NIXON AT THE KEYBOARD

NIXON AT THE KEYBOARD

There is a scene in a PBS documentary about Jack Paar that illustrates as well as anything why William Shakespeare would have loved Richard Nixon.

The scene comes from a 1963 episode of Paar’s groundbreaking talk show. Nixon, since leaving the vice presidency, had lost elections for president and for governor of California, but for a two-time loser, he was in a good mood — one might say light-hearted, a term not often associated with RMN.

Paar reminds the audience of something that was widely known at the time, namely that Nixon was a piano player. Paar also explained, to Nixon’s obvious amusement, that Nixon had also written some music for the piano and that his wife had made recordings of him playing his own tunes.

Paar said that bandleader Jose Meles had used one of those recordings to write an arrangement to back up one of Nixon’s compositions, and  Paar asked Nixon to take to the keyboard.

JOHN F. KENNEDY and NIXON

JOHN F. KENNEDY and NIXON

Before complying, Nixon noted that Paar had asked earlier about Nixon’s political ambition.  “If last November didn’t finish it, this will,” Nixon said, “because — believe me — the Republicans don’t want another piano player in the White House,” a reference to Harry S. Truman whose musical virtuosity was about on the same level as Nixon’s.

When I saw this incident on a PBS documentary about Paar, I thought about what a complex creature a human being is, and I thought about that again when I read Don Fulsom’s book, Nixon’s Darkest Secrets. Considering the depth and breadth of Nixon’s corruption and paranoia, I wouldn’t have thought it possible for a writer to do a hatchet job on the old trickster, but Don Fulsom has managed it.

On paper, at least, Fulsom has some credentials to be writing about this subject. He covered the White House and was Washington bureau chief for United Press International, which once upon a time was a viable news agency. Having been a journalist myself for more than 40 years, I would have expected a writer with Fulsom’s resumé, producing a book this long after Nixon’s death, to provide some insight into the whole man. As deeply immersed in muck as he was, after all, Nixon didn’t spend his whole time drinking himself blotto, assaulting people who annoyed him, beating his wife, raking in dough through his bag men, or plotting to have people like Jack Anderson killed.

And while his administration was forever besmirched by his prolongation of the Vietnam war and his order for the secret and murderous bombing of Cambodia, it was productive in many ways, including creation of the Occupational and Health Safety Administration , the National Endowment on the Arts, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Nixon approved the first significant step toward a federal affirmative action program. And Nixon — as probably only he could have — altered the course of modern history by changing the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union and China.

Although Fulsom has riffled through some of the more recently released documents about Nixon, he hasn’t contributed anything to our understanding by recounting in nauseating detail the depravities of the man’s life. We get it. He was a sleaze. But he was also this other guy. This guy with a remarkable grasp of foreign affairs. This guy who supported a lot of moderate initiatives. And this guy who played the piano. And from this distance, that’s what’s so fascinating about him.

Look for Fulsom’s book with the scandal rags at the checkout counter. Shakespeare would have told the whole story.

You can see Nixon playing the piano on Jack Paar’s show by clicking HERE.

When I was a grad student at Penn State, former President Dwight Eisenhower visited the campus. It wasn’t a public event; he was speaking to a group of students from State College High School. But I was working in the public information office and found out about it and simply walked into Waring Hall at the appointed time. It was 1964 — a different era. Nobody asked who I was.

Eisenhower had been out of office for about four years. He was 74 and had suffered heart attacks and a stroke. Still, he stood at the edge of the stage with his head high and his shoulders back — in short, with the military bearing long associated with him. He encouraged those kids to take an interest in civic affairs and not to expect other folks to do all the work either inside or outside of government.

Eisenhower had been an iconic figure in our house,  both because of his role in World War II and because he had kept the presidency out of Democratic hands for eight years.

Some of the family’s faith in Ike was well placed, even given the straight party-line mentality, but of course he was more complicated than he was portrayed around our place.

And, in fact, the Dwight Eisenhower that Jim Newton describes in Eisenhower: The White House Years is a complicated guy. While he was still in office, especially during his second term, he was often lampooned as an absentee president who golfed while the Soviets and Chinese plotted to conquer the world.

While it’s true that Eisenhower tried to fit golf and bridge into  his routine, that characterization seemed ludicrous at the time, and Newton demonstrates well that it was fantasy. He shows that, on balance, Eisenhower’s administration, which kept the United States out of a shooting war for eight years, launched the interstate highway system and the St. Lawrence Seaway, and left the country with its last budget surplus until 1999, was an overall success.

Newton doesn’t discuss this in detail in this book, but Eisenhower’s achievements as supreme allied commander in Europe during  World War II were in a significant way due  to his firm but understated command as well as his personal diplomacy as he coordinated military officers and heads of state who had little or nothing in common except an enemy.

Similar qualities came into play when Eisenhower took on the presidency. He wasn’t inclined to the grand gesture, and his credo was what he called “the middle way,” meaning that on any issue he looked for the ground that was equidistant from extremes on either right or left.

Meanwhile, while Ike might have seemed like a man obsessed with cutting down on his slice, he was engaging in intense discussions concerning the  rising belligerence of the Soviets and Chinese, more  than once talking his military brass out of resorting to nuclear weapons. He was also  overseeing covert activities undertaken by the CIA to overthrow foreign governments whose behavior was perceived as inimical to American interests — Iran and Guatemala among them. Eisenhower also made flight-by-flight decisions about high altitude surveillance of the USSR, and his administration was embarrassed when one of the planes was shot down and the pilot captured.

From our perspective, two of the most disappointing things about Eisenhower were his unwillingness to take the lead on civil rights for black citizens and his public silence about the demagoguery of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Eisenhower was content with the concept of “separate but equal,” and he was unhappy with the Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs the Board of Education. When the Board of Education in Little Rock, Arkansas, decided to obey the spirit of that ruling by admitting nine black teenagers to Central High School, there was immediately a crisis of authority as Gov. Orval Faubus, the Arkansas National Guard, and a howling white mob prevented the kids from entering. Eisenhower tried to finesse the problem  by summoning Faubus  to Washington and bargaining with him, but Faubus double-crossed Ike by withdrawing both the National Guard and himself from the scene. So Eisenhower was forced to do something distasteful to him, sending members of the 101st Airborne Division, with bayonets fixed, to escort the students into the school.

Eisenhower didn’t say or do anything publicly about McCarthy’s paranoid campaign of terror against real and imagined communists until the senator overreached and directed his venom at the U.S. Army. Then the president issued an order forbidding employees of the executive department from providing evidence to McCarthy’s committee.

Eisenhower’s reticence concerning McCarthy extended to the point that Ike let McCarthy pillory Gen. George Marshall, Ike’s mentor and possibly the man he most admired. Eisenhower ostensibly regretted that for the rest of his life, but the damage had been done.

Newton probably is a little easy on Eisenhower, but if he is, he’s easy on a man who led one of the most unselfish and productive lives of public service in American history, a life untouched by the personal and professional corruption and the blind partisanship that has affected major figures in American history before and after him.

The motto of Eisenhower’s election campaign — “I like Ike” — was particularly apt. He had his flaws as we all do, but the quality of his public service flowed to a large extent from his character: He was a nice man.

Spencer Tracy got away with playing the same character a lot of the time, and with good reason: It worked. A case in point is his role in the 1951 comedy Father’s Little Dividend, which was a sequel to Father of the Bride. 

Tracy plays Stanley Banks, a suburbanite who looks forward to forging a new kind of life with his wife, Ellie (Joan Bennett), now that their three children are grown. He’s especially thinking about travel — Europe, maybe, or the beach at Waikiki. This dream is disrupted by the announcement that the Banks’ daughter, Kay Dunstan (Elizabeth Taylor), is pregnant.

Ellie is delighted with this news, but Stanley is worried, depressed, and angry. He correctly suspects that first the pregnancy and then the baby will absorb Ellie’s attention to the exclusion of all other things. He also dislikes the prospects of being a grandfather, because he doesn’t like confronting his age.

The pregnancy, as pregnancies will, proceeds with or without Stanley’s endorsement. Meanwhile Ellie becomes increasingly irritated by Kay’s in-laws, who seem determined to take control of every aspect of the baby’s life, including its name and the decor of its nursery.

JOAN BENNETT

To complicate matters further, Kay leaves her husband whom she suspects of having an affair, and Ellie is distraught over the obstetrician’s theories, apparently revolutionary in 1951, about a mother being totally awake during childbirth and bonding immediately with her infant.

This film, which was shot in 22 days, was directed by Vincente Minelli. It’s typical of the style of the times, including the overdressed actors. (I was old enough in 1951 that I can testify that men did not wear suits to do everything but sleep and have sex.) It’s also thoroughly entertaining in the way of the comedies of that period, no little thanks to the irresistible Spencer Tracy. For anyone who has seen neither film, it might be fun to watch Father of the Bride first, but it’s not necessary in order to appreciate the sequel.

MARIETTA CANTY An image that is perhaps too typical of the time is the black maid, in this case Delilah, played by Marietta Canty. She appeared in more than 40 films — including Rebel without a Cause, The Spoilers, and Father of the Bride — mostly in this kind of role and often without receiving credit. Like her colleagues, she braved the criticism often directed at black actors who accepted such parts and conducted herself with skill and dignity. She retired from show business in the late 1950s. She was a political and social activist for the next three decades. She was also a nurse and a justice of the peace. Her home in Hartford, Connecticut, is on the National Registry of Historic Sites.

SPENCER TRACY and ELIZABETH TAYLOR