No new postings will appear on this site until further notice

No new postings will appear on this site until further notice… while the author completes his latest manuscript. The archives will remain open. Thank you for your interest.

SHAPING the STORY: AN URBAN NOVEL. ONE CITY, ONE YEAR.  Set in 1958 Chicago, the story revolves around Sam Garfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning newspaper columnist who suddenly, at age fifty-two, is forced to take a critical look at himself and his relationships with his mentally ill twin brother, the woman he loves, and the people he writes about… the father who carries guilt because he was “catin’ ‘round, drinkin’ while pre-dawn flames killed all his six children in a tenement fire; a young, talented photographer who becomes sickened by his profession when he photographs a nun carrying a burned victim out of a burning school: “…stuck the camera right in front of that nun and snapped away…might as well been a gun.”  Garfield’s middle-aged self-discovery helps him work through past issues in his life and becomes the lens through which he approaches his newspaper columns.

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Birth of an Army

BIRTH of an ARMY

By Sam Garfield

April 7, 1958

(Augusta, Georgia)—Golf has a new champion, and the staid old game may never be the same.

Amid the Monet-like landscape of Augusta National, a brazen, brawny lad from the hill country of western Pennsylvania painted his own colorful impression of the future of professional golf this past weekend. Displaying the grit of a heavyweight boxer, Arnold Palmer, with boyish good looks, wavy, Brylcreem hair, and forearms of a blacksmith, won his first Masters title. Palmer’s body blows to the pristine golf course –with its lush, hilly fairways, slippery, canted greens and thousands and thousands of red and white and pink azaleas– created the new art of golf. Picture this:

Brazen: Sunday afternoon, Palmer arrives at the Augusta’s 12th hole, a treacherous par-three, its narrow green protected by Rae’s creek. He leads the field by one stroke. Because of prevailing swirling winds, “Golden Bell” is the toughest par-three in tournament golf, say the pros. Palmer’s tee shot sails the green and the ball plugs in the soggy turf between the putting surface and the rear bunker. He calls for a rules official and says he intends to take relief without a penalty. (The Masters is being played under wet-weather rules…meaning a plugged ball could be lifted, cleaned and dropped without penalty.) No chance, the official tells him: “You don’t do that at Augusta.” Palmer doesn’t back down; he’s going to play two balls and appeal his fate to the tournament committee. “No sir,” the official says. Palmer then hits the embedded ball with a wedge, moving it only a few inches. He chips onto the green and two putts for a double-bogey five, temporarily losing his lead. But he’s not finished. He asks his caddy for a new ball…drops it where his original ball had plugged, and makes par. Like a fighter answering the bell, he confidently walks to the 13th tee. Shocked  fans, including his playing competitor, Ken Venturi, who had trailed Palmer by a stroke, believe Palmer’s boldness has just cost himself the championship.

Brawny: Augusta’s 13th, a par-five called “Azalea.” Palmer and Venturi barely look at each other on the tee; each man knows one of them has a one-stroke lead…but which one? Palmer surveys the dogleg-left hole. He takes a final puff on a cigarette, hitches his trousers, and slams a long drive down the middle of the fairway, far ahead of Venturi’s ball. As he approaches his tee shot he notices Bobby Jones –Augusta’s co-founder and the Masters’ patron saint– nearby in his green golf cart. It’s now or never, time to go-for-broke. Another drag on his cigarette, hitch of his pants. Palmer drills a three-wood to the rear of the green and drops an eighteen-foot putt for an eagle. On the 15th fairway, Palmer and Venturi see Jones approach in his cart. The committee has ruled in your favor, Jones tells Palmer; Venturi bogeys 15 and 16.

The ruling could become the most famous in professional golf. And it may be the catalyst for a new master of the game. The days of the stoic precision of Ben Hogan seem numbered. There’s a new kid on the block, a kid who drives the ball far, like a rising thunderbolt. And he’s got style—a more dramatic, powerful, go-for-broke style –the swashbuckling Palmer style. Like Joe DiMaggio, the stately Yankee Clipper, who gave way to the muscles, speed and youth of Mickey Mantle, Hogan must now walk the fairways as a fading figure in Palmer’s shadow.

The ruling spread quickly through the gallery –25,000 fans. A raucous roar shook the azaleas when the soldiers from nearby Camp Gordon who manned the huge Masters scoreboards changed Palmer’s 12th hole number from “5” to “3”. Fans cheered –“Arnie, Arnie”– as the soldiers posted the new score for Palmer, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran. It was all too much for Venturi, who bogeyed 14, 15 and 16. The lush acres of Augusta National, with its pines, dogwoods, magnolias and azaleas, were transformed on this spring afternoon into the new home of Arnie’s Army.

Palmer, who shot a 73 for a 284 total, was the leader in the clubhouse. But there were a few golfers still on the course who had a chance. He watched the last few pairings finish their final three holes on TV. A broad smile crossed his face when the final two golfers failed to birdie 18, giving Palmer a one-stroke Masters victory.

It seems fitting, the new champion learning his fate on TV. Arnold Palmer and television, the two seem like a perfect combination. His go-for-broke drama is where golf may be headed. And that makes for a perfect threesome: Arnie’s Army, television, and a new art form for golf.

Copyright © 2011. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.


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Baseball: Reality and Myth

BASEBALL:  REALITY AND MYTH

By Sam Garfield

August 23, 1952

(Chicago) –There she stands, arm-in-arm with her parents and her attorney on the steps of the Criminal Court Building, head held high, a tall, attractive brunette, just twenty-two years old, about to resume her life. She wears a sophisticated long beige dress with large black buttons and a black paten leather belt, a tweed coat to protect her from the chilly spring air, and a guarded  smile. Ruth Ann Steinhagen is no longer considered of unsound mind, having been adjudged sane and freed of a charge of assault with intent to kill baseball star Eddie Waitkus back in June of 1949. Her two-and-one-half years at the Kankakee State Hospital behind her, she gets into the back seat of her parents’ black sedan. She looks straight ahead as the car pulls away from the courthouse and slowly merges with traffic.

At the Polo Grounds in New York, Waitkus takes batting practice before his game with the Giants. The Phillies first baseman, considered one of the steadiest hitters in the game, will go hitless in five trips to the plate that afternoon.

In a small office on the campus of Oregon State University, in Corvallis, an English professor, Bernard Malamud, studies the page proofs of his first novel, The Natural.

That was April 17 of this year, when Malamud rewrote baseball history, creating a truly magical novel about our national pastime, a game that endures because of its mythical past. The Natural is a baseball fable, where the theme of re-birth resonates in a lyrical and mystical voice. Malamud turns reality into mythology with the spirit of an alchemist in creating Roy Hobbs, a nineteen-year-old country bumpkin who takes the ultimate hero’s journey, one steeped in Arthurian Mythology, a quest to become “the best there ever was.”

We first meet young Hobbs as he begins his journey on a train headed east for Chicago, “where the Cubs are.” Also on the train: the siren, Harriet Bird, whose “nyloned legs made Roy’s pulses dance;” the Whammer, the great home run hitter of the American League, “a holdout for $75,000… coming out East to squeeze it out of his boss;” and Max Mercy, a sportswriter,  “a nervous man with voracious eyes” whose job it will be to eventually expose Hobbs and his fractured past. Max and the Whammer are “as thick as thieves.”

Like the hero’s quest, Malamud’s novel takes the game into a strange new realm, spinning history into fantasy, legend into mythology. Consider:

It’s a warm June night in ’49, and Ruth Ann Steinhagen leaves a note for Eddie Waitkus with a bellhop at the fashionable Edgewater Beach Hotel, where the Phillies are staying while in Chicago. “It’s extremely important that I see you as soon as possible,” the note reads.

When Waitkus knocks on her door after midnight, Steinhagen –young, tall, and attractive, her long curling black hair held in perfect place by a flashy pair of studded combs– invites the ballplayer in, and says, “I have a surprise for you.” She then points a .22 rifle at his face.

A machine gunner in four Pacific landings during World War II, Waitkus has faced death many times. And now, a teenage girl in a white lace blouse owns his fate in a Chicago hotel room. “What goes on here?” a shocked Waitkus says. “Is this some kind of a joke?”

“You have been bothering me for two years, and now you’re going to die,” Steinhagen says as she pulls the trigger.

In The Natural, Harriet Bird lures Roy Hobbs into her hotel room. The sight of the endless lake sends “a shiver down his spine. Harriet, naked under the gossamer thing she wore”…holds “a squat, shinning pistol.”

“What’s wrong here,” Hobbs cries out.

“Roy, will you be the best there ever was?”

“That’s right,” he says, and Harriet Bird pulls the trigger, and the bullet cuts “a silver line across the water.” Hobbs tries with his bare hands to catch it, but… “to his horror,” the bullet bounces “into his gut.”

That’s what Malamud gives us in “PRE-GAME,” the opening of his book. It’s an eerie, ethereal recreation of one of baseball’s most infamous episodes. So much for our heroes entering strange new realms. Fifteen years later, the story continues in “BATTER-UP!” when a much older Hobbs seeks to resume his baseball life with the pitiful New York Knights, in a classic theme of re-birth, where Malamud’s allegory is sweeping and magical. Consider:

  • Roy Hobbs, now a thirty-four rookie, arrives at the Knights’ field where the “grass is worn scabby in the outfield and the infield is cracking because of a lack of rain.” Warm, rusty water trickles from the dugout fountain. The Knight’s worn-down manager, Pop Fisher bemoans his baseball luck, telling his bench coach, “I shoulda been a farmer.” Pop is skeptical of Hobbs because of his age and lack of baseball credentials. But Hobbs soon brings new life to Pop, the Knights and the arid baseball field with his magical power. Swinging “Wonderboy” (Hobbs’ Excalibur),  a striking white bat made from a lightning-stricken tree, Hobbs becomes the talk of baseball because of his prodigious homes runs. Pop orders him to “hit the cover off the ball,” and he does. The rains follow and the Knights’ field turns a sparkling green. The mysterious Roy Hobbs will eventually win a pennant for Pop and the Knights.
  • While most sportswriters accolade him “Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player,” Max Mercy chronicles Hobbs’ heroics but is relentless in pursuing his mysterious past “rather than his accomplishments. What’s he hiding from me?”
  • A modern-day Merlin, Gus Sands, the manipulative bookie who always wins, fascinates Hobbs with his magic. And it’s Hobbs’ quest for fame and wealth and greatness that is his tragic flaw. Hobbs becomes a broken man, never attaining his Holy Grail: At the end, a woman says, “He coulda been a king”…and, straight from the Black Sox saga, a young boy pleads to Hobbs, “Say it ain’t true, Roy?”

Early in the career of Eddie Waitkus, when he was nineteen, Fred Barry, a sports writer in Boston –Waitkus’ hometown–  unwittingly penned his destiny, calling the slick fielding first baseman, a “natural.” Like Hobbs, Waitkus –and Steinhagen– experienced re-birth. Her hospitalization successfully completed, Steinhagen has quietly re-entered society. And in 1950, Waitkus’ hero’s role was venerated when the Phillies won the National League pennant.

Like Hobbs, they survived the 1949 shooting incident. Let’s hope they will also be able to outlive it.

Copyright © 2011. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.


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The Eyes Have It

THE EYES HAVE IT

By Sam Garfield

July 30, 1958

(Grant Park) –“We cannot always build the future for our youth,” Franklin Roosevelt said, “but we can build our youth for the future.”

FDR was spot-on. It’s all about how we prepare our youth, how we encourage imagination and individual interpretation, especially in the arts and technology. Our future these days is all around us –in this world and beyond. If we step away from our fears –Russian supremacy, World War III, economic uncertainty- and concentrate on our young people, maybe, just maybe, our lives –and our future- will shine brighter.

A fortnight ago, on a sweet July evening, a tall, boyish-looking pianist from Texas not only presented Chicagoans with glorious music but he showed how, like all things true, our future is tied to our past. As an orange sun dipped behind a curtain of buildings along Michigan Boulevard, Van Cliburn, in a white coat and head of red curls, walked across the stage in front of the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra and sat at his piano. I was fortunate enough to be there, but I had no idea what I was in for. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must tell you I am not an aficionado of classical music.

But while I did not have an educated compass to guide me along the myriad of nuances in Cliburn’s dramatic interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, the young man’s passion carried me along as his piano rode high atop the climactic waves of the orchestra. And it is this kind of young passion –Cliburn’s just twenty-three– that FDR said we should nurture. Enter Rosina Lhevinne, who taught Cliburn at Juilliard. Not so long ago, while Cliburn presided over his mother’s piano classes in a place called Kilgore, Texas, he received a letter from his former teacher urging him to enter Moscow’s International Tschaikovsky contest.

And last April, in just an-hour-and-a-half, Cliburn did what American diplomats and politicians still are not able to do. He changed Russian opinion about American culture. The young Texan dazzled the Russians with technical skill and romantic interpretation. The Moscow audience and the judges gave Cliburn a standing ovation when he concluded his final piece, Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto in D-Minor. He won the gold medal and showed the Russians the future.

Said Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev: “He is a very warm, friendly young man who absolutely captivated the Soviet people.” I don’t know if Rosina Lhevinne has ever read the FDR quote that is at the top of this column, but she sure embodies its spirit. And, maybe our friend Khrushchev does too.

I also have a Rosina Lhevinne in my life. His name is Ted Neal, the great editorial cartoonist. Neal was my mentor when I first joined this paper as a young reporter. For some reason, he took me under his wing and showed me around, always there with an encouraging word or helping hand. On a wall in my office hangs a framed 1935 cartoon of an aging, tired Babe Ruth. The Babe holds three baseballs. Ruth, in a Boston Braves uniform, seems lost without the regal Yankee pinstripes. But his eyes are still alive with a young man’s dream –nothing out of reach. He would play baseball for just a few more games, but if you look closely at those eyes, as I do every day, you can see promise. Neal’s pencil drawing was done on the day Ruth hit three home runs in the final complete game of his career. In the seventh inning, those famous eyes stole the life from a fastball –slowed it down so his hands could reach back for one more dream. His big bat met the pitch waist-high and the ball took off for the sun. The baseball landed some 500-feet from home plate, in a neighborhood park where children watched the ball soar toward the sky and land on their playground. A young boy caught up with the ball and ran home with it. The home run was Babe Ruth’s final hit.

Many years ago, when Ted Neal retired, he presented me with his original artwork. He signed it: “Sam, may your future be filled with home runs –Ted.” I like to believe he saw something in my eyes.

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


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Winds of Change

WINDS OF CHANGE

By Sam Garfield

Oct. 11, 1957

(Chicago) –A nice walk on a crisp afternoon in autumn is a good way to clear your mind. On a recent stroll in my neighborhood I stopped by a schoolyard to watch a group of boys playing a game of Five Hundred. You may remember the game from your youth –someone hits a ball to a group of fielders. If you catch the ball on the fly, you get one hundred points…one bounce, seventy-five, two bounces, fifty, and a ground ball is worth twenty-five. Make an error, and you deduct the appropriate points. When you reach five hundred, you get to bat. I light a cigarette and watch for a while.

“The Dodgers, they’re leaving Brooklyn,” one of the older kids, in a Cub hat, says as he snares a line drive right in front of one of his pals, a fat kid, short, no more than ten years old. “That’s three-twenty-five for me.”

“Forget it. The hundred’s mine, it was coming right at me.”

“You never called it,” the Cub hat says, and he throws the ball to the batter.

“Whataya talking about, the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn? Says who?”

“Says everybody,” another player adds. Where you been? It’s on the radio, TV.”

“Leaving Brooklyn, for what?” The fat kid’s having trouble with the whole idea, but he somehow jumps in front of the Cub hat to grab a one-hopper. “That makes me four hundred. Why would the Dodgers leave Brooklyn? I don’t get it?”

I don’t get it either. These schoolboys in Chicago are ball fans. They’re young romantics when it comes to baseball. They know all about the Dodgers, how they’re the class of the National League. They know all about Jackie Robinson winning six pennants in ten years. They know how much people in Brooklyn love their Dodgers. And now they’re learning about the winds of change that’s in the air.

Sure, the Dodgers’ leaving Brooklyn is part of a bigger story, bigger than baseball. It’s about how America is changing. New homes popping up in the middle of nowhere, far away from the big cities. And new highways leading to these new homes. And new cars to get us there. The Dodgers leaving Brooklyn? Well, that’s progress these days, my friend.

But for Dodgers fans in Brooklyn, it’s betrayal. And for the baseball romantics everywhere, it’s a story of loss. Not just the loss of a baseball team, but a story much bigger.

“The Dodgers is who we are,” a Brooklynite friend of mine told me when he called with the news. “It’s our identity. It’s how we define ourselves. Sure, the Giants are moving too, but that don’t matter. They’re from The City.”

“The City” is Brooklyn nomenclature for Manhattan, the place across the river. The Giants are having financial woes because of dipping attendance; that’s why they’re headed to San Francisco. But the Dodgers have enjoyed steady attendance over the last ten years, averaging more than 1,000,000 per season in tiny Ebbets Field.

So, why then are the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn…for what?

Well, every story has its villain, and this story has three.  First, there’s Walter O’Malley, Dodgers owner and baseball pragmatist. He sees the Milwaukee Braves with a new publically-finance stadium that seats 53,000. And more importantly, parking for 10,000 cars. And an attendance of well over 2,000,000 this year. O’Malley wants the same for his Dodgers, but he says he can’t do it in Brooklyn.

Why not, Mr. O’Malley?

Enter villain #2, Robert Moses, New York’s Park Commissioner and Public Works czar. For two years, he and O’Malley have been wrestling over where to build a new ballpark and how to pay for it. A perfect case of private business and government in a tug of war, neither side willing to compromise for the public good. While O’Malley and Moses are sparring, villain #3 appears –the City of Los Angeles, with plenty of land to build, plenty of highways, plenty of cars, plenty of people, and plenty of money.

The baseball romantic had no chance in this three-card Monte.

So, next year Pee Wee, Duke, and Campy will be playing ball in sunny California. But in Chicago, a schoolboy in love with the romance of baseball still wants to know: The Dodgers leaving Brooklyn…for what?

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

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Subway Decision

SUBWAY DECISION

By Sam Garfield

March 13, 1952

(Brooklyn) –Why have Americans always been smitten with bank robbers? Jesse James’ Old West hijinks…John Dillinger’s urban bravado…and the slickest of the slick, Willie “The Actor” Sutton…they’re all legends, bigger than life.

Sutton’s about to go back home shortly…home being prison, where he’s spent half of his life. Last month, Brooklyn police finally caught up with Sutton, who’s been on the lam for five years. Sutton–who authorities say has stolen more than $2 million in his illustrious career–has masqueraded as a policeman, postman and prison guard to mastermind bank jobs and escapes. Police nabbed Sutton near his Brooklyn boarding house, just a few blocks from police headquarters…where Sutton had been living for the past two years. The long arm of the law, Brooklyn style.

But this column isn’t about the witty Willie Sutton and his colorful 20-year career. It’s about what happens too often when someone tries to do the right thing.

Late afternoon, February 18. Arnold Schuster, 24, is headed home to Brooklyn on the subway when he spots the diminutive Sutton on the train car. He recognizes Sutton from the “Wanted” poster in his dad’s Manhattan tailor shop — his style, those blue eyes. How could you miss him? When Sutton gets off the train, Schuster makes the worst decision of his life. He follows Sutton out of the car, up the subway stairs and into history.

Schuster shadows Sutton along the Brooklyn sidewalks, hanging back about twenty feet, just the way the detectives do. Schuster, you see, fancies himself a crime buff.

Sutton makes his way to a gas station, a few blocks from police headquarters. Schuster hangs back, watches. Sutton apparently is having car trouble. He raises the hood of his car and starts to tinker with the engine. Schuster decides to notify police. Another bad decision.

Before long two young cops surprise Sutton and ask for his identification. He gives a phony name, shows a phony registration card. He’s an actor, after all. The cops have their doubts. They think he looks like Willie Sutton, but don’t have the nerve to do anything. They head back to the station and tell a detective about the guy and the car. A good decision.

 A few hours, Willie Sutton sits in Brooklyn police headquarters, two blocks from his home, telling police, “Yeah, I’m Willie Sutton. You got me.” The two cops and the detective get promotions for catching “The Babe Ruth of Bank Robbers.”

The newspapers, of course, have a field day with the story. But Arnold Schuster, amateur detective, is confused. Where’s my name? The police are taking credit for the arrest. Where’s my name in the newspapers? But Arnold Schuster’s subway decision to follow Sutton now takes a lethal turn. Two days later, Schuster brings a lawyer down to Brooklyn police headquarters. “I’m the guy who brought you Sutton,” he says. “And what about a reward? There’s a reward, right?” Not so fast, pal. The police belatedly tell the papers about Schuster’s help. “An oversight,” they say. Also, there’s other publicity, all quarterbacked by Schuster, crime buff that he is. And that’s when things really go terribly dark for Arnold Schuster.

Schuster receives threatening letters and phone calls over the next several days. Death threats. The police offer protection, but Schuster refuses, so the official story goes. No police presence at his home. So, he’s an easy mark, even in the dark. Nineteen days after he makes his subway decision, police find Arnold Schuster dead on the sidewalk in front of his Brooklyn home. Bullet holes in both eyes. The mark of a rat, or just a good citizen doing the right thing?

Police refuse to call it a retaliation crime, saying there’s no connection with Schuster’s murder and the Sutton gang. But Brooklyn residents don’t see it that way; they immediately chastise police for not protecting Schuster.  And phone calls from citizens critical of the way the police are handling the killing continue to pour into newspaper switchboards.

But there’s obviously someone out there–in the shadows–who sees Schuster’s death differently. He just sees another dead rat in Brooklyn.

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

           

 

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Nixon and Rocky

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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