The Knowles Affair: Nixon's Self-Inflicted Wound

Authors

  • DEAN J. KOTLOWSKI

    1. Assistant professor of history at Salisbury State University in Maryland. His articles have appeared in several scholarly journals, including Presidential Studies Quarterly, and he has edited The European Union: From Jean Monnet to the Euro (2000). In 2001, Harvard University Press will publish his book Nixon's Civil Rights: Politics, Principle, and Policy.
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  • AUTHOR'S NOTE: The author thanks Dean J. Fafoutis and the journal's anonymous referees for their thoughtful comments, Kara Dunfee and Cory Lewis for assistance with the H. R. Haldeman Diaries, and the Rockefeller Archive Center, Gerald R. Ford Foundation, Caterpillar Foundation, and Everett McKinley Dirksen Center for grants-in-aid of research.

Abstract

The Knowles affair, a forgotten chapter of the early Nixon presidency, caused quite a stir in 1969. The administration's five-month-long attempt to elevate John H. Knowles, a moderate Republican, to the post of assistant secretary of health, education, and welfare (HEW) for health and scientific affairs aroused opposition from the American Medical Association and Senate Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen, a Republican of Illinois. The imbroglio revealed weaknesses in Nixon's decision-making and administrative style, drew considerable criticism in the press, and helped to undermine the position of HEW Secretary Robert H. Finch, until then a presidential favorite. For students of the modern presidency, the Knowles case showed how a minor dispute can become important when stoked by ego, ambition, bungling, and press leaks.

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