Monday, July 1, 2013

The Yorba Linda Plumbers

Co-author on the beach near Provincetown
On vacation last month in Cape Cod, I had the opportunity for extensive meetings with Richard Nixon's last chief of staff, Kathy O'Connor, to discuss a book project we've been mulling for a while. You can probably guess the subject. O'Connor babysat Nixon's grandchildren, traveled with him to Russia and China, nursed him through a variety of crises and a couple of epic missteps, and held his hand when he died in 1994. I'll offer insights about 37 beginning at our first meeting in San Clemente in the spring of 1979 and ending when I oversaw his Yorba Linda funeral 15 years later. I also withstood his angry family and wrangled with the the feds over his tapes and other materials as Nixon library director and co-executor of his estate until 2009, two years after O'Connor and I had brought Nixon's wilderness-wandering black sheep of a private library into the federal system.

We have a lot to figure out when it comes to process and timing, focus and theme, what to include and leave out. What would even tempt us post-presidential Nixonites to combine our nearly 60 years of Nixonalia in one Nixo-narrative? We're married, for one thing, though that doesn't means it's wise to write a book together. I'll undoubtedly gain insights about gracious collaboration that will be useful in upcoming counseling sessions with couples being married at St. John's Episcopal Church.

All kidding aside, since we've been working together since the day after Labor Day in 1980, when she first buzzed me into Nixon's Foley Square offices under the eye of his Secret Services agents, I anticipate a joyful process of research and writing. We also look forward to reconnecting with the Nixon we knew and respected for his achievements and in spite of his massive failings. We spent tens of thousands of hours with him during the last 15 years of his life, when he had mellowed considerably without losing his keen interest in moderate GOP politics (which are now inoperative) and his desire to influence U.S. foreign policy, especially in China and Russia. There's no denying Watergate, the vulgar White House tapes, and his penchant for dirty tricks. But from the man who traveled the world without portfolio -- and after 1985, without Secret Service agents -- serving as an honest broker between his successors and their counterparts abroad, we gained a deep appreciation for the statesman who had left the world safer than he found it when he resigned in August 1974.

Nixon and Kissinger
Besides, Kathy and I have been doing the Nixon two-step for years, in speeches, at parties, and with friends. "Please," said a clergy buddy just last weekend over pasta in New York after our party of five had seen Tom Hanks and Courtney B. Vance in "Lucky Guy" (which beautifully evoked the 1980s New York we remember so well). "Please tell Nixon's last joke." Aw, shucks, I said. Demurring just for a moment can inspire the petitioner to order another bottle of wine, and so it was Saturday night. Many years ago, just a few months before Nixon died, he had taken Kathy, her assistant, and me to dinner at his hotel in Dana Point, California, where he'd encamped to finish what would be his last book. It was rewrite time, and Nixon and O'Connor had summoned me with my laptop. After a long day's work, he leaned forward in the booth in the disarmingly informal manner he assumed when out to dinner with friends and aides. "Bebe told me a new joke," he whispered. "Wanna hear it?" Did we ever.
Unindicted co-authors

But as for the joke, I''ll have to tell you later. Just to tantalize you, telling it properly required Nixon to speak in falsetto. It was naughty in the relatively innocent way of Depression-era elites. Men of his and Bebe Rebozo's generation called it bathroom humor, meaning that it was scatological but also that gentlemen did their best to keep it among themselves in their manly enclaves, whether the locker room or the Bohemian Grove. One of Kathy's stories is about waiting for Nixon outside the men's room at a hotel where he and Henry Kissinger were attending an event together. She could hear them joking in their growly baritones and teasing each other like little leaguers.

A little boy or girl resides in most of us, whether presidents or priests. Nixon was a wide-eyed naif when it came to sexuality, matters of the heart, and their mysterious nexus. History has yet to appreciate how much he enjoyed and craved the attention of intelligent, capable women, chiefly, of course, his beloved Patricia Ryan. Yet women flummoxed him. As for Pat, while he always loved and respected her, his profound introversion and selfish decision-making kept their relationship out of balance. Too many instructions to several generations of aides began with the words, "Call Mrs. Nixon and tell her that...." If his temperament and deepest desires were barriers to the fearful intimacy of mutual vulnerability, so too with millions of his overachieving mid-century cohort, for whom dirty jokes were a way of whistling past the bedroom door.

There was even some bathroom humor in our day at the Nixon library. Pace Rick Perlstein and Jeb Magruder, 37 probably never gave direct orders to the White House Plumbers, authors of Watergate and co-destroyers of his presidency. But he was embroiled with library plumbers not once but twice -- and I'm not even talking about the acolytes of disgraced chief of staff Bob Haldeman who now control Nixon's private foundation in Yorba Linda. After 2009's Haldeman renaissance, triggered by his fellow operatives' hatred of John Dean, Kathy's 29 years of dedicated service to Nixon and his family were repaid with acts of such savagery and sadism that she lost interest in her mentor for a while. I give thanks that her ambivalence has dissipated to the point where she can separate her feelings about Nixon from all his Woodward and Bernstein-celebrated men and their enablers.

Nixon and Kathy in China, 1993
If Nixon had wanted his mid-level White House and campaign operatives in charge of his library, legacy, and estate, they would have been. When Kathy and I were working together in Nixon's offices in New York and New Jersey, we oversaw the original private library from architecture to museum cases. Precise historicity was not our ethic. Amid vaunting presentations about Nixon's peacemaking initiatives, we installed a polemical defense of his Watergate actions written by a young devotee of Julie Eisenhower and a video on the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates in which the eloquent Democrat never actually spoke. While I included the the most damning portions of the famous “smoking gun” cover-up tape from June 23, 1972, I wrote a script for the exhibit in which I did my best to exonerate Nixon of criminal motives. With a commercial filmmaker, I co-wrote a 30-minute museum orientation film, “In the Arena,” that presented Nixon in heroic hues and at least until recently was still being shown at the federal library. I brought in a camera crew one morning and peppered him with 70 questions. His businesslike answers ended up, along with earlier footage, in an interactive “Presidential Forum” feature.

Nixon dutifully reviewed the exhibit text and made some changes. He didn't care as much about the library as we did. He reminded me repeatedly that, for better or worse, his legacy belonged to historians, not factotums writing paeans in exhibits paid for by his rich friends. The artifact that really mattered to him was his birthplace, where a school caretaker and his family were living as we got started on the library. We returned it to its 1913 appearance with the help of some restoration specialists I knew in National City, California, where I’d been a reporter ten years before. Thanks to their good work and Nixon’s late sister-in-law Clara Jane Nixon, who for years had preserved a houseful of his parents Frank and Hannah’s own furnishings, house wares, and knickknacks, library visitors can enjoy an authentic glimpse of a turn-of-the-century southern California farmhouse, a three-dimensional snapshot of the working class, goat milk-drinking upbringing of which Nixon was so proud.

Over our many Mimi's lunches during the next 19 years, Clara Jane told me absorbing stories about the Nixon family and gently defended her husband, Donald, whose financial imbroglios had embarrassed his brother (and had continued into the 1980s, when I'd fielded Don's calls in Nixon's New York City office). As if to remind me that her husband wasn't the only Nixon brother who was subject to judgment, she missed few opportunities to say how offended she'd been by the bathroom language Nixon and his aides had used on the White House tapes.

2 BR, 1/2 bath
The first Yorba Linda bathroom emergency was our proposal to keep the toilet in his birthplace. The architects were convinced there’d been one in the house as Frank Nixon had built it in 1912, but Nixon disagreed strenuously. He told me that the family had used an outhouse at first, though he conceded indoor plumbing might have been installed by the time they moved to Whittier in the early 1920s, when he was nine.

He finally approved the john but not another of my and the architects’ schemes. Since the front of his family house faced away from the main library building, they wanted to pick it up and turn it around. The idea made sense to me but not the man whose father had built the sturdy bungalow 75 years before. It had survived multiple owners, suburban sprawl, brush fires, heavy metal teenagers, and the existential burden of being the spawning ground of the most controversial American politician of the 20th century. During Vietnam, vandals had torched Pat Nixon’s girlhood home in nearby Artesia. When I pitched the architects’ idea, he didn’t say a word; he just stared at me. “On the other hand, Mr. President,” I said, “we can leave it right where it is. I just wanted to let you to know what these guys were up to.”

There was a second latter-day Nixon plumber caper. Years before, when we showed him drawings the National Archives had prepared for a federal Nixon library in San Clemente, he was outraged to find that the employee restrooms were bigger than the public’s. He wrote to the Nixon foundation’s volunteer executive director, John Whitaker, a former advance man and White House domestic affairs adviser, and ordered a massive escalation in toilets and urinals in the public restrooms and a corresponding reduction in bowls for bureaucrats.

Even after the San Clemente plans fell through, over the years Nixon’s memo took on the authority of sacred canon. Our architects plumbed all its nuances. As a result, visitors to the Nixon museum never had to wait in line for its ample facilities, with their recessed lighting, marble counter tops, and terrazzo floors. In the basement, the tiny staff restrooms were done up in battleship grey tile and linoleum, with one stall each plus a urinal for the men that was set about eight inches from the floor for accessibility's sake. The appointments included lockers for the security guards.

On the library's opening day in July 1990, I was especially nervous about whether Nixon would feel we got his birthplace right. He said we had, although he suggested we rearrange some of the furniture, including the old piano he'd first learned to play by ear. We were flush with pride until he made a pit stop in the downstairs men's room in the brand-new library building. He emerged looking preoccupied and started slowly down the hall, stopped and looked over his shoulder, started walking again, and then put a hand on my arm so I’d turn to face him.

President George H. W. Bush, former Presidents Reagan and Ford, and their first ladies, along with a crowd later optimistically estimated by library marketers at 50,000, waited above in the burning sun for the dedication ceremony, but first Nixon had a burning question. “As I recall, at one point I may have made something of an issue about the restrooms,” he said. “But for God’s sake please tell me that’s not the only urinal in the goddamn place.”

9 comments:

MK said...

I shared this elsewhere but thought I would share it in part here as well.

Glad to hear that you and Kathy are doing this, John. I have long thought that you should. I can see why you are talking and thinking through the issues. Everything about RN is complicated, or so it seems to me. Of course, as one of the "Hardy Boys" who worked on disclosure review of the Nixon tapes as an historian-archivist at NARA, I'll be very interested in both your reflections on RN and on your insights in to the "wrangles" with us Federal officials at the National Archives. Yes, and even on your memories of looking at our NARA reviewed and deemed disclosable White House Special Files at Pickett Street back in the day!

I'm very interested in adding to what I learned from working with his WH tapes and files about RN the executive, the thinker, and most of all, the human being. Having recently attended the Washington premiere of the film, Our Nixon, I found that very much a missed opportunity to delve in to that. And that is what most interests me about presidents.

Finally, as someone whom you’ve seen so many photos of smiling with near childlike delight on my Timeline and at my blog, I absolutely agree that many of us have the little child we once were buried inside, in one way or another. I know I still do at 62! My childlike side comes out in the sheer joy I sometimes feel at what others would find to be inexplicably small things. But then, if I hadn’t known such despair and pain and sorrow in the past, perhaps I wouldn’t be that way now!

I admire your courage, John, and that of Kathy O'Connor! Be well. And Happy Independence Day!

Fr. John said...

Thanks so much, Maarja. As you know, I've done some blogging about the Wilson-John Fawcett years (during which you and your cohort were assigned a scapegoat role) as well as my own erring and straying into us vs. them thinking and statements. We'll flesh that out somewhat, of course; plus we'll have to include something about later times, when on behalf of the Nixon estate I helped settle the tapes and compensation litigation and Kathy and I worked with Weinstein and Sharon Fawcett on the public library.

Unknown said...

I have been working on Nixon for two years, and often marveled at the palatial restroom upstairs, and the tiny bathroom downstairs. This is now in my top ten anecdotes. Jack Farrell

Fr. John said...

Thanks, Mr. Farrell. Best wishes for your work.

DJC said...

Hi John! I'm so glad you and Kathy are planning on writing this book! The accounts of those who have had personal interaction with President Nixon are far and away more interesting and pertinent in bringing the man to life on the page than the dry ruminations of historians who endlessly recycle old information.

I like your story on President Nixon's reaction to the possibility of having his childhood home lifted and repositioned. lol! Personal interactions with the former president will bring the man, his character, humor and humanity to light.

Your combined experience with President Nixon comprises a huge segment of Nixon's life after his presidency and I'm eagerly awaiting the day when your book is published!

Fr. John said...

Thanks, Dona. Means the world!

Steve Wilson said...

Thanks for your nice comments. I am glad that this information has been of use to you.
Artesia Plumbers

Anonymous said...

As someone coming from the Library/Archives world it would be instructive to have the inside view in your (forthcoming) book, not of “who lost the Nixon foundation”, but what worked, and what should have been avoided. Did you prepare Naftali to be able to handle the potential minefields including the family, factotums, and volunteers? Was there consultation with the heads of other Presidential libraries on practical matters? In this case the transition for the foundation from private to a public partnership, or for Naftali the added burdens of management and community (not just media) relations that are very different in academia? Did anyone advise Naftali to build constituencies within the institution and use his political capital wisely in conjunction with necessary reform? (I grew up in a small town near a big city, keeping events local is important. The choice to partner with the Los Angeles Public Library for already controversial guests, rather than the local library system or even Whittier college -which at least has some significance- seems counterproductive at best, and a big-city snub at worst. The logo issues seem like they were part of perceived snub that should have been avoided --again, experience in a library that changed their logo to some internal staff derision.)

As someone who has assisted researchers using historic documents, it would be fascinating to read about how Nixon worked, and in consequence which type of documents most useful for historians researching his public life and though processes. How did he gather enough information, pre-internet, to be a veritable political seismograph? He wrote about going off to the local markets in his travels, what was it like accompanying him shopping? (As a grocer’s daughter I appreciate how much useful information can be gleaned from innocent produce…).

Many journalists and historians note that Nixon seemed calmer, more secure, and relaxed in his post presidency, as his aides how did you keep him focused and productive (and conversely what could have gone wrong as POTUS)?

Miriam Gloger

Fr. John said...

Hi, Miriam. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

There were two epochs in Tim Naftali's directorship. In the first, he and I could have done a better job listening to and understanding each other (and each other's constituencies, as you suggest). As for Elizabeth Drew's odd appearance as a Nixon library speaker at the LA public library, it was a somewhat mysterious consequence of our skirmishes, which were, I'm sorry to say, somewhat predictable, with one longtime executive reluctant to let go and the new boss eager to take charge.

What I hope NARA learns important lessons from is the near-success of the vicious professional and personal attacks on Tim by Nixon operatives during the second chapter of his tenure. These occurred as the result of his speaking invitation to former White House counsel John Dean (a pivotal historical figure) and his faithfully completing the assignment the AOTUS gave him to install a new Watergate exhibit. By then, Nixon's foundation was controlled by persons who hated Dean for sending their friends to jail for their Watergate crimes. Some also had a personal stake in how Watergate was defined and explained irrespective of Nixon's actions and historical legacy.

It's one thing for a president to spin history in his library. But his mid-level operatives who happened to have seized control of his private foundation's resources? And yet they were almost able to get rid of Tim through their secret maneuvers in the Senate and within the agency itself.

The current AOTUS ultimately backed Tim. But there's still much to learn about how the fabled custodians of the writings of Thomas Jefferson came so close to acquiescing in a critique of Tim's Watergate exhibit co-signed by Dwight Chapin.