The paradox named Nixon

April 24, 1994|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Richard M. Nixon was a paradox. On the one hand, he was a politician skilled enough to win the richest prize Americans can bestow on anyone. On the other, he was the total antithesis of the backslapping glad-hander -- a man so introverted, private and secretive that he never was able to display warmth publicly or even appear at ease.

He sometimes gave you the feeling he would like to break out of the shackles he had fastened on himself but dared not do so lest he destroy some image of himself that he wanted to protect as "a man of extra dimension," a phrase used to describe those he admired. An incident in 1966, when Mr. Nixon was campaigning for Republican candidates while laying the groundwork for his 1968 campaign, makes the point.

Mr. Nixon made a speech in Sacramento, Calif., one night, then returned to the old Senator Hotel with his traveling companions, California lawyer Patrick Hillings and a reporter. They invited him for a nightcap in the hotel bar, describing the glories of the raven-haired beauty playing the piano there.

It was only about 10 p.m., and Mr. Nixon was clearly tempted as Mr. Hillings and the reporter waxed on about the quality of the pianist and the Irish coffee served in the bar. But finally, muttering that he had "too much work to do," he took an elevator to his room.

The next morning, Mr. Nixon made it clear he had paid a price in regret. Flying to Chicago, he invited the reporter to sit next to him in first class so they could eat break- fast together.

The reporter thought that it was an opportunity for an interview, and it was -- but one quite different from what the reporter had expected. Mr. Nixon was relentless in trying to find out just how the evening with the piano player had ended, returning to the topic over and over again.

Mr. Nixon was strikingly ill at ease in social situations for someone in a business that is essentially based on interpersonal relationships. He became notorious for falling back on small talk about sports -- even when, for example, he left the White House early one morning to talk to young people who had gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to protest the war in Vietnam.

In 1969, a few months after being elected president, Mr. Nixon invited reporters covering the White House who had accompanied him on a trip to the West Coast -- there were only 30 or 40 such reporters at that time -- to come out to San Clemente, Calif., to see the new house that he and the first lady had acquired and redecorated.

When the reporters arrived, they were offered tours of the house and then shepherded to the apron of the swimming pool, where a bar had been set up. President Nixon soon turned up, wearing the powder-blue blazer that his staff considered his off-duty uniform.

It was a purely social and off-the-record occasion, and in those days Mr. Nixon had no reason to believe that a reporter would try to sandbag him into saying something that would produce an embarrassing headline the next day.

Talking sports

But Mr. Nixon refused to have a drink and instead moved from one small pocket of reporters to the next, in each case striking up a conversation about sports, and frequently consulting his PTC watch. The reporters had the feeling that he was anxiously awaiting the end of the 75 allotted minutes so he could tell the Navy steward serving drinks: "They're gone, thank God. Get me a scotch and make it a double."

Other than sports, the only topic on which Mr. Nixon made small talk -- with reporters, at least -- was politics. He clearly loved to analyze strategy and tactics used by candidates other than himself. The former president prided himself on being considered an astute analyst, although in fact he usually was voicing the conventional wisdom he had read in a newspaper.

Mr. Nixon was always conscious of his modest beginnings as the son of a small-town grocer. He seemed uncomfortable with those of great inherited wealth, particularly those he saw as rivals, such as the Kennedys and his longtime nemesis, Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York.

When someone mentioned to him once that Mr. Rockefeller had made a nice gesture by buying several tables at a political dinner for low-level campaign staff members, Mr. Nixon sniffed: "Of course, it must be nice to have the means to do things like that, to make gestures."

Although Mr. Nixon's relationship with the press was often contentious, he was remarkably skilled in his dealing with it.

Interviewing him one day, a reporter had written at the top of a yellow pad a few key words to remind himself of questions he wanted to be certain to ask. When he asked the first, Mr. Nixon immediately understood the line the reporter intended to follow and volunteered the answers to the next four or five questions before they were asked.

Zinging the press

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