In 1979, on this day, former President of the United States M. Michael "Duke" Morrison passed away in his Newport Beach, California home due to a lengthy bout with stomach cancer.
The Death of the Duke by Zach TimmonsHe was born in Winterset, Iowa in 1907 but moved to Glendale, California in 1911.
He was given the nickname "Duke" because as a child he was constantly followed by his dog, "Little Duke". Morrison attended USC and was an excellent football player until a leg injury forced him to quit the team.
He considered going into the movie business, but was drawn to politics and began working in the office of Los Angeles Mayor George Cryer, a Republican who had considerable influence on Morrison. Morrison worked in L.A. City Hall, becoming chief assistant to Mayor John Porter, a connection that would later come back to haunt him. In 1936 he ran for the House of Representatives, winning by a handful of votes. He served in the House until 1950, when he won election to the U.S. Senate. Morrison faced a challenge in the Republican primary from his fellow Congressman Richard M. Nixon, but was able to defeat Nixon by making him appear to be shifty and dishonest.
Morrison was asked to be Dwight Eisenhower's running mate in 1952, but turned the offer down, reportedly telling Ike, "I was elected to serve California until 1956. If you win this election, and want a running mate in '56, well, then, you've got your man". Eisenhower easily defeated Adlai Stevenson, and in 1956 picked Morrison for his VP, filling in for the deceased Robert Taft. The two easily defeated the Stevenson-Kefauver ticket, setting up Morrison's presidential bid in 1960.
Morrison and his running mate, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, faced off against Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Senator George Smathers of Florida. In the first televised presidential debate, the charismatic Morrison easily defeated the young Kennedy, at one point calling him "pilgrim", a reference to Kennedy's birthplace of Massachusetts (even though as the descendent of Irish Catholics, Kennedy was hardly a pilgrim). The campaign was extremely tough, with Morrison referencing Kennedy's extreme health problems, his alleged marital infidelities, and his father's alcohol smuggling operations during Prohibition. Kennedy punched right back, making it known that Morrison had worked for a known Klansman (L.A. Mayor John Porter), and that Morrison had supported Japanese-American internment in his California congressional district during WWII. Morrison eventually won by only 470,000 votes, becoming the first President from California.
His first major test came with the Bay of Pigs operation, which Morrison derided as "a damn-fool idea" and refused to give support to. On October 16, 1962, President Morrison was informed that the Soviets were setting up medium-range nuclear missile sites in Cuba. "Ri-goddamn-diculous!" he is said to have responded. For the next thirteen days, the President and his advisors were locked in a struggle with the Soviet Union over the placement of the missiles. Most of Morrison's Cabinet (including his VP, Barry Goldwater) wanted air strikes on the sites, followed by a seaborne invasion by US troops, but Morrison refused to consider direct military action. "I won't be the son-of-a-bitch who starts the end of the world", he told Goldwater. Finally, on October 28, an agreement was reached where the USSR would dismantle the missile sites in exchange for the United States' removal of missiles in Turkey. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev reportedly said afterwards, "President Morrison reminds of a cowboy in the American Western movies. Always ready for a fight, but not willing to sacrifice innocents just to win that fight".
Morrison, troubled by his past actions in dealing with racism, signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1963. As he and his VP were both former senators, they had considerable influence in Congress and were able to use it to good effect. When President Morrison signed the act into effect on July 4, 1963, he then turned to an aide and said, "Now all we've got to do is enforce it". Morrison and Goldwater easily won reelection in 1964 over the Democratic ticket of Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey. Morrison's second term in office was relatively quiet, and was focused mainly on civil rights and the growing conflict in Vietnam. Morrison was a fierce believer in stopping Communism in Southeast Asia, and pushed for large amounts of aid to South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos to fight Communist guerillas. By the end of his Presidency, the conflict in Vietnam was nearly over, with the 'hearts and minds' campaign having won over all but a few diehard Communists in the North.
Vice President Goldwater was elected President in 1968 on a platform of continuing Morrison's policies, and the now-former President Morrison retired to his home in California, where he quietly lived out the next ten years. Asked in 1974 as to what was the defining moment of his presidency, he responded, "Well, now, that's a tough one. Probably the Civil Rights Act. That took true grit".