The latest biography on Richard Nixon, Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas, falls into the same trap as every other modern biography on America’s 37th President. Too little time was devoted to actually researching Nixon’s roots and early life in Southern California. Instead, the commonly held belief, repeated in A Man Divided, is that President Richard Nixon was insecure and that his frailties as an adult could be traced to his Whittier roots where young Richard Nixon grew up poor, and was “a poor athlete” who “made the most of being an outsider. At Whittier College, rejected by the cool kids fraternity, he started a fraternity for uncool kids.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
In the 6th and 7th grade at East Whittier Elementary, Nixon tasted his first success at debate. In the 8th grade, he was elected class president, and spoke at the graduation ceremony. In his first two years at Fullerton High School, Nixon played football, with his freshman team winning the CIF Championship at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. Academically, he continued to achieve success in debate. He transferred to Whittier High School for his junior and senior years, and immediately ran for student body president (not something a sixteen-year-old lacking in self confidence would do at a new school). Though he lost the election, he was appointed general manager of the student body. He continued to achieve great success in debate, beating more than 60 students to become the Whittier area champion in The Los Angeles Times Constitutional Oratorical Contests for 1929 and 1930, bestowing a great honor on his high school.
Nixon, having graduated at the top of his class from Whittier High School, was selected “Best All-Around Student” by the Harvard Club of California and received scholarship offers from both Harvard and Yale. Yet he attended Whittier College because family expenses were tight, as his older brother was dying of tuberculosis and the family insisted on paying all medical expenses. But they were not poor. At Whittier College, out of 400 students, Nixon was one of about a half dozen students that could afford to buy a car.
He played basketball his freshman year and football all four years, and although he was not a starter, he developed a reputation for his tenacious dedication. Team captain Keith Wood reminisced: “I can still see his helmet flying off” as Nixon was knocked on his back, but always getting up, “ready for more.”
Whittier College did not have fraternities, instead it had one men’s “society” and three similar groups for women. The men’s group, the Franklins, started as a literary organization. The athletes on the football team, led by Dean Triggs (who transferred from Colorado College where he was a member of a fraternity) rejected the Franklins, and instead formed their own group, the Orthogonians, and asked 17-year-old Richard Nixon to be their leader because they recognized that he had the ability to develop the organization. Far from the “uncool” kids, the Orthogonians were the epitome of the cool kids. Known as a “no neck and merry crew,” they were immediately popular and seen as “the big shots on the campus,” receiving “the cream of the crop” as members of their group. In the next nine years, 6 of the 9 student body presidents were Orthogonians. Many authors wrongly declare that the Franklins were rich, took their annual photographs in tuxedos, and Nixon was jealous of his classmates. Yet Nixon, who sang in the Glee Club and also acted in school productions, owned two tuxedos which he was known to lend to his classmates.
In his first week at Whittier College, Nixon was elected class president. He was re-elected president the second semester. For his sophomore year, he was elected student body representative, in his junior year he was elected student body vice president (receiving more votes that either candidate for student body president), and for his senior year he was elected student body president, soundly defeating the Frankin candidate Dick Thomson. In fact, many Franklin members supported Nixon’s candidacy, and Thomson himself, who was one of Nixon’s best friends, always felt the Franklins picked him to run against Nixon because no one else would do it.
At the end of his term as student body president, the school yearbook raved: “After one of the most successful years the college has ever witnessed, we stop to reminisce and come to the realization that much of the success was due to the efforts of this very gentleman. Always progressive and with a liberal attitude, he has led us through the year with flying colors.”
Overall, Nixon was very well liked. Classmate Joe Gaudio played sports with Nixon, sang with him in Glee Club, and was an Orthogonian brother. Gaudio saw Nixon as one who “embodied a personality and character that Whittier College was all about; the enterprising young fellow being given an opportunity for an education, an opportunity to express the entire spectrum of his individual personality.” In his recommendation to Duke Lake School, Walter Dexter, Whittier College President wrote: “I believe Nixon will become one of America’s important, if not great leaders.” His classmates felt the same way, and in 1934, they voted Nixon “Best Man on Campus.” Upon graduation, many of Nixon’s classmates signed a letter to him stating: “Out of every graduating class, there is at least one person who becomes an outstanding person and we all feel that you are destined to be that person.” Richard Nixon’s Whittier experience was nothing if not incredibly successful and typically all American. He enjoyed the fruits of his many successes. Every biography of Nixon built upon unfounded claims of young Nixon as a poor outsider, rejected by his classmates, harboring some non-existent hatred of so-called “elites,” is built upon a false foundation.