Nixon recalled: He was a very strange man indeed



WASHINGTON -- The passing of Richard M. Nixon after nearly a half-century in American politics is an occasion for many to assess his achievements and failures. But it also brings forth a flood of bizarre memories of the man, glimpsed at close quarters.

What stands out in reminiscence more than those victories and defeats is Nixon as a man of towering insecurity and awkwardness for all the prominence and esteem he achieved in his best days, and of endless calculation growing out of that insecurity.

His celebrated combat with the news media, underscored by the inclusion of reporters on his infamous "enemies list" and his vindictive language about them on the Watergate tapes, did not always square with his personal behavior.

In 1966, one of us spent a week with him as he campaigned around the country for Republican congressional candidates. One day, his plane sat on a runway in Birmingham, Ala., because the one reporter in the party had misunderstood the departure time. His aides wanted to take off without the reporter, but Nixon insisted that the plane wait.

When the late arrival finally boarded, Nixon smiled and waved off the profferred apology. Later, however, an aide confided that Nixon had ordered the wait because "he's the only reporter we've got."

After that campaign, in an interview in his apartment, he sat in a lounge chair with his feet up (but dressed in coat and tie) and talked about his deep interest in history and about how he considered himself more an intellectual than a politician. As he spoke, with a book in his hands, a photographer snapped his picture to run with the interview. When it was developed, it showed Nixon holding the book upside down.

He was a great one for declaring "firsts" and "lasts" and was always careful to be precise. In 1968, on the night before the Oregon primary, he spoke at a large rally at a college gymnasium in Portland, the windup of his Oregon campaign except for a breakfast speech the next morning. He began by describing the rally as "this great, final event of the Oregon primary," then paused as his inner wheels spun, and added, "as far as nighttime rallies are concerned."

The next day, one of us had another interview with him. In preparation, the interviewer was armed with a list of questions in logical sequence. Nixon answered the first one and, without them being asked, the second and third and fourth, so logical was his mind. "Mr. Nixon," his interviewer finally said with a grin, "I believe you've peeked at my notes." Nixon immediately clouded over. "Oh, no," he said, deeply concerned, "I wouldn't do that." And he went on to talk about how much he respected the integrity of the press. Only when he was assured that his questioner was joking did he allow himself an embarrassed smile.

After his election in 1968, one of us brought his family to Florida to cover the transition over Christmas. Introduced to one daughter, age 8, Nixon looked at her for agonizing seconds without speaking, then said: "I guess you were glad I was elected president so you could come to Florida for Christmas." As he walked on, the 8-year-old turned to her father and said: "Gee, he was embarrassed, wasn't he? He didn't know what to say to me."

During his presidency, Nixon went to Hartford, Conn., to dedicate a new Italian-American community center. Left standing alone with the center's director for several minutes before the program started, Nixon struggled with the awkward silence and, so help us, finally said to the man: "You know, some of my best friends are Italian."

As that story illustrated, Nixon was terrible at small talk, often saying ludicrous things rather than endure more silence. In 1968, somebody said the worst punishment for Nixon and Robert Kennedy, then seeking to run against him, would have been to put just the two of them in a room. Kennedy abhorred small talk and would often say nothing rather than engage in blathering.

For all his years of experience in politics and before the capturing eye of television, Nixon seldom could resist stealing a very noticeable peek at the camera to see if the red light indicating that it was running was on. If he thought a reporter at a press conference was hostile to him, he would nervously steal a glance his way, too.

Before Watergate, he was on top of the world, yet he behaved like the kid nobody wanted to play with. Whether he should be judged hero or villain, he was, indisputably, a very strange man indeed.

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