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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 39: The Stalemated Seventies, 1968 - 1980


Richard Nixon (1913 - 1994)

Nixon was the most controversial politician of his generation and has remained a source of intrigue and puzzlement for scholars and the public.

The second of five sons of a devout Quaker family, Nixon was third in his class of twenty-five at Duke Law School. He wanted to be an FBI agent but instead became a local California attorney and later joined the Office of Price Administration and the navy.

He defeated Jerry Voorhis, a prominent New Deal Democratic congressman, in 1946 and won national fame for his work on the Hiss case. His 1950 campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas was dominated by his red-baiting charges against her.

Thomas Dewey promoted Nixon for the vice presidency in 1952. His 1962 defeat for the California governorship was generally considered to have marked the end of his political career, so his recovery to win the 1968 GOP nomination was nearly miraculous.

Quote: You wont have Nixon to kick around anymore, because gentlemen, this is my last press conference. (Press conference after election loss, 1962)

REFERENCES: Joan Hoff Wilson, Nixon Reconsidered (1994); Rachel Barron, Richard Nixon (1999).


Henry Kissinger (1923 )

At the height of his power in the 1970s, Kissinger exercised more influence over American foreign policy than any secretary of state since George Marshall, and perhaps since William Seward.

Born in southern Germany, the son of a high school teacher, Heinz Kissinger (his original name) was frequently beaten up by anti-Semitic gangs. His father lost his job, and the family was forced to flee to the United States in 1938. Many writers have seen a connection between the instability of Kissingers youth and his strong pursuit of order and stability in international relations.

His family never fully assimilated to America, and Kissinger retained his thick German accent throughout his life. In the U.S. Army he became a translator and eventually administered a small district in occupied Germany.

His book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957), which advocated the use of limited nuclear weapons, brought him to the attention of Nelson Rockefeller and began his career as an influential foreign-policy and defense theorist.

Quote: The deepest international conflict in the world today is not between us and the Soviet Union, but between the Soviet Union and Communist China.Therefore, one of the positive prospects in the current situation is that, whatever the basic intentions of Soviet leaders, confronted with the prospect of a China growing in strengththey may want a period of détente in the West.

REFERENCE: Walter Isaacson, Kissinger: A Biography (1993).


Sam Ervin (1896 - 1985)

Ervin was the North Carolina senator who gained fame for heading the Senate Watergate investigations.

After growing up in rural North Carolina, Ervin was wounded and decorated for valor in World War I and earned a Harvard law degree in 1922. He helped defeat a North Carolina law banning the teaching of evolution. He was also a longtime judge and U.S. congressman.

Ervin was considered the Senates most noted authority on the U.S. Constitution and was a strong advocate of civil liberties and legal rights for the indigent.

His bobbing eyebrows, thick jowls, and down-home sense of humor made him a popular hero during the Watergate hearings. He had a vast fund of quotations from the Bible, Shakespeare, English history, and American constitutional history at his command and often used them to enliven the proceedings. Although he always called himself a simple country lawyer, he was in fact a highly learned and skilled jurist.

Quote: As long as I have a mind to think, a tongue to speak, and a heart to love my country, I shall deny that the Constitution confers any autocratic power on the President, or authorizes him to convert George Washingtons America into Caesars Rome.When all is said, the only sure antidote for future Watergates is understanding of fundamental principles and intellectual and moral integrity in the men and women who achieve or are entrusted with governmental or political power. (Report of Senate Watergate Committee, 1974)

REFERENCE: Dick Dabney, A Good Man: The Life of Sam Ervin (1976).



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