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Talking to Nixon

Cabbages and Kings

DURING THE Wisconsin primary last March, I drove out to Milwaukee along with two other CRIMSON reporters to cover Senator McCarthy's campaign. It was during that strange time after New Hampshire when Kennedy had just come in and Johnson wasn't yet out, and the bitter clarity of our own relationship to the nation at war was melting like the dirty snow beside the highway.

Nixon was in Wisconsin too. He was running against no one, Rockefeller having dropped out a week previously; the point of Nixon's campaign in the state was to prove that Republicans liked him enough to vote for him even when it didn't make any difference. If Dick could come out of Wisconsin in good shape, said the Nixon people, the way would be pretty well clear to Miami Beach, and so they were spending half a million dollars to get the vote out, and bringing in Mr. Nixon himself for two swings through the state.

The first of these began two days after we arrived in Milwaukee, and I decided to go along to see what it was like. This was well before anyone was talking about learning to live with Nixon, and to me the Nixon campaign appeared as a dark crusade of the cynical right. The point of the Wisconsin primary was to give McCarthy a chance to beat Johnson, and it seemed absurd that Nixon had even come to Wisconsin at all.

At that time, there were a number of things about the Nixon campaign that struck me as especially preposterous. Nixon basically supported the war, and so there didn't seem to be any reason for him to run--we already had a President who supported the war. More generally there wasn't any readily identifiable content to the campaign, no important issue out of which it had grown. The Nixon campaign was exactly like a corporation, from the area sales representatives in the Milwaukee headquarters to the top management people from New York. Nothing is required of a corporation other than that it produce its product: the product is its own justification. Like a corporation president, Nixon needed no high moral purpose or sonorous title (not Senator Nixon or Governor Nixon, just Mr. Nixon) with which to justify his enterprise: he simply knew what he wanted, and was going after it frankly and cooly.

I EVENTUALLY MANAGED to talk to Nixon, on his campaign plane after a speech in the northern part of the state. As the plane took off that night a plump young man named Patrick Buchanan (who was soon to earn a certain fame as the author of Nixon's law and order speeches) came back to where I was sitting and said pleasantly, "So you want to speak to the Boss?" I said I did and after a little screening, I was invited to the front of the cabin, where Nixon was sitting back with his feet up on the window ledge.

As I sat down next to him I was amazed by how much he looked the way he was supposed to. I imagined for a moment that his face had been remodelled by representatives of the mass media to match the image which they have popularized--even more, he looked like a Nixon cartoon given life. I had expected that meeting Nixon would tend to humanize the plastic, electronic Nixon-image that I had always known, but I found the real Nixon overpowered in my mind by the plastic. As we talked, I thought with astonishment of the millions of synthetic Nixon-images which this one Nixon-mold had spawned. At one point the thought lept into my head that if I were to reach across those few inches of space and strangle the real Nixon, the millions of other Nixons all over the nation and the world would self-destruct as quickly as the news could be spread. The public figure, while far more palpable and fragile than I had imagined him to be, was hardly more human: the electronic image of the man's face has so invaded our senses that the relationship between the face and its image becomes reversed.

"HOW DO YOU account for the fact," I asked Nixon, "that Senator McCarthy's campaign has attracted so much more support from young people and students than yours has?"

Nixon was silent for several seconds, concentrating on the question as though it had been a very complicated one. "How to analyze that..." he murmured, and then out came a response.

There were two reasons, said Nixon, "The first is that there is great disillusionment, of course, and McCarthy tells the students what they want to hear." He felt that supporting McCarthy was "a typical college student reaction" to the complex problems raised by the war. The second reason was McCarthy's "statemanlike" manner: more specifically, his appeals to youth were not made in the same "stupid and demagogic way" that Bobby Kennedy's were.

Nixon was bitter about Kennedy's emotional speeches against the war; he called them "fakery," and once he had dropped Kennedy's name into the conversation he backtracked to praise McCarthy some more. Nixon's advisors had by this time concluded that Kennedy would take the nomination from LBJ, and without any adversaries closer at hand, Nixon was already starting out after Bobby. "I had a great deal of respect for John Kennedy," Nixon said, "but Bobby's not half the man his brother was."

IT WAS RAINING outside the airplane window, and the lights of the farmhouses below glimmered faintly through the night. Somewhere ahead of us, a crowd of two hundred people was already standing in the rain, waiting for Mr. Nixon.

I mentioned an interview in which Nixon had spoken of a general decline of respect for law in the country, and asked him how such a problem could be dealt with, other than through more law enforcement. Again there was the strange, prolonged silence while his brain drew in the question and formulated something with which to respond.

"Fairer enforcement would help," be began uncertainly, and then stopped. The real problem, he seemed to feel, was simply that people need to be convinced that respect for the law is essential.

"Let's take Latin America," Nixon said. "Any sophisticated observer of Latin America will tell you that the problem with the countries down there is that they've gone over to either all progress or all order. The genius of this country is that in a nation born of revolution, we have been able to combine stability with ordered progress." Since he had thought for so long before answering, I was a little surprised by the vacuity of his observations, and I began to feel a little silly for nodding so seriously and writing it all down. Nixon seemed to enjoy this kind of reflection, however, and he talked on about progress and order, tapping occasionally on my arm to emphasize his points. As the plane landed, we shook hands and everyone went out into the rain.

Later that night, a Nixon staff member came up to me and asked how my talk with "the Chief" had gone. I said it had been all right and he paused, gazing vacantly toward a tangle of unloaded television equipment, and said, "He's really a rather human person, once you get to know him."

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