Thursday, July 4, 2013

Nixon's No-Hitter

Dave Righetti strikes out Wade Boggs
Richard Nixon was heading to Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1983, and it was going to be a great day. The Yanks were playing their arch rivals from Boston. His son-in-law and fellow baseball obsessive David Eisenhower was along. It was the 47th anniversary of Nixon's first major league game (Yankees v. Senators) and the 44th of ALS-stricken Lou Gehrig saying that he was "the luckiest guy in the world" as he bade farewell to Yankees fans in their hallowed cathedral in the Bronx.

Nixon had hinted he would have big news for his writing bench, Marin Strmecki and me, and that was exciting, too.

It was also a special day because Nixon said no one had to wear a coat and tie. He wore them almost everywhere, and when we were along, so did we. We would be in Yankees owner George Steinbrenner's box, where an under-dressed Nixon usually wouldn't have been caught dead. The photo below shows him and me at a game the prior September, also in Steinbrenner's box and dressed as though we were attending a funeral. But since it was going to be about 90 degrees in the Bronx that July afternoon, he didn't want us to be uncomfortable, and he especially didn't want to look less formal than his son-in-law and aides.

Not as much fun as the no-hitter
But I said it was a great day, and if you're a baseball fan, you know why: Yankee left-hander Dave Righetti's no-hitter, the first that  megafans Nixon and Eisenhower had seen live.

The seats were great, too, but they would have rather been in the stands. Two years later, Nixon gave up his Secret Service protection, one reason being that the bodyguards on his payroll instead of the Treasury department's were less resistant when he said he wanted to sit among the hoi polloi. In the owner's box, Yankees executives, former players, and journalists had a tendency to drop by to say hello, and while Nixon was gracious, he just wanted to watch the game.

When we reached the seventh inning without a Boston hit, Nixon told us to make sure he was left alone. Baseball people are even more superstitious than politicians, so everybody understood. He spent the time whispering to Eisenhower, who later recalled a boisterous top of the ninth because of some concerns about manager Billy Martin's defensive moves. Marin and I were sitting right behind Nixon, and I remember him being absolutely still during all three outs, as though any wrong move would jinx it. When Righetti struck out Wade Boggs ("with a high inside fastball," Nixon remembered when writing about it seven years later; Righetti says it was a slider away), he jumped to his feet, cheered, and gave us all high fives (a presidential first and last for me).

His sweaty face glowed with perfect joy as he turned to leave. But then it was back to business. Taking Marin and me aside, he handed us a yellow legal pad with a handwritten outline he'd completed the day before. We would spend the rest of the summer turning it into prose. Nixon self-published it that fall as Real Peace, a diplomatically worded but unmistakeable repudiation of Ronald Reagan's ideologically inflexible policy toward the Soviet Union and on arms control. Soon after that project, Marin went to work for Jimmy Carter's NSC chief, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and then with the mujaheddin. During the second Bush's administration, Donald Rumsfeld asked Marin to reassess and realign the Pentagon's Afghanistan tactics and strategy.

Arthur and Honey
My gifts being humbler, I remained on the fan-in-chief's squad many more years, as did his last chief of staff and my future wife and co-author, Kathy O'Connor. Our brushes with baseball greatness continued. Kathy became friends with Steinbrenner's affable associate, former sportswriter Arthur Richman ("Do you need any money, honey? Can I send you some money?"). They're shown in Anaheim in 1997, when the Yankees were visiting for one of their periodic drubbings by the Angels. A few years later, Richman invited Kathy and me to dinner, when he told us about being on the road with the Mets' Darryl Strawberry as he battled addiction.

Back in 1983, just a few weeks after Righetti's no-hitter, Billy Martin accused Kansas City Royals slugger George Brett of having too much pine tar on the handle of his bat. No, we weren't there for that one. But when umpires sided with Martin and gave the Yankees the game, Nixon sent Brett a letter bucking him up. Notoriety gave Nixon deep reserves of empathy for the notorious, and in this case, his instincts were sound. The AL brass sided with Brett.

Nixon wrote hundreds of letters to athletes. He didn't mind that they often didn't write back. What young man constantly on the road without a social secretary actually knew how to? A couple of months after the pine tar incident, I answered the phone while working late in Nixon's Manhattan office. "President Nixon sent George a nice letter, and I don't think he replied," said Ethel Brett, his mother. "Would you please tell him thank you?"

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.”