Why you should care
Because Richard Nixon’s relentless drive and paranoia were apparent decades before Watergate.
In the middle of the Great Depression, one of America’s most notorious figures was living in an abandoned tool shed in the middle of a North Carolina forest. This was no ordinary vagrant. Rather, he would become the 37th president of the United States and Duke University’s most famous alum, but in the winter of 1934, he was a penniless law student, separated from his family and deathly afraid of failing to live up to their high expectations.
Forty years before his extra-legal endeavors as president would be studied by generations of students, Richard M. Nixon was himself a law student at Duke. During his three years there, Nixon not only learned the intricacies of the law but also how to overcome hardship, confront his deepest anxieties — and engineer a break-in.
Born to a family of hardworking Quakers in Yorba Linda, California, the young Nixon was a big fish in a small pond — a champion debater and high-achieving student. But the ambitious future leader, as biographer Jonathan Aitken covers in Nixon: A Life, longed for bigger challenges. In May 1934, he saw a notice on a college bulletin board advertising $250 scholarships to attend the equally young and ambitious Duke Law School, keen to attract the best students and build a reputation as an Ivy League-caliber school in the backwoods of North Carolina.
Nixon applied and was accepted, but in the bigger Duke pond — far from home in what he likened to “a medieval cathedral town” — he felt overwhelmed. The scholarship program was known as “the meat grinder.” Competition was fierce and prospects were dim. On the first day, one of Nixon’s professors issued a dire warning about the challenges of finding legal work in the Depression: “Marry for money and practice law for love,” he advised.
Nixon was plagued by concerns about his inadequacies as a student and by financial concerns.
But even among ultra-competitive law students, Nixon’s work ethic stood out. He awoke at 5 a.m. to study before class and spent long hours, including Saturday nights, in the law library. One classmate called him “the hardest-working man I ever met,” but his dour personality led others to nickname him “Gloomy Gus.” The thin, ungainly scholar subsisted largely on Milky Way chocolate bars by day, and could be seen wolfing down soup in the student union by night before returning to the library.
Nixon was plagued by concerns about his inadequacies as a student and by financial concerns as well. Only half of the $250 scholarships for first-year students would be renewed for a second year, and he was already borrowing money from his father, busing tables and working in the library to make ends meet. Which explains how a college maintenance man came to find the cash-strapped future president in an abandoned tool shed not far from campus. Millions of Americans were living in similar makeshift dwellings that winter, but Nixon was likely the only Duke law student holed up in an 8-by-12-foot room with a bed, table and chair but no stove, and using corrugated cardboard for insulation. The One-L squatter was not reported to campus authorities and finished first in his class that year.
Despite his academic success, Nixon was beset by a restless paranoia during his second year. Worried that his grades would falter, causing him to lose his scholarship, he broke into the dean’s office to check his transcript, enlisting two fellow students to hoist him through the transom at the top of the door. His search revealed that he was still fourth in his class and — as with the Watergate break-in many years later — his greatest fears were the products of a fretful, tormented mind.
Nixon’s unusual living arrangements continued in his final year at Duke. With three other students, he shared two brass beds in a cabin that was a 1 1/2-mile walk from campus. Again, he went without electricity and indoor plumbing and resorted to showering on campus and hiding his shaving kit in the library.
Life after graduation did not get easier. The American job market in 1937 was still brutal, and Nixon’s applications to law firms all failed, as did his bid to join the FBI. Duke would hand its distinguished alum another stinging rejection decades later when it declined to host his presidential library.
But Nixon’s memories of Duke would remain fond. “I always remember that whatever I have done in the past or may do in the future,” he reflected in 1960, “Duke University is responsible in one way or another.”
And you thought Duke had a lot to answer for with Christian Laettner.