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 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.”

Guy Lombardo played “Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later than You Think.” I found the only persons who objected to the Christmas bombing, two black women from Chicago, sisters, both lifelong Democrats until ’72. “We voted for Nixon because of China though he didn’t have anything else to offer—and McGovern had nothing to offer.” Guy Lombardo played “Boohoo, I’ll Tell My Mom on You.”

I talked to a red-eyed businessman from Ohio who described Nixon as a “miracle worker” for his China trip, loved the President because “everything he does and says has a dynamic, aggressive aspect,” and grew apoplectic at the possibilities of reducing penalties for marijuana. “There are two cultures in this country,” he bellowed, “the grass culture and the alcohol culture. I’m from the alcohol culture and I’m proud of it. I’m half Irish and half German, two fine strong alcohol cultures, and I have a theory that this grass stuff comes from the ethnic groups very different from mine: the Latin, Jewish, Mediterranean stock you could call them, those people you see sitting around Horn and Hardart’s drinking coffee, like Bella Abzug, those are the ones who like pot with their coffee.”

The alcohol lobbyist loved all the inaugural proceedings. He hoped they would occur every few months, every few weeks:

“Nixon is good at pageantry, that’s what America needs more of. Pageantry is an affirmation of our American heritage. It stresses the good, positive, old-fashioned American values at a time when everyone is knocking them and being so negative. Look at England, the changing of the guard every day. We need more of that….”

In stentorian loudspeaker tones, a voice booming from everywhere and nowhere: “Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States!” Guy Lombardo strikes up “Hail to the Chief.” The Family comes in to ecstatic applause, dressed in the colors of the American flag. Pat in beaded blue. Julie in beaded white. Tricia in shimmering red satin with matching boa, behind which she teasingly hides half of her sweetly smiling face. The President’s stance of pockets in hand, his swooping nose, his new-found ease with fun and jokes suddenly remind me of Bob Hope. He tries to make this part of the country, the Middle West, feel more special, more dearly loved than any other region. “I have a special affection for the Middle West…. It’s always been called the heartland of America and it’s led the way, because since the last election the whole nation is the heartland….” (Cheers and roars.) “And of course as you know my Dad came from Ohio….” (More cheers.) “And another reason why this is my favorite ball of all, it’s the one where my favorite band leader Guy Lombardo is playing!”

Arms outstretched and fingers in the V sign to express boundless admiration. One arm falls heavily on Lombardo’s shoulder.

“You know, I remember way back in the Forties when Pat, my wife, and I used to go to New York City. That’s before I was a household word….” (Laughter.) “We always used to go and hear Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians because even if you were poor he made you feel so good. Why, he’s the best band leader ever. Hey Guy, if you make more money you’ll give me a cut, won’t you….” (Big laugh, started by Nixon.) “And now, I’d like to show you how much I love Guy’s music by dancing to it…. Guy, give me a four beat, will you?”

“I’ll Be Loving You, Always,” the band softly strikes up. Dick and Pat dance limply to the tune, not quite cheek to cheek, their smiles fixed. In the last reel of the movie Millhouse, Nixon stands by Guy Lombardo at the 1969 Inaugural Ball recollecting the end of World War II. “When VJ day came…I remember Pat and I…saved up our money and went to the Roosevelt Hotel and we danced to the music of Guy Lombardo…and I just hope that we are dancing to his music when we end the next war.”

The night before the 1973 Inaugural Ball he had said to a crowd at the Kennedy Center, “Well, I’ve got great news for you. This year, 1973, Bob Hope is going to spend Christmas at home.” The same evening the crowd cheered when the Pat Boone family sang “a personal pledge of allegiance to Jesus,” and when Roger Williams played “Autumn Leaves,” “The Impossible Dream,” “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” In the privacy of his own automobile, so cassette dealers relate, Richard Nixon listens to more Pat Boone, more Guy Lombardo, and particularly to Lawrence Welk, whose best known hits include “Ain’t She Sweet,” “I Want To Be Happy,” “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” “Nearer My God to Thee,” “Bibbidi-Bobbodi-Boo.” Nostalgia for old-time religion and for the quiet Eisenhower Fifties. Let’s forget the Sixties: foreign songs, hundreds of thousands of draft resisters underground, 56,000 dead, 25 million living under the poverty level, jailed priests, crumbling ghettos, rising crime, drugged veterans, drugged army, drugged kids, troubles. Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile. Bibbidi-Bobbodi-Boo. Is this inaugural a salute to a vanishing America, or is it the real America? Who can say?

Back in my hotel room, I read with fascination the names of the Inaugural Committee’s VIPs who dominate Washington’s social scene throughout the week: Billy Graham cochairs the Symphonic Concert Committee with heavy campaign contributor W. Clement Stone, Chicago insurance tycoon and activist of fundamentalist religion (in 1969, Stone voted to elect Nixon “Churchman of the Year”). Charlton Heston cochairs the Inaugural Concert Committee with Pam Powell, daughter of Dick Powell and June Allyson. Redskins Coach George Allen is a cochairman of the Parade Committee. Mrs. Vince Lombardi is cochairman of the Inaugural Ball Committee. Hamburger tycoon Anthony McDonald, Jr., one of Nixon’s largest campaign contributors, is director of Advertising and Promotion. One is struck by the almost total absence of the old guard East Coast Republican establishment. Not an Aldrich, a Dillon, a Lodge in sight at the festivities. These are post World War II fortunes, many of them from the South and Southwest, heavy in oil; heavy too on sports, old Hollywood, resort hotels, hamburger stands, the stuff our dreams were made of.

Gathered from the Post’s society column: W. Clement Stone, who contributed two million dollars to the campaign, is taking riding lessons in hopes that he will be made ambassador to England. The new DC inseparables are Spiro Agnew and Frank Sinatra, who is looking for a house in DC to live near Spiro. At their frequent dinners together, Frankie sits down at the piano to croon for Spiro: “This Greek, Unique.” Nixon does not have Sinatra on records or cassettes. The President is said to be “livid” concerning the crooner’s insults of Post society reporter Maxine Cheshire; and Frankie—dismissed by the Kennedys for his shady associations—has flunked his second attempt at being an intimate of the Most Powerful. Evans and Novak observe that the White House’s coolness toward Agnew is based in part on Agnew’s friendship with Sinatra, whose life style is clearly too racy for our Spartan President. Witness the grimly abstemious palace guard, led by Haldeman and Ehrlichman, heavily Mormon and Christian Scientist, men who will remain as blameless in their private lives as they grow increasingly ruthless in their hiring and firing.

For Nixon’s strength is in part based on that very pristine irreproachability of family style that so reassures Ms. Martin and Ms. Butler, that softens the edges of any scandals he may have been associated with. Pat and Julie and Tricia are his continuous Checkers speech, veiling the contradictions and crises of his career. “What can I do for myself?” is a much maligned phrase, the only honest moment of his inaugural address. Avoiding the “unifying” platitudes or Wilsonian idealisms of 1969, it is the most fitting of mottoes for the shady entrepreneurs and real estate wheeler dealers who slink in and out of Nixon’s past and present, the backers of the Cuban refugees who surfaced in the Watergate break-in. It is an ideal slogan for the secret slush funds, the Hughes loan of 1960, the ITT dealings, the wheat, milk, corn, and other scandals which lie beneath the veneer of his fairy-tale family life and whose closely concealed tracks history may at some future date reveal.

But beyond its unintended candor, is that phrase any more dangerous than the jingoism of John Kennedy’s upon which it so bitterly played? “Ask what you can do for your country” now evokes the horrors of reckless patriotism. “Ask what you can do for yourself” simply states the loneliness of the huckster, an apolitical, metaphysical solitude. At the end of a decade bloodied by the most misguided patriotism in memory, in the middle of an administration marked by the greatest corruption we have known, which seems worse?

Some 12,000 persons attended the first of the inaugural activities, a reception for the Agnews at the Smithsonian Institute. The theme of the party—as of all the inaugural events—was “The Spirit of ’76.” Hostesses dressed like Williamsburg belles, pioneer women, and Indian squaws passed around food meant to emulate ancient American values and Republican symbols: Indian pudding, spoon bread, sugar cookies in the shape of elephants. The patience of the guests, as they waited in line for two or three hours to shake the Vice President’s hand, recalled ancient pilgrimages where crowds stood for hours to kiss some precious relic—a fragment of a sandal, of a toenail. Only once did they swerve from the worshipping line—to mob the Nixon women during their brief appearance. I retain from that day an image of Tricia swathed in white boa feathers, that mysterious smile of abstract innocence fixed on her face as by a spray gun, her palms spread apart as if about to clap, like one of those dolls that one cranks up with a key, from the back, to dance under a little glass dome.

Shortly thereafter Greyhound buses arrived by the hundreds to load the visitors for the next inaugural event—a Salute to the States at Kennedy Center featuring Bob Hope, Lawrence Welk, and the Pat Boone family. Thousands of Americans burst out of the Smithsonian holding plastic glasses stamped with the blue presidential seal. They had ripped them off by the dozens, relics to carry back to Michigan, Texas, Ohio. Sitting alone on the bus in the middle of the boisterous, roaring crowd, I was joined by a sober and sad-eyed California businessman who told me he had never received his tickets to any of the inaugural events although he had sent his money months earlier. He had to pay for them a second time—a matter of several hundred dollars—yet he accepted this fate with blind submission. “The lady at the inaugural office told me that they wouldn’t know until early November who was going to win the election,” he explained. “That’s why they’re so disorganized.” He expressed a similar attitude when we discussed the recent Christmas bombings, whether they had harmed the President’s prestige. “Ah, those people have been bombed for twenty-five years,” he said, “first by the French and then by us. What do three months more or less matter?”

The week of the inaugural I had lectured at Amherst College, where over one third of the faculty and the student body was arrested last May, in protest against the Vietnam war. Sitting with students afterward, I understood that many of them were feeling, with varying degrees of candor, a strong sense of disorientation about the supposed ending of the war. “First of all most of us don’t believe it can end,” one student said. “It’s been with us for ten years, ever since we can remember.” Others expressed not so much their disbelief in the reality of the peace as their fear that a ceasefire would deprive them of the one unifying focus of “the Movement,” as if the constant dying of Americans was necessary to keep us whole, as if this cancer was necessary to remind us that we were ill. Now more than ever, it is those most opposed to the war who seem most terrified by the fairyland of well-being, the mirage of peace that Nixon will attempt to conjure up in his second term. “What’s going to keep us together when our side of the war ends,” one student exclaimed, “when we have lost the majesty and horror of it?”

This Issue

February 22, 1973