Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Part II of How African Americans Came to Love Nixon and Percy in 1964.

This is the second part of a series begun yesterday wherein Charles H. Percy sought to overcome the disadvantage of running for governor of Illinois in 1964, the same year Barry Goldwater ran for president. It led to a masterstroke of an idea: the recruitment of Richard Nixon to come to the state to stump with Percy, which led to my being sent to New York city to meet with the former vice president to plan the two-day swing.

Well, of course, as this thing was supposed to be in my hands, I couldn’t wait to get to New York city to meet with the great man. I flew in, grabbed lunch at Oscar’s of the Waldorf and kept the appointment at the firm of Mudge, Stern, Baldwin & Todd at 20 Broad street at 3 p.m. (its name would change putting Nixon’s name up front as soon as he would qualify to practice law in New York). Armed with a highway map of Illinois, I entered the walnut-paneled offices, asked at the reception desk for Mr. Nixon and was ushered through a series of rooms. Finally I arrived at the desk of Rosemary Woods who was at her electric typewriter, a scene I recalled many years later when she showed the media how it was entirely possible to erase a stretch of tape while she was taking dictation. (Poor thing: for her service to Nixon and humiliation to be seen stretching in an ungainly position to demonstrate how the erasure happened, I hope she is enjoying the infinite benefits of heaven).

I told her I knew her brother, Joe, the chief investigator for the Better Government Association who was running for Cook county sheriff which pleased her, and she led me through a series of inter-connecting rooms to one stately one whereupon she knocked quietly and opened the door. He was standing at his desk with his own map of Illinois. At age 51, his black hair glistening, his ski-jump nose ever-prominent, his cheeks reddened almost as if they had been rouged (which they were not), he gave up a forced

smile and waved me over to him (Miss Woods departing). He tried to pull up a chair by his desk but it was devilishly hard for him, the overstuffed chair caught up on the carpeting—so he gave it up, awkwardly and suggested we sit side by side at a coffee table. He stretched out his map on the table and said

Now this is the way I’ve got this thing figured out. Percy wants to spend two days traveling the state with me. Okay? I’ll be coming in from St. Louis and we’ll meet in East St. Louis. That’s where Percy wants to begin this thing. Do you have any idea of what East St. Louis is like?

Nope. I’m an Illinois native but I’ve never been there.

Well (laughing cynically) I have and the whole town looks like a bomb hit it. It’s the most depressing goddamn place I’ve ever seen. Now Percy wants to have a pancake breakfast there for a large number of Negroes. This at a time when Goldwater is running. We’ll be damned near killed there. Do you understand me? Don’t you agree?

Very much.

I’m going to try to get Chuck to change his mind on East St. Louis. So let’s put it aside for now. Here are the other stops I would like to do.

(And he extended his hand, a long one with sensitive fingers; as he reached across I saw a long wrist with black hair and an expensive watch—pointing expertly across the map, circling with a marking pen in addition to others, Peoria, Springfield, Decatur, Rockford and a number of Chicago suburbs. He said nothing but marked towns for a long time, seemingly fascinated while a long time passed but it made me feel uncomfortable. So I said: I see.

Now the Republicans in Illinois make one huge mistake. They always want to hold rallies in huge auditoriums especially armories where the seats stretch out in hundreds of rows. I can’t tell you the times I’ve arrived to see places half-full and the damned press outside saying yeah, that’s Nixon all right, can’t fill a hall. What I’ve told them and they finally got it right in 1960, had it wrong in `52 and `56, what I’ve told them is get me a small hall and fill it belly-to-belly so that they’re standing out in the street! That’s what I want, the picture of people lining up outside—do you get me? There’s an Eagles hall in Decatur, holds about 150 people. Off the main drag. Skip the Armory in Rockford—God, don’t use that. There’s a VFW about two blocks down. Use that. Peoria has an Elks club. If the weather’s bad in Springfield I want the thing to be held at the Leland, that’s the Republican hotel, not the St. Nick, which is a Democratic hotel. Got me?

Yes. Exactly. (He looked at me closely, his glistening black hair, spectacular nose near mine, white shirt super-starched, impeccable blue tie. No humor but intently studious. After a long time studying me, he ignored my voluble nervousness at being studied like a specimen under a microscope). He said

All right. Now about the suburbs. I don’t want to go to the North Shore—Wilmette, Winnetka. Those are trendy suburbs, getting richer, getting more liberal every year. I want to go to Elk Grove Village, Schaumburg, pitch a rally at Randhurst but not Old Orchard. Not Niles. By no means Niles: a Democratic town. I want Randhurst I think it’s called where you have people gathering anyway. On the far south side, one at Evergreen Plaza.

(A half hour later we both stood up.)

That’s as much as I can do now. You’ll be contacted by (and he gave me his name). He flies his own plane; he’s a wealthy tool-maker from L.A. My guy. He’ll be my guy on the swing-around and you’ll be Percy’s guy. Got me? Now take your map and copy the marks I’ve made. You can sit down in an office next to Rose. Okay?

Yes sir.

You don’t have to sir me. How’s Bob?

Who? Oh, Bob Stuart. He’s fine and sends his regards.

He and his Dad Doug. They don’t make Republicans like that anymore. Doug’s still going strong?

Yes and well, too.

(As he walked me to the door)

I’m damn worried about East St. Louis. I’ll talk to Chuck. If he really wants to have something there we’ll have to chance it. It’s his show, after all. Maybe Bill Stiehl will help us.


Bill Stiehl. He was my coordinator in `60, lives in Belleville. You’ll meet him.

When I got back to Illinois I decided to try to talk Percy out of East St. Louis. But nosiree! East St. Louis had to stay. He wanted to try out a new position on civil rights before a hall full of African Americans. I thought about what Nixon said. A hall plumb full of blacks in the season when Goldwater was running against LBJ? Crazyness. I decided to argue his campaign manager out of it. I talked to Tom Houser who threw up his hands, saying, “I’ve worked with this guy for six months now and when he’s got his mind made up he won’t be changed.” Tom, I said, it can’t fly. He said, a better man than you tried to change his mind: Nixon. Chuck won’t budge. I said: what do we do? He said, “well that’s why we have a smart guy like you around, isn’t it? You guys’ll have to make it fly!”

Tomorrow Part III: the Nixon guy calls and we fly the route in his small plane, him piloting me while I sit next to him, the wheel in front of me turning as he plied his to and fro, he telling me how he loved Nixon, saying that this episode would be a dry run for 1968, plying me with Nixon stories all the while interested in the pretty women Percy had on his staff.

No comments:

Post a Comment