WASHINGTON (AP) — Richard Nixon never considered himself a great orator, a judgment shared by those who heard him speak. It turns out he had a case of Churchill envy.
Preparing for an address to the Canadian Parliament in the spring of 1972 and a fall re-election campaign, the president worried that his rhetoric was so tedious it would cost him politically, and wished for a touch of Winston Churchill’s magic with the spoken word.
“The speeches I make are to the great credit of the speech writing team generally highly literate, highly responsible and almost invariably dull,” he wrote in a memo to his top aides, which surfaced Monday in thousands of documents released by the Nixon Presidential Library.
The records add to a long-familiar picture of Nixon’s political operatives playing hardball, digging for dirt on Democrats however they could.
They paid journalists as informants, tried to catch Sen. Ted Kennedy with other women and sought to discredit opponents by any means, all part of a campaign of political espionage and manipulation that would lead eventually to the Watergate scandal and a presidency in ruins.
Nixon was hardly above the fray. As previous disclosures showed, the president wanted Secret Service agents to tail Kennedy and spill secrets on his behavior. Nixon’s own part in the Watergate cover-up led to his downfall.
Nixon was a keen student of the forces arrayed against him and no detail seemed too small. He fussed over White House guest lists, picked out journalists for favor and disfavor and fretted about his way with words. That’s where the British prime minister and wartime leader came in.
“Now I don’t mean to suggest that I should write or sound like Churchill,” Nixon said. “He is one of those rare birds where God broke the mold when he died. On the other hand, we can at least learn from him.”
He said if it were too arrogant to think of learning from Churchill, he wished to emulate one of Churchill’s oratorical influences from his youth, the New York Democratic congressman William Bourke Cockran, whom the memo misidentified as Burt Cochran.
The president appealed for “illustration, anecdote and colorful words which would inevitably be remembered. I am not talking about gimmicks. I abhor gimmicks and the clever tricks which are fine for Governors, Mayors, Senators, but simply not up to Presidential standards.”
Nixon noted that history would not soon forget his groundbreaking announcement of a trip to China, his “Silent Majority” speech or his “Checkers speech” of 1952, in which he put a controversy over a campaign fund behind him by speaking of his family and his dog Checkers.
Still, he said, “we don’t have many block busters like that left. What we have to take is a minimum of substance and get a maximum of mileage out of it.”
There was, in the end, one blockbuster line to come, delivered in a question-and-answer session with 400 managing editors at an Associated Press meeting in November 1973: “I am not a crook.”