PITTSBURGH — Two old Richard Nixon hands and a columnist walk into a downtown city club and ...
That’s not the opening of a joke. Two old Nixon hands and a columnist did walk into the Duquesne Club here the other day, sat down for lunch — and took a long, leisurely stroll through history, concentrating on one of American history’s most compelling, most polarizing figures. Like lunch, the conversation was spicy and delicious, and it provoked revealing comments about the 37th president, whose image even now is being recast.
At the table were John Roy Price, one of the president’s top advisers in the White House Domestic Policy shop, which crafted a radical welfare overhaul plan calling for an income floor to fight poverty — it passed in the House but not in the Senate. Dwight Chapin, Nixon’s appointments secretary and a confidante to the president who served nine months in federal prison on perjury charges growing out of the Watergate scandal, and this columnist, who as a college student considered Nixon the devil incarnate but whose views have moderated somewhat in the half-century that followed, rounded out the table.
Chapin, 82 years old, began by recalling standing next to Nixon at a reception at the 1964 Republican National Convention. “What amazed me was Nixon’s ability to place the people who came through,” he said. “If some ‘John Smith’ appeared, he knew he was from Omaha.”
Price, 84, recalled meeting Nixon at the Links Club on New York City’s East 62nd Street between Madison and Park Avenues three days before the former vice president announced his 1968 presidential campaign. “There he was, with big-money pooh-bahs, talking presidential politics, and then — suddenly! — he shifted gears and was talking geo-politics — a macro, global view. And when I approached him on welfare reform and a negative income tax, he was engaged in that question.”
And so it went. Listen in a bit to their remarks, edited gently for space:
Chapin: That underscores Nixon’s mind. He welcomed being in an intellectual incubator of ideas. I would later be alone with him in his Fifth Avenue home and would see him with his legal pads, wearing a jacket — he was a formal man — his feet up on an ottoman, glasses at the tip of his nose.
Price: He was fascinated by the fine points of policymaking. He was addicted.
Chapin: He was completely engaged. I was responsible for his time. I knew he wanted that time well-used. A huge part of his calendar was ‘thinking time.’ It would not be minutes in his case but hours.
Of course, the popular reputation of Nixon is of a man who was a schemer, not a dreamer, a political figure animated by resentments. The two men addressed that perception from their own vantage points, close to the man.
Price, who worked as director of delegate intelligence for Nixon’s 1968 GOP rival, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York: I and millions of others thought he was so incredibly, intensely political — and that was all there was to him. That occurred to Mrs. Nixon herself.
Chapin, who witnessed Nixon in the White House from 1969 to 1973 and was perhaps his most trusted aide: He could be very judgmental very quickly. If Nixon were dealing with foreign policy, he could give you an incredible perspective.
If the matter was personal, it was much harder for him to deal with. He managed that less efficiently as a human being than things more global and politically oriented. That was one of the problems with Watergate. His line was: Here they come again. They were, in fact, coming after him.
His enemies were real. There was built-up anger and resentment. He viewed Watergate as a personal attack. He viewed it politically, not legally, though there were illegal things done.
Price: I never heard any swearing, or the really bilious, hateful stuff. Len Garment [a Nixon law partner and White House counsel] would tell you he had a bright angel on one shoulder and a dark angel on the other shoulder.
Chapin: The tapes with “expletive deleted” were like 3% of the tapes. That’s supposed to represent 100% of what this man was all about?
And how has Donald Trump’s presidency changed Nixon’s image?
Price, who didn’t vote for Trump either time: I think a big percentage of Americans would like to get back to issues, which is what Nixon was all about.
Chapin, who voted for Trump twice but dreads his return: Trump has caused people to see all political figures differently. Nixon is so different from Trump. Shooting from the hip was not a Nixon specialty. He was more inhibited by the grace of his upbringing than the Trump of free-wheeling New York real-estate and his ‘Lone Ranger’ demeanor. Nixon wasn’t built that way. And Nixon was a student of history.
Price: Nixon was like an appellate-court judge who has read the briefs and is listening to the oral arguments. That’s not Trump.
Both men, along with astronaut Frank Borman, Nixon aides H.R. Haldeman and Roger Ailes, and a press officer, were in the Oval Office with the president when he telephoned the Apollo astronauts on the moon.
Price: This was something John Kennedy started, so it had to be politically managed so it didn’t appear Nixon was trying to preempt Kennedy.
Chapin, who canceled a date to join the White House viewing group: It was a time in my life and in the life of the country when it seemed as if it were America’s moment in the world in a benign way.
But Chapin’s most poignant remarks came not at lunch but in a letter he wrote to his daughters nearly five decades ago, telling them that his real guilt in the Watergate period was that “I did an injustice to our system of government,” adding, “Not only did I interfere with the free elective process, worse yet, through that act I added to the cynical attitude many Americans have toward politics.”
Chapin was imprisoned after denying knowledge of Donald Segretti’s “dirty tricks” in the 1972 presidential campaign. The cynical attitude he referenced in his letter has become a permanent feature of our politics. That, above all, is the tragedy of the Watergate period, and of our own time.