Friday, August 24, 2007

Me, My Mom and Nixon

It was only a few weeks before the presidential election of 1972. My mom drove us up Davenport Street on the western side of Saginaw, Michigan. I’ve been racking my brain trying to remember why the two of us would have been in that neck of the woods at that particular time and place, but for the life of me I cannot remember.

Nevertheless, we heard on the car radio that President Nixon would be making a quick campaign stop at the Tri-city airport. We were only a few minutes from there so we convinced ourselves that it would be a great idea to go and get a glimpse of a real live president. So, on a whim, off we went.

We parked in a large grassy field already half filled with cars. There was no longer any room left in the actual airport parking lot; or, perhaps the airport authorities decided it would be better to have “the presidential rubber neckers” park away from the main building.

We joined a straggling line of other pedestrians like ourselves, most of whom just wanted to see a president. Walking toward the terminal we saw signs directing us around the side of the building. We entered a gate and passed through a chain link fence. A man stood there and directed us towards a long shorter fence separating the airport parking apron from the terminal facilities, and that was where we were supposed to wait for the impending “presidential whistle stop.”

We got there a little over an hour before President Nixon was due to land in Air Force One. At first, it was all quite peaceable. People spoke to each other quietly about the nippy weather or craned their heads around searching the sky for any sign of the president’s plane. Not much was being said concerning politics; most of us either liked the president or didn’t dislike him. Well, that’s how it was at first anyway.

It was there and then for the very first time in my life that I saw the word “Watergate.” Towards the back of the quickly gathering crowd I saw a small group of scruffy “hippy looking” characters wearing washed out field jackets and faded bell-bottoms. They carried crudely written signs on sticks and in magic marker they had written things like, “What about Watergate?” and “Tell us the truth about Watergate.”

I asked my mom what that Watergate stuff was all about, but she had no idea either. It’s funny, by the following summer we were going to be virtually inundated with TV coverage about the Watergate break-ins. I’ve always wondered how those guys found out about it so much earlier than the rest of us?

A half hour before the scheduled presidential arrival things began to get alarming. I was 15, my mom was 38, and both of us were pretty small. The crowd had grown exponentially during the minutes we’d already been there and as people continued to pack in around us it was starting to become scary. We were shorties in a dense sea of giants.

The waist high chain link fence to our front and the brick wall of the terminal building behind us prevented any chance of retreat. Even if we wanted to change our mind and leave the throng, the sardine-packed crowd prevented any possibility of that.

At its worst, just as we saw Air Force One circling overhead, I became extremely anxious because of the tightness of the pressing bodies. I had never experienced anything like it. I felt like I could actually pick up my feet and not fall to the ground.

I looked over to my mother and searched her face. She looked tense and concerned, and occasionally she made protesting remarks to somebody pressing perhaps where they shouldn’t, but I could see for the most part she was merely feeling apprehension for me as I was for her. I just wanted to protect her like any son would, but I realized there was nothing I could do.

Anyway, my feet ached, so to rest them I experimented by just picking them up. The continuous push of the bodies held me snugly up in the air. So it was true—I actually COULD pick them up. Yes, it was that jam-packed.

At last, Nixon’s blue and white Boeing 707 taxied to a stop and for some reason the pressure of the people around us decreased a little. What a relief that was.

The big beautiful bird’s engines wound down and shortly thereafter the unmistakable face of Richard Nixon appeared at the top of the steps. It was exciting, but for me, some of the grandeur of the moment was reduced because of the hours-long wait, the cold, the crowd, and my tired feet.

After he came down the steps we couldn’t see the president again for quite some time. Try as we might, the taller people blocked any view. He passed quite near shaking hands with the hordes of people to our front where they were jammed up against the short fence, but getting a good clear view of him was not to be. I got tired of trying to catch a glimpse and just gave up.

But then my mom cried out excitedly, “Oh! There he is!”

And there he was, only 10 feet or so away. He must have been wearing makeup because his pallor was a rich dark brown. No one else around him had a complexion anywhere near his “Hollywood shade” of tan and it made him stand out from everyone around him. I remember seeing him in profile and that sloping Bob Hope-like nose of his was instantly recognizable.

I saw him fairly up close like that for perhaps a full 2 or 3 seconds and that was it, other than from afar once more as he made his way back to the plane standing up in a convertible. He continually waved at the screaming crowd. He almost seemed like caricature of himself with that fake tan, and the big smiling teeth. He was definitely a politician, and he proved it that November when he blew McGovern out of the water in a landslide win.

And speaking of the election, it was all but impossible for Nixon to lose it since the democrats put a near imbecile up against him. And after all, Nixon was the man who got us out of Vietnam with honor and the same man who, with Kissinger’s help, convinced China to start playing ping-pong with us.

What a shame that he allowed some overzealous idiots pull the totally unnecessary break-in at the Watergate Hotel. That foolish venture caused the ignominious end of what would have been a magnificent presidency.

Even more importantly, South Vietnam would not have been allowed to go down in flames to the bloodthirsty communists. The democrats in congress used their newfound post-Watergate power to end all aid to Vietnam and the rest is inglorious history. I blame Ted Kennedy and crew for that bit of national disgrace, but Nixon’s Watergate fall was the domino that set it all in motion, and for that, I have to blame Nixon.

We didn’t wait for his plane to take off before heading back with great relief to the car. If we’d known about three hours earlier what we knew then, there’s no way we ever would have made the spontaneous decision to go see the president.

Still, I’m glad we did.


Ed said...

I was only a gleam in my dad's eye at that time. I hadn't realized that Watergate was even an issue before the re-election.

PhilippinesPhil said...

It wasn't. Those long haired cruddy looking demonstrators carrying the Watergate protest signs are a mystery to me.

Kevin said...

Here you go:

Incidently, your memory is more accurate than wikipedia. They have this visit recorded as happening in 1974.

The now named MBS International Airport gives no mention of the stop on their history page, but they do say that the airport was dedicated by Brig. Gen. Hoyt "Vanderburg".

Just another example of exactly how "blue" this state is. A presidential visit is purged from the history of the airport, and they can't even get the name of an Army/Air Force General right.

I'm lookin' around to see who the protesters might have been. I'll get back to ya.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Actually, if you read Nixon's own words, or the words he spoke in his 1974 Michigan visit speech, in it, he references his 1972 visit. So there you go.

I was checking out the time line for it, and I see where the Watergate break-in arrests occurred in June of 1972, so "Nixon's problems" were already in work at the time of the visit Mom and I attended. Interesting.

Amadeo said...

In the Philippines then, our knowledge and perceptions of the whole Watergate affair were all handled and handed to us by Time and Newsweek.

So in hindsight, our attitudes were shaped very much by journalists who harbored certain biases, those which are still carried on to the current times.

But now that media is more equal opportunity, the legacy of Nixon is slowly being redeemed in areas other than Watergate.

Now, even the Galahad-like qualities of pure hearts like Woodward and Bernstein then have been tempered as to portray them as much like us mortals, with flaws and shortcomings. Not much different than Nixon was.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Ah, but we expect more from our presidents. That's why I despise Clinton so much. He acted like a spoiled rockstar, using his office to get chicks. His sexual antics in the oval office are unforgivable.

Nixon's coverup of the Watergate breakin was just as bad as, if not worse than Clinton's shenanigans, because he lied and broke the law. For all the good things he did, I'm afraid Watergate will always be his legacy. Its unfortunate.