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Young Richard attended East Whittier Elementary School, where he was president of his eighth-grade class. His parents believed that attendance at Whittier High School had caused Richard's older brother Harold to live a dissolute lifestyle before the older boy fell ill of tuberculosis (he died of the disease in 1933). Instead, they sent Richard to the larger Fullerton Union High School. He had to ride a school bus for an hour each way during his freshman year and he received excellent grades. Later, he lived with an aunt in Fullerton during the week. He played junior varsity football, and seldom missed a practice, even though he was rarely used in games. He had greater success as a debater, winning a number of championships and taking his only formal tutelage in public speaking from Fullerton's Head of English, H. Lynn Sheller. Nixon later remembered Sheller's words, "Remember, speaking is conversation ... don't shout at people. Talk to them. Converse with them." Nixon stated that he tried to use the conversational tone as much as possible. His parents permitted Richard to transfer to Whittier High School for his junior year, beginning in September 1928. At Whittier High, Nixon suffered his first electoral defeat, for student body president. He generally rose at 4 a.m., to drive the family truck into Los Angeles and purchase vegetables at the market. He then drove to the store to wash and display them, before going to school. Harold had been diagnosed with tuberculosis the previous year; when their mother took him to Arizona in the hopes of improving his health, the demands on Richard increased, causing him to give up football. Nevertheless, Richard graduated from Whittier High third in his class of 207 students.

In 1960, Nixon launched his first campaign for President of the United States. He faced little opposition in the Republican primaries and chose former Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. as his running mate. His Democratic opponent was John F. Kennedy, and the race remained close for the duration. Nixon campaigned on his experience, but Kennedy called for new blood and claimed the EisenhowerNixon administration had allowed the Soviet Union to overtake the U.S. in ballistic missiles (the "missile gap"). A new political medium was introduced in the campaign: televised presidential debates. In the first of four such debates, Nixon appeared pale, with a five o'clock shadow, in contrast to the photogenic Kennedy. Nixon's performance in the debate was perceived to be mediocre in the visual medium of television, though many people listening on the radio thought that Nixon had won. Nixon lost the election narrowly, with Kennedy ahead by only 112,827 votes (0.2 percent) in the popular vote. There were charges of vote fraud in Texas and Illinois, both states won by Kennedy; Nixon refused to consider contesting the election, feeling a lengthy controversy would diminish the United States in the eyes of the world, and the uncertainty would hurt U.S. interests. At the end of his term of office as vice president in January 1961, Nixon and his family returned to California, where he practiced law and wrote a bestselling book, Six Crises, which included coverage of the Hiss case, Eisenhower's heart attack, and the Fund Crisis, which had been resolved by the Checkers speech. Local and national Republican leaders encouraged Nixon to challenge incumbent Pat Brown for Governor of California in the 1962 election. Despite initial reluctance, Nixon entered the race. The campaign was clouded by public suspicion that Nixon viewed the office as a stepping-stone for another presidential run, some opposition from the far-right of the party, and his own lack of interest in being California's governor. Nixon hoped that a successful run would confirm him in his status as the nation's leading active Republican politician, and ensure he remained a major player in national politics. Instead, he lost to Brown by more than five percentage points, and the defeat was widely believed to be the end of his political career. In an impromptu concession speech the morning after the election, Nixon blamed the media for favoring his opponent, saying, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference". The California defeat was highlighted in the November 11, 1962, episode of ABC's Howard K. Smith: News and Comment entitled "The Political Obituary of Richard M. Nixon". Alger Hiss appeared on the program, and many members of the public complained that it was unseemly to allow a convicted felon air time to attack a former vice president. The furor drove Smith and his program from the air, and public sympathy for Nixon grew. The Nixon family traveled to Europe in 1963, where Nixon gave press conferences and met with leaders of the countries he visited. The family moved to New York City, where Nixon became a senior partner in the leading law firm Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie & Alexander. Nixon had pledged, when announcing his California campaign, not to run for president in 1964; even if he had not, he believed it would be difficult to defeat Kennedy, or after his assassination, Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson. In 1964, he supported Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater for the Republican nomination for president; when Goldwater was successful in gaining the nomination, Nixon was selected to introduce the candidate to the convention. Although he thought Goldwater unlikely to win, Nixon campaigned for him loyally. The election was a disaster for the Republicans; Goldwater's landslide loss to Johnson was matched by heavy losses for the party in Congress and among state governors. Nixon was one of the few leading Republicans not blamed for the disastrous results, and he sought to build on that in the 1966 congressional elections. He campaigned for many Republicans seeking to regain seats lost in the Johnson landslide and received credit for helping the Republicans make major gains in the midterm election.

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