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August 30, 2014

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The many what-if’s of Richard Nixon

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A century ago today, Richard Nixon was born in a Southern California agricultural subdivision dubbed Yorba Linda, in a 900-square-foot mail-order house assembled by his father.

The centennial of America’s 37th president won’t be met with much fanfare beyond this weekend’s wreath-laying at that home and a Nixon Foundation dinner tonight in Washington. Although the Nixon Library has other centennial-related events planned for 2013, there’s little of the hoopla that accompanied the 100th birthday of California’s other president, Ronald Reagan, two years ago.

Like another former Republican president, Nixon is a victim of unfortunate political timing. Herbert Hoover’s centennial, in 1974, came just two days after Nixon resigned from the presidency. Nixon’s centennial comes two months after a bad election for Republicans, and his party is not exactly in a celebratory mood. By contrast, the ever-lucky Reagan’s centennial came on the heels of the Republican landslide of 2010.

Still, Nixon’s milestone is worth noting, beginning with his contributions to the political lexicon. How many times have we referenced a cornered candidate in need of a “Checkers speech,” an unorthodox maneuver as a “Nixon goes to China” moment or the unfortunate tendency to affix “gate” to the slightest whiff of scandal (more than 120 times, per Wikipedia’s count)?

It is also worth noting how history might have changed for three other presidents if not for three of Nixon’s biggest political setbacks.

If Nixon had beaten John F. Kennedy in 1960: Change the outcomes in Illinois and Texas (Nixon lost the two states by 0.18 percent and 2 percent, respectively), and there would have been no “New Frontier,” no tragedy in Dallas — perhaps no enduring Camelot mystique. Kennedy might have opted for a rematch in 1964, or waited until 1968 (he’d have been only 51 then). Perhaps he would have chosen not to run again, and the Kennedy clan would be just another congressional dynasty.

If Nixon had won the California gubernatorial election in 1962: For starters, there would have been no bitter farewell (“You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore ...”). Would there have been a Gov. or President Ronald Reagan? Reagan’s first gubernatorial run, in 1966, was made possible by two factors: an incumbent who served as progressive straw man (Pat Brown, who beat Nixon in 1962) to blame for social unrest; and a state GOP lacking a colossus candidate. Supposing Nixon had been re-elected to a second gubernatorial term in 1966 before capturing the presidency in 1968, Reagan might have run in California at a future date. But there might not have been the same fuel for the conservative fire then.

If there had been no Watergate: For openers, Fred Thompson probably wouldn’t be peddling reverse mortgages on cable television today (the former senator from Tennessee cut his teeth in Washington as the Senate Watergate Committee’s chief minority counsel). Nor would the House Judiciary Committee have needed the services of a recent Yale Law graduate, Hillary Rodham, for its impeachment inquiry staff. As for her future husband, consider how his presidency would differ if Watergate hadn’t spawned 1978’s Ethics in Government Act, which would later empower Kenneth Starr to pursue Bill Clinton’s public and private lives.

As to Nixon’s personal what-if’s, the possibilities are just as interesting. Here are a few examples.

Had Nixon attended Harvard instead of nearby Whittier College (with his father ailing, he had to tend to the family business), would he have still ended up back in California after his undergraduate and law studies? If, instead of taking the California bar exam, Nixon opted for a career with the FBI (he applied to be an agent in 1937), would he have ended up in Washington as one of J. Edgar Hoover’s minions? If Nixon had sought a military deferment at the outbreak of World War II — attainable, given his Quaker faith — would he have been able to run for Congress in 1946 and ride the fast track to national office (sworn in as vice president just 11 days after he turned 40)?

Food for thought, during a week when Nixon’s impact won’t earn the attention it deserves.

Bill Whalen follows national politics at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and was chief speechwriter for California Gov. Pete Wilson. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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  1. Terrific "what if" article. President Nixon was the unfortunate political victim of the times. If Kennedy were not assassinated, Viet Nam would have happened on his watch. The ignominy of the Bay of Pigs would have paled by comparison to Viet Nam for the JFK legacy.

    CarmineD