The Pitchman's Art

April 28, 1994|By NATHAN MILLER

WASHINGTON — One of Richard Milhous Nixon's first jobs was as a barker for a wheel of chance at the Slippery Gulch Rodeo in Prescott, Arizona. The youthful Nixon ran a legal wheel where prizes of hams and sides of bacon were the ''come-on'' for illegal backroom poker and crap games.

This seems altogether fitting. For more than 40 years Nixon was the consummate pitchman of American politics. Throughout an extraordinary career, he favored such oratorical sleight-of-hand as ''I'm glad you asked that question'' and ''Now what I am going to do is unprece- dented in the history of American politics.''

Perhaps Nixon's most artful piece of legerdemain was transforming himself from a shy and insecure personality into a gladhanding politician. Although he relentlessly barnstormed the country in search of votes for more than a quarter-century, he was so insecure that he disliked shaking hands and had difficulty looking people in the eye.

Yet, it was necessary to gladhand the political elite at stops on the chicken-and-mashed-potatoes circuit, to act as if he recognized them, and to recall some personal detail to show that he remembered them from past meetings. Despite an awkward inability to make small talk, Nixon seemed to be able to mention at least one thing about each man and woman that put him on a personal basis with them.

I had the opportunity to see at first hand how he accomplished this during the opening weeks of the 1968 presidential campaign which I covered for The Sun.

In those days, Nixon was among a half-dozen or so aspirants for the Republican nomination, so there were only three or four repor- ters covering him and we were in close contact with him.

In Minneapolis I developed an upset stomach and was swigging Kaopectate out of a large bottle. Nixon noticed this and as we gathered to board the commercial plane for the next stop on the swing, he came over and asked: ''How are you feeling?''

''Not too well,'' I replied.

''I hope you feel better soon,'' he told me, and turned to board the aircraft.

Curiously, even during the Republican convention in Miami, when he won the nomination, and throughout the rest of the compaign, Nixon made it a point, when- ever he saw me, to ask: ''How are you feeling?''

In early 1969, I did a series of stories on Canada preparatory to a visit to Washington by Pierre Trudeau, the Canadian premier. When Trudeau arrived in Washington, I was sent to the White House to cover his meeting with President Nixon.

Along with several other reporters, I was ushered into the Oval Office to watch as the two leaders were photographed. Nixon spotted me in the crowd and invited me over to be introduced to Trudeau. As we were all leaving, he said: ''How are you feeling?''

Now, I realized how he was able to remember so many people out on the campaign trail.

He had trained himself to recall a significant bit of information about each and file it away with that person's face.

For one it was a son in Little League; another might have been a high school football star. And another might have been seen swigging Kaopectate out of a bottle.

It was the pitchman's art at its finest.

Nathan Miller's most recent book is ''Theodore Roosevelt: A Life.''

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