The Bureau of Missing Pols: Reflections on the Ever-So Mysterious Road Trips of Mark, Dick & Harry

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Mr. Pietrusza is the author of 1960: LBJ vs JFK vs Nixon: The Epic Campaign that Forged Three Presidents and well as the forthcoming 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America’s Role in the World. Both are published by Union Square Press.

It’s a long way from Columbia, South Carolina to Buenos Aires, South America, though it is no doubt an immensely longer and harder journey for Governor Mark Sanford to retrace his steps to national respectability.

That having been said, Mr. Sanford is not the first personage of prominence to inexplicably just vanish. New York Supreme Court Judge Joseph Force Crater stepped into a taxi cab in Times Square in August 1930  . . . and never returned. Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson waded into the Venice Beach surf in May 1926—and washed up in the Mexican desert a month later. Suffice it to say, her narrative of kidnapping enjoyed less credence than other stories circulating regarding a dalliance with a married former engineer at her Los Angeles radio station.

Interesting stuff, but not quite as interesting as a brace of tales involving two Presidents of the United States, Richard Milhaus Nixon and Harry S. Truman—and their quite unexpected Election Day vanishing acts.

On 7:15 AM, November 2, 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon, caught in the tightest of races against Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy, arrived at his polling station, a green stucco tract house—10651 Avonbury Avenue, East Whittier, the home of Mr. & Mrs. Roger McNey and their six children. The actual voting occurred in the McNeys’s 12’ x 15’ family room, which, crowded with two Nixons, seven McNeys (Mr. McNey had been transferred by his employer, a chip beef packager, back to Texas), five voting inspectors, and a full complement of reporters and photographers, quickly resembled a subway car at rush hour. Mrs. McNey, an Irish Catholic, but a Nixon supporter nonetheless, offered her visitors coffee. Mrs. Nixon declined. Her husband protested that he didn’t normally drink coffee but had some anyway—and fulsomely praised it.

Nixon voted, handed out pens bearing his signature to the McNey children, and exited past 500 onlookers into a caravan scheduled to return him to the Hotel Ambassador in Los Angeles.

Three blocks later, he ordered it to pull over. With his military attaché Major Don Hughes and Secret Service Agent Jack Sherwood, Nixon scampered from his black Cadillac into a white convertible driven by a Los Angeles Police Department bunco squad officer, John DiBetta. Nixon, taking the wheel, drove off, with the press just behind. 

He ditched them.

He stopped at his mother’s home in nearby La Habra , white stucco, with an orange grove out front, his late father’s name still on the mailbox. He spent fifteen minutes there. Hannah had already voted.

He drove south, south, ever southward, along the coast, with no particular destination in mind. Ninety miles from Whittier, in Oceanside, California , he stopped for gas. “I’m just out for a little ride,” he informed attendant Cliff Edwards. “It’s the only way I could get some rest.”

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Nixon Press Secretary Herb Klein was left to explain to reporters his boss’s disappearance, noting that Nixon often preferred such private moments. Private moments turned into private hours, and with the candidate still absent, Klein, attempting to appear calm, theorized that Nixon was driving “just around without any destination.”

It was not always easy being Herb Klein.

Southward sped Nixon, Hughes, Sherwood, and DiBetta. Around San Diego someone mentioned Tijuana . Hughes commented that he had never been there. Nixon chimed in that he hadn’t been there in twenty-five years and—why not?—let’s go.

Richard Nixon—the ultimate control freak—was winging it on the most important day of his life.

Lunch time. Crossing into Mexico, DiBetta inquired of Border Patrol agents where to find the best Mexican food. They recommended a place run by a German called Old Heidelberg. That probably made as little sense to Nixon as it did to anyone else, but, being trusting souls, they (along with Tijuana Mayor Xicotencati Leyva Aleman, who had quickly learned of Nixon’s presence in his city) lunched on enchiladas und cerveza at Old Heidelberg.

In the meantime, Nixon had Major Hughes phone Los Angeles to inform Bob Finch of their whereabouts. Finch was properly amazed.

A Tijuana police car, sirens sounding and lights flashing, escorted Nixon’s car back to the border. U.S. Immigration Agent John Martin, thinking an ambulance might be approaching, opened another lane. When the white convertible reached his booth, he was shocked to see the Vice President of the United States in the right front seat.

“Hello,” said Nixon, proceeding to shake hands with Martin and another equally surprised immigration agent. Pleasantries aside, Martin had duties to perform.

“Are you all citizens of the United States ?”

“Yes, I am, but I don’t know about that man in the back,” Nixon joked.

North of San Diego, the convertible turned inland. Nixon wanted to show his traveling companions “one of my favorite Catholic places,” the Spanish colonial Mission of San Juan Capistrano. The place was pretty much empty, with a half dozen visitors on the grounds. Nixon conducted an informal tour, past its elementary school—where a nun flashed Nixon a “V” for victory sign—and into the mission chapel itself. “For a few minutes,” he recalled, “we sat in the empty pews for an interlude of complete escape. . . .”

Back in Los Angeles , Dick Nixon had some explaining to do. “It wasn’t planned,” he told reporters. “We just started driving and that’s where we wound up.”

In Independence, Missouri, on Election Day 1948, President Harry Truman similarly vanished.

At 4:30 that afternoon, as Truman was finishing up a leisurely lunch with about thirty friends and supporters at Independence’s Rockwood Country Club, a black Ford pulled up behind the clubhouse. Truman scurried out the back door, onto the back door of his four-door sedan, squeezing between Secret Service agents Henry Nicholson and Gerard McCann.

Soon enough reporters caught wind of the Chief Executive’s disappearance.

“The President,” Truman press secretary Charlie Ross announced without further explanation from Kansas City’s Muehlebach Hotel, “is entitled to a night to himself.”

He had fled thirty miles to the northwest of Independence, to the resort community of Excelsior Springs, and to Room 200 of that city’s major hostelry, the stone-and-masonry Elms Hotel, long a favorite of statesmen and of gangsters.

“We drove down to Excelsior Springs,” Truman would recall, “and I had a bath in the hot springs and a little something to eat [a ham and cheese sandwich, a glass of buttermilk] and went to bed, about six o’clock in the evening  . . . . ” As he did, with a bottle of Scotch and a bottle of bourbon atop his dresser, he instructed agent Rowley not to awaken him unless something “important” happened.

He had fled so relatively precipitously, that even though he meant to stay the night, he had neglected to bring either nightclothes or toiletries and had to borrow slippers and a bathrobe from hotel management both for bed and for the rubdown and Turkish bath he enjoyed prior to dining.

At Truman’s Delaware Street home turmoil reigned. “Reporters were practically storming the house,” his daughter Margaret would recall, “Again and again I was forced to go out on the porch in my best black dress and ballet slippers (great for weary feet) to assure them that my father was not in the house. When they finally believed me, they began trying to wheedle out of me exactly where he was. That was one night when I was grateful for my native Missouri stubbornness. I sometimes wonder if I could have resisted the terrific pressure those reporters put on me, without it.”

From the Muehlebach Hotel, Harry Truman’s old friend, his campaign treasurer, Tom Evans periodically phoned him with returns. Finally, Truman got tired of having his sleep interrupted by fragmentary reports. “He said not to call him until he called me—I don’t know what time it was,’ Evans recalled, “I imagine it was somewhere around 10:00 or eleven o’clock that I talked to him. He had carried a couple of states that I didn’t expect him to, and he laughed. ‘Well, we’re going to win.’ Then it got fairly late, and . . . the election had gotten in this position: that for him to win, he either had to carry the state of Ohio, Illinois, or California. . . . I remember talking to him. I said: “Well. Mr. President, you’re just about in this position that you’ve got to carry either Ohio, Illinois, or California.

“That’s good,” Truman responded, ‘Don’t bother me anymore; I’m going to bed; don’t call me anymore.”

“What the hell do you mean you’re going to bed?” Evans exclaimed, “you can’t go to bed until you carry one of those states!”

“Oh, you know, [I was] just scream­ing—,” Evans recalled, “I was worn out and excited naturally.

“Why,” Truman answered his friend, ever so calmly, “I’m going to carry all three.”

“Oh, boy,” was all Evans could respond, “I’ll settle for one.”

Just before midnight Kansas City time, Harry Truman’s Secret Service men also received a call from the Muehlebach, informing them that their boss had carried Massachusetts. Agent Nicholson saw that Truman was asleep—as well as that an inch of bourbon was now gone from Truman’s nightstand bottle—but he woke him anyway. “Nick, stop worrying,” Truman answered. “It’s all over. You all go to sleep, and we’ll get up early in the morning.”

And as long as he was up . . .

"Oh, yes," Truman would recollect, “and about midnight I tuned in the little radio there, and old H. V. Kaltenborn was carrying on about how while I was ahead, he didn’t see how I could win.”

But he still went back to sleep.

At 5:00 AM Truman again turned on his radio. NBC’s H. V. Kaltenborn remained on the air. Truman now led by 2 million votes, but Kaltenborn remained undaunted, steadfastly maintaining that from somewhere, somehow, armies of rural Dewey voters would appear to reverse the Truman tide.

At 6:00 AM, Truman breakfasted but unshaven, arrived at his press headquarters, at the seventh floor of the Muehlebach, finding Charlie Ross prone, face-first, on a bed, completely exhausted. Truman, with nearly ten hours sleep under his belt, may have been the most refreshed politician in America.

Today, Mark Sanford is not the most refreshed politician in America.

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Robert Lee Gaston - 7/7/2009

It seems as if the leopard is not the only one who needs to find the spot where it was lost.