seen wolfing down soup in the student union at night before returning to the library.

He was plagued by concerns about his inadequacies as a student and by financial concerns as well. Only half of the $250 scholarships for first-year students would be renewed for a second year, and he was already borrowing money from his father, busing tables and working in the library to make ends meet. A college maintenance man found the cash-strapped future president in an abandoned tool shed not far from campus. Millions of Americans were living in similar makeshift dwellings that winter, but Richard was likely the only Duke law student holed up in an 8-by-12-foot room with a bed, table and chair but no stove, and using corrugated cardboard for insulation. The squatter was not reported to campus authorities and finished first in his class that year.

Richard's unusual living arrangements continued in his final year at Duke. With three other students, he shared two brass beds in a cabin that was a mile and a half walk from campus. Again, he went without electricity and indoor plumbing and resorted to showering on campus and hiding his shaving kit in the library. He graduated third in his class in June 1937.

After graduating from Duke, Nixon initially hoped to join the FBI. He received no response to his letter of application and learned years later that he had been hired, but his appointment had been canceled at the last minute due to budget cuts. Instead, he returned to California and was admitted to the California bar in 1937. He began practicing in Whittier with the law firm Wingert and Bewley, working on commercial litigation for local petroleum companies and other corporate matters, as well as on wills.

In January 1938 Richard met a high school teacher named Thelma "Pat" Ryan. He described it in his memoirs as "a case of love at first sight." That feeling was one-sided as Pat Ryan turned down the young lawyer several times before agreeing to date him. Once they began their courtship, Pat was reluctant to marry Richard; they dated for two years before she assented to his proposal. They wed in a small ceremony on June 21, 1940.

In January 1942 the couple moved to Washington, D.C., where Richard took a job at the Office of Price Administration. He was assigned to the tire rationing division, where he was tasked with replying to correspondence. He did not enjoy the role and four months later applied to join the United States Navy. As a birthright Quaker, he could have by law claimed exemption from the draft; he might also have been deferred because he worked in government service. In spite of that, Richard sought a commission in the Navy. His application was successful, and he was appointed a lieutenant junior grade in the U.S Naval Reserve (U.S. Navy Reserve) on June 15, 1942.

In October 1942, he was assigned as aide to the commander of the Naval Air Station Ottumwa in Iowa. Seeking more excitement, he requested sea duty and on 2 July 1943, he was assigned to the Marine Aircraft Group 25 and the South Pacific Combat Air Transport Command (SCAT), supporting logistics operations in the South Pacific Theater. On 1 October 1943, he was promoted to lieutenant. Richard commanded the SCAT forward detachments at Vella Lavella, Bougainville and finally at Green Island (Nissan Island). His unit prepared manifests and flight plans for operations and supervised the loading and unloading of the transport aircraft. Upon his return to the U.S., he was appointed the administrative officer of the Alameda Naval Air Station in California. In January 1945 he was transferred to the Bureau of Aeronautics office in Philadelphia to help negotiate the termination of war contracts. He was transferred to other offices to work on contracts and finally to Baltimore. On 3 October 1945, he was promoted to lieutenant commander. On March 10, 1946, he was relieved of active duty.

After leaving the Navy, Richard and Pat returned to Whittier, CA. His political career began at that point. He served as a California congressman from 1947-1950, U.S. Congressman from 1950-1953, Vice President from 1953-1961 and President from 1969-1974.

His career was frequently dogged by his persona and the public's perception of it. Editorial cartoonists and comedians often exaggerated his appearance and mannerisms, to the point where the line between the human and the caricature became increasingly blurred. He was often portrayed with unshaven jowls, slumped shoulders, and a furrowed, sweaty brow.

He had a complex personality, both very secretive and awkward, yet strikingly reflective about himself. He was inclined to distance himself from people and was formal in all aspects, wearing a coat and tie even when home alone.

Richard believed that putting distance between himself and other people was necessary for him as he advanced in his political career and became president. Even Bebe Rebozo, by some accounts his closest friend, did not call him by his first name. Nixon said of this:

"Even with close friends, I don't believe in letting your hair down, confiding this and that and the other thing-saying, "Gee, I couldn't sleep..." I believe you should keep your troubles to yourself. That's just the way I am. Some people are different. Some people think it's good therapy to sit with a close friend and, you know, just spill your guts...[and] reveal their inner psyche--whether they were breast-fed or bottle-fed. Not me. No way."

When told that most Americans felt they did not know him even at the end of his career, he replied, "Yeah, it's true. And it's not necessary for them to know.

Pat Nixon died on 22 June 1993, of emphysema and lung cancer.

Richard suffered a severe stroke on 18 April 1994, while preparing to eat dinner in his Park Ridge, New Jersey home. Damage to the brain caused swelling and he slipped into a deep coma. He died at 9:08 p.m. on 22 April 1994, with his daughters Tricia and Julie at his bedside. He was 81 years old.

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