WASHINGTON — Richard Nixon's election to the presidency in November, 1968, was the capstone to one of the country's most turbulent postwar years.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been slain in Memphis, Tenn., and riots swept the country. Weeks later, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles.
North Vietnam's Tet offensive had crystallized political revulsion about the war, and Lyndon B. Johnson, in effect, had been driven from the White House.
Every month something new set the country on edge. An American spy ship, the Pueblo, was captured off North Korea; its crew was thrown into prison. A B-52 bomber with nuclear weapons aboard crashed in the Arctic.
Democrats nominated Hubert H. Humphrey amid anarchy in the streets of Chicago, and he ran a campaign crippled by Johnson and the war and complicated by the angry presence of Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace stealing off with disaffected blue-collar voters.
From this yearlong maelstrom, Nixon emerged with a plurality of 43.4% to become one of the most durable and controversial American political leaders of the 20th Century.
Never had there been a more astonishing turnaround.
It was the resurrection of a man who had spent six years in political purgatory.
He emerged from the chaos of 1968, political analyst Jules Witcover wrote, because his objective was survival: "Through all the year's turbulent events, he had not sought enlightenment, not discourse, not public adulation, but survival. Over the previous six years, he had been like a soldier in combat whose only goal is not to be a daring hero, but to be alive when the battle is over."
That was the way it was for Nixon to the end.
The man who entered politics when anti-communist fervor was at its peak died still battling to survive the taint of the Watergate scandal that drove him from the White House nearly 20 years ago.
He had taken the public posture of an elder statesman, traveling the world, writing and advising his successors, but to the end he was fighting to regain his impounded presidential papers and control the tape recordings that had helped humiliate him and bring him to the brink of impeachment before he quit. It was doggedness and determination that made him a survivor in spite of a personality that seemed ill-suited to retail politics.
Nixon was, friends note, basically a shy man, who never really enjoyed meeting new people. He detested confrontations with colleagues or disagreements with people who worked for him. He preferred to make his decisions in solitude on the basis of memoranda written for him rather than haggling over them or searching for a consensus.
Try as he did, he could never develop a common touch that put his constituents at ease.
He was said to carefully rehearse little jokes and asides that he wanted to use to lighten conversations, but often he still came off as uncomfortable and awkward. More than once, he was photographed walking on the beach in shiny, leather shoes. He was seen in coat and tie hitting golf shots at his San Clemente estate. Once when he stopped to console a motorcycle officer hurt in a motorcade accident, his only comment was to ask the suffering man whether he liked his job.
But he never ceased trying to be down to earth. As the Watergate scandal wound to a conclusion, he went to Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, where, surrounded by country music entertainers, he played with a yo-yo and banged out "Happy Birthday" to his wife on a piano.
Like Johnson, he was at times maudlin about his humble beginnings and somewhat haunted by the glamour, star quality and adoring press coverage that surrounded the Kennedys. Even after all of his years in Washington, he was uncomfortable with what he regarded as the capital's social and intellectual Establishment based in Georgetown.
His feelings were understandable.
W. Averell Harriman, the New York multimillionaire who served in high diplomatic posts in the Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy and Johnson administrations, once threatened to walk out of a Georgetown dinner party when then-Sen. Nixon arrived and ignored him after the guests were seated.
There were slights, real or imagined, even at the hands of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Once asked to describe Nixon's contributions as vice president, Eisenhower made his famous offhand remark that he would need some time to think of something.
Nixon was said to have been hurt on another occasion at an outdoor affair at Eisenhower's Gettysburg estate. After it was over, Eisenhower invited his more important guests inside, but Nixon was left standing on the lawn. So Nixon fashioned himself a political gut fighter from the beginning, and he made enemies early--when he labeled U.S. Rep. Jerry Voorhis a communist dupe, and when, in his race for the Senate, he snidely referred to Helen Gahagan Douglas as the "pink lady."