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What It Was Like to Work for Richard Nixon

Historians/History
tags: Nixon



Stephen Hess is the author of numerous award-winning books about politics and the media, including The Presidential Campaign; The Ultimate Insiders: U.S. Senators in the National Media; The Washington Reporters; and Nixon: a Political Portrait, with Earl Mazo. This piece is reprinted from Bit Player: My Life with Presidents and Ideas  by Stephen Hess with permission from Brookings Press, © 2018 by Brookings Institution.

Working for Richard Nixon

I did not know Ike’s vice president. The reason, I think, was that Eisenhower had a view of the vice presidency that is now at least a half century out of date. As Ike wrote in his memoirs, “The Vice President of the United States, with the constitutional duty of presiding over the Senate, is not legally a part of the Executive branch and is not subject to direction by the President.” He even included Nixon as part of a group coming to a White House meeting as coming “from the Senate.” Since Eisenhower considered the vice presidency to be in the legislative branch, everything Nixon did for him he claimed was on “a volunteer basis,” including being his personal representative abroad and chairing a committee to end discrimination in government contracting.

The vice president was housed at the Capitol, as was his staff, and their paychecks came from the Senate budget. Although he was at the White House for meetings of the cabinet, National Security Council, and legislative leaders, I do not remember him as a presence in the West Wing. He did not have a White House office as vice presidents have had since Walter Mondale served as Carter’s vice president.

I first met Nixon in the spring of 1961. Visiting Washington, he borrowed a desk in the law office of Bill Rogers, his old friend who had been Eisenhower’s attorney general. Nixon was now a “rainmaker” in a Los Angeles law firm. I think he liked my chatty newsletters. He missed the political gossip that had fueled his life in Washington for fourteen years. This was not the gossip of California. He later told me, “If I have to play golf one more time with Randy Scott [the cowboy movie star], I may go out of my mind.” The only question I recall him asking me that day: Was I Phi Beta Kappa? I had never been asked before. (There is an unverified Nixon story that he had worried about the competition at Duke Law School after counting thirty-two PBK keys in his class. He ultimately finished third in the class.) My answer seemed important to him. He wanted my help with articles he was to write for the Saturday Evening Post and the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

After we discussed the articles, he said, “Incidentally, don’t send me those draft letters. I don’t want to be one of those politicians who remembers people’s birthdays.” In any memoir some words are recalled sort of, these words are remembered exactly. Nixon had been put on the 1952 ticket because he was a politician and Eisenhower was not. Had he changed? Was there a “New Nixon”? Yet immediately after he returned to California, he wrote, “I particularly appreciate receiving the suggested drafts for letters. . . . I hope you will continue to forward such suggestions because that way I get information which is not carried in the papers here. (For example, Fritz Mueller’s impending marriage.)” Are the two statements in context or in conflict? I don’t know. I would have to decide whether this man was more nuanced than the Herblock cartoon I had had in my head since college.

There would be a profound difference in my writing experiences for Eisenhower and Nixon. In the White House my work was filtered through Mac Moos. The president used my words, as I have illustrated, and that was gratifying, but essentially I was a part of the process. I saw only secondhand how the president moved around our words, added and deleted, to shape the points he wished to make. Now, with Nixon, it was just the two of us. I think this was the setting in which he was most comfortable, whether it was with writers or others. I discovered how much I enjoyed this collaboration. We were not equal partners: I was there to help him, we listened to each other, he paid me. Moreover, he was excessively generous, often splitting large fees. We never negotiated. Once I told him he was paying me too much. He was embarrassed. “I’d only have to give it to the IRS,” he said.

Our collegial experience was especially satisfying in 1961 when his articles were important in reintroducing him after the 1960 defeat. A magazine article (or, I assume, a law brief) was a perfect setting for his logical mind. I think he took pride in some of his Saturday Evening Post–length pieces, less so what he did in a newspaper column, which I think he considered an expanded headline.

Some politicians whose positions require that they must have ghostwriters are often uncomfortable being fed words that are not their own or think they could have done better themselves if they had just had the time. It is a tale that is both funny and sad in Barton Swaim’s book, The Speechwriter, about working for a governor of South Carolina. This was not Nixon’s way. He admired writers and was a good reader. I still remember a conversation we had about When the Cheering Stopped, Gene Smith’s account of the last years of Woodrow Wilson. WritingSix Crises, his episodic and compelling account of his political career from the Alger Hiss case in 1949 through losing the presidency in 1960, Nixon told me, was one of the most difficult tasks he ever attempted. Nixon’s problem was that he could never have the perfect speechwriter to fit his changing moods. His attempted solution when he reached the White House was to create a troika of Ray Price (liberal), Pat Buchanan (conservative), and Bill Safire (centrist). He kept making additions, some very talented, as Robert Schlesinger points out in White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters, but ultimately he would fall back on his big three.

California, 1962

Nixon convened a small meeting at the Waldorf Towers in New York City in 1961 to hear what his key supporters from the 1960 campaign thought about whether he should run for governor of California. Perhaps a half dozen or so attended, mostly Wall Street and national politics figures. I do not know why he asked me to be there. Their analysis, in social science terms, rested on two data points: one, Nixon carried California in 1960, surely he would win running for a lesser office in 1962; and two, public opinion polls had him comfortably ahead of the incumbent governor, Pat Brown. Otherwise the group did not seem to have more than a newspaper reader’s knowledge of California politics. Their passion was playing for a presidential nomination. They wanted Nixon to be their horse—and there was already a starting gate, even if the next race was not for three years. Winning is all that matters to those who bet on politics at this level; there is no place or show. But other contenders were already lining up—Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney, perhaps William Scranton. Nixon would need the backing of those in the room. He was the only “potential president” in the Republican ranks who was not a multimillionaire. Even his modest secretaries-and-researchers operation must have outside funding. They argued that to win in 1964, he had to win in 1962. There could be no sabbatical in this contest. Nixon, however, knew there was an overriding argument against their governor-in-1962, president-in-1964 scenario, but did not wish to share it with them: namely, he would not be able to defeat John Kennedy. Incumbent presidents rarely lose. Some Republican was going to have to be the sacrificial lamb, and Nixon was going to make sure he was not it. If he had been unable to beat Senator Kennedy in 1960, when holding the more advantageous position, he was not going to beat President Kennedy in 1964.

On September 27, 1961, Nixon held a press conference in Los Angeles to announce that he would be a candidate for governor of California in 1962 and would not be a candidate for president of the United States in 1964. It was easy to divine Nixon’s thinking. By committing himself to serving the people of California for four years, in 1964 he would be able to appreciate the exhortations from national Republican leaders who would urge him to come to the aid of the party yet still reject them because he was honor-bound to fulfill his promise to California voters. Nixon’s strategy is, importantly, about sidestepping the Kennedys. The Twenty-second Amendment would prohibit President Kennedy from running for a third term—and in 1968, Richard Nixon would be available and only fifty-five years old.

During the 1962 campaign, Governor Brown’s ads proclaimed that Nixon wanted to “double-park in Sacramento” on his way back to Washington. The slogan had a nice ring to it, and it polled well—even though it fundamentally mischaracterized what Nixon was doing. Poor Richard Nixon was looking for a place to hide, not park, and no one believed him.

I moved to Los Angeles in April to work through the June primary. I returned once during the summer for the state convention, and then stayed in California from Labor Day through Election Day. Nixon’s prospects looked different when viewed up close. California Republican politics, I discovered, was more brutal than I had imagined. As I wrote later with David Broder in The Republican Establishment:

“When Big Bill Knowland came charging home from Washington in 1958, intent on wresting the governorship from [Goodwin] Knight as a launching pad for his presidential ambitions, he triggered a chain reaction of seriocomic catastrophes: Knowland bumped Knight into the Senate primary, where Knight bumped San Francisco Mayor George Christopher. Both Knowland and Knight then were mauled in the general election, and Pat Brown, the inoffensive son of a poker-parlor operator, became Governor by a million votes. The Democrats gained control of the legislature for the first time since 1888. . . . Defeat opened the ideological floodgates. So long as they were the party of government, the Republicans had remained in touch with reality. . . . [Now] the G.O.P. entered a whirlpool of extremism.”

Nixon’s opponent in the gubernatorial primary was Joseph Shell—a former USC football star, oil millionaire, and now the conservative minority leader in the California State Assembly. He had no chance of winning, but the third of the vote he would receive was a serious warning to someone of Nixon’s stature. The leading issue was Shell’s support by the ideologically extreme John Birch Society, whose founder, Robert Welch, had accused Eisenhower of being a “conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” Nixon repudiated Welch and the John Birch Society, as expected—but he also repudiated all candidates who would not repudiate the society, including two friends in Congress, John Rousselot and Edgar Hiestand, who represented heavily Republican districts—a move that further cut into his vote. (In his race for governor in 1966, Ronald Reagan would also oppose the John Birch Society, but—with more skill—he would tell other candidates they were on their own.) On one occasion Nixon was shaving just before we went out to dinner. He was in his office’s private bathroom, talking to me through the open door. “I could not look myself in the mirror if I support them,” he told me. I could see his image through the mirror and wondered for a moment if this was a set piece. No, he had no need to impress me. Nixon was reassuring Nixon. Even now I think it was the attack on Eisenhower that so bothered Nixon, though other politicians took it less seriously.

Running for governor of California was not like running for president writ small. Rather, it was more like being moved from first class to the back of coach flying from Washington to Los Angeles. Where are the complimentary beverages before takeoff? The attendant offering to hang up your coat? Or the roomier seats and hot towels? Nixon probably did not notice. But traveling with him now meant there were fewer of us—usually the always present Rose Mary Woods, a press aide (either Sandy Quinn or Ron Ziegler), an all-purpose advance man, and me—doing more things that are not in our job descriptions. For example, one time Rose got my attention: Steve, there is a man in the lobby who insists Nixon must deal with the great injustice that has befallen him. Could you talk to him? The great injustice, it turned out, was that he had been convicted of embezzling from his daughter, a well-known movie actress.

Nor was this a one-stop-a-day campaign, more like breakfast meeting in Los Angeles, luncheon speech in San Francisco, evening rally in San Diego, back to bed where you started in Los Angeles. We entrusted driving to local volunteers, one of whom went the wrong way on a freeway as oncoming cars sought paths to avoid a high-speed collision. Nixon and speechwriter survive for another rally! My daily exercise was a thirty-minute walk in the morning from my motel on Olympic Boulevard to Nixon’s downtown office, shedding tears along the way (due less to the stress of the campaign than to LA’s poisonous smog).

California is a massive state then on the brink of becoming the most populous in the nation, and, Nixon being Nixon, he traveled it all, shaking lines of hands, 500 in Chico, each handshake coming with a few upbeat words, perhaps sounding as if he were greeting a lifelong friend. (At one stop I remember standing behind him thinking, “Is this the introvert I used to know?”) We soldiered on. It was the only time in my life I recognized a condition called bone-weary. A photograph I cherish shows me sound asleep, Nixon coming down the plane’s aisle with a look suggesting that I was about to get another assignment.

Nixon was buoyed by the crowds. It was an unrealistic gauge. The crowds were there to see half of the “Kennedy/Nixon” team. They wanted to meet a celebrity, not a California politician. Still, it would be wrong, as Nixon might have said, to consider the campaign a joyless experience for the campaigners. I know I loved being tested. Moreover, there were two parts of the campaign that were genuinely meant to be fun—the whistle-stop tour and the telethon.

The Whistle-Stop Tour

On October 18, less than three weeks before the election, Dick and Pat Nixon boarded an eight-car train for a three-day trip down the California coast. Nixon was not exactly making political history with this whistle-stop tour—it had nothing on Harry Truman’s historic 31,000-mile, 352-speech trip to a surprise victory in 1948—but it was the best I would ever experience firsthand. Car 8 was a

The Telethon

The telethon was supposed to offer an evening’s home entertainment as the candidate took on all challengers. In 1960, on the eve of the November 8 election, Nixon managed to squeeze in a four-hour national telethon broadcast on ABC, after flying overnight from Alaska on his way to Chicago. Now, in California, he was going to use the telethon technique in an even bigger way. There were to be seven of them, held during prime time over the last several weeks of the campaign. The final two were scheduled for San Francisco, on October 22, and Los Angeles, on November 3, with earlier multiple-community saturations in Salinas-Monterey-San Luis Obispo, on September 28, and Sacramento-Chico-Eureka, on October 16. The format called for questions to be phoned in from local audiences and read to the candidate on camera by celebrities. In fact, the questions were first detoured to me. My job was to turn “Mr. Nixon, what is your view on communism?” into “Mr. Nixon, why do the Communists hate you so much?” The celebrity would then say, “Here’s a real tough one, Dick.” A problem, however, was that Nixon’s celebrities were long in the tooth—Cesar Romero, Constance Moore, Dennis Morgan, Rhonda Fleming, Victor Jory, Jeannette MacDonald, Lloyd Nolan, and John Payne, five of whom were born before 1910. Strangely, we only needed a hook for three of our younger stars: Gale Storm (My Little Margie), too flirtatious for Nixon; Johnny Mathis, too gay for Nixon; and Chuck Connors (The Rifleman), who left Nixon grasping for a response to “Me and the boys were talking about Jeffersonian democracy on the set today.”

Numerous articles tell how a twenty-eight-year-old Roger Ailes gained fame as Nixon’s television producer in 1968. It is less well known that six years earlier another television notable, Paul Keyes, provided Nixon with page after page of next-day reflections on the telethons, even including how the announcer should introduce the candidate: “Once in the lifetime of every state a leader is born destined to lead his state to greatness—ladies and gentleman, I give you the next Governor of California!”

The Paul Keyes Touch

Nixon met Paul Keyes when he appeared on the Tonight show with Jack Paar. Paul was a professional gag writer who would go on to write for Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, a massively successful ode to silliness and one of the biggest hit TV shows of the late 1960s. The friendship of Nixon and Keyes was instant. This was not Nixon’s habit—his inner circle was small and long-tested. It might be poetic to think of Paul playing Shakespeare’s clown for Nixon. But this was not Paul’s style, even though he did funny very well. His nearness was very good for Nixon. Good for me too, I should add, as Paul’s approach to humor would come in handy when a speech called for something that was supposed to get a laugh. Paul told me about writing his first joke: it was for Rudy Vallée, the famous megaphone crooner of the 1930s, who said he needed a joke for a Madison Square benefit. What kind of joke? An animal joke. On a sheet of paper, Paul made a list of all the animals that came to mind, and then, in an adjacent column, a list of each animal’s most notable characteristic—stripes for tigers, humps for camels, elephants’ tusks. This was the joke: A mother kangaroo said to another, “Don’t you hate these rainy days when the kids can’t go out and play?”

I never wrote any jokes for Nixon, whose humor at that time was mostly about “going to the Electoral College and having flunked debating.” Still, Paul’s lessons later came in handy when, in January 1965, Gerald Ford became the new Republican leader in Congress and Bryce Harlow (of course!) asked me to write an introductory speech Ford was to deliver at the National Press Club in Washington. The substance of the speech was okay, the problem was that I did not knowFord. So I wrote down all the characteristics I could think of, such as his being a football star at the University of Michigan. My solution for Ford’s opener was this: “I wonder where I would be today if I had accepted Curly Lambeau’s offer to play for the Green Bay Packers.” Then, after a long pause: “Perhaps on the Supreme Court!” Since President Kennedy had just nominated Byron “Whizzer” White—a former All-American halfback at the University of Colorado—to the Supreme Court, the Press Club’s insiders were primed to laugh. One more attempt at a joke for Ford came when he was invited to speak at an Israeli Bond Rally in Chicago. Here I tried to tease a string of Israeli-Republican similarities, ending with Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion of Israel using the same hair stylist. I heard that Ford liked my jokes more than my substance; otherwise he was a very nice man—and nice to me.

Paul Keyes, by my calculation, deserves to be among a small group that can take credit for Nixon’s 1968 presidential victory. The catchphrase of Laugh-In, Paul’s program, was “sock it to me,” a line that took a second to say and was then repeated by millions of viewers each week. On September 16, 1968, less than two months before the presidential election, Paul Keyes convinced Nixon to do the bit. Nixon turned the phrase into an incredulous question—“Sock it to meeee?” Of all the manufactured efforts to create the New Nixon that Joe McGinniss documented in The Selling of the President, none created a more likable image of the Republican candidate than “Sock it to meeee?”

The last time I recall seeing Paul was at a Gridiron Dinner in Washington. The shows are put on by a club of veteran journalists wearing outrageous costumes and singing their own lyrics to popular songs. Between the reporters’ skits were various meant-to-be funny speeches, one by the president or his representative. In 1969 the speaker was Vice President Spiro Agnew, whose limitations in the humor department were well known. Yet his speech was hilarious. I particularly liked Agnew explaining how well the president was treating him. “He even gives me my own plane,” he chimed. “Air Force 13. . . . It’s a glider.”

Who wrote it, I wondered? Then I saw Paul Keyes in the audience.

“Paul,” I said, “you wrote a terrific speech!”

“I didn’t write it,” he said. This was what speechwriters are supposed to say.

“The only trouble, Paul, was that it was a little long.”

“You should have seen the first draft.”

Paul Keyes died on January 2, 2004. He was seventy-nine years old.


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