After losing a very close election to John F. Kennedy in 1960 (Nixon’s first political defeat), then getting soundly beaten by Pat Brown in the 1962 California governor race, it seemed very likely Nixon would be moving on from politics, probably using the law degree he’d earned from Duke University to move over into a legal career. Indeed, he and his family would soon move to New York City where Nixon would become a senior partner in a law firm, spending the next few years hovering at the political periphery (and eventually plotting his return).
In terms of American political history, Nixon’s comeback was almost unprecedented. That is to say, only once before had a major party’s candidate run for president and lost, then managed to run again subsequently and win. But that was Grover Cleveland way back in 1892, and he’d actually been president for a term once before (from 1885-1888) and in fact had won the popular vote in 1888 though lost the electoral vote to Benjamin Harrison.
So really no one who hadn’t previously been president before had ever run in the general election and lost, then later run again and won (as a major party candidate, that is). Several had tried, including William Jennings Bryan, Thomas Dewey, and most recently Adlai Stevenson (who lost to Eisenhower in both 1952 and 1956). But none had managed to pull it off.
But the odds seemed even longer for Nixon. After all, he had lost another race in between for a lesser office. Not only that, after conceding the ’62 race, Nixon then delivered a spiteful series of comments directed toward the press, ending with a sarcastic reference to how they’d lament his absence going forward.
“As I leave you I want you to know -- just think how much you’re going to be missing,” he said. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”
A couple of months back a poker player I follow tweeted out a reference to this moment, alluding to it as he described himself petulantly leaving a cash game in which he’d lost. I wish I could remember who the player was and find the tweet again, but essentially he was self-deprecatingly chiding himself for behaving badly, having said something like “you won’t have me to kick around anymore” as he left the table.
It seems like an entirely negative-EV play for Nixon to have made, regardless of his future plans. In his memoirs he reports that Murray Stans (then an advisor, later Nixon’s campaign finance chairman and one of the many implicated in Watergate) “told me he thought it would cost me $100,000 a year in new legal clients.”
Meanwhile in the wake of the “last press conference,” many pundits leaped in to pronounce Nixon’s career finished. In fact within the week ABC aired a special called The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon, kind of figuratively throwing dirt on his coffin. The show even featured a couple of Nixon’s formerly defeated foes, Jerry Voorhis (whom Nixon crushed in ’46 in a race for Congress) and Alger Hiss (whom Nixon accused of being a Soviet spy and successfully pursued a perjury conviction that earned Hiss time in prison).
Characteristically, Nixon thought differently about his performance, saying how he “never regretted what I said at the ‘last press conference.’” In fact he spun it into a positive, claiming that “it gave the media a warning that I would not sit back and take whatever biased coverage was dished out to me,” claiming it was “partially responsible for the much fairer treatment I received from the press during the next few years.”
“From that point of view alone,” he concludes, “it was worth it.”
For Nixon, the press was essentially an opponent. In the “last press conference” he notes to the reporters how he “welcomed the opportunity to test wits with you,” underscoring the way he viewed their interactions as antagonistic -- as a competition, even, with the potential to win or lose.
But if the press were an opponent, they were especially difficult to “play” against. No matter how many times Nixon thought he was putting in the last bet, they just kept on calling and/or raising to continue the hand.