Monday, November 5, 2012

Working Alone in the Office on New Year's Eve, Nixon Sends Holiday Wishes by Phone

Nixon at His Desk (notice the buttoned jacket)
I've always been a history buff, and from a very young age I've been interested in reading about our nation's political leaders. Growing up in Massachusetts, I idolized John F. Kennedy, and he and his two younger brothers remain my personal heroes to this day. I've also had a longstanding interest -- a fascination, really -- in their nemesis and contemporary, Richard Nixon. My parents were Republicans for the most part, as was I until college, but by the time he left the White House in 1974 I'd come to detest President Nixon and most of what he represented; in fact, the night he resigned I led a small group of other kids on a celebratory parade around the small Maine island where we spent our childhood summers. Over the years, I've developed a more balanced view of our 37th president. Thanks to his infamous secret taping system, we've all had a chance to eavesdrop on some of his most private White House conversations, and while much of what he said is repulsive and pathetic, it's hard not to feel a certain measure of sympathy for someone who was so awkward and uneasy in his own skin. I've included excerpts from Nixon's White House tapes in at least a couple of my previous holiday CDs, and I was thrilled this year to discover recordings of two telephone calls the President made on New Year's Eve in 1971. Looking back, these calls were made at the height of Nixon's presidency, some six months before the third-rate burglary at the Watergate that became his undoing. Of course, he couldn't have known what lay ahead, nor did he seem to appreciate the relative strength of his political position at the time. These two calls reflect a certain unease and insecurity, wrapped tightly, as usual, in a masque of resolve and bravado. This New Year's Eve found Mr. Nixon alone in the Oval Office, working late, as he told one of the men he called that night, on "the year-end review." 

Nixon's first call was to Elmer Bobst, a former pharmaceutical executive and old friend of President Eisenhower who had become something of a mentor to President Nixon (and one of the very few who could get away with calling him "Dick" in conversation).  It was a touching call in many respects, from Bobst's enthusiastic review of Nixon's performance to the President's awkward assertion that Bobst "still ran with the best of them" when it came to the society circuit.  But despite his able performance as a stand-in presidential father figure, Bobst's public image ultimately sunk well below even Nixon's own.  For one thing, he was later revealed to be a notorious anti-Semite, telling the President later that year that "Jews have troubled the world from the very beginning" and were responsible for most of the country's ills. Perhaps more shocking, Bobst was later accused of repeatedly raping his two granddaughters, starting when the youngest was four years old. Making money and wielding power clearly have nothing to do with moral character. 

Nixon's second New Year's Eve call was to someone far better known than Bobst, and certainly more respected -- future President George H.W. Bush, who held a variety of different posts in the Nixon and Ford administrations. Two years earlier, Bush had given up a safe congressional seat at Nixon's urging to challenge Texas Democrat Ralph Yarborough for his seat in the U.S. Senate. Yarborough had become increasingly liberal while serving in the Senate and it was assumed he'd have considerable trouble getting re-elected in Texas, which was true, as he never made it to the general election but rather was defeated in the Democratic primary by fellow Democrat Lloyd Bensten. Far more moderate than Yarborough, Benstsen had  lots of Texas oil money behind him, and he went on to defeat Bush in the general election. Nixon rewarded Bush for his sacrifice by making him U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, a position Bush was still getting used to at the time of Nixon's call.  Bush was viewed as something of a Republican wunderkind at the time, although he was sufficiently modest to take issue with Nixon's strong review of his recent performance and to later tell the President he thought he'd let him down.  It was also interesting to hear the President ask Bush whether he enjoyed "fighting that New York society crowd" (that presumably included Elmer Bobst).  "I don't like that part of it," Bush responded emphatically, before quickly, and wiselychanging the subject.

It's not clear how late Mr. Nixon remained in the office that New Year's Eve, but hopefully he left for the mansion well before midnight and was able to enjoy some quiet time with family and friends.

Tomorrow is Election Day, and the curtain will soon come down on one of the least attractive presidential campaigns in my lifetime.  In some ways, this year's contest makes me yearn for the relative civility of Nixon's day.  This blog is about holiday music, not politics, but my thinking about this Election Day was expressed rather eloquently by the unrepentant progressive rocker who spent much of today traveling with the President on Air Force One:

Don't forget to vote!

For your Election Day enjoyment, here are several moving tributes in song to our 37th president:

Richard Nixon in '76

The Great Richard Nixon

Richard M. Nixon (God's Infinite Wisdom)

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