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.



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.

The relationship between baseball and presidents of the United States has been well documented; in fact, there is a room devoted to the subject at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. The earliest association seems to be with Abraham Lincoln and it is most graphically represented by this Currier & Ives political cartoon, published in 1860, after Lincoln had outlasted three opponents to win the presidency. Lincoln is saying, “Gentleman, if ever you should take a hand in another match at this game, remember that you must have a good bat to strike a fair ball and make a clean score and a home run.”


How close Lincoln was to the game seems to be a matter of debate, but it is documented that his successor, Andrew Johnson, was the first president to witness an intra-city game and the first president to invite a baseball team into the White House. Among his papers are several honorary membership cards in baseball organizations.

Another president who had a particular connection to baseball was Dwight Eisenhower, who loved the game and said more than once that he would have liked to have played professionally. There is a lingering discussion about whether he did, in fact, once play semi-pro ball under an assumed name — something that would have fouled the amateur status under which he played football at West Point. A number of prominent witnesses said that Eisenhower had admitted to this in later life, but Eisenhower never publicly owned up to it.


Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor has looked into the subject of presidents and football — specifically, which president was the best player. The candidates are Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan.

Even after one gets over the image of Nixon playing football, the answer isn’t as obvious as it may seem.

If you can’t guess, you can read about it at THIS LINK.



The AARP recently pointed out in its monthly bulletin that President Richard Nixon in 1972 proposed a health-care reform program that was shot out of the sky, with U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy wielding one of the guns.

“Nixon’s plan,” editor Jim Toedtman wrote, “required employers to provide health care insurance for their employees. It provided federal subsidies for the poor and created rural health clinics and a network of state committees to set industry standards, guarantee basic coverage and coordinate insurance for the self-employed. In the process, it would have extended health care coverage to almost all Americans.”



According to Toedtman’s commentary, Kennedy told the Boston Globe earlier this year that Nixon’s initiative was a “missed opportunity” and that, “We should have jumped on it.”

Should have. What were the chances that a Democrat, and a Kennedy at that, would support a sweeping program like that coming from Nixon? Ted Kennedy had his own ideas about health-care reform, and the twain never met. As a result, 37 years later, the problems perceived with health care then — cost and accessibility — are exponentially worse, partisanship still trumps the general welfare, and fundamental reform is no more likely, no matter what bill Congress may pass.

Nixon, meanwhile — if he can hear the debate from where he reposes — is probably as surprised as anyone to learn from his own party that he was a socialist.



I’ve stayed as far away from the Octomom story as one can get while remaining on this planet. Still, I felt uncomfortably close when I stumbled over a photo in the Los Angeles Times. It shows a display mounted on the outside wall of a Volkswagen parts business in Whittier, Calif., where Nadya Suleman lived until recently. (It’s something on the subject of my distance from this story that I learned the woman’s name for the first time today. For real.)

The item in the Times reads, in part, as follows:

Back in February, the world’s media converged on Whittier hoping to get a glimpse of octuplets mother Nadya Suleman and her 14 children.

There, drivers can’t help but chuckle at a display owners Ralph and Diva Chase have set up. Mounted on the wall of the building is half a grabber-blue 1969 Volkswagen Beetle. Inside, a black-hair mannequin — respectfully named Teri, not Nadya —  is sitting with her legs crossed and is surrounded by babies. A box of diapers sits on the bug’s roof.

Ralph Chase said his 22-year-old niece, Jenna White, put the display together, meant as a tribute to Suleman and her mark on Whittier.  “She’s Teri’s stylist,” he joked.

They sometimes change Teri’s clothes to freshen her look, and some people have come by to donate clothes for the display.

What caught me up short was the blue Beetle. See, I drive a blue Beetle. It’s not a ’69; it’s a ’99 with more than 167,000 miles on it, but from a distance it looks uncomfortably like the one Teri and the kids are sitting in.



So this is “a tribute to Suleman and her mark on Whittier.” It got me to wondering, if I were to sacrifice my Beetle to commemorate someone’s mark on Whittier, whom do I envision beaming out from behind the wheel. Oscar de la Hoya? Nomar Garciaparra? Andy Etchebarren? Eric Stoltz? Or – should I even say it? – That Man who, the tapes tell us, wanted to “destroy” Thomas Eagleton – “pipsqueak that he is”?

I have to go with Andy Etchebarren. He was the last player to bat against Sandy Koufax – and he hit into a double play. That seems about right.

Put ‘er there, pal.

April 21, 2009




Former Vice President Dick Cheney thinks President Obama has sent the wrong message by traveling to Europe and Latin America and suggesting that the United States is rethinking its recent foreign policies. Cheney said last night that Obama needs to distinguish more clearly between “the good guys and the bad guys,” which I learned to do when I was 10 years old playing cops and robbers with Mike and Joe Pellegrino. That’s how we think when we’re 10.

Cheney is dismissing what we learned from Richard Nixon, that pretending that your adversaries and critics don’t exist (Cheney said the Bush administration’s policy was to “ignore” Hugo Chavez) is seldom productive. Cheney didn’t like that Obama shook hands with Chavez. Nixon shook hands with Zhou Enlai because China’s fall-out with the Soviets created an opportunity for the U.S. with respect to both countries, and, I suppose, because Henry Kissinger’s earlier snub of the Chinese premier had gained the United States nothing. The old “good guy-bad guy” model seldom works. And the idea that Cheney casts himself and his kind as the “good guys”  in this world is exactly the kind of hubris that causes more trouble than it solves.