The summer of 1974 in Washington DC was a political bullfight; there was one bull, but a host of matadors, picadors and spectators galore just waiting to watch President Nixon in his last gasps of political power. Congressional hearings, articles of impeachment and an administration completely insular and unstable were all coming to a simultaneous head. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger metaphorically described this as the highest pinnacles of success descending into the deepest valleys of distress.
Over the course of the prior few years, President Nixon had won the largest landslide election victory to that point in history, successfully concluded American involvement in Vietnam, and achieved the monumental foreign policy objectives of detente with the USSR, stability in the Middle East, and rapprochement with China. But in August 1974, all these achievements were forgotten, and with an atmosphere of political intrigue thick with smiling hatred, the bull in the ring faced the final cut.
Almost everyone had deserted him as key members of his staff faced indictment, trials, and prison. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled he had to provide tape-recorded conversations to prosecutors, the House Judiciary Committee passed the first article of impeachment for obstruction of justice, and a group of key legislators informed him that he didn’t have the votes in the Senate to avoid removal from office. Nixon even called Alabama Governor George Wallace to enlist his support, but Wallace refused to intervene on his behalf with members of the Alabama congressional delegation and other Boll Weevil Democrats. After the call with Wallace, Nixon turned to Chief of Staff Alexander Haig and said, “Well, Al, there goes the presidency.” And so, the true “man in the arena,” faced the final curtain all alone.
The day before, on national television, Nixon announced his intention to resign, and now, on the morning of Aug. 9, in an impromptu moment, Nixon addressed the White House staff for the last time as president. In what has been described as rambling, unprepared, and certainly unscripted remarks, Nixon perhaps for the only time opened his soul and summed up his life’s work.
"Nobody will ever write a book, probably, about my mother." he said. "Well, I guess all of you would say this about your mother – my mother was a saint. And, I think of her, two boys dying of tuberculosis, nursing four others in order that she could take care of my older brother for three years in Arizona and seeing each of them die, and when they died, it was like one of her own. Yes, she will have no books written about her. But she was a saint."
An old saying, perhaps, said to comfort women in a different age and justify their sacrifices states: “the hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world.” So, Nixon’s mother, Hannah Milhous, at least for five-and-a-half years, ruled the world. No book has ever been written about her, but the life of Hannah Nixon and the impact she had on her son and his consequential role in American politics and international affairs is worth consideration.
Milhous was born in 1885 in Butlerville, Indiana into a devout Quaker family of farmers. She was one of nine children; seven girls and two boys. Her father, Franklin, was an orchardist, who, seeing brighter days ahead, moved his entire family to California in 1897 to establish a tree nursery and orange grove with other Quakers in Whittier, California. While a “birthright” Quaker, Hannah’s branch of the faith expressed itself in a more evangelical bent, and at the age of 18, she had a religious experience that made her very devout and committed. Hannah was intelligent, and after completing high school, she attended Whittier College, where, by all accounts, she made good grades and was on the path to becoming a teacher.
No stranger to hard work, she helped her mother with various household tasks, assisted with her father’s farm, and stayed up late each night studying. Her life would be forever changed when, at a Quaker Valentine’s Day party, she met Frank Nixon. They fell in love and married four months later.
Hannah’s family never really approved of Frank and thought she had married beneath her. But Hannah truly loved her husband, and, having completed her sophomore year of college, seemed ready to start her own family. Within a year of their marriage, Harold Nixon was born, followed by Richard in 1913. She had five sons in all, named after the early English kings; Richard, for Richard the Lion-Hearted.
By all accounts, Frank was uncouth, argumentative, and a tough father. Upon his marriage to Hannah, he converted to the Quaker faith but never truly left his Methodist roots.
Having studied education, Hannah made sure her children had a good educational foundation; in Richard’s case, she taught him to read when he was five, and her piano playing gave him a love for music. While Richard wore hand-me-down clothes, contemporaries remember that his clothes were always spotlessly clean and neatly pressed. Hannah felt that cleanliness was next to Godliness and she made sure that her children looked nice.
Strangely enough, inasmuch as Hannah doted on her children, she was not very affectionate. She never hugged, kissed, or even told her children verbally that she loved them. She showed her love by doing loving things, and in her mind, her actions meant more than her words. When asked about this lack of maternal affection, Richard responded, “She did not need to tell me that she loved me. Her eyes expressed the love and warmth no words could possibly convey.”
While psychologists have always pounced on this lack of motherly affection to explain Nixon’s inner soul, too much is often read into this. Kissinger jokingly referenced this and inferred that had Hannah Nixon been more emotive, Nixon would have been even more effective as a national leader.
She was also deeply committed to peace and was concerned about the victims of war. Hannah would accompany her mother, Almira, to the veterans’ hospital to visit with patients, read to them, and help them write letters home. Perhaps one of the hardest days in Nixon’s early life was after Pearl Harbor, when he decided to join the Navy. By this time, Nixon was married, in his mid-twenties, and had come to believe, against his Quaker upbringing, that opposing the war was aiding and abetting the enemy. He thought that the way to bring peace was to serve in the military.
After several business failures, Frank Nixon, with the help of Hannah’s family, started a gas station, which was the only station on a stretch of road between Whittier and La Habra. The gas station became a family enterprise and grew to include a grocery store in which every member of the Nixon family worked. An excellent cook, Hannah sold cakes and pies at Nixon’s Market, getting up every morning at 4 a.m. to start the process. Richard worked in the store in various capacities, and when he was older, he would get up early each morning and drive to a farmers’ market to buy fresh produce to sell at the store.
Hannah was very strict and impressed upon her children truthfulness and honesty. Richard and Edward echoed that as children, they much preferred a spanking to having their mother talk to them. Her lecture was stern and so emotionally draining that the confrontation left them ashamed, embarrassed, and determined not to repeat the experience or the offense.
Stealing was a significant offense and this incident, among others, impressed upon Richard the importance of financial honesty. In Nixon’s world view, taking something that was not yours constituted a major, cardinal sin. As a child, he had read about the Tea Pot Dome scandal that occurred under President Warren G. Harding and remarked to Hannah that he wanted to be a lawyer to help get rid of crooks. And from the Checkers speech to Watergate, it was important for him to stress that he was not a crook, he had not profited personally from his office, and he had not benefited financially.
After finishing college, Nixon attended Duke Law School on a scholarship. Hannah would remark to a family friend that the letter advising Richard that he had not only been accepted but would also receive a full scholarship made it the happiest day in her life; happier than the day of Nixon’s first vice-presidential inauguration. Nixon, to this stage of his life, had lived with his parents, and perhaps the trip to North Carolina to attend school was a way to grow beyond his family and escape from both Hannah’s reach and the responsibilities of Frank Nixon’s Market. But, while Nixon completed law school, he was unable to find a suitable position with prominent firms in New York. With his options limited, he returned home, and true to form, Hannah found a two-man law firm of family friends to offer Richard a job. But Richard was not willing to accept joining such a small practice, and much to Hannah’s dismay took a month to respond to the offer of employment. With all of his options exhausted, he did accept, and the fact that he would now be closer to home was satisfying to Hannah.
While much has been written to insinuate that Pat Ryan was a rival to Hannah, this really was not the case. Shortly after meeting Pat, Nixon brought her to his home for the obligatory family visit. Hannah was a bit concerned as Pat was a teacher in a business college, fairly worldly, and very mature. In fact, Pat’s life somewhat mirrored Hannah’s. She was a hard worker and basically ran her family’s household after her mother died. So industrious was Pat that prior to marrying Richard, she would get up early in the morning to help Hannah bake cakes and pies for the store. This time of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law bonding cemented a relationship of great mutual respect and devotion to Richard.
Once the war broke out, Nixon joined the Navy, working a desk job until finally seeing duty in the Pacific as an Air Transport Command officer.
As the legend goes, when Nixon was discharged from the Navy he was contacted by a group of business leaders to run for Congress against incumbent Democrat, Jerry Voorhis. Whether Hannah encouraged or discouraged Nixon’s initial run for office is unclear, but she was very proud of her son’s election and went to Washington to see him sworn in. Nixon’s rise to political prominence can only be described as meteoric, and it is hard to imagine that within just six years, he would rise from unknown private citizen to U.S. vice president.
Hannah does not appear to have played a prominent role in any of Nixon’s campaigns for Congress, Senate, or even vice president. She was certainly around, but more behind the scenes and providing moral support.
If the chief goal of a politician is to win office, then Nixon was wholly committed. Having accepted the nomination as Eisenhower’s vice president in July of 1952, only two months later Nixon faced a potential career-ending expose’. Enemies of Nixon leaked to the press a story that supporters had established a fund for Nixon’s personal use that contained thousands of dollars of improper payments. What started out as a third-rate, muckraking story grew to enormous proportions forcing Eisenhower and those around him to consider taking Nixon off of the ticket. But Hannah’s son was not about to give up without a fight. Thirty minutes of national television was purchased, and Nixon made the most crucial speech in his life. While Nixon always referred to it as the “Fund Speech” it became known forever as the “Checkers speech.” Addressing a national audience, Nixon reviewed his finances in detail and explained that he never benefited from the fund nor had contributors to the fund benefitted from Nixon. He ended by explaining that one supporter had sent his children a cocker spaniel named Checkers, and regardless of what anyone said, he was going to keep the dog. Without the approval or knowledge of Eisenhower, Nixon ended his speech by asking people to contact the Republican National Committee if they wanted him to stay on the ticket. The letters and telegrams came pouring in, and Nixon’s approval rating shot up, but now Eisenhower was confronted with a decision. At a political rally, Eisenhower joined Nixon and read this telegram to the crowd:
Dear General: I am trusting that the absolute truth may come out concerning the attack on Richard, and when it does, I am sure you will be guided right in your decision, to place implicit faith in his integrity and honesty. Best wishes from one who has known Richard longer than anyone else, His Mother.
To a roar of applause, Nixon was back on the ticket, perhaps not as a full partner, but no longer as a liability or concern. Hannah’s public endorsement of her son was her first time in the spotlight, and she would be a rallying point for Nixon supporters as an emotional touchstone to the 1952 election.
At a family dinner before the inaugural balls, Hannah gently pulled her now vice president son aside and out of sight of the others in attendance and placed a note in his hand.
To Richard: You have gone far and we are proud of you always—I know that you will keep your relationship with your Maker as it should be for after all, that, as you must know, is the most important thing in this life. With love, Mother
Hannah’s role now was to support her son, and she was a frequent visitor to Washington.
On July 22, 1960, Richard Nixon received his party’s presidential nomination on the first ballot. Writing about this days later, Nixon commented that “Pat and I were happier then than we were ever to be in my political career.” And sharing this moment with Richard was Hannah, sitting in a special seat with her granddaughters and admiring this achievement.
Losing the race for president hurt and would have deterred others from even thinking of a political comeback, much less a comeback requiring a campaign for the inferior office of Governor of California. Encouraged by supporters, Nixon decided to run, but he simply didn’t have the heart, and instead of embarking on a comeback, another defeat was tallied. At 49 and now rejected twice by voters, Nixon refused to even give a concession speech.
The last conversation Richard had with Hannah was in 1965. She was in a hospital recovering from a very painful and serious operation. Unknown to Nixon at the time, she had just read an article from the Los Angeles Times concluding that because of his defeat in 1962 and his “last press conference” he had no political future. Sensing his mother was depressed, but thinking it was related to her medical condition, Nixon looked at her and said, “Mother, don’t give up.” At that, Hannah, even in pain, pulled herself up in bed, looked her son squarely in the eye, and said, “Richard, don’t you give up. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re through!”
Will Sellers was appointed by Gov. Kay Ivey to the Supreme Court of Alabama in 2017. He is best reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to [email protected].