The other day, Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana and president of Purdue University, had a column in The Washington Post that got us thinking about Richard Nixon.
Daniels’ take is we need Nixon’s best qualities in a Democrat. He means the Nixon who produced “arms talks with the same Soviet Union he had built a career on denouncing; wage and price controls that violated every canon of his party’s philosophy; and ... the opening of relations with ‘Red’ China.”
Long before assuming the presidency in 1969, Nixon made his Cold War bones as a congressman from California. When he ran for Senate in 1950, he faced off against Democratic congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, who was thought to be soft on Communism; her primary opponent called her “pink right down to her underwear.” Nixon took up the charge in the general election, with the quiet support of fellow congressman John F. Kennedy, a Democrat and also a zealous Cold Warrior. Nixon’s campaign attacked her anti-Semitically, because her husband, the actor Melvyn Douglas, was a Jew. Gahagan Douglas called Nixon “Tricky Dick,” a name that stuck, although she lost badly.
In 1952, presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower let Republican party insiders broker Nixon’s selection as vice president. While the two men were never close and Nixon complained privately that Eisenhower held him at arm’s length, Nixon gave Eisenhower anti-Communist credibility and Nixon became active in foreign affairs, going on goodwill tours abroad.
By 1959, Nixon obviously had his eye on replacing Eisenhower, in the 1960 elections. He would face practically no opposition in the Republican primaries. On the Democratic side, Kennedy was emerging as a formidable contender. Despite party differences, it could come down to a contest to see who was tougher on the Soviets _ and how. So Nixon was eager to keep raising his profile while Eisenhower was looking for a way to negotiate for peace with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
That summer, the U.S. was due to open a national trade exhibition in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park. Eisenhower sent Nixon to cut the ribbon.
On July 24, Nixon toured the trade exhibits with Khrushchev, and the two leaders held an informal debate in front of a model American modern kitchen, which was captured on a new American video camera.
Khrushchev goaded Nixon: The U.S. is backward, and the much younger Soviet Union would soon replace it. “After that, we’ll go farther.” Nixon throughout was gracious, smiling, unruffled: statesman-like.
The national columnists in the U.S. gave him plaudits. In Durango, on Aug. 2, on page 2A of the Herald, where editorials ran then, Arthur Ballantine Jr., the paper’s co-editor and co-owner, said, “Vice President Nixon is to be commended for standing up to the Soviet leaders on his trip through Russia. He also succeeded in doing it in a dramatic manner in front of TV cameras. The world is in great need of closer cooperation between our two countries, but this is not going to come about through a weak-kneed attitude on the part of the United States.”
Sixty years ago, on Aug. 29, 1959, under the tasteful letterhead of the Office of the Vice President, Nixon responded: “Your editorial of Aug. 2 has come to my attention and I just wanted to get this note off to you to thank you for your generous comments. As you can imagine, the trip was a challenging one and for this reason I especially appreciated the views you expressed.”
That Nixon – the lauded and gentlemanly prince – eventually would be eclipsed in the public eye, but not before news of his Moscow coup made it all the way to Southwest Colorado via the then-new medium of TV, and a short item in a small-town paper caught the attention of a vice president on the make, with nearly everyone in that halcyon America just doing their jobs.