It was the only time we met face to face--and at a distance, over a garden wall at that--but 25 years after he resigned and more than 20 years after the incident, my family still fights over it. What did Richard Nixon mean with that wave of his--au revoir, I'll see you again, or scram, you little brat!?
I was 7, but we already had a history, Nixon and I--although he never knew it. When I was 10 days old, I was the youngest attendee at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach. My father, liberal historian and activist Arthur Schlesinger Jr., was a delegate for McGovern that hot summer, hoping the old war hero could use the peace vote to drive the Imperial President from office.
When my mother arrived at the Doral Hotel in Miami, her newborn babe bundled in a cardboard box doubling as a crib, she found the sweltering lobby full of hippie protesters. The lobby infestation, combined with McGovern's presence as a guest in the hotel, caused the Secret Service to ban average guests--including delegates' wives--from using the elevators.
Fortunately the hotel had a dumbwaiter that my mother and I could ride in up to our room, where I remained sequestered for the remainder of the convention.
Years later, we would learn where those "hippies" came from: They were part of the White House dirty tricks operation, meant to disrupt the Democratic gathering. If nothing else, they succeeded in disrupting my feeding schedule--and who knows what effect that has had on my personality?
Of course, I was too young to have any memories of that or any of the other dirty tricks that eventually culminated in the break-ins at the Watergate, and the subsequent coverup. Nevertheless, growing up in our brownstone town house on New York's Upper East Side, I was probably more politically aware than the average 7-year-old. While the particulars of impeachment and resignation would not sort themselves out in my mind for several more years, Nixon was fixed as a figure of vague malevolence and derision. So by the time the former president bought the house on the other side of our garden wall, I was already able to send my family and their friends into howls of laughter by hunching my shoulders, thrusting my fingers into the air in the final V-for-victory pose, dropping my voice as low as it would go and proclaiming, "I am not a crook."
Nixon had moved back from six years of California exile and bought a house once owned by the late Judge Learned Hand, the noted civil liberties advocate. A local news producer somehow put together the fact that the disgraced former chief executive was going to become neighbors with my father, the old Kennedy hand who had appeared on Nixon's infamous enemies list, and a camera crew was dispatched.
Holding an impromptu mini-news conference on our front steps late one afternoon, my father noted that at Harvard he had John Kenneth Galbraith over the back fence. "Now I've ended up with Richard M. Nixon," he said. Summing up: "There goes the neighborhood."
I regarded Nixon's arrival as something more exciting, and when the television reporter spied me standing behind my father and asked my opinion, I offered it without hesitation. "I think it will be great, especially at Halloween," I exclaimed. "Get it? 'Trick-or-treat, Tricky Dick!' " (As it turned out, in coming years I would wear my Nixon mask trick-or-treating at his house, my finely honed comic instincts wasted on stone-faced Secret Service agents.)
Those same humor-resistant agents took a dim view of a favorite pastime of my brother's and mine: climbing on the backyard fence we shared with the Nixon place. Informed by his irritated children that the Secret Service had put a stop to his children's play, my father took a stepladder into our garden and had a colloquy over the fence (our Great Wall) with the ex-president's protectors about what kind of security threat my brother and I posed. Finally losing his temper, my father curtly explained that he did not see why our play habits should change because someone had moved into the neighborhood who--had justice been served--would be looking out at the fence of a federal penitentiary instead of the humble wall of a law-abiding citizen. (Strangely, we never got any security complaints from that house's next occupants, the Syrian consulate--despite the fact that my friends and I would periodically launch bottle-rocket assaults on them from my rooftop.)
It was an argument my father won, apparently, as our play on the wall continued for many years, setting up the enduring family quarrel. Standing in her third-floor bedroom window one afternoon, my mother saw me climbing on the wall when Nixon came out. To her forgiving eye, he looked somewhat forlorn, a lonely, shy man trying to make a friend, waving at the neighbors' young son.
When my father heard this tale, he sought me out and asked what had happened. I was climbing on the fence, I said, and Nixon did come out to wave at me--he waved at me with irritation, as in, get off the fence, kid!
Through the fog of intervening years, alas, I can remember telling my father that, but can't be sure I remember the actual moment, the true nature of the wave. Trying to refresh my own memory of the events, I called my parents the other night and the argument broke out again: Nixon was just trying to be nice, my mother said. Nixon could not be nice, my father countered--there was only one Nixon, the bad one. No, my mother insisted, Nixon was more complex than that, and this was his sympathetic side showing through.
More than 20 years later, and the Nixon debate still rages.
Robert Schlesinger is political editor of The Hill newspaper.