The political career of Richard Milhous Nixon (1913-1994), thirty-seventh president of the United States, was framed by suggestions of conspiracy, from his rapid rise to prominence as a result of his involvement with the Hiss case to Watergate, which ended his career. Furthermore, the frequent diagnosis of Nixon as “paranoid” placed him as both subject and object of numerous conspiracy theories. Nixon’s connection to the conspiratorial even predates the Hiss case, beginning with his response to the advertisement by the “Committee of 100″ for a candidate to oppose Congressman Jerry Voorhis. The Committee was a group of local businessmen, sometimes considered to have sinister motives, who met at an elitist rural retreat, Bohemian Grove in California, itself connected to a set of conspiracy theories through groups such as the Bilderbergers. Mae Brussell insists that “That ad was typical, a covert method of pretending this was an open contest for office” (Brussell, 44). Brussell’s argument invokes an article of faith that frequently exceeds the “conspiracy research community”: that Nixon’s entire career constituted a form of conspiracy.
Nixon’s early political success was largely dependent on public recognition of his preeminent position on the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), most notably in his investigation of espionage charges against Alger Hiss. Nixon coau-thored the first piece of legislation produced by the HUAC, the Mundt-Nixon Bill, which was anticon-spiracy legislation in that it would have forced “Communist front” organizations to reveal themselves by declaring Communist Party affiliation. While Nixon’s ensuing prominence can only be credited in a period in which the “international Communist conspiracy” or “red scare” was a widespread belief, his status as perceived conspirator and object of conspiracy exceeded the zeitgeist. Nixon not only responded to, but also contributed to, conspiratorial beliefs, intending, for example, to investigate “communistic art” in federal buildings and insisting that filmmakers make films that warn the American people about the dangers of communism.
Throughout his career, Nixon was linked to financial corruption and to organized crime. As the journalist Jeff Gerth argued during Nixon’s presidency, Nixon was located at the center of a tangled web of conspiracy: “Somewhere within the classic alliance of money, power, and politics lies this particular sharp-edged triangle: the Teamsters Union . . . ; the shadowy empire of organized crime and its power; and the political fiefdom of Richard Nixon” (Gerth, 43). This interconnection of a “shadow government” and organized crime, termed “deep politics” by Dale Scott, is frequently aligned with Nixon in conspiracy theories. In the document “A Skeleton Key to the Gemstone Files,” for example, Nixon first appears in 1956, having been “bought” by Howard Hughes in his conspiratorial attempt to control the U.S. electoral process. Nixon’s significant financial dealings with Hughes inspired a number of conspiracy theories, including a purported Hughes involvement with Watergate. This contributed to a model for the perceived power structure of the Nixon administration, which “replaced public politics with the politics of secrecy” (Rogin and Lottier, 19).
Watergate and Beyond
While many of Nixon’s political actions have been considered to be conspiratorial, such as the secret bombing of Cambodia or his obstruction of the Paris peace talks to end the Vietnam War before the 1968 presidential election (detailed by Anthony Summers), the latter part of Nixon’s political career coincided with shifting models of power, which tended to identify his power as overt and, therefore, largely symbolic. Some conspiracy theories correspondingly place Nixon as the victim of the covert “invisible government.” Some critics have argued that Watergate was a constitutional coup d’etat against Nixon; Robert Altman’s Secret Honor (1984) presents it as an operation designed to finally remove him from the control of the “deep politics”—of the “Committee of 100.” But it was after the investigations into Watergate revealed the power operations of the Nixon administration that Nixon became linked, through conspiracy theory, to the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
On the White House audiotape of 23 June 1972, known as the “Smoking Gun” tape, Nixon instructs Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman to have the CIA pressure the FBI into dropping its Watergate investigation, because it would “open up the whole Bay of Pigs thing again.” Haldeman would later write, “It seems that in all those references to the Bay of Pigs, he was actually referring to the Kennedy assassination” (Haldeman, 39). Some conspiracy researchers would specifically link the assassination to Watergate, arguing that White House burglar Frank Stur-gis and fellow “Plumbers” unit member E. Howard Hunt were the assassins, a claim investigated by the U.S. President’s Commission on CIA Activities within the United States, also known as the Rockefeller Commission. While there is no substantial evidence to verify these theories, the perception of the conspiring Nixon revealed by Watergate was transposed onto many of his actions. For example, Nixon, who was revealed to have been in Dallas on the day of Kennedy’s assassination, told the Warren Commission that he had only been in Dallas on 20 and 21 November. Nixon gave varying explanations for this mistake, giving rise to jokes that Nixon was the only member of his generation who did not remember where he was when Kennedy was shot (Vankin, 275).
Of the many reasons proffered for why Watergate occurred, one of the most enduring is that it was an extension of Nixon’s personal paranoia. Both opponents and some administration members referred to this, either indirectly, by alluding to Nixon’s “isolation” or “bunker mentality,” or directly, by claiming he suffered from a form of persecutory paranoia. But whether or not Watergate was initiated as an attempt to preempt Nixon’s “enemies,” Nixon could never escape Watergate. The verified criminality and conspiracy of Watergate would forever conjoin Nixon, the “unindicted coconspirator” (in the legal jargon), to the realm of conspiracy theory, with the revelation of his actions and motivation projected onto his entire life and career. After Watergate forced the end of his official political career, Nixon spent the remainder of his life writing books on foreign policy and attempting to rehabilitate his public image. For many critics, the laudatory eulogies at his funeral—Senator Bob Dole said that the latter twentieth century would be known as the “age of Nixon”—testified to the success of this, Nixon’s greatest conspiracy.