The first time I saw Richard Nixon in person was five years ago, when I stood in the Public Square of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in a high school band uniform, waiting for the chance to play a Sousa march in honor of the Vice-President's arrival. It was raining, and Nixon was late, but crowds are willing to bear the delay if a Presidential candidate is coming to town. When he arrived, tired but spitting fire, he spoke of the only thing that could interest Northeastern Pennsylvanians: economic redevelopment of a depressed area. He had a rough time defending President Eisenhower's veto of a bill that would have helped the area. The reaction was polite, but no one liked him very much, least of all the wet band.
A few weeks later, Jack Kennedy came through. He was late, too, but not because of scheduling difficulties. Throughout his trip along the Susquehanna River to Wilkes-Barre, he was mobbed by hysterically enthusiastic crowds; when he got to Public Square, he blasted the Republicans for vetoing the redevelopment bill, and everyone went home knowing how he'd vote in November. Kennedy swamped Nixon in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
But the man I met last week wasn't the same Nixon that visited Wilkes-Barre--or the Nixon who bitterly told the press after losing in California in 1962 that they "won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore." He didn't have the persecution complex I'd heard about. He was calmly realistic about his own position and influence in his party and his courty at this time. He didn't even seem tricky.
I met Nixon in one of his six rooms at the Commander, where he was interviewing law students for positions in his New York firm. For a total of nineteen hours he spoke with bright men. most of whom can work for any firm they'd like, but who came because--well, how often do you get a chance to talk to a man who was Vice-President? Nixon wanted to be more than a museum piece, and so he tried to be modest, to talk of things lawyers talk about. Like others who come to see law students, he was there to sell his firm--one that's been on the way up since Nixon joined it. He stressed that it's possible to be active in politics while in his firm; "were hiring both Republicans and Democrats," he assured me. "I'm tremendously impressed with the quality of the men, with their maturity and presence," he said. He wanted to be liked, to be sought after--how funny it was to see the man who was almost President on that side of the fence.
I started our conversation by asking whether he was rooting for the Dodgers or the Twins. He was relieved--glad, it seemed, to talk about something besides politics. "The Twins, of course," he replied. "Why, they're all from Washington. They were there when I was there." He leaned forward, as if to let me in on the latest Kremlin shake-up, and confided almost in a stage whisper, "I'd be for the Dodgers against anyone else. I'll tell you one thing: Sandy Koufax is the greatest pitcher." After that, he lost me; he babbled on, and I just nodded my head. I finally dragged him off baseball, but we continued to watch the Series, and when Mudcat Grant hit a homer, Nixon almost chased the ball into the stands.
When he spoke of political allies and opponents, I expected him to drop names--to Lyndon me and Barry me to distraction. But he played it straight, used last names for everyone including himself (except "Ronnie Reagan"), talking of them all with an intimacy that was obvious but inoffensive. He discussed executive responsibility during Presidential disability and said he wasn't surprised that Johnson was doing so much from the hospital. "There's a difference in the nature of the men. Johnson's restless; he always wanted to be doing everything. Eisenhower had a military background, so he delegated jobs."
Like so many others, Nixon referred to the potential gains for the Republican Party in the South--though not on the basis of John Grenier's racist Southern strategy. "We're doing the right thing in Virginia," he insisted, "with a young team that's conservative in economics and moderate on civil rights." He punctuated his conversation with invocations of being "soundly conservative" and "making conservatism more respectable." But he jumped back from any theory of ideologically-based parties and landed in the we'll-take-what-we-can-get camp. "Sure, I want Thurmond to be a Republican. I don't agree with him on civil rights, but if it's a choice between him and a Democrat who has the same position on racial issues, I'll take Thurmond. We need his vote." It was civil rights that gave Nixon trouble in 1960, and it could give him trouble in another national campaign. "We must not compromise on our national civil rights stand [now a strong one]," he proclaimed automatically, but then gave me a harsh stare and scolded, "I have grave questions about the current civil rights leadership."
Nixon has few illusions about his image. Thus, as a new New York politician, he has said repeatedly that he supports John Lindsay for mayor--but he's not out making speeches for him. Since Lindsay is on a fusion ticket, Nixon concedes, "he's right in not wanting people to wave the Republican banners."
"When you start talking Presidential politics, you just divide," Nixon chanted as he shook his finger at me. Just the syllables that make up "1968" brought a faint smile to his face, as if to say "you're not going to catch me this time." But it came out as, "I'm only looking to 1966. It's imperative we gain in Congress. I'd say we can get 40 seats in the House." Then--still smoothly--he revealed himself: "I'm going to have a full schedule in '66. I'll devote a lot of time to it." Without throwing a hat in the ring, without testing his strength in something like the California gubernatorial race, but this time with some routine plodding and an improved sense of self-control, Nixon realizes, the nomination just might be available.
If he turns out to be the only man who can unify the Republicans, Nixon will have done plenty of thinking about it in advance. To say "Hatfield" in front of Nixon is like flipping the switch on a music box: "a national figue...political appeal...I think he's going to be elected to the Senate." But Nixon's zeal allows him to ignore, for example, an anti-Vietnam-war wind that blows in Oregon. (He looked at me aghast; "I haven't really studied Hatfield's views on Vietnam, but I hope they're not like Morse's.")
Nixon has mellowed and he's become a more congenial public figure, a nicer guy, than he was five years ago. But this time when the "new Nixon" presents himself, the people just might fail to see the change. They can't all spend 20 quiet minutes with him, like the law students.