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Old Times

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 more mercurial. Pat Nixon’s fixed features express some ecstasy of decorum rather than the solace of prosperity, and her mirthless smile, set in concrete, resembles not so much her daughter’s docility as the grimace of a mortuary mask. Tricia, the most conservative member of the Nixon clan, the one said to resemble her father so strikingly in character, greeted her parents, when they first came to the newlywed Coxes for dinner, with a table decorated with giant lollipops.

Trivial thoughts always come to my mind when politicians mouth their platitudes: How do they make love, what do they drink, what cassettes do they listen to? Since the Nixons’ aseptic sexlessness seems part of their sedative effect upon the nation, I gloss swiftly over the first question. But even blander facts are increasingly unavailable, for rigorous privacy is essential to preserve the magic of Nixon’s secret politics and surprise tactics, and his palace guard has grown increasingly guarded. (“Does the President wear reading glasses?” “Now and then, but don’t quote me.” “Does the President ever cat nap?” “Yes, but get it from somebody else.”) He has recently boasted, however, that he is the first president in our history who has never missed one day of work through illness, and that he has not even had one headache in his life. It has also been revealed that his weight has not changed in twenty years; that he has recently rendered his austere lunch of ry-krisp and cottage cheese even more Spartan by giving up ketchup; and that his sole sport, since he has given up bowling and golf, consists of the solitary exercise of running 200 paces in his bedroom in the same spot.*

In his inaugural address, as he pronounces his solipsistic question, “What can you do for yourself?” I reflect upon the newly grandiose nature of his metaphors. He sees himself as having spent “those eight years in the wilderness, the way de Gaulle and Churchill were,” before returning to power. In his growing isolation he is identifying himself increasingly with the State, through Walter Mitty metaphors of sports and leadership. “The team goes just as fast as the leader, as the quarter-back and coach, and I am both.” “L’Equipe, c’est Moi.”

He ended his address, of course, by asking us for our prayers, rather than our ideas. As he exited after the benedictions, I saw only one mark of aging upon that changeless, perpetually sun-tanned sixty-year-old face: the deepening of the nose-to-cheek lines have emphasized those traits of self-denial and discipline that both shaped his ascent to power and enabled him, when young, to drive Pat home after her dates with other men. Self-denial. Is it possible that reality is one of the substances which this elusive man, curled over his sense of destiny, has been until now denying himself? That once the great triumph of his reelection was achieved he would open the door a crack? Trying to maintain certain Quaker principles, I don’t want to believe in the irreversibility of evil, therefore in the irreversibility of his monstrous isolation.

Later that day as he watched from a glass booth this most expensive of inauguration pageantries—part of his campaign to free us from dread—he brusquely leaned forward, fascinated by a papier-mâché float of the Spirit of ‘76, and briefly pressed his strangely shaped nose to the glass, looking upon the outside world as a penniless child looks into a pastry shop. The parade he was observing was pigeon-proofed, Pennsylvania Avenue having been sprayed with a special chemical for the occasion.

Among a choice of six sites, I picked the Middle Western States Inaugural Ball at the Pension Building because Guy Lombardo was playing there. Like all the other balls it was an utterly disorderly affair. Running the 4 million dollar inaugural “like a corporate enterprise,” Inaugural Committee Chairman and Hot Shoppes tycoon J. Willard Marriott did not produce much joy; nor did the daily visits of analysts from a management consultant firm to see that the work of 4,000 inaugural employees divided into thirty-four committees was properly coordinated. Instead of dancing, some 5,000 persons stood about in disconsolate clusters waiting for a room to pee in, to check their coats, get their free souvenirs (charms and cuff links emblazoned with the Presidential seal), to see the President arrive.

There was a surprisingly large number of black people, of young people, of Democrats for Nixon, and crowds of men who claimed that they worked for “the biggest company” of this or that kind in the United States. It was a hard-drinking crowd, who drowned their gripes rather than expressed them; and the bars seemed to have been set up accordingly, with drinks available only in coupon sets of six for nine dollars. This was the first time in ten years that I had been in a crowd of over a thousand people that was not a demonstration or a reform-Democrat fund-raising event, with everyone wearing buttons. I recollected with nostalgia the slogans of an era past: Republicans for McCarthy, Free the New York Times 21, Stop the War on November 15, Vacuum Hoover, Free the Berrigans, Save Our Constitution. There was only one motto-wearer in sight: a short-haired collegiate who wore on his lapel, as if in echo of Nixon’s inaugural address, the words “Power to the Individual.”

Wayne and Jerry Martin of Bloomington, Illinois, had come to the inaugural with Bert and Katie Butler and their daughter, Bonnie. Old friends from neighboring towns, the Martins were Republicans, the Butlers lifelong Democrats until the 1972 elections. (“We want a negotiated peace, not a surrender, and McGovern was asking for a surrender.”) They were fiftyish, effusive, offering to buy me drinks by the six-coupon set, and insisted that their names be printed.

We’ve been to Europe an awful lot in the past few years,” said Ms. Martin, in brandy-hued Lurex, “and it’s obvious that Americans are so hated over there because we’ve given them so much, too much. It’s the same with welfare. When you give people too much they can’t possibly respect you. I loved that part of the President’s speech.”

Sure,” Mr. Martin said. “If you’re a man, you work.”

Of course FDR,” former Democrat Ms. Butler said, “I was 100 percent behind his policies, his measures were needed because that was a time of crisis, but now we’re living in such stable, prosperous times.”

And what about China?” demanded Mr. Butler, a towering man who said he worked for the largest flat-rate construction industry in the world. “You’ve got to be a genius to pull that off the way Nixon did.”

Marvelous,” said Ms. Butler, rolling her eyes.

Wizardly,” said Ms. Martin, holding her glass up in a toast.

That’s why I’m against those friends of mine who’re still demonstrating,” said Bonnie Butler, a graduate of the University of Illinois who verged on Movement style, no makeup, very long straight hair. “Back in ‘68, though I never demonstrated myself, I approved of those of my friends who did; but how can you do it now, Nixon has done too many good things.”

And here they are again demonstrating against the bombing when it brought the enemy back to the table,” her father rumbled. “They should be ashamed of themselves.”

You haven’t asked us what I like most about Nixon,” Ms. Butler reproached me. “What I like the most is the dignity and beauty of his family. So much poise. Have you ever seen anyone with so much poise as Pat and those gorgeous girls? They’re just….”

I think that’s what every President should have,” Ms. Martin interrupted. “A beautiful family like Nixon.”

That’s one thing the Kennedys don’t have,” Ms. Butler said, waving her finger at me. “A beautiful family. Or poise.”

Guy Lombardo was playing “It seems like old times/Doing the things we used to do/Making the dream come true.” I talked to a long-haired student from the University of Michigan who had registered Republican for his first vote because “Nixon was a miracle worker.” “Look at China,” he said. “Look at the trade deal with the Soviet Union. I’m a government major and I know how important these things are. I’m a little disappointed that he didn’t find an earlier solution to end the war, but the bombing must have been necessary. Look, it brought them back to the negotiating table.”

  1. *

    See the remarkable interview by Saul Pett of AP in the Washington Post, January 17, 1973.

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