Old Times

Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon; drawing by David Levine

When Richard Nixon walked onto the inaugural stand—it was the first time I had seen him in the flesh and I was only twenty yards away from him, in the second row of the press section—I began to weep. I don’t know precisely why. Anger for the lives he had wasted? Fear of the enormity of his power? During my brief outburst a women’s page reporter near me was talking into her tape recorder: “Pat in green coat with imperial Russian sable collar, Julie in apricot melton wool with sable collar, Mamie Eisenhower in crimson with matching hat, black gloves, no fur.” Below the inaugural stand the US Marine Band’s mammoth silver-plated tubas brilliantly reflected the white, red, and gold costumes of the players. Members of the Marine Chorus stood further down, their bodies pressed angularly against each other’s like slices of packaged bologna, their young faces turned toward the audience with smiles of cherubic innocence, as in a high-school class picture. Above, in the Corinthian-columned portico erected for the inaugural, stood the President and, at his right, Pat, Mamie, Julie.

“Tricia in pink tweed, blue fox collar and matching muff,” the women’s page reporter continued, “standing behind her sister and a marine banner.”

I followed her observations and, as the wind lifted the purple and yellow tassels of the flag, I observed one of the most curious human beings I had ever seen. A creature so pink and white and vaporous, so serene of pose and tranquil of expression, her fixed smile so sweet and yet so abstract, her bundle of blond ringlets so immobile in the wind, that even the metaphors about Meissen porcelain or plastic doll are too hard and real. Standing there in her very pale pink coat, her little hands stuffed into her large silvery muff, Tricia seemed made of marzipan, her veins flowing with peach milk shake. She brought to mind George Eliot’s cornflower-eyed Rosamond Vincy, “a lovely little face set on a fair long neck…turning about under the most perfect management of self-contented grace.”

Yet Tricia lacks any of the reality of Eliot’s heroine, for she seems to belong to that realm of fantasy which does not allow for any pain or suffering, one in which society will be preserved in a state of impeccable prosperity and repose. And watching this inauguration I realized that Richard Nixon has few weapons more powerful in his arsenal than this rose-hued girl and the two other women at his side: that this pristine family was a central triad in that mythology of well-being which it has been Nixon’s genius to create in the midst of national crises, and in the illusion of personal irreproachability which he has fashioned through more than six crises of his own.

A mirage of the placid society emanates more powerfully from Tricia than from the other two. Julie’s round, swift-eyed face is…

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