Thirty-five years ago this month, Richard Nixon visited Nantucket Island and gave a pretty good demonstration of how a disgraced ex-President runs a reputation rehabilitation campaign. Plenty of high-level politicians have come to Nantucket since then, largely to empty the pockets of wealthy donors at private fundraisers or to pose for pictures of themselves windsurfing off Brant Point (I’m talking to you John Kerry), but few have put on the performance that Nixon did on September 13, 1980, just six years after he’d resigned as president in the wake of the Watergate debacle.
I was a young, callow reporter at the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror then, more acquainted with covering selectmen than presidents, and I was a little out of my league with national politicians. In fact, I almost missed the whole thing. September 13 was a Saturday and I was home working on another story. The news that Nixon was coming to visit Nantucket was all over the radio and newspapers, but no one would tell me when or where. The local police had obviously been sworn to secrecy by the Secret Service and after a fruitless morning trying to track down the rumor I gave up, assuming that Nixon would sneak into town and be whisked off to a private estate.
So I was surprised when the local correspondent for the Cape Cod Times called me about 3:00 p.m. and said that Nixon was on a yacht at Swain’s Wharf and that I should get down there as soon as possible. It says a lot about the closeness of the Nantucket media fraternity in 1980 that an erstwhile competitor would help me out like that.
In any event, I rushed to the waterfront and sure enough, there was a big crowd at one of the docks waiting to see if Nixon was going to emerge in the flesh. I later learned that Nixon and his pals Bebe Rebozo and Robert Abplanap had cruised over from Martha’s Vineyard on Abplanap’s 115-foot yacht Star Mist and that they were headed back later that night because there were no available hotel rooms on the island for Nixon’s Secret Service agents.
Nixon and Rebozo did eventually materialize, walking down the dock and into the crowd. It surprised me that the spectators were as excited to see Nixon as they would have been in a solidly Republican state. They actually applauded. Even K. Dun Gifford, the well-known Kennedy aide, made it a point to reach out his hand and warmly say, “Welcome to Nantucket Mr. President.”
What I didn’t realize then but have since learned is that people are always excited to see celebrities – even disgraced ones. Nixon worked the crowd like an experienced politician, shaking hands and offering benign conversational tidbits. At one point he passed a tourist on a payphone who yelled out that Nixon had to say hello to his wife because she didn’t believe he was there. After asking the wife’s name Nixon took the receiver and said, “Hello Betty? Who’s this woman your husband’s with?” Uproarious laughter. You’d have thought Bob Hope himself had delivered the punchline.
There was only one bit of heckling. Some guy started yelling, “Where’s Checkers? Where’s Checkers?” (As a vice presidential candidate in 1952 Nixon had made a famous television appeal called “The Checkers Speech” in which he defended himself against allegations that he’d accepted gifts from welcome donors. The speech mawkishly culminated with Nixon saying that his daughters had been given a pet dog called Checkers and that no matter what anyone said, they were going to keep Checkers. You had to be there.) Nixon seemed unfazed and simply said to the heckler, in all apparent seriousness, “Checkers died in 1964. Cocker spaniels don’t live long you know.”
Here I am checking my camera while the big guy heads to his motorcade
Eventually Nixon and the gang reached the end of the wharf and approached a mini-motorcade. We reporters approached the driver of one of the cars – Randy Norris, then a sergeant and eventually the police chief – and asked if we could come along. To my surprise he said yes, and also to my surprise, already sitting in the front seat was the Boston Globe photographer Stan Grossfeld, who would go on to win two Pulitzer Prizes, although not for this assignment.
Eventually we formed a five-car motorcade. Altogether there were eight secret service agents, two police sergeants, one state trooper and us three reporters. Apparently the point of this excursion was to show Nixon a bit of the island, but since this had been thrown together at the last minute, there was no plan. Eventually Randy radioed ahead to the lead driver that he should head up Main Street past the Three Bricks, then loop back past the Old Mill and then drive out to the eastern end of the island, called Siasconset.
As we motored out on the ‘Sconset Road (at 35 miles per hour for some reason) I realized that Bebe Rebozo had peeled off at some point and that Nixon was sitting by himself in the back of his car, which was being driven by two Secret Service agents. It’s hard to imagine any other major politician being satisfied sitting alone just staring out the window – at the very least they should have grabbed a local official as a tour guide – but that was Nixon the loner in a nutshell.
When we got out to Sankaty Light in Siasconset everyone hopped out of their cars and starting strolling down the Sconset Bluff Walk. Thanks to years of erosion, most of this foot path no longer exists but at the time you could walk from Sankaty Lighthouse all the way to Siasconset Center along a beautiful high bluff. Nixon was particularly taken with the walk, later saying it reminded him of the California beaches he was more familiar with.
Eventually Nixon noticed that Stan and I were taking pictures of each other, trying to photobomb ourselves into photos of him and he motioned for us to approach and take actual posed pictures. So I took a picture of Stan and Nixon and he took a picture of me and Nixon. This also offered an opportunity for a chat. Everything that people always said about him was true – he mostly wanted to talk about sports. He was hopeful that the Houston Astros would make it into the play-offs that year so that Nolan Ryan would have a shot at a World Series appearance. He knew the Red Sox had a history of bad pitching. He was not optimistic about the Redskins’ chance in the upcoming season. Stan then asked him about the upcoming 1980 presidential election and he correctly predicted that Reagan would beat Carter.
After the Bluff stroll we all piled back into our cars and headed back into town, ostensibly so he could buy a pipe and some tobacco at the Tobacco Shop on Old North Wharf. But he also strolled up and down Main Street, posing for photos, making chit chat with tourists and generally causing a mini-sensation. In retrospect this was clearly part of his carefully calibrated strategy to rebuild his reputation. Along with writing books and advising politicians behind the scenes, public events such as these man-of-the-people promenades eventually did lead to his evolution as an elder statesman; and when he died in 1994, all the living former presidents except the ill Reagan attended his funeral, which was shown live on TV.
Yet in my brief exposure to him, even I could tell that he was one of the most unnatural politicians we’ve ever seen. Clearly an introvert, he repeatedly fell back on formulaic discussion topics. He seemed stiff, particularly in his get-up. To stroll the island, including the Siasconset Bluff, he was dressed in a blue-grey sports jacket, a maroon turtleneck, blue slacks and cordovan loafers, an outfit more suitable for “dress down Friday” at IBM than a weekend tour of Nantucket.
At the end of his stroll he told us he’d like to bring “Mrs. Nixon” back to Nantucket because he thought she’d enjoy the shopping, but after a dinner at the Chanticleer and a 10:00 p.m. return trip to Martha’s Vineyard, he never set foot on the island again.
Some post-mortem observations.
- In the days after Nixon’s visit I dutifully tracked down as many details as I could, but wasn’t exactly Woodward and Bernstein about it. For example, instead of calling the Chanticleer directly and asking about the meal, I relied on the second hand account of someone who knew a waiter who had told her that Nixon ate pheasant pate, Nantucket scallops and a Grand Marnier soufflé, drank Chateaux Margeaux ’59 at $180 per bottle and was happy to have Bebe Rebozo put the $900 meal on his credit card. Were those details accurate? No one contradicted them.
- In my newspaper piece I wrote that I couldn’t tell whether the “Checkers” heckler was drunk or obnoxious. The next week the heckler himself sent a “Letter to the Editor” claiming that we’d maligned him and that his heckling was justified because Nixon was a war criminal, etc. The letter was accompanied by a drawing of a standing pig wearing a jacket and making Nixon’s “V for Victory” sign. The letter was signed by Richard Scarry. Yes, that Richard Scarry, the children’s author! We didn’t print the drawing, which some thought was disrespectful but which I thought was funny. It’s one of my great regrets that I never kept and framed that drawing.
- Four years later, I found myself working in the Reagan White House myself, and when I told my Nixon story to one of the researchers in the speechwriters’ office, she said that they were in touch with Nixon because he was constantly sending in thematic suggestions for Reagan’s speeches. She volunteered to get him to sign the photo of the two of us that Stan Grossfeld had taken on the Bluff, which she did. That autographed photo still hangs on my office wall.
- About 15 years ago while my family was vacationing on Nantucket, we noticed that Stan Grossfeld and Dan Shaughnessy, the Globe sportswriter, were having a talk at the Unitarian Church, so off we went to see them. Stan showed many of his moving photos of starving refugees, his remarkable sports photos and many other beautiful shots. There were even a few photos of Nantucket, including the picture of him and Nixon, which got a laugh. After the talk I went up and reintroduced myself as the photographer of the one picture he had not taken himself. He claimed to remember me and made a big deal of remarking to my son that he was “big fan” of mine. What a nice thing to say, although my son was probably too young to know what a compliment it was to be praised by Stan Grossfeld.
Last August when my wife and I were on Nantucket, we picked up the Inquirer & MIrror and saw a short notice that Hillary Clinton was having a fundraiser on the Eel Point Road, but would make no public appearances. How things have changed in 35 years! After decades of having presidents, veeps and other politicians visiting Nantucket, an appearance from the leading Democratic candidate was just another ho hum. These days it would probably take a visit from Pope Francis or Queen Elizabeth – or maybe Kim Kardashian herself – to generate the kind of attention that Nixon did in 1980. I kind of miss those more innocent days.