Richard Milhous Nixon showed signs of great political potential very early on in life, and certainly would live up to that potential in later life.
Nixon was born in Yorba Linda, California in 1913 – only the second President to be born in the 20th century (after John F. Kennedy). He was raised in a somewhat strict Quaker household (making him one of only two Quakers ever to become President, after Herbert Hoover).
Nixon was gifted right from the beginning of his academic life, graduating from Whittier High School in California before attending Whittier College (a Quaker school), after having turned down acceptance to both Harvard and Yale due to lack of financial means to attend these prestigious institutions.
After graduating near the top of his class from Whittier, Nixon went on to Duke Law school, where he graduated third in his class in 1937.
Lawyer, Veteran, and California Congressman
Naturally, after completing law school at Duke, Nixon returned to California and began a career in law, practicing at a small, local law firm practicing family law – a job which he found at odds with his own personal aspirations – he had been “training” for a life in politics ever since high school and college, where he had found great success in debate and in school elections.
It was during this time when, in 1940, Nixon married his wife, “Pat” Ryan.
With America’s entry into World War II at the end of 1941, Nixon joined the Navy reserves, serving as a supply officer (attaining the rank of Lieutenant Commander) in the Pacific theater. While he is not remembered for having seen much action in the War, Nixon is remembered for having served his country where he was needed most – his military career ended in 1945, with the end of the war.
Returning to California, Nixon found himself looking to take the next step in his life, and he found the perfect opportunity with the upcoming Congressional election, in which Nixon enthusiastically ran to represent California’s 12th Congressional district, against long-time incumbent Jerry Voorhis.
It was in this, his very first large-scale election that Nixon first began to demonstrate the campaign style and personality for which he would become known (and which became, perhaps, a later source of infamy). He proceeded to go on the attack against Voorhis, deriding him for being supported by groups which could be linked to Communist sympathizers (these were the formative first years of the Cold War mentality which would dominate American politics for several decades).
As Nixon had already shown himself to be a dogged anti-Communist, he was rewarded for his efforts by a place on the newly-formed House UnAmerican Activities Committee – dedicated to root out Communism in America. Nixon achieved great fame and success by playing a key role in the committee’s successful prosecution of Alger Hiss, an official in the State Department and spy for Russia.
While Richard Nixon and the HUAC are often confused with the “Red Scare” tactics of Joseph McCarthy during this time, the two really are unrelated.
Senator and Vice President
After winning reelection to the House in 1948, Nixon then went on to defeat the incumbent Democratic Senator from California, Helen Douglas, for a seat in the U.S. Senate (it was here that his tactics first earned Nixon the nickname “Tricky Dick”).
His time in the Senate did not last long, however, for only a year after taking office in 1951, Nixon’s successes in Congress had earned him sufficient national appeal that he was selected as a running mate for the hugely popular Republican candidate, Dwight Eisenhower (despite the fact that Eisenhower was never very fond of Nixon).
It was during this eventful campaign that Nixon, accused of keeping a personal “slush fund” gave his famous “Checkers Speech” before a national audience, stating that, while he had been given a cocker spaniel named Checkers as a campaign contribution, he would not give it back. This speech earned him great national popularity and has been one of the most famous in recent history.
Richard Nixon, always aspiring to greater heights, took the office of Vice President farther than almost any man before him. He even played a key role in leading the government as interim-President during Eisenhower’s many medical leaves.
As the Presidential election of 1860 drew near, Nixon’s past successes surely put him first in line to the highest office. He would attempt to use the Vice Presidency as a springboard to the White house – a feat not accomplished (except through the chain of succession) since Martin Van Buren in 1836.