Richard Nixon was a hardened veteran of the political arena. He had represented California in the House and Senate, where he earned a reputation as a fierce anti-Communist and a bare-knuckles campaigner. As Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, Nixon had stayed on the ticket in 1952 only by countering charges of benefiting from a political slush fund through a last-minute televised appeal to the American public. After Ike’s two terms, Nixon secured the nomination in 1960, but lost by a razor-thin margin to his congressional classmate of 1946, John Kennedy. In 1962, Nixon ran for governor of California and again was defeated. But he recognized a political vacuum following Barry Goldwater’s landslide loss to Lyndon Johnson in 1964. His dogged foreign travels and nation-wide campaigning for Republican candidates in the 1966 mid-term election paid dividends two years later when the Republican party crowned his remarkable comeback by once again making him their presidential nominee.
In the national tumult that marred the year 1968, Nixon withstood the challenge of Vice President Hubert Humphrey who was saddled to an administration held responsible for an unpopular war and domestic unrest, and a strong third-party challenge by Alabama Governor George Wallace, who capitalized on racial discord. Nixon won the election with 43 percent of the popular vote (56 percent of the electoral vote). Two close presidential races intensified lessons Nixon drew from the rough and tumble of other political experiences. As he planned for re-election in 1972, he determined to leave nothing to chance. The campaign would be played by hardball rules, and Nixon would use every advantage the incumbency afforded him.
Conventional wisdom held that the Democrats would field a strong challenger in 1972. But by the end of the primaries, Ted Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, and Edmund Muskie were gone, leaving the dark-horse Senator from South Dakota, George McGovern. The war in Vietnam dominated the campaign. As McGovern called for immediate withdrawal of U. S. troops and sharp reductions in defense spending, Nixon’s national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, sought to calm public unrest over the war by claiming that peace was near.
Yet even as he was driving toward an easy victory, Nixon was anything but calm. In response to the leaking of sensitive military information, Nixon had formed a special investigations unit called the “Plumbers” to plug those leaks. Not trusting his campaign to the normal Republican election framework, Nixon established the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP), headed by his former law partner and attorney general, John Mitchell. Through it the campaign was orchestrated, but a clandestine campaign was also waged. The Plumbers and others were used to raise large amounts of money, gather intelligence for political purposes, and spear the opposition.
Nixon crushed McGovern that November, winning 61 percent of the popular vote and all but 17 votes in the Electoral College. His overwhelming victory did not carry over to Capitol Hill, however, where his party lost seats in the Senate and enjoyed only modest gains in the House. In both chambers, the Republicans remained in the minority, a status that would prove costly as Nixon attempted to control the Watergate investigation in his second term. His greatest political victory was muted by this “third-rate burglary.” Though buoyed by the triumph, within six months of his January 1973 inauguration, the investigation that had been focused primarily on his campaign staff would be knocking on the door of his Oval Office, demanding he turn over until-then secret tape recordings. Once surrendered, his complicity in the crimes of his administration was revealed, and his presidency was doomed.