I was a cityside reporter for the Tribune in 1962 when Nixon was defeated in his race for governor of California. He then held that fascinating, so-called farewell press conference in which he promised never again to run for public office. "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore," he said bitterly to the reporters.
Several days after this, I was sitting at my typewriter in the city room when I was summoned to the center of the newsroom, where the Tribune editor, W.D. Maxwell, sat with his top assistants every evening to pick out the stories that would run on the front page.
Maxwell was then one of the most powerful men in American journalism. He loved hobnobbing with figures like Nixon and Billy Graham and marching them through the city room on his arm. Maxwell smoked big cigars and was always expensively dressed and frequently played the drums in Rush Street pubs after closing hours.
Nixon, he told me, was spending the night in Chicago. He dispatched me to Nixon's hotel room with the message: "Don't worry, Mr. Nixon, the Chicago Tribune will always be in your corner." You may wonder today at the effrontery of such a message. At that time, however, the Trib ran a line on the top of the front page every day that proclaimed it "The World's Greatest Newspaper." There was never any lack of self-confidence at the Tribune Tower.
Nixon was pleased to hear Maxwell's message of good will. He invited me into his suite and one of his aides brought me a Scotch and water. I remember how amazed I was at all of this. I was seeing a side of the newspaper business I never knew existed. For what seemed an interminable time, Nixon intensely pursued the topic of the Chicago Cubs and the tragedy of Ernie Banks trapped on a losing team. He always prided himself on his expertise in sports. Later, when he went to Washington, D.C., he often suggested plays for George Allen, the coach of the Washington Redskins.
As I was leaving, Nixon walked me to the door. Now he spoke what was really on his mind.
"I suppose that bastard Dick Daley still controls the vote in this town, eh?" Nixon managed a mirthless smile. He always believed his 1960 presidential race against JFK had been "stolen" from him in Chicago by Mayor Daley's army of Democratic precinct captains. In this instance, I believe Nixon was right.
One of the most fascinating books ever written about him was Gary Wills' Nixon Agonistes.
Wills also wrote a piece on Nixon for the Sunday New York Times, attempting to explain what he called "the small thuggeries" with which Nixon was so often associated as president and campaigner.
"He wanted tough guys around him to even the odds," Wills wrote. "He stiffened his own efforts at malice by gazing on the natural vindictiveness of John Mitchell or Charles Colson. . . . The division between his natural sweetness and this diligently acquired meanness is what made Mr. Nixon so fascinating. It was symbolized in his famously uncoordinated gestures. No sooner had he made some large free motion with his right hand than his left hand twitched in some furtive swipe at a foe."
Frank Rich, former drama critic of the Times, wrote that Nixon "was a giant, right up there with Billy the Kid, Citizen Kane and Moby Dick. . . . No wonder he drove major writers like Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and Robert Coover to imaginative feats. Reading Gore Vidal on Nixon is like reading Shaw on Shakespeare."
Rich quoted Vidal's well-known passage:
"In Nixon we are able to observe our faults larger than life. He turned being a Big Loser into a perfect triumph by managing to lose the presidency in a way bigger and more original than anyone else had ever lost it before."
No one ever succeeded in fully explaining Nixon, although many tried.
Perhaps Nixon did it best himself. Shortly after Watergate, he summoned Ken Clawson, one of his publicists, to come out to San Clemente to work for him. As Clawson tells the tale, there was a day when Nixon was slowed by a bout with phlebitis and sat with his legs propped up on his desk and talked. Here is how Clawson recounted it for the Washington Post in 1979:
"They'll never give us credit," Nixon said. "They try to stomp us, you know, kick us when we're down. They'll never let up, never, because we would have changed it all, changed it so they couldn't put it back in a hundred years.