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Celebrate! Volume Ii : Orange County's First 100 Years : Lure Of The Coastline : San Clemente: A Reporter's Recollections

October 16, 1988|ROBERT C. TOTH | Toth is a Times staff writer who covered the White House from 1972 to 1974.

Television reporters doing their "stand-ups" before cameras-- wearing no pants.

Former President Nixon strolling along the beach--in shirt, tie, blazer and shined black brogues.

Alexander Haig pummeling tennis balls to work off anger at his boss--Henry Kissinger.

Those memories--variously silly, revealing and intense, despite the vacation atmosphere--come back from nearly two decades ago, when about 100 reporters would fly with Nixon to the Western White House, as his aides called his San Clemente estate, for three or four weeks each summer.

The lack of news was at first unnerving, particularly for wire service reporters accustomed to filing several stories a day. The President's spokesmen usually arranged for a "photo opportunity" at his estate, perhaps as he signed a few minor bills, followed by a briefing at the San Clemente Inn on the rest of the day's schedule.

Nixon was never scheduled to appear idle, even on vacation. He was always "working in his office and consulting with his staff," we were told.

But he often would sneak off, which caused great tension between the White House and the press. Sometimes he would be driven by his pal, Bebe Rebozo, who was sent to a special school to learn to drive like a bodyguard.

Innocuous as that seems, editors wanted their reporters with Nixon at all times in case he had an accident or talked to tourists at a nearby beach or dropped in on his old Whittier neighborhood.

So reporters, from tips and sometimes from listening in on shortwave radios, would race after him. The most amazing part of such chases is that no one was killed in the scrambles. (A British journalist was, in fact, killed by a car in Laguna Beach when he stepped off the curb while looking the wrong way, but he wasn't chasing a story at the time.)

After a few frustrating days of seeking news where there wasn't any, the press corps learned to go with the flow of California weather and life style.

The White House made that very easy to do by arranging for our families to come along cheaply. For $125, round trip, spouses could ride the press charter that accompanied Air Force One. Kids could come along for another $25 each. And at the Surf and Sand Hotel in Laguna Beach, where we were quartered, the natives were very friendly.

Reporters once organized themselves into a softball team that played at Laguna Beach High School against a team fielded by the Secret Service.

Nixon occasionally held parties for the press. He once invited reporters and their families to his small golf driving range and even offered a set of clubs as the prize for the longest drive. Half the balls went over the cliff into the sea, but Nixon handed out new ones, his stiff grin always in place.

The identity of the winner of the clubs is lost to history, but Frank Cormier, the Associated Press correspondent, recalls that the clubs turned out to have been a gift to Nixon from the president of the Teamsters Union, Frank Fitzsimmons.

The Newport Beach Tennis Club was one of our most gracious hosts, offering free use of its facilities to visiting reporters and the White House staff.

Nixon's press secretary, Ron Ziegler, often played there, and Robert Pierpoint of CBS recalls that he once asked Ziegler why he invariably chose Ron Laver, the Australian pro, as his doubles partner. "We always win, don't we?" replied Ziegler, who now is with the National Assn. of Chain Drug Stores.

"He would just do anything to win," says Pierpoint, whose own chop-and-slice strokes make some of his frustrated opponents feel the same way.

It was Pierpoint, an inveterate tennis player, who invented the pants-less look for TV correspondents. Their reports typically were filmed against a background like the Nixon estate. But since the picture never went below their waists, they wore tennis shorts and sneakers with their jackets, shirts and ties.

"That way it took less time to get back to the courts," Pierpoint explains.

Another Pierpoint innovation was his novel use of a small tape recorder instead of a TelePrompTer. He first taped his report exactly as he intended to deliver it, then ran an earpiece from the recorder to his ear--the ear away from the camera. When the tape was turned on, the words went into his ear and came out of his mouth. For a while, his nickname was "Parrot."

To get stories, reporters often took White House aides to lunch or dinner. I preferred to play tennis with Haig, who was Kissinger's deputy and later Nixon's chief of staff. He was a good sport if not a good source, but he was too aggressive to accept defeat easily.

Rather than complimenting me when I put one away, he'd mutter: "You're unconscious." And just in case I didn't hear, he'd shout it: "Unconscious!" He lost to luck, he made clear, not to me.

"The devil made me do it," I'd reply, using one of his favorite excuses.

Once he was called off the court to take a call from Kissinger. When we resumed, he began flailing at the ball without much concern about getting it over the net and between the chalk. After awhile, I asked what made him so angry.

"That insufferable son of a bitch," he flashed back, "just reamed out my ass."

We adjourned the game for a couple of beers.

Nixon was at times a pathetic figure, even before the Watergate scandal destroyed his presidency. He seemed unable to unbutton even to walk along the beach, and his awkward movements made us hold our collective breath when he came downstairs.

Once the staff brought him a huge birthday cake with thick, white icing, but during the "photo op," one of his spaniels jumped around so much that Nixon stumbled into the cake. Most of the frosting ended up on his checkered sports coat.

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