Biting phrases of stormy career

April 23, 1994

Richard M. Nixon brought to the language of American politics biting turns of phrase that often helped him win elections but often came back to torment and defeat him. A resolute anti-Communist, he won a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1950 by labeling his opponent, Democratic Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, "the Pink Lady."

That campaign and other early chapters of his life brought him a label of his own: "Tricky Dick."

A question asked about him in a campaign ad -- "Would you buy a used car from this man?" -- thereafter became a general standard for raising doubts about the trustworthiness of American office seekers at every level.

In 1952, in his famous "Checkers Speech," Mr. Nixon tearfully defended himself from charges he had taken inappropriate presents from businessmen. That performance saved his spot as vice presidential candidate on Dwight David Eisenhower's winning ticket. The speech got its name from a family pet, given to him by one of his politically powerful backers.

Mr. Nixon's ploy succeeded. But later he said Mr. Eisenhower kept him because he needed a point man, someone to deliver the hard blows.

He was up to that task. He told one campaign audience he would rather have a "khaki-clad President," referring to Mr. Eisenhower, "than one clothed in State Department pinks," a reference to Adlai E. Stevenson, the Democratic nominee that year.

After he was defeated by John F. Kennedy for the presidency in 1960, he went home to California and ran for governor. After losing that race, too, he told reporters: "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore," he said, "because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference."

He was wrong, of course.

He won the presidency twice, presided over tumultuous Vietnam War years and opened diplomatic relations with China.

Then came Watergate and more living language. He insisted for months that he was not involved. In the end, though, he resigned rather than risk impeachment.

The combative warrior was reluctant to apologize: "People didn't think it was enough to admit mistakes. If they want me to get down and grovel on the floor, no. Never."

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