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How to Re-Elect an Armadillo

By David R. Ignatius

SHORTLY AFTER ARRIVING in New York to cover President Nixon's Veterans Day motorcade through Westchester County, I went to the Hotel Roosevelt Headquarters of the New York Committee to Re-Elect the President to pick up my credentials from the Secret Service. Being a student newsman, and thus twice damned as far as the Nixon people were concerned, I had some trouble getting a press card; I passed the time wandering around the NYCREEP headquarters.

Most of the objects that fill a campaign headquarters are forgotten in an instant: promotional broadsides; banks of telephones; litterature tables; ugly furniture and carpeting. A campaign headquarters has a momentary and purely functional existence, and this is reflected in its furnishings. Like a newsroom, a campaign headquarters is supposed to look as raunchy as the people who inhabit it.

So I was surprised to see a brightly-colored, semi-profound epigram affixed to the wall next to the desk of Nixon press aide Maxine Paul. The epigram, lettered in the style of Sister Corrita, read: Do Not Cry Because The Sun Has Gone, For Your Tears Will Blind You To The Stars.

Since my visit to New York, I have tried to reflect on the meaning and conduct of the Nixon Presidential campaign. I have tried to consider the physical reality of Nixon's re-election machine: it is lavish with money and frugal with words; it is confident and professional; it is capable of appearing magnanimous, welcoming Democratic defectors. But most of all the Nixon campaign is elusive, as if it were guarding the darkest secrets, which in fact, it probably is.

In many ways, the Nixon campaign is not really a campaign at all. Nixon rarely leaves Washington, and when he does he is the President and not a candidate for President. Nixon does not debate the issues; he does not even seem to recognize that he is running opposed. This unperturbable Presidential posture seems to be a deliberate gesture of contempt for the old-fashioned idea that a person in public office should have to stand before the voters and explain himself.

But whatever the Nixon campaign is, it seems to be working, for Candidate Nixon has successfully avoided any discussion of the nature of his 1972 appeal to the people or of his proposed policies. Indeed, everything Nixon does seems to be calculated to convince people of the inevitability of his second term; and a voter who is not willing to concede Nixon's election as a foregone conclusion--who stubbornly insists on knowing what wool it is that Nixon is pulling over our eyes--must search for clues.

The best clue I have yet found to explain the nature of the Nixon campaign was scotch-taped to Maxine Paul's Hotel Roosevelt wall. Miss Paul is an intelligent woman, and we should think about her campaign-time advice: Do Not Cry Because The Sun Has Gone, For Your Tears Will Blind You To The Stars.

Voters: Don't cry for the dead Vietnamese and Americans; instead rejoice in the clever diplomacy of Henry Kissinger, brightest of the stars in the Nixon firmament. Rich Liberals: Don't kid yourselves into voting as if you really cared about blacks, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and the rest of the poor and boring of the world get smart and support a candidate who believes in ruthless sell interest and makes no bones about it. And to you timid souls who many be troubled by the disappearance of the Bill of Rights and other key sections of the Constitution Grow up Even fascism has its good points and anyway-it's a waster of time trying to fight the big boys.

The Nixon people understand better than any of us that the sun has gone. They are glad of it-it was always too bright-and because they are glad of the darkness. Nixon and his gang of moles have known best how to lead and comfort the millions of Americans who have been stumbling about trying to adjust their eyes.

VETERANS DAY WEEKEND the sun had in fact gone from New York. The city was under an overcast sky which dampened the colorful eccentricities that usually delight visitors. Manhattan seemed to be at the ends of the earth, and a look at the faces hurrying down the sidewalks suggested that in New York, personality and companionship had ceased to exist in public places--except as they had been re-invented by the younger and more adventurous city-dwellers. One re-invention of public personality that has recently swept New York is the spray-painting and magic marking of every available surface, especially subway cars, by teenage graffitists. Their calling cards are everywhere in the city, proclaiming that these teenagers may be crazy, but they are surviving: Junior 151; Mouse 162; Super Kool.

Harry J. O'Donnell is Communications Director for the New York Committee to Re-elect the President, and as far as he is concerned, Junior 151, Super Kool and most of the rest of New York are too poor and screwed-up to qualify as potential Nixon voters. But confident that the President will carry Long Island and upstate New York by a huge margin, O'Donnell is willing to let McGovern have New York City. "All we want to do is hold McGovern to a 400,000 vote plurality in New York City," O'Donnell told me. "But," he said puckishly, "if we do carry the city, I won't demand a recount."

Although he is doubtless an honest fellow, it is not hard to imagine O'Donnell stuffing ballot boxes in Queens or Staten Island. He is an overweight white-faced Irishman, and he is so rosy about the prospects of his candidate that in conversations he assumes a fatherly manner, releasing bits of information between pitches of the World Series game on television. In any other year, you would take O'Donnell for a Democrat.

But not in 1972. Despite the fact that Nixon lost the state by 370,000 votes in 1968, New York Republicans are so confident this year that they have allowed themselves the ultimate gesture of political arrogance: a battle against overconfidence within the organization. R. Burdell Bixby, New York State Campaign Director, has ordered that the following blood-curdling message be prominantly displayed in the Hotel Roosevelt headquarters: I hope the Nixon people do to George McGovern what the Democrats did...underestimate him. If they do that...WELL KILL THEM. --Gary Hart

Bixby was once a staffer for Thomas Dewey, the classic victim of political overconfidence, and Bixby says that he "vividly remembers" the last-minute rehersals of the 1948 election. So he is trying to whip his Republican team into a frenzy before the big game.

BUT WHO CAN GO into a frenzy for Richard Nixon? The party militants at the Hotel Roosevelt look sleepy, and spend their time watching television. Even the youth volunteers--hustling political careers for themselves--look embarassed as they search for odd jobs to do, especially one young man who paced the lobby with an unused guitar hanging from his neck. He looked like a lost survivor of the 1960s, trying desperately to adjust to the new order.

Nowhere is it more apparent that the 1960s have ended than in the offices of the Committee to Re-Elect the President. For it was Nixon himself, a boring heavy-handed politician--a man who conveys all the warmth and personality of an armadillo--who ended the 1960s fling with charismatic politics. His election symbolized the revenge of the unbeautiful. Richard Nixon, bless his heart, was a loser too.

In their brilliant 1968 campaign, the Nixon staff--recruited largely from advertising agencies--developed a new advertising concept: Ugly is beautiful. It worked, and they are at it again this year.

How do you re-elect an armadillo? First, you always refer to him as "The President." It helps if you send him off to China to give him a little glamour, so that people will say, "He may be an armadillo, but look at what he's managed to do." But most important, you never apologize for anything, and you assume that since most voters secretly believe that they are dull, they will welcome a candidate who is dull and proud of it.

You can also re-elect an armadillo by convincing people that it is less dangerous to have around than a sidewinding snake. And this is just what the Nixon campaign merchandisers have tried to do this year. A Republican background paper outlining tactics in New York promotes Nixon's most boring qualities--his "purposeful, sensible national leadership." Boring Nixon is then contrasted with the pimply weirdos of what the backgrounder describes as the "McGovern Crowd," who sound like a gang of ultraviolence freaks out of A Clockwork Orange. The backgrounder notes that it was the "McGovern Crowd" who "humiliated the party leaders at Miami Beach and rubbed their noses in the sawdust of that political circus;" and who "boasted, with adolescent arrogance, that they were the 'new politics.'"

In trying to give their candidate as flat an image as possible, the Nixon campaign staffers have even tried to emulate the special inarticulateness of his prose style. One campaign pamphlet, "Economic Leadership," defends Nixon's wage and price program by noting that "while there was criticism from various sources--as there will always be--the point is that the President courageously took REAL action..."

The pamphlet closes with another bit of unshaven, heavy-jowelled rhetoric: "Even as much remains to be done, much has already been accomplished by President Nixon. Contrasting the state of the economy as a whole in 1968 with what it is today it can be said that the corner has been turned... That this is so is due to the economic leadership of the President, who has not always taken the most popular course, striving to make certain that the steps he did take were REAL steps that would result in REAL economic progress." (emphasis added)

By his continual references to the hard unpopular courses he has taken, Nixon prods the voter to assume that his course has also been the right one, since nobody would be so stupid as to advocate something that was hard, unpopular, and also wrong. By such sleights of hand, Nixon has managed to avoid any discussion of the issues with his opponent.

Nothing is too corny or too dirty for Nixon. He is a lawyer-businessman, and for him, the willingness to try any marketing strategy that will sell the goods is a point of professional pride--no matter how ridiculous or under handed he may appear to his detractors. When Nixon needs to defend his failure to move toward national health insurance he makes a whimsical "Health Care" pamphlet promise that he will "keep American as well as can be today-and even better than that tomorrow."

When Nixon's campaign advisors decide that it would make good business sense to throw some confusion into the primary campaigns of his potential Democratic rivals, the President pulls out his bulging wallet and hires the necessary undercover operatives. Even in the White House businessmen don't think about ethics, and they don't have very much to say to people who do. They think about how to generate the maximum output from the minimum input. And they like to operate at minimum risk, by removing any ambiguous or threatening variables from their marketing equations.

TRAVELLING WITH THE PRESIDENT in a Veterans Day motorcade through Westchester county is not as exciting as it sounds. For reporters do not really accompany the President. They follow him at a great distance; the closest I got to Nixon was 75 yards when he was met at the Westchester County airport by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Senator Javitts and other dignitaries. I never saw him again during the rest of the day.

I spent the rest of the day in press bus seven, looking out the window and listening to the walky-talky play-by-play account of the action up front from the pool reporters, who had been selected to observe the motorcade from within spitting range of the Presidential limousine. Although I did not actually see the events with my own eyes, I know that Nixon left his limousine to autograph a football for a Midget Football team in Mamaroneck; to greet a drum majorette just outside White Plains; to place a wreath at a cemetary in Eastchester; to receive a gold key to the Village of Tuckahoe. I know that the President's motorcade covered a 50 mile route in three-and-a-half hours; that Captain William Keith of the New York State Police estimated the number of people who had turned out to see the President and Mrs. Nixon at 364,000, a figure that was later revised upward to the chagrin of veteran reporters; and that the President and Mrs. Nixon stood waving in their open-topped limousine at most points along the route where there enough people to wave to.

What I did see with my own eyes were the faces of people who had just watched the President pass by. Press bus seven was at the tail end of the motorcade, yet people in the crowd who had taken off the afternoon to see Nixon remained standing in their places, holding signs or waving for TV cameras. Many of them looked dazed, staring off into space, perhaps wondering how to spend the rest of the day now that the President had come and gone.

Most of the reporters on Press Bus seven agreed that the most newsworthy item we could report first-hand was the enormous number of McGovern supporters in the crowd. Many thousands had been supplied with posters and slogans by the local McGovern headquarters, whose advance work for the Nixon motorcade rivalled that of the Republicans. But along the route there were also hundreds of hand lettered posters and these were the clearest expression of the mood of those who had turned out to say what they thought of Four More Years Among the anti Nixon posters were Robots for Nixon People For McGovern. Nixon Government By the Corrupt For the Corrupt. "Nixon '72, 1984" and "Nixon's Peace Plan-He Voting For McGovern."

Nixon supporters had done some lettering of their own. "Hanon We Have the GUTS to Win with Nixon." "Nixon the Great," and "America: None Better." The City of Eastchester had placed a huge banner across its main street declaring: "We Love Our City We Love Our Country, We Love Our President and First Lady."

IT'S ABSOLUTELY absurd isn't it," muttered Malcolm Deane, a British reporter from the Manchester Guardian who was sitting next to me on press bus seven. "I mean there are sensitive peace negotiations going on, and this idiot is driving all over the place in his foolish motorcade. We don't have anything like this in Britain," Dean continued, growing more indignant as the pool reporter announced the latest revised body count from Captain Keith over the walky-talky. "We do have something we call motor-tours," Deane observed, "but they are designed to allow the candidates to debate on the issues in as many places as possible. In London, they have a special tour route which allows the candidate to make 30 stops in one day, so that he can field questions from voters all over the city." Deane sighed wistfully and went back to making notations in his reporter's notebook.

At dusk, with signs and slogans and Captain Keith's sliding crowd estimates reverberating in their heads, several hundred newsmen finally stumbled out of their buses and into the Tarrytown Hilton. The Finance Committee to Re-Elect the President had contracted with the Hilton to provide reporters with a newsroom, free telephones, and free food and drink. The few journalists who were so elite that they did not have to file a story on the day's events by early-evening deadline time headed for the bar. Most of the rest headed for the Grand Ballroom to write their stories. As deadline time approached, the newsmen were feverishly reconstructing what they had seen that afternoon--50 miles of Westchester County; boisterous crowds; touching incidents; boring speeches given by various Republicans; even an assassination attempt that had been foiled by the New Rochelle Police--trying to figure out how they were going to make these raw events lie flat on paper in ordered paragraphs.

An hour later, the events of the day had been boxed into news stories and the stories had been read loudly over the telephone to the newsrooms back home. The reporters headed in various directions: some to get drunk; some to hear the President tell an evening rally of suburban Republicans in Nassau County how he was planning to subvert the Constitution in the coming week.

I HAD MISSED the last press bus to Nassau County, so I never made it to the rally. But I was able to describe it in my news story the next morning as if I had been sitting in the front row. Reporting the news is big business and one service provided by the newsmakers for their media retailers is the pre-packing of news events in advance. I had been given a copy of Nixon's evening speech shortly after he first arrived at Westchester airport that afternoon. I knew what he was going to say, so I put excerpts from his speech in my story. I didn't know that several hundred demonstrators had infiltrated the Nassau County Coliseum, that they would disrupt Nixon's speech and that they would be forcibly ejected from the auditorium. So that important event didn't make the morning paper. Too bad, but that's the way it goes in the news business.

Nixon told his Nassau County audience what he had told the press earlier in the day: that he had some "bad news" for the "big spenders" in Congress who had not only ignored his demand last month for executive veto power over the Federal budget, but had also "jammed through" social welfare legislation which put the budget well over the $250 billion ceiling Nixon had demanded.

The "bad news" was a Nixon pledge to use "my full legal powers" to keep the budget under $250 billion. For once, Nixon acted quickly on a campaign promise. Four days after his Nassau speech, Nixon vetoed nine bills, including the entire Department of Health Education and Welfare and Department of Labor appropriations. Also vetoed on the Nixon "budget-breaker" list were appropriations for: flood control projects; improved burial and cemetary benefits for veterans; expanded health care facilities at Veterans Administration Hospitals; vocational rehabilitation programs for people so handicapped that they cannot work; and public works projects to bring jobs to low income areas and areas with severe unemployment.

Nixon defended his budget vetoes as anti-inflationary, but it must be remembered that several days before Nixon decided to pinch pennies on the sick and poor, he signed into law a $76.7 billion appropriations and military construction package for the Defense Department.

Although Nixon's vetoes were appalling, they were legal. But in announcing the vetoes, White House Aide John Erlichman had still more bad news--this time for the Constitution. In a further effort to enforce the President's $250 billion ceiling over the already-stated will of Congress, Erlichman said that Nixon would simply refuse to spend some of the money which Congress had appropriated. Congress is the branch of government delegated to make final decisions on the budget, and Sen. Sam J. Ervin of North Carolina, a constitutional scholar, promised that he would bring suit if Nixon tried to impound money which Congress had decided to spend.

HAD the Nassau County audience realized that Nixon was announcing his intention to use dictatorial powers? When Nixon told the middle class suburban voters that "there is no higher priority with me than protecting our people against higher prices and higher taxes" had the audience understood that what Nixon meant was that their pocketbooks and his re-election chances had a higher priority than wounded Vietnam veterans, flood victims, and paraplegics?

After seeing it in operation, it is impossible to be sure whether the Campaign to Re-Elect the President is putting the country to sleep, or whether it is creating a constituency as calculating and self-interested as the President himself.

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