Most people remember Richard Nixon for being the only President of the United States to resign from office. Yet when I was researching this blog post, I realized that I knew almost nothing about his childhood and education. Like most leaders, his early experiences shaped what he did later in life.
Official White House Photo of President Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon was born in 1913 in Yorba Linda, a small town east of Los Angeles. His father Frank planted lemon groves, but these failed and the family moved to Whittier, California. Here Frank ran a grocery store and gas station. Richard Nixon said of his childhood, “we were poor, but the glory of it was we didn’t know it.”
Although Frank and Hannah Nixon had five children, they lavished most of their attention and what little money they had on their oldest son, Harold. They bought Harold a Boy Scout uniform but couldn’t afford to get one for Richard. Richard and his other brothers stayed home while Harold was sent to a Christian boarding school in Massachusetts.
Harold and Richard were opposites. Harold was popular with other kids and girls “swooned over him.” In contrast, Richard felt uncomfortable around people he didn’t know well and the other boys teased him. Instead of fighting the bullies, Richard kept his anger bottled up. Realizing he would never be as popular as Harold, Richard threw himself into his schoolwork. He became his grammar school’s valedictorian and joined the debate team in high school. Richard also had big dreams. His grandmother gave him a framed portrait of Abraham Lincoln, which he hung over his bed.
Photo of Richard Nixon as a senior in high school, 1930
While Richard Nixon could literately look up to Abraham Lincoln, his parents’ volatile personalities had the most influence on him. Frank Nixon had a terrible temper. Richard and his brothers were rapped on the head by their father at various times. At his grocery store, Frank subjected customers to his conservative political opinions whether they wanted to hear them or not. He also blamed others for his bad luck.
In contrast, Richard’s mother, whom he called “a saint,” smiled and bottled up her frustrations. Hannah Nixon had a gentle voice but punished her children by not speaking to them. Though deeply religious, she was not affectionate.
As a result of his childhood experiences, Richard developed a dislike of conflict and a sense that he was not good enough, especially when compared with Harold. When Harold died of tuberculosis in 1933, Frank Nixon said, “Why is it, that the best and finest of the flock has to be taken?” Richard, as the second oldest son, would always be trying to live up to his dead brother’s potential.
After high school, Richard was offered a scholarship to Harvard but ended up at Whittier College to save money on living expenses. Determined to distinguish himself, Richard participated in school debates and was eventually elected president of the student body. While he excelled in debates and in his studies, Richard remained somewhat of a loner. One former classmate recalled that “I don’t think he had anybody you would call a close friend.” He had an on and off relationship with a young woman which she described as “stormy.” Even she said she didn’t feel that she really knew him.
At the end of college, Nixon received and accepted a scholarship to Duke University Law School. He told his girlfriend that he hoped to do something important with his life. Clearly, Richard Nixon was ready to make his mark on the world.
Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas
The American President by Phillip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Phillip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt