For the first time, I could see Mrs. Nixon’s connection with her husband: two people with great drive, and a deep suspicion that “other people had it easy,” in her phrase, “glamour boys” or “buddy-buddy boys” in his, would somehow pull gracefully ahead of them in spite of all their work. Like gate-crashers at a party, they supported each other in a critical world. It must have been a very special hell for them, running against the Kennedys; as if all their deepest suspicions had been proved true.
That night, sitting in the bar of the Brown Hotel with some of the press corps and staff, we talked about what positive emotions Nixon must have. Both he and wife seemed to become human and spontaneous only when their fears, some small paranoia, were aroused. But there must be more. What proofs were there of Nixon’s unself-conscious self?
“Well, he once forced me to eat snails in Paris,” said Bob Ellsworth, trying to be helpful. A woman correspondent explained that he’d once used the word “motel” in a rather innocuous sentence, but she didn’t want it quoted. Joe Kraft contributed Nixon’s comment that “I would have made a good Pope.” Somebody else assured us that he had been known to make jokes, and that he had not been born, contrary to rumor, in a dark suit and a tie.
We all laughed, conscious of our own ridiculousness. Nixon was human, after all. Of course. But what makes the jokes about Plastic Man and a-key-in-his-back and the dark suit so funny? What makes the question of humanity come up at all?
We got a plane-side press conference this morning because there was a row about the lack of one at the hotel last night. Reporters had wanted a reply to George Ball’s accusation, just then on the wires, that Nixon didn’t have the character or principles to handle world crises as President, and that Agnew was a “fourth-rate political hack.” Nixon had said he would not reply, then gone on a local interview show and done just that. When he finally stood on the plane steps to take questions, the reporters were angry enough to bring the Old Nixon out. He accused them of putting words in his mouth, then pulled himself together and added, “Of course, you boys have a right to put words in my mouth, that’s your job.”
“A choir began to sing ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic.’ ‘They shouldn’t sing that,’ said a reporter. ‘It doesn’t belong to them.’”
On the flight to Chattanooga, as if to show everything was going smoothly, George Ball or no, Nixon came out of his private compartment for a Walk-Back. He moved through the aisle making a point of remembering names. A staffman introduced those of us who were new. Nixon and I had the following exchange.
When are you coming to New York?
Nixon: “Well, you do that at the end of your campaign, you know. You want to end up those last few weeks with a . . .” [He trailed off, making a wrap-up gesture. When speaking of politics, he often says, “you” do this or that, as if rules were graven in stone.]
Will you go . . . Uptown?
Nixon: “Uptown? What’s Uptown?”
Harlem is Uptown.
Nixon: “Ohhh, that. No, I have no plans to go there. We’re going to Queens. All over Brooklyn.”
Maybe you should go up there. They’re feeling neglected.
Nixon: “Well, I just do what my local people tell me. Gilhooley [John J. Gilhooley, New York campaign coordinator], he tells me what to do.”
Will you go to Bedford-Stuyvesant?
Nixon: “No, I have no plans to go there. We’re going to Queens.”
This dialogue amused another reporter who was tape-recording Nixon’s exchanges. (“How many years in New York and he doesn’t know what Uptown is?”) But I learned only that a) he looked no less Plastic close up, and b) it was my personal and irrelevant opinion that he dyed his blunted widow’s peak, but not the sides.
At the Tennessee Valley Authority, with Pat dressed in red, white and blue, we all inspected the locks and thought about the contrast of Nixon with FDR. (“Are you going to sell TVA if you’re President?” asked an AP man. “No, no, I have no plans to sell it,” Nixon replied seriously.) At a Chattanooga auditorium, the Tennessee Singing Republicans serenaded us with “America, America, America, Absolution, Absolution, Absolution”; balloons floated aloft, broke, and rained down spit.
In a Tampa motel, Governor Claude Kirk, looking hale and hearty and a little obsessive around the eyes, greeted Nixon warmly and took him off to a meeting. Thruston Morton treated the rest of us to an anti-George Ball press conference.
In the Tampa auditorium for that night’s rally, bleachers climbed up three sides from a floor full of folding chairs, making a solid valley of faces and signs: “A White House Wedding,” “Nixon—Remember Cuba,” “Pat for First Lady.” At the open end of the valley was a stage bearing Nixon, Governor Kirk, and local Republicans. “That’s a swell group of people up there,” the Midwestern reporter next to me said bitterly. Max Frankel of the New York Times tossed us a note, “$1 reward still available for the first black face.” Nixon smiled and nodded and made waggling signs to the crowd. The ovation went on so long that he relaxed with hands on hips, fingers splayed our over his hipbones, and smiled and nodded some more.