The abridged biography of Richard Nixon, as most know it, goes something like this. Born the son of a grocer and housewife, Nixon grew up in southern California and attended Whittier College, a small liberal arts college less than 20 miles from Los Angeles. He graduated from Duke University’s law school, moved home to California and started practicing law. He was first elected as a U.S. congressman in 1946 and then a senator in 1950, then served as vice president and eventually the president, before resigning in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
The National Archives, however, adds a surprising little insert into that timeline. That is, a 24-year-old Nixon applied to be a special agent in the FBI in 1937.
Submitted on April 23, Nixon’s application, once part of the FBI’s files, is now in the holdings of the National Archives. For likely the first time ever, the document is on display to the public in “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures,” an exhibition featuring more than 100 signed artifacts at the archives through January 5, 2015.
“It is a nice window into a moment in Richard Nixon’s life that people probably don’t think about,” says Jennifer Johnson, the exhibition’s curator. “He has just finished law school, and like everyone, he is clearly trying to figure out what he wants to do.”
As the story goes, Nixon attended a lecture by an FBI special agent while studying at Duke. Just before he graduated with his law degree in June, 1937, he formally applied to the bureau. He was contacted for an interview, which he did in July of that year, and completed a physical exam at the request of J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI. But, after that, it was radio silence. He never received a response.
On June 11, 1954, the then-Vice President Richard Nixon spoke at the FBI National Academy’s graduation. Hoover actually introduced him, saying that he took special pleasure in doing so, because Nixon had once applied to the bureau. “Having already embarked upon the practice of law, the FBI’s loss ultimately became the country’s gain,” remarked Hoover. Nixon, in a later address to the academy, said, “he never heard anything from that application.”
In his memoirs, Nixon describes being at a party during his vice presidency, when he approached Hoover and expressed an interest in knowing what had happened. The exchange prompted the FBI to open Nixon’s file. Apparently, Nixon was accepted, but his appointment was revoked in August 1937, before he was ever notified. The details are murky. According to Nixon, Hoover told him that he was ultimately not hired due to budget cuts made to the bureau that year. But, it has also been said that Nixon’s plan to take the California bar exam in September didn’t jibe with the FBI’s hiring schedule.
Either way, it is an interesting game of “what if,” says Johnson.