Nixon and Rocky


By Sam Garfield

Sept. 24, 1952

(Chicago) –Politics and boxing, a couple of vicious sports where timing is everything. And I was caught in the middle.

It was a tense Tuesday night for me. You see, I had a ticket to view the Rocky Marciano-Jersey Joe Walcott title fight on closed circuit TV at 9:30. But I was committed to watch Senator Richard Nixon, who had his own fight on his hands, on television at 8:30. I hoped Nixon would be brief so I could drive downtown to the movie house and make the opening bell for the Marciano-Walcott slugfest. (Yes, I had a few nickels on Rocky.)

Nixon and Marciano, I’ve never written those names in the same sentence before. But driving back home after watching Rocky slug his way to the title, I realized Nixon and Marciano really have a lot in common. They’re both sluggers, and they each found the biggest punch of their careers on the same night.

Nixon, accused of having a political slush fund financed by California millionaires, was trying to hold the Vice Presidential slot on the Republican ticket. GOP advisers had called for him to step down; even Dwight Eisenhower’s support of Nixon was tepid at best. But Nixon had always been able to take a punch and deliver one, too. We all saw how he attacked actress-turned-Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas in the 1950 fight for the Senate. Nixon, who gained a reputation as a Red-baiter when he first ran for Congress in ’46, referred to his opponent as the “Pink Lady…pink down to her underwear.”

But Nixon’s previous battles were mere undercard bouts. This “slush fund” drama not only threatened his Vice Presidential chances…but it could cast a shadow over his future plans for an even higher office. He decided to take his plight directly to the American people. Go on TV, the same place where Lucy and Uncle Miltie do their thing.

Regarding this fund –$18,000– it’s not illegal, if Nixon doesn’t profit directly from it. After his Senate victory in ’50, his supporters continued to raise money for Nixon’s political career…to pay for expenses like postage and travel. “I have never received one penny of this fund for my person use,” Nixon said. His opponents, of course, taunted him with the disclosure of this fund, but Nixon claimed they were just trying to get him to “lay off” his attacks on “crooks and Communists,” but that they “won’t get away with it.’

So how did this fund reveal itself to the public? Here’s one interesting theory. During the Republican convention this summer Nixon promised to support California’s “favorite son” candidate, Governor Earl Warren, who had tried hard to win the presidential nomination. Warren failed, and his backers claimed Nixon doubled-crossed the California delegation by working secretly to nominate Eisenhower. Many political observers believe a disgruntled member of the California delegation leaked the “slush fund” story to the press.

So, while Rocky Marciano was having his hands wrapped in Philadelphia in preparation for his chance at the heavyweight title, Richard Nixon arrived at the El Capitan Theater in Los Angeles. He stopped briefly to chat with an enthusiastic group of Young Republicans who had gathered outside the theater. The group’s leader, a youngster sporting a crew cut by the name of H.R. Haldeman, led the cheering.

From the opening bell, Nixon was on his game. He knew the magic of television. The televised setting was a comfortable den, with a desk, two chairs and bookshelves. His wife, Pat, sat in an easy chair on the set. His customary prepared text was scrapped in favor of note cards to make the talk seem more spontaneous. He looked straight into the camera and stayed on message: “Every penny of it (fund) was used to pay for political expenses that I did not think should be charged to the taxpayers of the United States.” He asked rhetorical questions and gave clean, concise answers, including his family’s humble financial position: “We live rather modestly”…while the camera focused on Pat Nixon, sitting in a comfortable chair, her hands resting on her lap.

Nixon’s talk started with his denial that this fund was for his personal use…but I think his speech will be remembered for his candor when speaking of his middle-class status: …a mortgaged home in California (occupied by his parents)…another mortgaged home in Washington…outstanding loans to his parents…no insurance on his wife or two daughters…a two-year-old Oldsmobile…no stocks or bonds.

He continued that theme, saying “…every dime that we’ve got is honestly ours. I should say this –that Pat doesn’t have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat. And I always tell her that she’d look good in anything.”

He also saved the best –some say maudlin– for last. He admitted to having accepted a gift from a supporter. “You know what it was? It was a little cocker spaniel dog…black and white spotted. And our little girl –Tricia, the six-year-old– named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”

That’s when I looked at my watch; I still had time if I hurried. Traffic on the Outer Drive was light; I parked in an alley off State Street and got into the theater just as Rocky and Jersey Joe entered the ring. It didn’t look good for Rocky –and me. It looked like Nixon would be the only winner on this night. Walcott floored Rocky in the first round and led throughout the match But, in the thirteenth round, Rocky’s “Suzie Q” landed square on the champ’s jaw. Walcott slumped over the ropes…dazed…and the world had a new champion.

In Los Angeles, television had a new star. And crew-cut youngsters like H.R. Haldeman had a new hero.

Copyright © 2012. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.

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