The continuing flap over the statements by Jeremiah Wright and his association with Sen. Obama bring to mind situations in the past in which prominent politicians came under attack because of their associations with controversial individuals. FDR had to cover up misdeeds by his sons, Lyndon Johnson had embarrassing moments Billie Sol Estes and his brother Sam, and Jimmy Carter must have rued having a brother named Billie. Perhaps the most serious case of guilt by association within living memory was that of Richard Nixon and his younger brother Donald.
Donald Nixon ran some restaurants which required additional financing in 1956. When other sources did not materialize, he turned to Howard Hughes, who made a loan of $205,000, secured by real estate owned by Hannah Nixon, mother of Donald and Richard, which was worth a fraction of the value of the loan. Shortly after the loan was made, Hughes-associated enterprises received a series of favorable rulings from government agencies. After the restaurants went bankrupt, no attempt was made to collect the debt, which was never repaid.
The issue received little attention until two weeks before the 1960 election, when columnist Drew Pearson brought the matter to public attention.
Vice President Nixon was forced to say that he had no association with his brother’s business, that he was never asked to do anything for Howard Hughes, and that his mother had put a significant portion of her assets up as collateral for the note. Although not directly exploited by the Kennedy campaign, the issue remained an irritant and, in the close 1960 election, may have provided the margin of victory for Kennedy. The issue would be raised again by California Governor Pat Brown when Mr. Nixon ran against him in 1962.
Justified or not, the issue hurt Mr. Nixon in two races and may have contributed to a lingering suspicion among some about his integrity. It differs from the Obama-Wright matter in at least two respects. Mr. Nixon could not choose his brother (whom he, of course, loved), but Obama chose his pastor. The association with Mr. Nixon brought inevitable charges from political opponents that he had used his office for family financial gain. The questions about Obama and Wright deal with Obama’s fundamental views on the relationships between races in America and his vision of our nation and the world.
Mr. Nixon was hurt by his association with Donald. Recently Obama’s association with Pastor Wright has hampered his campaign. Will the association continue to dog Obama as did Mr. Nixon’s, or will he get over it as Nixon was ultimately able to do? We will have to wait for the answer. The answer may tell us much about Obama and even more about our nation.