On page 266 of Nixon: A Life, Jonathan Aitken relays a story that Elliott Richardson told him about Vice-President Richard Nixon. Richardson at the time was acting Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). Richardson under President Nixon would serve as Under-Secretary of State, HEW Secretary, Secretary of Defense, and Attorney General. Richardson resigned from his Attorney General position because he refused to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, notwithstanding pressure from President Nixon to do so. Richardson would still go on to serve in the Ford Administration, as Ambassador to Great Britain and Secretary of Commerce. Because of the variety of offices that he held, he was known as “The Man for All Positions.”
When Richardson was acting HEW Secretary in 1959, which was during Dwight Eisenhower’s Presidency, there was an occasion when Nixon spoke up at a Cabinet meeting, and Richardson actually appreciated this. Ordinarily, Nixon would keep quiet at these meetings in 1959. I’m not entirely clear why, but Richardson says that Nixon felt agitated because the Eisenhower Administration was making decisions without considering their negative impact on Nixon’s coming 1960 run for President. Aitken states on page 266:
“One occasion when Nixon did not keep his mouth shut at a Cabinet meeting in 1959 elicited the admiration and gratitude of Richardson, who was on the verge of resignation over the Administration’s refusal to accept a bill which would provide certain federal guarantees and subsidies for bonds funding the expansion of higher education. The bill was brought back to the Cabinet for one last discussion. The HEW Secretary, Arthur Fleming, made his pitch and Eisenhower asked for views. ‘Just about everyone was against it at first,’ recalled Richardson. ‘Ezra Taft Benson, the Agriculture Secretary, said it was an unwelcome intrusion of government. Bob Anderson, the Secretary of the Treasury, said it required an excessive commitment of federal funding. Our allies deserted us one by one. The bill looked completely lost, until the Vice President spoke up. In a series of well-timed interventions Nixon got Anderson to admit that the bill would have very little impact on the budget in the first year or two. Then he had everyone agreeing that there was no objection to the bill in principle since the Government was already giving all sorts of subsidies to higher education. Finally he gave his own interpretation of the HEW data of the need for higher educational institutions, ending up by asking, ‘Can there be any doubt Mr President, that this bill meets an important national priority?’ There was a tiny spluttering around the table but no one opposed it any more, so Ike looked rather grim nodded and said, ‘All right—-send it up.’ It was a quite extraordinarily skillful performance by Nixon. He had won the bill almost single-handed, and I was extremely grateful to him since I was saved from the need to resign. Quite an irony, when you consider what happened to me in 1973.[‘]”
Ezra Taft Benson’s opposition to the funding of higher education did not surprise me, since Benson was sympathetic towards the arch-conservative John Birch Society (whose founder, Robert Welch, argued that Eisenhower was an agent of the Communist conspiracy). Benson was one of the endorsements of Gary Allen’s None Dare Call It Conspiracy on the book’s back cover. Just looking at some of the titles of his published works is eye-opening. I’m looking especially at the title Civil Rights, Tool of Communist Deception. See here.
Richardson’s story is cool, for a variety of reasons. For one, this account is an example of why Aitken’s book is so good. Richardson, who left the Nixon Administration in protest, was years later reflecting on something positive that Richard Nixon did as Eisenhower’s Vice-President, and he was making this reflection to Jonathan Aitken. I’ve read a number of books about Nixon, and many of them rely (at least in part) on interviews, but the quality of the interviews in Aitken’s book particularly impresses me. Second, I’m impressed by how Nixon was able to sway the atmosphere of the room from opposing federal funding for higher education to supporting it. While Nixon has long been characterized as socially-inept, he had to have talent to pull this off. He probably could do so because he had a commanding presence and was able to articulate his position in an intelligent, reasonable manner. Third, this passage highlights Nixon’s centrist ideology, as Nixon supported a federal role for higher education, when conservatives within Eisenhower’s Cabinet were against that. Perhaps Nixon’s stance was rooted in the importance of higher education in his own life: it allowed a working-class youth like him to go into law and then politics.