The American Presidents Series
Richard M. Nixon
About the book
Up from Yorba Linda
Richard Nixon had a hard early life. He was born on January 9, 1913, in a seven-hundred-foot frame house his father had built in Yorba Linda, California. The town, set among citrus groves in Orange County, was home to about two hundred people, most of them struggling financially. For many years, the Nixon house had no running water or electricity. Dick Nixon was the second of five sons -- two of whom died young -- born to Frank and Hannah Milhous Nixon. Frank, born in Ohio of Scots-Irish descent, was quarrelsome and combustible; by all accounts, it was difficult to win his approval, and he thrashed his sons when they crossed him. Hannah, a devout Quaker whose parents had migrated to California from Indiana, came from a middle-class, stable milieu (her parents objected to the marriage). She was selfless toward others but at home was cold, remote, and undemonstrative, and she devoted most of her attention to her two sickly sons. She was also stinting in her praise of her brightest son's achievements. Frank, who had a minimal education, ran away from home when he was thirteen, holding a number of jobs until he moved to California, where he became a streetcar conductor. Hannah, whose family was somewhat better off, attended Whittier College for two years. After their marriage, Frank ran a lemon orchard that failed and worked as a roustabout in an oil field.
When Nixon was nine, the family moved to nearby Whittier, which was composed predominantly of transplanted midwesterners who tended toward conservatism and was dominated by Quakers. The California Quakers were different from their eastern brethren; they weren't necessarily pacifists and were more evangelical and less liberal. The Nixons attended church on Wednesday nights as well as on Sundays. The citizens of Whittier, like those of many southern California towns, believed in temperance, banned public dancing, and closed the cinemas on Sundays. Frank Nixon opened a gasoline station, later expanding it into a grocery store where the entire family worked. Customers steered clear of the volatile Frank, preferring to deal with Hannah. As a teenager, Richard often arose at four a.m. to drive to Los Angeles to buy produce for the store.
Richard Nixon was a precocious child. He taught himself to read before he entered the first grade. He was an A student throughout his education, often finishing near the top of his class. He won oratorical contests, had a phenomenal memory, and was valedictorian of his eighth-grade class. A loner as a child, he preferred to be by himself, talking little, lying in the grass and staring at the sky. Despite his social awkwardness, he was elected several times to leadership positions by his classmates, indicating an early knack for politics -- and high ambitions. His early life also suggests a propensity for taking risks, putting himself on the line in order to succeed -- in school politics, debating, sports. Despite having a slight build, and no real natural athletic ability, he went out for football. Nixon tried to be "one of the guys," but because of his lack of social skills and his tendency to be a loner, he was more respected than popular in high school.
When Nixon graduated from Whittier High School, his parents lacked the means to send him to an elite college. (He had been offered a scholarhip to Harvard but his parents couldn't afford the other expenses of sending him there.) So he was forced to stay home and attend Whittier College. Once again, he went out for football -- and was a last-stringer who failed to win a letter. In college, Nixon also led a successful rebellion against the Franklin Club, a group of well-off students who were the powers at the school and had denied him membership; he formed a rival fraternity -- the first of his many battles against people of more privilege -- and he was elected president of the student body in his senior year. (In that office, he won a battle to introduce dancing at the Quaker college.) During his college years, he steadily dated Ola Florine Welch, a popular and substantive student at Whittier, and they became informally engaged. But it was a stormy relationship; her friends wondered what she saw in Dick Nixon. "He wasn't sexy," one said. She did admire his intellect, but later she dropped him for another man, saying, "Most of the time I just couldn't figure him out." Nixon was stung by the rejection and brooded about it for years.
After graduating from college in 1934, Nixon attended Duke University Law School, a good law school but not considered among the top ones in the country. Once again, his parents couldn't afford to send him to a more prestigious school. He held down several jobs while attending Duke on a partial scholarship. Nixon wasn't happy in his law school years; he was hardworking, serious, and remote (he never had a date in those three years), and acquired the nickname "Gloomy Gus," though he did get elected to the presidency of the law school bar association for his senior year. A classmate said he was elected out of "genuine respect for his scholarship" rather than because he was better liked than the other candidate. Nixon barely campaigned for the position and was self-effacing after he won it. No one expected him to go on to greater things. He was embittered when prominent Wall Street law firms declined to hire a Duke graduate, favoring those who attended more prestigious law schools. This was just one of Nixon's several disappointments in his life.
Returning to Whittier in 1937, Nixon got a job in a small law firm, one of whose partners had gone to college with Hannah Nixon. His work mainly consisted of probate and real estate cases. Before long Nixon had become a partner in the firm, earning a good salary, but (not unlike his father) he lost a lot of money in a failed frozen orange juice venture. He assumed local leadership roles and became president of the Whittier College Alumni Association.
In 1938, Nixon met Thelma (Pat) Ryan during an appearance by the two of them in a play put on by the Whittier Community Players. Pat, too, had come from harsh circumstances -- born in a miner's shack in Nevada. Her mother died at an early age, and Pat took over her duties. She worked her way through college in California, graduated cum laude, and taught commercial classes at Whittier High School. Nixon said it was love at first sight, and he told Pat right away that he was going to marry her. Pat, a spirited redhead, wasn't interested. Nixon pursued her as doggedly as he pursued other goals, even dirving her to her dates with other men. After more than two years, she relented, and they were married on June 21, 1940.
According to the author Kati Marton, though the union began as a love match, it was a "misalliance" that led to a "lifeless marriage." Pat thought she was marrying an up-and-coming attorney who would take her far from Whittier. She hated politics. Later the cold and distant Nixon often snubbed her in public. Their two daughters, Tricia and Julie, who were born in 1946 and 1948, respectively, did love their father; Julie was particularly fierce in her support of him as his troubles mounted later.
Though Nixon grew up in California, he was rootless for the rest of his life, and he moved often. He lacked, in Garry Wills's term, the "stamp of place." He had no equivalent of John F. Kennedy's Hyannis Port or Lyndon Johnson's and Ronald Reagan's ranches, or the Bush family's Kennebunkport. As president he took many of his vacation in Key Biscayne, Florida, a haven of the unrooted.
In early 1942, having seized upon an opportunity to get out of Whittier, Nixon took a job in Washington with the Office of Price Administration, for which he had been recommended by a former law school professor. The experience turned him against government controls and the federal bureaucracy. Later that year, when the navy issued a call for lawyers, a bored Nixon volunteered as a lieutenant. Though he served in the Pacific, he never saw combat. During his military service, he spent much of his time reading serious books and was an avid -- and successful -- poker player. He resigned from the navy in 1945 to run for his first political office.