THE DAY NIXON TOLD THE TRUTH

During his farewell remarks in the White House East Room on August 9, 1974, President Richard Milhous Nixon told the truth.

Nixon_FarewellNixon remains a controversial and tarnished historical figure. But his impact on America was significant. Only Franklin Roosevelt’s name appeared on as many national ballots (five). His presidency, though now remembered by many for the way it ended, was actually filled with great achievement and success in many ways. Nixon was a brilliant visionary.

But he also had a weakness.

It was a failure to tell the truth that became Nixon’s undoing. The highly publicized tapes of what he thought would remain private conversations revealed that shortcoming. Nixon really did have enemies, but he later acknowledged that he was the one who gave them the sword to use with relish.

Forty years ago this weekend, I was a few days away from beginning my first year of college and was finishing up a summer job at a Taylor, Michigan menswear store. I asked my boss if I could leave a bit early on August 8th, and he asked me why. I told him that I wanted to watch the President’s speech. I made it home just as the living room clock chimed nine times. The image of President Nixon came on the screen, and he began: “Good evening. This is the 37th time I have spoken to you from this office.”

My mother was crying. Mom and Dad were Nixon people since voting for him when he was Vice President under Eisenhower. I was an “Alex P. Keaton” type of kid who often defended Nixon to my high school teachers. Fortunately for me, the summer of 1974 began and school was out by the time I finally realized that Watergate indeed involved Nixon, saving me from a litany of condescending voices saying, “I told you so.”

However my interest in Nixon, his work and legacy, did not end when he waved, flashed a victory sign, and got into Marine One on the White House lawn. I wrote about him in graduate school, and years later had the privilege of writing some for his library in Yorba Linda, as well as doing some of the voice-over work that continues to be used in a few exhibits there.

As we note the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, I think it’s what the man said to his staff and other assembled guests that continues to resonate with me. It was an unusual address for someone who was a master at extemporaneous speaking.

Among the gifts and passions possessed by the 37th President of the United States was a love for the English language. He was a wordsmith and actually quite good at it, in spite of the fact that his White House staff included a stable of excellent speechwriters. Not since Woodrow Wilson had a president been so involved in writing his own speeches. And Nixon never used a teleprompter.

When Nixon spoke that Friday morning, just after signing his resignation letter for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, there were about 300 people in the East Room. I watched it on television, along with millions of others.

His remarks were at times rambling and mawkish. His tone wasn’t defiant like when speaking in 1962 after losing the race for Governor in California, when he talked about not having him to “kick around” anymore. But it was somewhat painful to watch.

After talking about mountains, valleys, young people, his “Old Man,” and his saintly mother, Mr. Nixon shared words that are worth remembering no matter what our lot in life. They were likely among the most self-aware words Nixon ever uttered in public:

Remember, always give your best. Never get discouraged. Never be petty. Always remember, others may hate you. But those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.” [Emphasis added]

In a very real sense, Richard Nixon explained Watergate in that moment. He was a man with the capacity for greatness, one of the smartest men ever to hold the nation’s highest office. But he wrestled with a very common problem: Unresolved anger.

I could be wrong, but I wonder if that day, as Nixon was talking about his Quaker mother, he wasn’t remembering something she had most certainly taught her gifted son. It was what Jesus said:

“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” [Matthew 5:44]

The Checkers Speech — 61 Years Ago Today

One day in 1974, as Spring began to give way to Summer, Frank Gannon—wordsmith and White House Fellow—took a walk in Washington, largely to get away from the stress induced by the Nixon White House’s ever-increasing Watergate milieu. He found his way to an old theater—one that happened to be featuring a triple billing of anti-Nixon films.  He felt uncomfortable—even somewhat guilty—for being there, but for whatever reason even this was a welcome break from what was happening a few blocks away.  He looked around and, though the lights were out, sensed the crowd’s unmistakable derision every time Richard Nixon’s familiar image appeared on the screen.

Then something curious happened.

The final feature of the odd cinematic trilogy was the simple replaying of a speech Mr. Nixon had given more than two decades earlier—on September 23, 1952—at another embattled moment in his career.  The grainy video was designed to be the program’s pièce de résistance.  But as a much younger Richard Nixon delivered his remarks on the screen that day, it was the audience that Gannon noticed.  For whatever reason, the sarcastic hisses had stopped as Nixon spoke of finances and family and a dog named Checkers.  It was almost as if these decidedly anti-Nixon partisans were suddenly fascinated.

Checkers_speechThey were.  Many still are.

He was 39-years old and on the verge of national leadership—the junior United States Senator from California and the Republican nominee for Vice President.  He was living the American dream and fulfilling many of his own.  And along the way, he carried the hopes of a new generation of Americans, those who had emerged from the darkness of global conflict with renewed resolve to embrace life and ensure that such a catastrophe never happened again.

In fact, this rising political star whose magnitude had increased so dramatically in six short years, had already experienced the clash of personalities and ideologies that was to define his generation. Richard Milhous Nixon would be a transcendent political figure in America for quite some time.  His name would appear on five national ballots—a feat equaled only by Franklin Delano Roosevelt—two times for Vice-President and three for President.  And like FDR, he would lose only once, and that barely to another young politician, this one from Massachusetts, who was making his own history in 1952.

Mr. Nixon is most often remembered through the prism of how his career—at least the public part—ended in August of 1974.  This is not only unfortunate, but it also prevents us from figuring out how this man who fathomed such deep valleys managed to actually scale the highest political mountains extant.  How could Nixon have done all he did if the caricature of him in the minds of so many Americans was an accurate characterization?

Understanding what he did in 1952 is crucial to processing all the rest. What is lost to so many in the fog of all that later transpired, is that Richard Nixon was actually right on the facts, as well as the politics, in 1952.  He did not wiggle out of a mess. In fact, he demonstrated a clear capacity for communication and connection with the American people.

It was the dawn of the television age—the beginning of an entertainment, information, and communication seismic shift. In living rooms around the country, the large radio, complete with it’s prominently displayed dials, would be exiled to elsewhere in the house and the furniture would begin to arrange itself around the new media kid in town. The device that Edward R. Murrow would later characterize as “lights and wires in a box,” would eventually become so essential to Americans that they wondered how they ever lived without it.  Although, until that September night when Richard Nixon spoke “coast to coast,” the shift from wireless to tube was anything but a done deal.  And as the young politico prepared to make his case to the American people, he had no way of knowing that not only what he had to say would be important, but where he said it would be, as well—even more so.

It was the first synchronization of medium and message for a new age. This was the moment when television began to trump radio—even motion pictures—as the entertainment choice du jour of Americans.  We loved Lucy, watched “Uncle Miltie,” and got our information more and more as much from Edward R. Murrow as from the venerable morning and evening newspapers.

In fact, in many ways it was the Checkers speech that signaled the beginning of our ever since fascination with the glowing tube.  More Americans watched Nixon that September night than would watch any single event on T.V. for many years to come.  But even politicians were slow to figure out what it all meant. The Republican National Committee put their Vice Presidential candidate on two radio networks (Mutual and Columbia; MBS, CBS), while on only one television hook-up (NBC).  But, no matter—suspense built, and by airtime at 9:30 p.m. (eastern) on Tuesday, September 23, 1952 nearly 60 million viewers tuned in—an unheard of audience up to that point and well beyond.

Forget what else was airing or happening, or that Jersey Joe Walcott was defending his World’s Heavyweight Boxing Championship that very night and hour against a guy named Rocky Marciano—the fight had been blacked out on radio and television anyway and could only be seen live in Philadelphia or via a primitively skeletal network of closed circuit venues (complete with its famous knockout punch)—people wanted to hear what this man accused of financial improprieties would have to say.  Would he resign from the Republican ticket? Would he tell the truth?  Would he really give out his personal financial details when no other politician at the time did?

What viewers saw that night was a presentation—primitive in its production quality, in keeping with the technology of the young medium—carefully crafted and skillfully delivered.  It was a deliberately arranged combination of facts, figures, family, and country.  At moments it was clinical.  Occasionally it was corny.  But it all worked.

The great General of World War II and D-Day, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republican candidate for President and the man who held Nixon’s fate in his recently-indecisive hands, made notes as he watched his young running mate on television.  And at one point, something Nixon said so disturbed him that he broke his pencil on his pad of paper.

Mrs. Eisenhower wept as she watched.

Mrs. Nixon sat near her husband at the otherwise empty El Capitan Theater in Hollywood.  Some reporters saw his wife’s presence cynically, but they soon forgot about it as Mr. Nixon told a story that would chisel this small screen moment in storied stone.  It was about a cocker spaniel: Yep—a dog.  A dog named Checkers.

nixon-checkers_11The broadcast was missed by many and dismissed by many more.  The Democratic nominee for President that year, Adlai Stevenson—a man who prided himself on his use of the spoken word—didn’t even bother watching.  He was convinced that television was a passing fad for plebeians.  And even after watching the speech, Mr. Eisenhower still did not know what to make of, or do, with Nixon.  It was powerful political drama, but more than that—it was great cultural drama.

Nixon didn’t read a script or use a teleprompter, but rather he used a few notes to aid his prodigious memory, as would be his style throughout most of his public career. He demonstrated a mastery of detail and appeared to Americans as a sort of new kind of political communicator—just a guy having an animated conversation with friends. When the half-hour was up, the camera lights turned off before the candidate could actually give out the contact information for phone calls and telegrams to the Republican National Committee.  Mad at himself for such an inexactitude, he was certain that he had failed—until he noticed one of the cameramen crying.

A few minutes later Darryl Zanuck, the Hollywood mogul whose career included the production of the first “talking” movie (The Jazz Singer in 1927) and hits such as All About Eve (1950), phoned.  He told Richard Nixon that the broadcast was “the most tremendous performance” he’d ever seen.  This from a man known for the saying: “There is nothing duller on the screen than being accurate but not dramatic.”

Calls and telegrams overwhelmed the RNC.  It was quickly obvious that Nixon had not only won the day, but that he had tapped into something powerful.  He had gone directly to the people in a way not really done before.  Americans had read and heard speeches for generations, but this was something different—they saw and, for a brief and shining moment, they connected.  And what too many casual observers miss is that Richard Nixon not only survived his first firestorm, he triumphed that night in 1952.

[This article was originally written for the Nixon Foundation — DRS]

Richard Nixon Centennial Video and Exhibit

[NOTE: It was my privilege to do the voice over work for the video that will be premiered at this event. I also did the voice work for video last year marking the centennial of Mrs. Pat Nixon’s birth. – DRS]

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Tricia Nixon Cox, daughter of the 37th President of the United States, and David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, will lead the festivities at the official opening of the Richard Nixon Centennial Exhibit, Patriot. President. Peacemaker.  It will take place at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, on Friday, February 15.
The 11AM ribbon cutting ceremony and official opening tour is followed by a Noon Luncheon with Nixon family, friends, and former White House officials.
This highly visual story-teller presentation will feature the most important and influential aspects of the 37th President’s life. Guests will “walk in RN’s shoes” as they’re guided through the five key chapters that define President Nixon’s his legacy, How American, In the Arena, Creating a Just Society, Peacemaker of His Time, and Global Elder Statesman.

 

For more information about this event, CLICK HERE.

 

Lessons from a polarizing case 65 years ago still resonate today

[Written for EXAMINER.COM]

In her new book, Alger Hiss: Why He Chose Treason, Christina Shelton, a retired U.S. intelligence analyst, refreshes our memory not only about the famous Hiss espionage case itself, but why it indeed still very much matters:

The story doesn’t go away, because it has become a symbol of the ongoing struggle for control over the philosophical and political direction of the United States. It is a battle between collectivism and individualism; between centralized planning and local/state authority, and between rule by administrative fiat and free markets…

Hiss firmly believed in a collectivist political ideology; he believed government was the ultimate instrument of power for solving problems and that the U.S. Constitution should be bent or bypassed to support this view. Hiss put his political belief into practice in his support for Communism and loyalty to the USSR, a state where government authority and power were not limited by the rule of law—in fact it would brook no limit.

It was high political drama more than six decades ago—controversial and polarizing. A Harvard trained and highly ranked member of the Federal Government charged by a self-confessed former Soviet spy of being a partner in those very same nefarious enterprises.

On the one hand there was Whitaker Chambers, the somewhat frumpy-looking accuser, a man who had wandered in from the darkened cold years before, having seen the sinister reality behind the propaganda-driven hope and change promised by Communism. Then there was this other guy named Alger Hiss with poster-child-for-success looks, brains, friends in very high places, and a killer resume with seemingly endless references.

Add to that mix a committee in the House of Representatives increasingly dominated by a young Congressman named Richard Nixon who was quickly climbing a ladder to somewhere—and no Hollywood writer or gifted novelist could devise a more compelling story. Along the way we learned about microfilm squirreled away in a pumpkin on a Maryland farm, one man’s dental challenges, and a President of the United States talking about something called a “red herring.”

The story simply won’t go away—nor should it. It contains the DNA of our current national political discussion and cultural divide. Ask people about the Hiss case today and many will predictably give you a deer-in-the-headlights stare. But those old enough to remember, or who have demonstrated a cultivating interest in the political history of our country for the past hundred years or so, tend to quickly reach animation. “Hiss was smeared,” or “Chambers was right,” or my favorite: “Well, that was just McCarthyism at its worst.”

Never mind that Senator Joe McCarthy didn’t even begin to make a name for himself until after Alger Hiss’s conviction on a couple of counts of perjury.

But as the saying goes—“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” And with the Hiss case it took years for a preponderance of evidence to come out proving that Whitaker Chambers was right and that Alger Hiss lied. He was a traitor and perjurer. And it still matters today, not just because of the idea of finding out the true story but because the philosophies the two men represented at the time are alive and well and every bit as distinct and diametrically opposed as the Tea Party is from the group purporting to Occupy Wall Street.

Even while denying his guilt throughout his life (he died in 1996 at the age of 92), Mr. Hiss maintained a steadfast belief in the liberalism behind all the manifestations of the New Deal. And this remains the salient talking point—the very real connection between the “progressive” political machinations and actual Marxist thought and methodology. “What Is To Be Done” gave way to what has been done. This is the story of American political liberalism from the heady days of the New Deal to the conjured euphoria of “Yes, We Can.”

Whitaker Chambers, who died in 1961, never lived to see the fall of Soviet communism. In fact, he truly believed that it would never happen and that when he left communism to embrace the ideas and ideals of American freedom he was leaving the winning side for a losing cause. We know that he was wrong—at least in the short run. Having read his wonderful political tome, Witness, several times, I often wonder what Chambers would have made of the events of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Yet, to sort of quote Ronald Reagan: “Here we go again.”

These days, the “constant vigilance” consistently needed to perpetuate liberty in the face of what often seems to be humankind’s default affinity for a clueless slouch toward tyranny (weeds grow naturally, flowers take work), seems to be in dangerously short supply. The Hiss case would be a great story for all Americans to revisit every few years—as a caveat and catalyst. Christina Shelton’s book is a great place to start. She reminds us that, “Hiss has become emblematic of the ideological divide that continues to this day in the United States…Hiss’s advocacy of collectivism and the need for government control over society and his support for international policies ahead of national security interests still resonate today.”

Toward the end of the book, Shelton tells the story of Vladimir Bukovsky, a man who spent a dozen years in Soviet prisons and labor camps as a dissident. He reflectively compared the former USSR and the European Union (EU), where “nationalism is suppressed in an attempt to establish a socialist European state.” He summarized his comments with words of warning:

“I have lived in your future and it didn’t work.”