WASHINGTON — Since Richard M. Nixon's stroke on Monday, I've been thinking about him. From 1965 to 1970, I worked as his political aide and served as executive director of the Nixon for President Committee in 1967-68. The picture I have of him is a mosaic, an image formed from a series of vignettes often so unexpected they can never be forgotten.
There was the time when he was looking over the ads with his TV advertising group before the 1968 campaign. After thanking them all for their work, he turned to some of the rest of us and said, "God, I hope the Russians don't see any of that; they'll think I'm an idiot."
There was the time we were going up the steps of the Mormon Cathedral to see the elders of the church. About half way up, he stopped and said, "John?" "Yes," I said. "Whatever I say in here, don't you believe a word of it."
There was the time--I hadn't worked for him for long--when we went to a fund-raiser. After he had said a few things during a press conference that I realized were not wholly reflective of his true beliefs, he approached me in the holding room. "John," he said, "you've got to understand one thing." "What's that?" I said. "I can say things that if someone else said them, they would be lies, but when I say them, nobody believes them, anyway."
There was the time his scheduler, John C. Whitaker, had arranged for him to go to church on Sunday in New Hampshire. Nixon asked why this had been scheduled, since he was very busy that day. Whitaker responded that the voters in the coming primary would expect to see him go to church. Nixon said little, but agreed to go. The next week, we were in Wisconsin and Whitaker again scheduled church on Sunday. Nixon called Whitaker in and, when given the same reasoning for scheduling church, the candidate insisted, "No, John, we did that already."
There was the time Nixon asked H.R. (Bob) Haldemann to schedule a visit to a baseball game at old Griffith Stadium. A few days later, Haldemann said it was set for the next week. "Who is playing the Senators?" Nixon asked. "The Boston Red Sox," Haldemann replied. "No, no, no," Nixon said, "I'll never carry Massachusetts. Wait until the California Angels or the Chicago White Sox come to town. Then I'll get some publicity back where it may do me some good!"
There was the time Nixon was wandering the hotel hallways in Portland, Ore. He often didn't sleep well and would venture out into the hallway in his blue bathrobe to pace back and forth. It was quite late when he encountered a member of his staff going back to his room with a young lady. Without breaking stride, without seeming to notice, Nixon said, "Mike, we don't have to get these votes one at a time, you know."
But not all the vignettes are funny. In 1966, we visited a congressional candidate who had begged Nixon to come. The candidate thought Nixon would help him gain support from the more conservative voters in the district. Finally, a time was scheduled on a Saturday. But when the visit was announced, the moderate voters raised objections. By the time Nixon arrived, the candidate was confused about what to do. Before Nixon could say a word, the candidate said he wanted to make it clear that Nixon had come of his own volition and in no way had been encouraged to do so by the candidate or his campaign.
Despite this insulting treatment from a man who had begged him to come, Nixon proceeded to go through the litany of how it was much better to vote for a Republican than a Democrat, even if you didn't agree entirely with him, because it meant a vote on the organization of Congress.
When I asked Nixon later why he had put up with this treatment from one so undeserving, he replied, "I was afraid his mother was there. Mothers don't understand all that happens in politics, they just see their sons being accused of something or being criticized. I didn't want to criticize him in front of his mother."
Nixon always remained uneasy with people, didn't enjoy their company and didn't expect them to like him--yet he forced himself, by sheer determination, to succeed in a business where being a "people" person is considered the first requirement. As he once said to me, "Politics would be a helluva good business if it weren't for the goddamned people." I think all great people have the capacity to destroy themselves, and I suppose Nixon will be remembered most for the destruction of his presidency. But if all we can give a man these days are his faults, and none of his good qualities, I wonder where we will find people capable of leading the country.
I happened to be talking with Nixon at the time of the Iran-Contra scandal a few years ago. I didn't ask his opinion, but I think he had prepared a 10-15 minute comment on the subject for all his visitors. At the end of this mini-lecture he said, "But Reagan will survive because, when all is said and done, he can get up and say, 'I am an idiot and therefore can't be blamed,' and everyone will agree." He then looked away for a moment and said, quite wistfully, "I never had that option."
Maybe that is the difference between great men and others: The great men will be blamed and the others escape by hiding in their own inadequacy.*