Nixon stepped back, looking pleased with his new hip phrase, and Sullivan laughed heartily. “That’s right,” he said, giving Nixon a slap on the back that moved him over a couple of inches. “That’s what Afro-Americans got to work for now, black power and green power. That's why I’m a political independent.” Either Nixon was dismayed by that “political independent” or he had never heard “Afro-American” before, but his “right right, I see,” was getting noticeably more nervous. The small talk drifted into Nixon telling of his honorary degree from nearby Temple University, and exclamations over the fact that both he and Sullivan had once been designated Outstanding Young Men of the Year by the Junior Chamber of Commerce.
“Say,” said Nixon, “you must know that fella who was a Young Man of the Year, too. You know, the one with a hook for an arm.” Sullivan looked bewildered, and said no, he didn’t. Nixon insisted he must know him—though they hadn’t been elected the same year, and there was no reason for them to be friends—and insisted on describing him, gesturing to show where the hook came. Sullivan said no, he really didn’t, and the meeting came to a jovial end. But not before a possible explanation of Nixon’s mental connection became painfully clear. Black skin and a man with a hook: two handicapped men must know each other.
Today’s New York Times carried a front page story, “Nixon Visits Negro Slum And Warns White Suburbs,” that demonstrates the problems of news as the atypical event. For a Lindsay or a Kennedy or even a Rockefeller, visiting Negro areas is sufficiently routine to get reported only if there is some demonstration or milestone. But for Nixon to go to a “slum” (which was really a rather prosperous area on the edge of the ghetto: every politician from Lyndon Johnson to Rockefeller has stopped there) is so unusual that it is headlined by the Times, thus making what was really a pathetic mini-event into a campaign innovation.
As for the “. . . And Warns White Suburbs,” that apparently was a five-sentence elaboration of the “this-isn’t-a-good-country-for-any-of-us-until-it’s-a-good-country-for-all-of-us” line from The Speech. Perhaps I’m too new to Nixon’s campaign, or too poor a Kremlinologist, but adding a warning that “You can’t be an island in the world . . . There are people who haven’t had the chance you’ve had” seems admirable, but not Big News.
To make much of a departure is an understandable reaction of reporters, especially on a campaign as uncontroversial and purposefully bland as this one. But it leads to criticizing from inside the candidate’s character instead of from an exterior reality. We expect a Kennedy to go to the slums, we don’t expect it of Nixon, but the needs of the slums remain the same. Roosevelt had strong anti-colonial feelings, Truman did not, but the needs of colonial countries didn’t change. Had McCarthy been a different sort of man, we would have criticized him for not spearheading the movement for Ted Kennedy at the beginning of the Convention, when he knew he himself would lose. As it was, we were surprised and touched that he offered his support at all.
Those of us concerned with the news ought to be reminded once a week that novelty has to be put in perspective.
I am back in New York for a day of rest, as is the whole entourage, after our Negro Experiment yesterday, and the bus tour of Pennsylvania and New Jersey shopping centers that followed. Nixon is incommunicado in his Fifth Avenue apartment, but film clips from yesterday show up on the television from time to time. The new gestures of the New Nixon are very evident—since ’60, he has given up the keep-your-elbows-in stance recommended by his high school debating coach—but what doesn’t show up on these short takes is in the difference between form and content. For the phrase, “We must reach up . . .” he may stretch both arms downward; for “the whole world,” he may gesture close to his chest, or tick off the first of two points on the third finger; for the one-arm thrust that marks important statements, he may find himself with his arm raised too soon, and pause visibly to get coordinated. This is a man who has, to an extraordinary degree, created himself; who has worked hard, who never stops working, to fulfill his idea of what a public man should be.
Colleagues say he has one of the highest IQs in Washington. The State Department officials who briefed him for his many trips as Vice President were invariably impressed that he had “done his homework.” In recent years of law practice, fellow attorneys have commented on his ability to grasp all the essentials of a problem quickly, and to analyze afterward what did or did not go wrong. If it can be learned, Nixon will learn it.