Editor’s Note: In “The Nixon Sightings,” Steve Hess recalls a five key moments in his time working with Richard M. Nixon. Each vignette offers a peek into some of the events that drove a young Senator from California to the Oval Office. This series was written as background to Hess’ new book
The Professor and The President: Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Nixon White House
(Brookings Press, December 2014), a “dramatic narrative” of events in 1969-1970, told in the present tense.
There was something strangely anomalous about the Nixon-Kennedy race from my vantage point as a young speechwriter in the Eisenhower White House. The staff, it was made clear to us, was expected to be above/beyond politics. Still, the President’s record is often under attack drawing us into the campaign crossfire. There was also the subliminal matter of where in the arc of campaign support our boss wishes to locate himself. He thinks Kennedy is a lightweight, unready to be president. He does not feel this way about Nixon, yet appears unwilling to offer his vice president an effusive endorsement.
In late spring the chief-of-staff directs me to write a detailed paper on the achievements of Ike’s two terms to help guide the work of the Republican platform committee. When there is a need for information, I will be its link to the White House. Platform drafting belongs to the party’s convention, not Eisenhower, but we worry that there might be some drift away from Ike’s accomplishments. I am supposedly there to offer a little guidance. (None of my words will be in the platform, but, when updated, they will comprise slightly over 70 percent of “The Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union,” January 12, 1961.)
The platform committee met at the Blackstone Hotel, Chicago, a week before the convention convened. On July 22, 10:30 pm, we are gathered in the suite of Charles Percy, the committee chairman, waiting for the final draft to be typed so that the committee can give its approval in the morning. The phone rings and from Percy’s response this is no ordinary call. Nixon has flown secretly to New York to meet with arch foe Nelson Rockefeller in his Fifth Avenue apartment. They are now telling Percy what they wish to have in the platform. There are three phone connections in the suite: Percy is on one; Rod Perkins, Rockefeller’s representative is on the second; I am one of the people rotating on the third. The call lasts nearly four hours, except for when the hotel switchboard operator pulls the plugs at midnight and goes home, causing a 15 minute interruption. This is “The Compact of Fifth Avenue,” so named by headline writers. The committee’s reaction is explosive: We will not be dictated to, and especially not by Rockefeller. Their revolt lasts 36 hours. Eisenhower is furious over new wording in the defense plank, which we quietly delete. Nixon rushes to Chicago to calm the delegates, also raising questions about his political smarts.
President Eisenhower holds his weekly news conferences on Wednesday mornings. They end promptly a half hour after they begin. Then at noon we gather for lunch in the Mess and listen to a recording. Ike’s 190th news conference on August 24, 1960 ended at 11:01 with this exchange:
Q. Charles H. Mohr, Time Magazine: ….many people have been trying to get at the degree that he (Nixon) has—I don’t want to use the word “participated”—but acted in important decisions, and it is hard to pin down.
THE PRESIDENT. Well, it seems to me that there is some confusion here—haziness—that possibly needs a lot of clarification….the Vice President has participated for 8 years, or 71/2 years, in all of the consultative meetings that have been held….But no one, and no matter how many differences or whether they are all unanimous—no one has the decisive power. There is no voting.
Q. Mr. Mohr: We understand that the power of decision is entirely yours, Mr. President. I just wondered if you could give us an example of a major idea of his that you adopted in that role, as the decider and final—-
THE PRESIDENT. If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.
Jack Bell, the senior wire service reporter, hurriedly closes the news conference: Thank you, Mr. President.
This was a startling answer. The next day I asked John Eisenhower, the assistant staff secretary, if he could throw any light on his father’s “give me a week,” which was to become a recurring line of attack on Nixon, even devolving into a laugh line on late night TV. John explained: The President, anxious to get out of there, meant “I will be back next week and then will answer your question.” This last-question- defense might fit Ike’s obvious misstatement; he was famous for answers that left reporters confused (some delivered for that purpose). But neither Ike nor the reporters returned to this question at the next news conference.
By mid-September, Mac Moos and I—the President’s speechwriters—were preparing drafts for what we believed was to be an active campaign around the country on behalf of Nixon and his running mate, UN ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. Yet as the weeks went by it was beginning to sound like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance in which the policemen keep singing “we go, we go, we go” and the general responds “but you don’t go.” Why weren’t we going? What we were to learn, years later, was that Mamie Eisenhower and the President’s doctor, deeply concerned about Ike’s health, secretly asked Nixon to declined Ike’s offer of a vigorous schedule. Ike was irritated and confused to be turned down.
Finally, in the campaign’s last week, the President spoke at rallies in Philadelphia, in and around New York City, and in Cleveland. At Garden City, New York, 10 a.m., November 2:
For 8 years I have worked intimately with the two men who are today your national candidates. I know them intimately. I have seen them undertake the tasks which I have requested of them, with the utmost enthusiasm, never with a complaint or with any excuses for avoiding a duty. Instead, no matter what it meant in sleepless nights and long roads of travel, they have always been ready to do it. And the point is, they have done it effectively. They know. They know about the problems that are brought before the President…
White House reporters told me they had rarely seen Eisenhower speak with the passion of that week. Kennedy was elected with 49.71 percent of the total vote; Nixon had 49.55 percent. If 11,424 votes could have shifted in five states, Nixon would be president. Nixon’s campaign had errors for everyone. Everyone had a favorite “what if,” and everyone was right. What if Eisenhower had made a few more speeches in the right places….