During the Watergate scandal, President Nixon's supporters were reportedly fond of saying, "Everyone does it." When I listened to Slate's Slow Burn podcast recently, I remember them saying that his supporters claimed that Presidents Roosevelt and Truman had spied on their opponents.

Yet even prior to the scandal, the public considered Nixon's campaign and broader circle to be more willing to engage in dirty tricks than other political actors of the time. Then again, President Johnson used his government to spy on the Goldwater campaign. To me, that seems like a more severe abuse of power than anything Nixon did. Whether you agree or not is immaterial.

My question is, how common were dirty tricks like this in American politics at the time? Were Nixon and Johnson aberrations, or were Nixon's supporters correct in viewing such hijinks as normal for the time?

  • Whether clean or dirty, said tricks must first and foremost serve the interests of the nation, rather than one's own; perhaps that was the difference ?
    – Lucian
    Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 16:46
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    @Lucian Perhaps that was the difference claimed by the actors, but it's not a difference at all. Nixon would 100% have claimed that he did it because he was better qualified to be president and therefore the tricks were in the country's interest. Everyone always has excuses for bad behavior. The nature of the excuses are not very interesting to me for the purposes of this question. Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 16:53
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    “A thief believes everybody steals.” ― E. W. Howe
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 17:27
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    @Lucian The majority probably had no knowledge of these acts, other than of Watergate. I highly doubt a good answer will make any use of the "widespread public perception" of the various acts. Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 18:23
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    There are facts and perceptions. One may have good reasons to believe that there are no such things as honest politicians or fair politics, but claiming that this is the case without evidence (or only with an evidence coming from another interested party) is conspiracy theory. Nixon was caught and, importantly, both Democrats and (the majority of) Republicans have agreed on it.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 8:35

1 Answer 1


I would say there was a level of corruption in politics in the 20 years prior to Nixon's second run for President. Such things as the shady vote count when Johnson won his Senate seat. Or the Nixon-Kennedy election, Of course all of these are allegations and never proven in a court of law.

"A study of Lyndon B. Johnson provides new evidence that the 36th President stole his first election to the United States Senate, in 1948...Mr. Caro maintains that although ballot fraud was common in the late 1940's in some parts of Texas, the Johnson campaign of 1948 raised it to a new level. Mr. Caro supports his charge with an interview with Luis Salas, an election judge in Jim Wells County who said he acknowledged his role only after all others involved in the theft had died." Source: NYTimes

Another well known instance of (alleged) corruption was JFKs win over Nixon.

"But historian Robert Dallek, who wrote definitive biographies of JFK and LBJ,, concluded that Daley’s storied political machine “probably stole Illinois from Nixon”—though he reminds readers that Kennedy “would have won even without Illinois.” FBI agents who had placed wire taps on key Daley lieutenants (for entirely unrelated purposes) also had reason to believe that Illinois was rigged." Source: Politico

And this doesn't even get into pre-ww2 elections where there are plenty of alleged instances of outright voter fraud, intimidation, and the like.

If you have the time to read, please check out this article, that talks a bit about the EH Crump political machine in TN. GI's fresh back from the war tried to run a legit campaign and were totally cheated. They reacted like any fresh soldier would and laid siege to the town and basically initiated what would now be called a local coup d'etat that ended in deaths and explosions and the works. It is a fascinating piece of history.


  • Robert Caro's reporting surpasses everything else. LBJ stole the 1948 primary and there is zero reason to doubt it. As for Daley: I grew up under him, and the desired vote totals in Chicago were targets handed to the precinct captains. However, the rest of Illinois was Republican and they may well have cheated for Nixon. Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 5:17

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