Sunday, November 3, 2013

Nixon in Dallas

Richard Nixon, whose law firm represented Pepsi-Cola, visited Dallas from Nov. 20 to Nov. 22, 1963, for the American Bottlers of Carbonated Beverages convention. On the day before the assassination, he gave a blunt, partisan critique of the president’s record.

In the post-midnight darkness, as Nov. 21, 1963, slipped into Nov. 22, 1963, a cold front that had carried Pacific moisture across the American Southwest approached Fort Worth and Dallas. Before dawn, the moisture began to fall in a misty drizzle — unremarkable except that it fell on the 35th, the 36th and the 37th presidents of the United States.

In downtown Dallas, behind durable drapery and metal Venetian blinds, former Vice President Richard Nixon slept alone in his suite at the Baker Hotel. Outside in the hallway stood a single Dallas police officer who was stationed at the nearby door of actress Joan Crawford to protect her from jewel thieves and autograph seekers.
It had been one year since Nixon’s political self-immolation. After he lost his 1962 comeback race for California governor, he resentfully told the press, “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Now, he was a corporate lawyer visiting Dallas on behalf of his client, Pepsi-Cola.
Just 30 miles west in Fort Worth, President John F. Kennedy slept under a Vincent van Gogh landscape. The might and majesty of the presidency radiated out from his Suite 850 at the Hotel Texas. In the inner ring, warrant officer Ira Gearhart slept in Room 804 near a satchel bearing the nuclear launch codes. In a room on the seventh floor, encrypted teletypes printed intelligence cables. At Carswell Air Force Base, the 43rd Bombardment Wing of B-58 Hustlers was joined by two well-guarded 707s — Air Force One and Air Force Two.
Early Friday morning, Kennedy looked down from his room at several thousand people gathered expectantly in the rain to hear him speak. Joined by Gov. John Connally and a few Texas legislators, the president and Lyndon Johnson walked across the street to address the crowd.
In Dallas, at Commerce and Akard streets, Nixon climbed into a car in near obscurity for his short ride to Love Field. Leaving the Baker behind, he looked toward the overcast sky and saw red, white and blue banners whipping in the wet wind above Main Street.
Four hours later, with the sun shining, they would be part of the tableau of the final minutes of Kennedy’s life.
For some, Nixon’s November 1963 visit to Dallas is a log to feed the fires of conspiracy. In the 1995 biopicNixon, Oliver Stone walked the razor’s edge between fiction and libel by placing the future president at a secret Nov. 21 meeting of Dallas millionaires and obliging call girls at the home of Larry Hagman’s character, Jack Jones, an amalgam of H.L. Hunt and Clint Murchison.
The reality was less sinister. Kennedy and Nixon in close proximity was such a common occurrence, it was almost banal.
The Kennedy assassination and the Watergate break-in cast these multidimensional men in medieval bas-relief: Kennedy became the martyred king and Nixon the dark knight. But from the time they both arrived in Washington in January 1947 until Kennedy’s death in Dallas nearly 17 years later, their collegial relationship occasionally veered toward something approaching warmth.
And even during the 1960 presidential contest when both men felt evident mutual contempt, it was tempered with mutual respect.
On New Year’s Eve 1959, two days before he announced his candidacy for the presidency, Kennedy made an admission to his neighbor, journalist Charles Bartlett, that was so startling Bartlett wrote it down the following morning: “Jack says if the Democrats don’t nominate him, he’s going to vote for Nixon.”
The Capitol Limited
Few men had observed Nixon’s gifts — his ambition, his perseverance and his intellect — from the intimate vantage point afforded Kennedy. In early 1947, a civic group in the steel town of McKeesport, Pa., asked their congressman, Frank Buchanan, to invite the two congressional freshmen with the brightest futures to come debate the Taft-Hartley labor bill. Buchanan picked Kennedy and Nixon, both just elected after naval service in the Pacific.
On April 21, 1947, the first Kennedy-Nixon debate was held in the ballroom of the Penn McKeesport Hotel, with Kennedy getting the more sympathetic proposition. Some of the blue-collar steelers booed Nixon’s warnings about encroaching union power.
Boarding the overnight Capitol Limited train back to D.C., the 29-year-old Kennedy and the 34-year-old Nixon drew straws for the lower berth. Nixon won, but the bed went largely unused as the awkward grocer’s son found an unexpected common denominator in the handsome playboy heir to one of America’s great fortunes.
“We sat up late talking,” Nixon recalled. “Neither of us was a backslapper, and we were both uncomfortable with boisterous displays of superficial camaraderie. He was shy, and that sometimes made him appear aloof. But it was shyness born of an instinct that guarded privacy and concealed emotions. I understood these qualities because I shared them.”
Office politics
In 1950, Nixon planned his run for the Senate against Hollywood actress-turned-Democratic Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas, longtime mistress of Texan Lyndon Johnson. During that campaign, Douglas branded Nixon with an epithet that would stick for life: Tricky Dick.
In the infamously mean-spirited race, Nixon got a psychological and a financial windfall from an unexpected source.
Kennedy dropped into Nixon’s office and handed an envelope to administrative assistant Bill Arnold. “This man brought a personal check for $1,000,” Arnold would recall. “He explained that the check should be used in Nixon’s campaign for senator.” Kennedy’s contribution amounted to approximately one-third of the average American’s annual income.
After Kennedy’s 1952 election to the Senate, Nixon offered a different sort of help. The membership chairman of the exclusive, all-male Burning Tree golf club in Maryland got a letter from the new vice president: “I have known Senator Kennedy for a number of years as a personal friend and I feel he would make an excellent addition to the membership.”
In the Senate Office Building next to the Capitol, Kennedy was given Room 362. Nixon was right across the hall in Room 361. For eight years, there would be an easy camaraderie not just between Kennedy and Nixon but also between their secretaries. Kennedy’s assistant Evelyn Lincoln would recall, “Rose Mary Woods and I were very friendly.”
But while Kennedy’s New Frontier was gilded with poetry, the road to that New Frontier was paved with prose. The bitter and often personal presidential campaign of 1960 predictably strained the Kennedy-Nixon relationship. It also filled Nixon with a perpetual fear of a Kennedy restoration embodied first in Bobby Kennedy and later in Ted Kennedy. (Riding behind the president through Dealey Plaza was his legislative aide Larry O’Brien. Nine years later, Watergate burglars would be arrested attempting to tap his phone.)
Kennedy’s 1960 victory meant that both men would abandon their comfortable Senate offices. After Nixon’s unsuccessful run for governor of California, he also surrendered his West Coast power base and moved to New York where his GOP rival Nelson Rockefeller was an absolute monarch. The Nixon’s new apartment at 810 Fifth Ave., occupied the building’s entire fifth floor, seven floors below Rockefeller, who, recovering from a scandalous divorce, had just married his second wife, Happy.
Before Nixon’s new life could begin, he had a promise to fulfill. In the summer of 1963, he took his wife and two daughters on a six-week overseas vacation. In a hotel room in Rome, Nixon picked up the ringing phone and heard the operator say that the president was calling. Five days after making his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, an ebullient Kennedy was in town.
“Sounding happy and relaxed, he said that he heard we were in Rome and just wanted to say hello,” Nixon said.
It was the last time Nixon and Kennedy spoke.
Making a new home
The easy anonymity of Manhattan suited the very private Pat Nixon. Teenage daughters Tricia and Julie were enrolled at Chapin, Jackie Kennedy’s former school. Beneath the high ceilings of their prewar apartment, Pat looked across the dinner table and told her husband, “I hope we never move again.”
One of the city’s most established law firms changed its name to Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, Alexander & Mitchell and welcomed the former vice president to his office at 20 Broad St. His friend Don Kendall, head of Pepsi, was a client.
On Wednesday evening, Nov. 20, Nixon flew to Dallas for the annual meeting of the American Bottlers of Carbonated Beverages at Market Hall. Aboard the same private plane was Joan Crawford, widow of the late Pepsi chairman Alfred Steele.
On Thursday morning, Nov. 21, Nixon agreed to meet print, TV and radio reporters in his suite at the Baker.
The approaching horror of Nov. 22 would make future dispassionate assessments of Kennedy’s presidential record almost impossible. But on the day before Kennedy died, just a few blocks from Dealey Plaza, Nixon gave a blunt, partisan critique. Reporters piled microphones on an ottoman in front of his leather armchair. “Despite the fact that President Kennedy has one of the largest majorities in Congress of any president in history,” Nixon said, “it’s one of the poorest percentage records of accomplishment in history.”
On Thursday night, Nixon, Crawford and Pepsi execs skipped the convention’s closing ceremonies in favor of an evening at the Statler Hilton’s elegant Empire Room, just a short walk down Commerce Street from the Baker.
At 59, Crawford still radiated glamour when she entered the Statler showroom wearing jewels and white fur hat. The Don Ragon Band played “April in Portugal” — “Mrs. Nixon’s favorite song,” said Nixon.
Headliner Robert Clary (later Corporal LeBeau on Hogan’s Heroes) introduced him with the sort of ambiguous quip Nixon had become accustomed to: “Either you like him or you don’t.” In his review, Dallas Times Herald columnist Don Safran chirpily claimed the remark “broke up Nixon.”
Nixon flies solo
On Friday morning, Nov. 22, 1963, American Airlines VIP liaison Walter Hagen was at his post at Love Field preparing for the deluge of humanity that would signal the arrival of the Kennedys, Johnsons and Connallys.
Looking to the street from the concourse window, he spotted Nixon. “He didn’t look like he had a friend in the world,” Hagen remembered. “Somebody dropped him off at the curb there at the American Airlines ticket counter. I, of course, greeted him. He was very sociable.”
“It looks like you’re going to have a big day, today,” Nixon said.
“Yeah, we are expecting to in about an hour to an hour and a half,” Hagen replied as he escorted the former vice president to American Airlines Flight 82. The plane promptly departed for New York’s Idlewild Airport. (One month later on Christmas Eve, New Yorkers would rename it John F. Kennedy International Airport.)
Nixon was in a taxi in Queens when a man rushed up to the driver at a light near the 59th Street Bridge. “Do you have a radio in your cab?” he asked. “I just heard that Kennedy was shot.”
The cab had no radio and Nixon was uncertain what the comment meant. But when the car stopped at his home at Fifth Avenue and East 62nd, his doorman approached with tears on his face: “Oh, Mr. Nixon, have you heard, sir?”
Dear Jackie
Nixon entered the cocoon of his 10-room apartment overlooking Central Park. The long hallway was hung with Chinese paintings, a gift from Madame Chiang Kai-shek. The living room featured light colored drapery and large Oriental jardinières.
His private library was furnished with comfortable, upholstered easy chairs and sofas. On the mantel was his extensive collection of elephants made from teak, ivory, crystal, stone and plastic.
“That night, I sat up late in my library,” Nixon remembered. He thought of his brothers Arthur and Harold, dead at ages 7 and 23, both from tuberculosis. He thought of Kennedy and the close-knit Kennedy family. From father Joe down to youngest child, Ted, Nixon knew all of the Kennedys. And he thought of Jackie, who had once interviewed him as part of her job as the “Inquiring Photographer” for the Washington Times-Herald.
While Jackie waited out the autopsy and embalming of her husband at Bethesda Naval Hospital, the fire in Nixon’s library burned itself out.
Before the dawn of Nov. 23, he put pen to paper.
Nixon began, “Dear Jackie, While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents, I always cherished the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to the Congress together in 1947.”
Several weeks later, he received a letter written in her precise, feminine script: “You two young men — colleagues in Congress, adversaries in 1960 — and now look what has happened.”
Jackie foresaw Nixon’s election as president. “Just one thought I would say to you,” she wrote. “If it doesn’t work out as you have hoped for so long, please be consoled by what you already have — your life and your family.”

A note on sources
In reporting this narrative, staff writer Alan Peppard used these sources:
Archive, The Dallas Morning News
Archive, Dallas Times-Herald
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: Surface Weather Observations, Dallas Love Field, Texas, Nov. 22, 1963; and Wind Gust Recorder Chart, Dallas Naval Air Station, Nov. 22, 1963
The Making of the President 1968, Theodore H. White, 1969
The Death of a President, William Manchester, 1967
The B-58 Hustler Page,
RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Richard Nixon, 1978
Nixon, directed by Oliver Stone, 1995
Kennedy & Nixon, Chris Matthews, 1996
McKeesport Daily News, July 21, 1960
The American Experience: Nixon, WGBH Boston/PBS, 1992
The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas, Sally Denton, 2009
Back When It All Began: The Early Nixon Years, William A. Arnold, 1975
WBAP, Channel 5 archive film, NBC/Universal, Nov. 21, 1963
Transcript, Oral History Interview Walter Henry Hagen, March 9, 1994, the Oral History Collection of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza
‘JFK Assassination: The Reporters’ Notes’
Based on first-person accounts from Dallas Morning News journalists, this gripping narrative chronicles President John F. Kennedy’s fatal visit to Dallas hour-by-hour. Shortly after the assassination, reporters, photographers and editors wrote down their experiences. This volume includes copies of the original typewritten notes, giving readers access to the first draft of history. Available in hardback at; an electronic version for the iPad is available for a reduced price of $9.99 in the iBookstore.
Commemorative box set
This commemorative box set includes a reprint of the complete edition of The News from Nov. 23, 1963, 10 historic photographs, a transcript of President John F. Kennedy’s “Unspoken Speech,” and three collectible JFK50 cards. Available at

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