Turbulent Leadership: Nixon the Orator


Richard Nixon

by Michael A. Moodian

The structure of the best tragedy should be not simple but complex and one that represents incidents arousing fear and pity—for that is peculiar to this form of art.

—Aristotle in Poetics (335 BCE/1932, sec. 1452b)

On September 29, 1945, Republican businessman Herman Perry wrote a letter to Richard Nixon asking him if he was interested in running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. At the time, incumbent Democrat Jerry Voorhis [1] was representing the 12th congressional district of California. Nixon was a young up-and-coming attorney, a graduate of Duke University Law School and a naval officer in World War II who had returned to his hometown of Whittier to work at an established law firm. “I am writing this short note to ask you if you would like to be a candidate for Congress on the Republican ticket in 1946,” Perry’s letter said. “Jerry Voorhis expects to run—registration is about 50-50. The Republicans are gaining. Please airmail me your reply if you are interested.”

Nixon drafted a response on October 6, 1945. “I feel very strongly that Jerry Voorhis can be beaten and I’d welcome the opportunity to take a crack at him. An aggressive, vigorous campaign on a platform of practical liberalism should be the antidote the people have been looking for to take the place of Voorhis’ particular brand of New Deal idealism. You can be sure that I’ll do everything possible to win if the party gives me the chance to run,” he wrote. “I’m sure that I can hold my own with Voorhis on the speaking platform, and without meaning to toot my own horn, I believe I have the fight, spirit and background which can beat him.” In 1946, Nixon defeated Voorhis for his first political victory. This would mark the start of a tumultuous career that captivated the world during the second half of the twentieth century. The campaign against Voorhis would also mark the initiation of Nixon as a political orator, whose rhetorical and debating skills would carry him to victory and earn him national attention throughout the numerous peaks and valleys of his political life, including his rise through the House and Senate to a vice presidential nomination, the performance in the Great Debate against John F. Kennedy and his failed 1960 presidential run, the self-proclaimed Wilderness Years and failed gubernatorial run, his two terms as president, and ultimately, his resignation from office.

Richard Milhous Nixon was born on January 9, 1913, in a house that his father Frank built in Yorba Linda, CA. Early in life, he aspired to be a railroad engineer. Ideologically, Nixon was greatly influenced by his grandmother, Almira Milhous, a Quaker, school teacher and steadfast Republican. “My grandmother set the standards for the whole family,” he would say. “Honesty, hard work, do your best at all times—humanitarian ideals. She was always taking care of every tramp that came along the road.…She had strong feelings about pacifism and very strong feelings on civil liberties” (Angelo, 2001, p. 201).

By the first grade of elementary school, Nixon was a model student. He was taught how to read by his mother before entering school and was an enthusiast of various books, periodicals and newspapers. Frank, who was passionate about politics, was perhaps most responsible for his son’s keen interest in public affairs and the development of his oratory skills. A young Nixon participated in his first debate in the seventh grade, titled, “Resolved: It is More Economical to Rent a House than Own One.” Though his father agreed with the latter, he coached his son to take both sides by advising him to argue in the affirmative of the issue, a debate that Nixon would win. By the eighth grade, he had established himself as a serious student, one who demonstrated superior writing and public speaking skills. At his middle school graduation, he delivered a rhymed oral history of his class that captivated parents and students alike. Characterized as serious by his classmates, he enjoyed playing the violin and piano as a youth and demonstrated profound memorization ability.

Nixon would persevere as a champion debater at Fullerton High School then Whittier Union High School. During his junior year, he would win a regional contest for his speech, “Our Privileges under the Constitution”. During his senior year, he took first place in Whittier’s Constitutional Oratorical Contest for his speech, “American Progress, Its Dependence upon the Constitution.” His first place reward was composed of $10 from the Kiwanis Club and $20 from the Los Angeles Times. One high school classmate remarked that Nixon was “kind of a fireball” in front of an audience.

Upon graduating from Whittier Union High School, Nixon earned his bachelor’s degree in history at Whittier College. While enrolled at the liberal arts school, he continued to follow his passion for public speaking and debating, serving as vice president then president of the student body. Upon graduation, he would earn his law degree at Duke University and serve as a lieutenant commander for the Navy in World War II. After returning home to California, he practiced law with Whittier’s oldest, most established law firm [2] As an attorney, Nixon had a reputation of being serious and hard-working with powerful speaking skills in the courtroom. It was in the courtroom that he refined his oratorical skills before the venture to public life, and it was at this time that word of a rising leader had spread and the calling for public service had arrived.

Nixon’s high school speech “Our Privileges under the Constitution” with various words underlined to display emphasis and pause points. (Photo © Michael A. Moodian)

Richard Nixon had his fair share of rhetorical strengths and limitations as a speaker. As his former speechwriter Aram Bakshian stated in an interview, the ex-president had trouble taking a lighthearted approach in his speeches (Chapel, 1976). “His most successful speeches were serious moments when he addressed issues on which he was credible” (p. 69). Bakshian added that Nixon could sometimes talk down, sounding terse and forceful in the presentation of his argument. His rhetorical strengths included the fact that he had a lawyer’s capacity to structure and organize a speech and deliver it impeccably. Time magazine called his voice “buttery baritone,” and though there were times that particular gestures were not in sync with the words that he was speaking, he made effective use of pacing and pausing (Gavin, 2001). Ultimately, he delivered speeches that were well-suited for the radio, and based on the experience of the first debate with Kennedy, television was not always his ideal medium [3] (Chapel, 1976). His public communication style was often direct and emotionally restrained [4]. Rubenzer and Faschingbauer (2004) assert that Nixon shared two particular personality traits with Andrew Jackson and Lyndon Johnson that would sometimes be manifested in his public speeches: angry hostility and assertiveness. His admirers saw him as a political warrior of high intellect, one with shrewd instincts, while his critics considered him a king of bathosor political swindler (Gavin, 2001).

The former president was also a proponent of speaking from authority by refraining from speaking off of notes that he had taken (Smith, n.d.). In a conversation with Bruce Herschensohn in 1977, Nixon advised that to win a debate, Herschensohn must (1) never call his opponent by his formal title, instead referring to him by his first name so that they were both on equal ground; (2) turn down a researcher that the television station would offer, as conducting one’s own research would enable the debater to speak from his/her own expertise and not from memorized statistics; (3) not carry notes with him, as psychologically, speaking without notes would throw his opponent off and impress the audience; and finally, (4) when the opponent had the upper hand on a particular point, reply with “That is not the issue.” At best, the opponent would fall for this. At worst, the argument would be diverted to a debate on whether the point was the issue (Herschensohn, 2008). Nixon believed that an appropriate length for a speech was no more than 35 minutes and he preferred to give his speeches at 9:30 a.m. EST.

From a speaking perspective, Nixon often utilized distinct strategies to influence constituents. When George Wallace stated that “it would be over” for any protestor who lay in front of his limousine [5] (Carter, 2000), Nixon was successfully able to exploit Wallace’s anger toward members of the youth counterculture movement in civil and moderate terms. Doing this aligned further the fragmented American social class that stood against the protesting hippie counterculture with him. By 1972, Nixon the strategist was able to stage protestor conflicts to position himself as the solution of the problems facing America. Staff members would provide tickets to protestors who were considered to be vile, immoral and unhesitant to use openly foul language against the president during public appearances. When they would attack, he would be ready. Nixon’s oratorical strategies were composed of flashes of cleverness; he was able to tap into white middle class rages to gain support among the right-of-center party, and he branded himself as a working class hero opposed by “hopeless snobs” desperately trying to attack him (Perlstein, 2008). He astonishingly rebranded the party of plutocrats as the Silent Majority—regular people who opposed the social chaos of the time (Krugman, 2008).

In their quantitative psychoanalytical study of personality and behavioral styles among presidents, Rubenzer and Faschingbauer (2004) revealed that Nixon displayed low rankings in agreeableness, character, and extroversion, and high rankings in conscientiousness and neuroticism. The low-ranking parameter of character is particularly ironic, given the events that ultimately destroyed his career. Furthermore, it was noted that he was calculating in his style and often lacked warm-heartedness in his delivery, perhaps compounding with his character deficiencies to create fatal leadership flaws. Gerald Ford seemed to summarize the Nixonian persona when he said, “Making up his mind and then pretending that his options were still open—that was a Nixon trait that I’d have occasion to witness again” (p. 113). His persona as terse did not necessarily mean that he lacked empathy or an ability to bring people together. As Bob Dole once stated, Nixon was the only person in Washington with the consideration to offer his left hand to shake when greeting him.

Nixon’s handshake with Chou En-lai upon arriving in Beijing represented a new era of diplomacy between the United States and China. Two decades earlier, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles refused to shake En-lai’s hand at the Geneva Convention.

Nixon’s speechwriting team was one of the largest in White House history, and despite his downfall as president, the group collectively enjoyed the greatest post-presidential success compared to any other speechwriting staff in history. They were an assembly of intelligent people recruited more for their ability than political favors. The individuals who follow were some of the the prominent members of the team. Noonan (as cited by Gavin, 2001) referred to them as the “Murderer’s Rowe” of speechwriting. This was originally a reference to the New York Yankees of the late 1920s, who featured a lineup including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Bob Muesel. Buchanan, Safire, and Price were an equivalent lineup in their rhetorical “slugging” ability.

John Andrews began his career as a submarine officer before joining Nixon’s staff. After his tenure in the administration, he would lead a distinguished career as president of the Colorado State Senate, founder of Backbone America, columnist for the Denver Post, recipient of appointments of various roles in the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush presidential administrations, and a failed Colorado gubernatorial run.

Aram Bakshian worked his way through the ranks in the ‘60s and early ‘70s as a speechwriter for Bob Dole (then chair of the RNC) and a conservative commentary writer for publications such as The National Review and New York Times. In 1972, senior members of the Nixon administration invited Bakshian to join the staff. He served as a speechwriter for Nixon through the end of his term, assumed a similar role when Gerald Ford took office, and worked for a third administration when Ronald Reagan was elected. Bakshian is now the editor in chief of American Speaker.

Vera Hirschberg was the first female presidential speechwriter in U.S. history. In addition to her work for the president, Hirschberg wrote numerous speeches for the First Lady and other members on the Nixon family. After a distinguished career as a journalist and government information official, she died in 2007 at the age of 78.

James Humes served as a speechwriter for the Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush administrations. In describing presidential speechwriting, he once told Tom Brokaw, “I am a translator. I translate the bureaucratic into the poetic. Some of that bureaucratic stuff would put out the fire in a fireside chat” (Brown, 2008). Humes is currently a professor of language and leadership at the University of Colorado.

Jack MacDonald was of particular value to the administration because of his background, which included a combination of political and corporate experience. MacDonald shared some of his insights in an open letter to Carter’s speechwriters, published in 1977, cautioning them that their work would not always be glamorous. He wrote, “You’re not yet acutely familiar with Rose Garden Rubbish—but you soon will be.…What does [the president] say to the head of the American Dental Association? What does he tell someone who is off to deliver two musk oxen to the People’s Republic of China?” He added, “These are all real items and the President can’t wing them—somebody has to develop some background suggestions for lines of credible commentary. Don’t look around—you’re it” (as cited in Safire, 2008, p. 631).

John McLaughlin, a former ordained priest, worked as an assistant to President Nixon based on a referral from his friend, Patrick Buchanan. He left the Society of Jesus to work for the administration. He is a popular television host and political commentator in the United States, hosting the long-running and popular television program The McLaughlin Group.

In describing the speechwriting process within the administration, Aram Bakshian said, “There’s one writer who coordinates the whole thing, but the input may come from many people, even on middle range speeches…at any time the President is going to say anything that involves policy, it will end up going through between three to eight drafts, even more in some cases.” He added, “someone from the Domestic Council or National Security Council will be looking at it, the budget people will be going over it, and there’ll be constant changes. There’ll be a dozen or more people that’ll receive circularized copies of the several drafts” (Chapel, 1976, p. 67).

William Gavin (2001) recalled, “Jim Keogh attended morning meetings in the White House. He would be told about the forthcoming events at which the president would speak. Back in the EOB [the Executive Office Building, which was next to the White House], at our meeting, Keogh would give out assignments.” He added that the draft of the speech, “would then be given to Keogh, who would read it and either send it directly across the street; call in the writer for another draft; make minor changes in the text himself; or, if he felt the text did not work, reassign the job to another writer” (p. 365).

When asked if the committee approach resulted in a watered-down compromise, Bakshian stated, “The same basic principles apply to policy making and speechwriting. In terms of policy, the budget people, concerned from the budget point of view, haggle with the program people who want new programs. There’s also a tendency among the program people, when there is a conflict, to want the speech to say as little as possible. Therefore, strong commitments get objected to by these specialists.” He added, “When we think of the famous addresses and the very decisive, sharp rhetoric of the past, it’s usually been either in time of war or when the topic concerned very fundamental issues that didn’t involve level upon level of bureaucracy” (Chapel, 1976, p. 67). Evidently, groupthink among staff members seemed to be considerable problem as a result of the highly bureaucratic process (Figure 1 diagrams the procedure).

William Safire (1975) recalled two examples of groupthink as a result of the culture rooted in the administration. First, “When I objected to the torrent of interviews given by the President in early 1971, arguing that it made him look like a sudden convert to publicity, I was ostracized for three months” (p. 274). Second, “When I volunteered a suggestion in a Vietnam speech draft that no more draftees be sent to fight, I was promptly taken off the speech entirely, and was less inclined to do that again” (p. 274). Why did this level of groupthink exist? Critics of the administration often cite the paranoid tendencies of the president. Safire asserted the uniqueness of the administration in that this was the first time in presidential politics that the leader of the majority embraced a paranoid approach. “Ordinarily, this style is used by movements that see themselves beset by, and surrounded by, enemies vastly more numerous and well financed than themselves” (p. 274). However, “Nixon had proclaimed the Silent Majority, and firmly believed himself to be a Gulliver beset by Lilliputians not nearly as powerful as he and his supporters were” (p. 274).

This diagram demonstrates the complexity of the speechwriting process. Numerous drafts pass through departments within the administration before the final speech is delivered (Chapel, 1976). (Figure © Michael A. Moodian)

Richard Nixon was one of the most publically complex figures in U.S. history. His tale is an American story of victory and defeat. His tale is one of darkness. With the continuous influx of tapes and transcripts that are released to this day, his tale is one that is continually expanding. He was a man of great intellect stigmatized by a character flaw impossible to overcome. Nixon played the leading role in an Aristotelian tragedy of human suffering that brought some members of its audience sadness, and other members of its audience pleasure.

Works Cited:

Angelo, B. (2001). First mothers: The women who shaped the presidents. New York: HarperCollins.

Aristotle (335 BCE/1932). Poetics (W.H. Fyfe, trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Brown, F. (2008, January 17). Presidential speechwriter discusses career, candidates. Retrieved December 10, 2008, from the Knoxville News Sentinel Web site:

Carter, D. T. (2000). The politics of rage: George Wallace, the origins of the New Conservatism, and the transformation of American politics (2nd ed.). Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.

Chapel, G. W. (1976). Speechwriting in the Nixon administration. Journal of Communication. 26(2), 65–72.

Gavin, W. F. (2001). His heart’s abundance: Notes of a Nixon speechwriter. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 31(2), 358–368.

Hammer, M. R. (2009). Solving problems and resolving conflict using the intercultural conflict style model and inventory. In M.A. Moodian (Ed.), Contemporary leadership and intercultural competence: Exploring the cross-cultural dynamics within organizations (pp. 219–232). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Herschensohn, B. (2008, February 28). Do I miss President Nixon? Retrieved September 6, 2008, from The New Nixon Blog:

Krugman, P. (2008, October 20). The real plumbers of Ohio. New York Times, p. A29.

Perlstein, R. (2008). Nixonland: The rise of a president and the fracturing of America. New York: Scribner.

Rubenzer, S. J., & Faschingbauer, T. R. (2004). Personality, character, & leadership in the White House: Psychologists assess the presidents. Dulles, VA: Potomac Books.

Safire, W. (1975). Before the fall. New York: Doubleday.

Safire, W. (2008). Safire’s political dictionary. New York: Random House.

Smith, C. R. (n.d.). Speechwriting in the Nixon and Ford White Houses. Retrieved September 6, 2008, from the California State University, Long Beach Web site:

Warner, E. (1972, June 5). The Nixon vacuum. Time. 99(23).


[1] Voorhis was a New Deal Liberal and ardent supporter of Upton Sinclair’s California gubernatorial run against Frank Merriam in 1934. He was the inspiration for James Stewart’s character in the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

[2] The firm was named Beverly & Knoop. After only a year, Nixon became a partner and the name of the firm was changed to Beverly, Knoop & Nixon.

[3] This can certainly be the case when you compare Nixon’s television presence with 20th and 21st century presidents who performed well on television, such as John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama.

[4] Hammer (2009) classifies this style as the Discussion style in his Intercultural Conflict Style Model.

[5] This was in reference to an instance of a political protestor lying in front of Lyndon Johnson’s limousine. Wallace’s exact quote was, “I’ll tell you when November comes, the first time they lie down in front of my limousine it’ll be the last one they ever lay down in front of; their day is over” (Carter, 2000, p. 366).

About the Author:

Michael A. Moodian is a writer from Southern California. Contact him through his website, follow him on Twitter (@mikemoodian) and subscribe to his Facebook updates.