On November 8, 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States by the slim margin of 112,827 votes. His Electoral College victory margin of 303 to 219 was the closest since 1916. The 1960 campaign for the presidency of the United States was shrouded by each candidate’s fear that he had medical problems that, if made public, would cost him the election. John Kennedy was terrified that word would get out that he suffered from Addison’s disease, caused by adrenal glands that fail to produce adequate amounts of cortisol. Therefore, Kennedy had to take prednisone, a hormone that can affect the brain to cause mood swings that could force him to make irrational decisions. His opponent, Richard Nixon, had been treated for depression by psychiatrist Arnold Hutschnecker in the early 1950s when Nixon was a U.S. senator from California. Both candidates were running for the position that would put their fingers on the trigger to the atomic bomb.
A Campaign of Intimidation
Polls taken a week before the election led Nixon to believe that he was going to lose the election unless he did something spectacular. On Monday, the last day before voters would go to the polls, the news media reported that Nixon had challenged Kennedy to release his medical records by 10 AM. In return, Nixon would release his own medical records. However, Nixon had no intention of letting his records be released by his psychiatrist.
The previous evening, Dr. Hutschnecker got a phone call saying “This is the Associated Press. Tomorrow there will be a statement about the health and fitness for office of the two presidential candidates. We have been informed that you are Vice President Nixon’s doctor, and we would like a statement from you about his health.” Dr. Hutschnecker knew that there were rumors that Nixon was being treated by a psychiatrist. He responded that no physician should give out any information about a patient over the phone.
This story was not made public until eight years later when Drew Pearson revealed it in his newspaper column. The phone call was probably made just to intimidate Nixon and let him know that if he revealed that Kennedy had Addison’s disease, Kennedy would reveal that Nixon suffered from depression.
Kennedy outsmarted Nixon in the television debates and that probably did more than anything else to win him the election. According to Don Hewett, producer of the first debate between Nixon and Kennedy, Nixon looked horrible that day. Kennedy had announced to the media that he would not use any makeup for the television debates, so Nixon decided that he would be criticized if he used makeup and Kennedy did not. Nixon had terrible five o’clock shadow, so he looked slovenly and lost the battle of appearances.
Nixon Did Not Give Up
Nixon ran for President again in 1968, basing his campaign on a promise to restore law and order to the nation’s cities that were torn by riots and crime. He defeated Hubert Humphrey to become the 37th President of the United States. In 1972, Nixon was elected to a second term in one of the largest landslides in U.S. history. Nixon always believed that Kennedy had stolen the 1960 election from him, so in his 1972 campaign he took steps to make sure that would not happen again – hence the Watergate scandal.
The Watergate Scandal
On June 17, 1972, five men broke into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested the five men and found cash on them that originated from a slush fund used by the Committee for the Re-Election of President Nixon. They traced the break in all the way up to president Nixon because he had tape-recorded his conversations with J.R. Haldeman about the burglary. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes to the government, evidence so overwhelming that it forced Nixon to resign on August 9, 1974, the only resignation of a U.S. president ever. Forty-three other people were eventually put in prison for the Watergate scandal.
Signs of Depression and Paranoia
During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Nixon told Henry Kissinger that he was likely to be killed by his critics in the worsening Watergate scandal. Nixon was unable to act in the crisis, so Kissinger, as National Security Advisor, ordered US military forces to warn the Soviet Union that American vital interests were at stake. Kissinger alone gave the order to launch nuclear-armed B-52 bombers to airborne holding points.
The book, Arrogance of Power, based in part on interviews with Dr. Hutschnecker (Nixon’s former psychiatrist) includes information that:
• Nixon took Dilantin, an anticonvulsant that can affect a person’s ability to reason rationally and can cause confusion and memory loss. He obtained the pills from a friend, not by prescription.
• Concern for Nixon’s mental state was so great that Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger ordered the military not to react to orders from the White House unless they were cleared by him or the Secretary of State.
• Nixon was reported to have physically abused his wife.
• Dr. Hutschnecker said that Nixon “wasn’t psychotic, but he had a good portion of neurotic symptoms, anxiety and sleeplessness.”
• Nixon said in several interviews that the White House tapes would vindicate him, when in fact, they showed that he was a promoter and participant in the Watergate scandal, his moods changed in seconds, he used incredibly uncensored language, and he participated in unlawful acts.
• While delivering his speech resigning the Presidency, Nixon had rapid eye blinking and heavy sweating, signs of uncontrolled emotions.
Pardoned by President Gerald Ford
After leaving Washington, Nixon and his wife Pat returned to their home in San Clemente, California. He went into a terrible depression after his resignation. On September 8, 1974, President Ford announced that he was granting Nixon a pardon for the Watergate break-in and other transgressions, citing the threat to Nixon’s health as part of the justification for the pardon. Ford stated, “I was hearing that he was terribly distraught. I don’t know whether you could call it irrational, but he was despondent and had an unhealthy state of mind.”
In September 1974, one month after leaving the Presidency, Nixon’s left leg swelled and hurt to touch, and he became severely short of breath. These are textbook signs of a clot that originated in his leg, broke off and traveled to his lungs. He was given heparin to keep the clot from spreading and he appeared to recover. A month later, the leg pain and swelling increased and he was again admitted to the hospital. The clot had extended up his leg into his pelvis, and he had surgery to prevent it from traveling into his belly. Six hours after the surgery, Nixon stood up and passed out. He had bled into his belly and needed several blood transfusions to save his life. When he was discharged on November 14, he had lost 15 pounds and was noticeably depressed.
However, he recovered his health and returned to his active interest in international affairs. He never admitted any wrongdoing, choosing instead to focus on his accomplishments. In his later years he acted as an elder statesman and made frequent trips abroad to meet with world leaders, often unsanctioned by the incumbent president.
Death Twenty Years Later
On April 18, 1994, Nixon suffered a massive stroke at his home in Park Ridge, New Jersey. He was conscious and was taken in an ambulance to New York Hospital–Cornell Medical Center. A blood clot formed in his upper heart, broke off and traveled to his brain. He was alert but couldn’t speak, see or move his right arm and leg. He had apparently had a massive bleed into the left side of the part of his brain, not an ordinary stroke, since his arms, legs, speech and vision were all affected.
Four days later he sank into a coma and died at age 81, on April 22, 1994. Famous people from all over the world, including five U.S. presidents, attended his funeral. President Bill Clinton’s eulogy talked about Nixon’s accomplishments in foreign affairs and did not mention his constitutional crimes.
What We Can Learn from the Life of Richard Nixon
Many world leaders have risen to positions of authority because their mental problems drove them to work for positions of power. Hitler, Napoleon, Stalin, probably Putin, and even some U.S. presidents have suffered from serious psychiatric disease.