Top aides do not speak of policy briefings but of “programming the candidate.” The chain of command is definitely corporate, with John Mitchell, a fiftyish Wall Street lawyer who is a Nixon partner, as “Chairman of the Board” over both Ideas and Production. The rest of the staff is almost totally new since ’60. Nixon handled everything himself then, not even letting those policymakers he had hired have much say, and he has learned his lesson. He’s no longer up there “whittling his own pencils,” as his last campaign manager said.
Most of this operation is housed in barren efficiency at 445 Park Avenue, but some of it is visible on the planes. All three are equipped with telephones for on-the-ground calls, and will soon have in-the-air intercoms as well. (Before each take-off, reporters calling their city rooms are warned “15 seconds until disconnect.” One humorously requested a count-down, but nobody smiled.) Nixon’s plane is further equipped with electric typewriters and seemingly electric secretaries; a large streamlined object with blinking lights that can reproduce a newspaper story, or anything else communicated to it from the ground; and a slim-line brief case full of James Bond electronics that keeps him in, touch with plane and New York office when he’s at anything so old-fashioned as a rally.
There have been several Advancemen’s Schools at which this lowest echelon of staff gets a weekend of chalk talks on business procedures; also an Advancemen’s Manual. Nixonairs (off-duty airline stewardesses) and the ubiquitous Nixonettes get instruction in handing out buttons and cheering to cover hecklers. The youngsters who pass out hand bills are divided into “Building Disbursement” and “Streets Disbursement”: their two-page instructions include sentences like “Code him [your replacement] in with the original number of the key location.” Just in case any residents might come out and cheer, every Nixon route is marked like the Tulip Route through Holland.
Treatment of the press is impeccable. Do you wish to ask questions about Mr. Nixon’s concept of the Presidency? Here is the staffman in charge of that. About trade barriers and the gold flow? Here is the department head in charge of that. (The fact that there are no Negroes on staff, not even a labor specialist, goes almost unnoticed.) Baggage never gets lost, wire service facilities are everywhere, and I was phoned twice this weekend, once at 1 a.m., to make sure that I knew about a half-hour schedule change in case I wanted to re-join the campaign on Monday instead of Tuesday.
It’s all very pleasant, even seductive, but there is a suspicion that the reporters are inmates and the staff, their keepers; that if we said, “I don’t like Richard Nixon,” it would be like saying, “I am Napoleon”; the keepers would smile their “we’re-the-winners-and-you’re-some-crazy-aberrants” smile, give us our room keys, and pay no attention.
The Press: In fact, the reporters don’t like Richard Nixon. As far as I’ve been able to find out, only two members of the 90-odd press corps are likely to vote for him: the U.S. News & World Report man, who was also for Nixon in ’60, and the Voice of America correspondent, who is thought to be Republican because he doesn’t join in anti-Nixon bull sessions and smokes an unlit pipe. A few, notably Washington columnist Joe Kraft, are not against Nixon because they feel he’s what the rest of the country wants and/or deserves. The rest seem to waver around between Cheerful Resignation and Silent Despair.
But what’s most striking is the air of disinterest in what the candidate does. On any Kennedy’s campaign plane, and even McCarthy’s or Rockefeller’s, there was a feeling of being at the second-best party: that no matter how interesting the reporters’ discussions and dinners might be, the candidate and his chosen few were having a better time somewhere else. But not on Nixon’s plane. Here, reporters clearly feel themselves the first-best, and going off to a rally, or even a private interview, is just part of the unexciting job.
Occasionally, one of several reporters who has covered the White House will call other veterans around for a “one-minute reminder”: then he plays a tape of Johnson talking, and everybody jokes about how glad they are to be away. (“Nixon says he’s going someplace the next day, and then actually goes,” said Life’s Presidential historian, Hugh Sidey. “Johnson wants to keep you uncertain and off-balance even about that.”) Saul Pett of the AP, Marie Ridder from Ridder Newspapers, and other writers who had followed Robert Kennedy, form a second group. Occasionally, as if against their will, they are reminded of stories from the primaries. (Bobby, the day before Oregon’s primary, sitting on a suitcase in the aisle and singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” to somebody’s guitar accompaniment. Bobby spending three days visiting South Dakota’s Indians, and responding to staff objections that there were no votes there with “You sons of bitches, you don’t really care about suffering.”) They tell their stories, and then are silent for a moment as each one tries to think of something cheerful to say.