Ask me anything... within reason
Richard Nixon campaigns in Westchester County, NY with his wife Pat on October 24, 1972, forty years ago today, the day I heckled the President of the United States. At the time, I was a middle-school student volunteering every afternoon volunteering for Nixon’s Democratic opponent George McGovern, who died Sunday, at his Yonkers, NY headquarters.
Nixon’s appearance in Yonkers was big excitement for us all. We walked the short distance down the hillfrom McGovern’s campaign office on South Broadway to Getty Square, where Nixon’s motorcade was due. On the way we passed the Nixon office, wide open and unattended. In we swarmed, grabbing leaflets and memorabilia like these “Nixon Now” buttons, some of which would be worth more if I hadn’t defaced them by erasing the final “w.”
Down at Getty Square, we hecklers crowded into an area where we thought we’d have a prime view of Nixon and his entourage, and cried foul when some vans were parked blocking us. We stood for what seemed like hours in the darkening chill, as music blared over loudspeakers.
I got to know our group: one protester was a middle-aged Irish woman, holding a sign she read aloud to a reporter in a thick brogue: “Nixon has Irrrish blood on his dorrrty hands.” A young black man entertained us by singing along to the pop music, altering the chorus of Jim Croce’s “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” to “You don’t mess around with McGovern.” Other songs played: Three Dog Night’s “Black And White,” Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now.”
After a lengthy wait, the motorcade arrived, a series of open cars with New York’s top Republicans: Attorney General Louie Lefkowitz, Lt. Gov. Malcolm Wilson, then Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Rocky smiled and waved at us until he got a load of our McGovern signs and heard the booing — I’ll never forget the sight of his jaw as it dropped in shock. As the newspaper account indicates, McGovern signs outnumbered those for Nixon.
Then we saw him — Richard Milhous Nixon, standing through the open-roofed car with Pat. A giant of the 20th century, however you slice it. The dominant figure of my life in politics. I’d mourned his 1968 victory, when I was ten, joined the antiwar protests starting in 1969, written him a long angry letter after Kent State in 1970 — but I was also fascinated with him. I spent hours poring over a sympathetic Earl Mazo biography published in when he was vice president in the late 50s (since updated). He was corrupt and slimy, and a demagogue of the right, but he had his humanistic qualities. Truly a figure worthy of Shakespeare.
And there he was, in the flesh. I can’t remember, but I’m sure I booed at the top of my lungs along with the rest of our contingent. If only we’d known the Watergate crimes he was already concealing!
It was quite a political year for me, 1972: in April I’d marched with John and Yoko against the Vietnam War; in July, still 13, I had a letter published in the local paper calling for communist victory in Vietnam; that fall, I threw myself into McGovern’s campaign, only to be crushed on election night. And since then I’ve been pretty much crushed on cue, every four years, with a few exceptions — hopefully 2012 will be one of them.
But despite decades of bitter defeats for many other heroes of mine — Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton — I’ll always have those few seconds 40 years ago today when, as a 14-year-old, I let Richard Nixon know just how I felt about him and his war, in person.