You are entering Suite 175 of the Executive Office Building, a place where ghosts still walk and, if you listen carefully, talk -- in the unearthly, crackling voices of fallen men. Just across West Executive Drive is the Oval Office, an underground passageway connecting the two work places.
This suite was Richard Nixon's hideaway, the place where he played out the final days alone, sitting endlessly and morosely with earphones clamped to his head as he listened to tapes of scratchy voices he refused to believe.
Now you are nodding toward a secretary, veteran of a new Republican electoral sweep. She is a familiar face from the campaign and you recall that, in the campaign frenzy of look-alike Ramanda Inns and Ho-Jo's, the last time you saw her was at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco.
"The Fairmont, yes," she replies. "It's hard to keep track."
"You can't keep track of all the rooms you were in -- not even all the rooms at the Fairmont," bellows her boss, a paunchy new poltergeist in this room of old Republican ghosts.
"See how he treats his help? He loves to put you in an awkward position."
"Wanta try one?" asks the poltergeist.
"Write all this down," says the secretary, smilinging hopelessly. "It's the real Lyn."
The real Lyn Nofziger? This is the guy who figures winning is everything? The guy William Ruckelshaus half-jokingly calls "one of the meanest, toughest, shrewest ayatollahs in the country"? The man John Dean said would "enjoy" compiling an enemies list (which he didn't do) because he already had "success in the field"?
This is the guy who described Nixon as "a miserable SOB" and meant that as the highest political compliment? The man who described Gerald Ford as a "nice guy" and meant that as an insult? The political hardballer who once wrote that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy had a record "of cheating, of lying, of cowardice and of ignoring the law," then made sure the description became public?
Nofziger has placed only two significant wall-hangings in this office of ghosts and poltergeists and the silent haunting of a man who reached so far and failed. One of them, done in barroom garish, says simply: "Bombay Gin." The other says, "Don't Get Mad; Get Even." He clearly takes great satisfaction from the warmth of both.
It is well after normal working hours, well into Bombay gin time, and Nofziger is collapsing like a giant, friendly porpoise -- none of that don't-get-mad-get-even stuff showing -- with his hulk burrowing deeply into the cushions of a couch that clealy isn't standard government issue. He likes this office, reveling not only in the high ceilings and the nearness to The Source but the nearness to the ghosts, too.
"I'd like to redecorate it exactly the way he had it," Nofziger says, ignoring the barroom sign which just isn't Richard Nixon's style. A black loafer dangles from the end of Nofziger's foot. Richard Nixon didn't take his wingtips off when he went beach-walking. Richard Nixon never relaxed here. On his last day, he finally asked his lawyer, in this room, if they would send him to jail. The laywer shrugged. Nixon said some of the best political memoirs were written from jail.
Nofziger's huge belly thrusts bulbously outward now against a tortured white shirt, giving buttons number 5 and 6 a punishing stress test. It also strains against the cotton weave which, thankfully, looks as if it hasn't been weakened by bleach in at least a dozen washings.
Nofziger has his ghosts, too. If there is one thing the man inside the bulging shirt would like to set straight, it's the Nancy question. The word has been out for years that she thought he was a slob and a mouthy one, at that. It even got around, shortly after the election, that she thought he wasn't pretty enough to come to Washington with the Reagans.
"I always figured I made Reagan look good by contrast," the mouth above the belly says.
At the top of the white shirt button number 1 is open for a loose and bedraggled tie. Above that a few lonely strands bolt in all directions from a mostly bald pate and even around the edges, where the sprouts grow more thickly, the ground cover/seems to be spreading randomly in all directions except up, like crabgrass.
"I never tried to stay close to the Reagans. They got their way of living and I got mine."
At the bottom of the shirt, button number 7 is lost beneath the immense swelling. The shirt parts there, nothing left to hold it together against the strain and so it separates into an inverted V before disappearing into rumpled trousers.
"Never once has she said to me: Pull up your tie, hitch up yours pants, put on your shoes, comb your hair, be a gentleman."
Above the shirt, the eyes, two black beads almost lost in the folds of the face, twinkle ever so slightly. The mouth, hidden in the wild tangle of a new goatee, is twisted into a wry grin. Watch his eyes if you want to know what Lyn Nofziger is really saying, some have warned. Watch his smile, others have cautioned.
"I'm not a social friend of the Reagans. That's by their choice. And by mine. They don't drink enough."
Nofziger's black loafer, which had been teeter-tottering on the end of his foot, drops with a thud to the carpeted floor, He slouches still further into his overstuffed couch. His wiggling toe, squirming beneath the gold tip of a blue sock, aims like a briefing pointer across the office. The golden toe zeroes in on the garish barroom mirror, lifted from God knows where. Nofziger was feeling pushed on a touchy subject -- on his often rocky relationship with a woman who spent more on clothes for the inauguration than he will in a lifetime. So he was falling back on a patented Nofziger protective device.
"A long time ago I faced up to the fact that I'm an instinctive wise-ass," he says. "I can take only so much of a serious conversation and then I have to change gears. Nancy and I get along great."
He knows the patter gets him in trouble, but, well, there are some things that are just beyond control for an instictive wise-ass. He changes the subject from Lyn and Nancy to Ron and Nancy.
"Nancy and Reagan have a mutually interdependent relationship. I guess that's redundant. An interdependent relationship."
A symbiotic relationship?
"I've heard of the Symbiotic Liberation Army. When I get a cold, I sometimes take symbiotics."
Okay, subject change.
So who is the "real" Lyn Nofziger and what is he doing in the White House, or at least so close he can peek through Ronald Reagan's window?
"My job is to thrust out the Democrats," Nofziger says, "and I find that a very thrustworthy thing to do. I am going to move around here and do my damnedest to thrust them."
Nofziger is the administration's hit man, the operative, the political adviser to the White House, the man who says he wants to put rawboned politics back into the running of the government, the man who wants to purge Washington's Democratic Bureaucratic infrastructure the way Nixon never did.And keep it that way, long after Lyn Nofziger returns to California. He's the man who, as his sign says, plans to "get even."
That's one view. It also is the view of many outsiders, especially Democrats, who take one look at Nofziger's intimidating appearance -- the unkempt, bearded, balding, hard-eyed Rasputin look -- and conclude he is Ronald Reagan's grandmother-treading Chuck Colson, the black eminence who is going to return political life to dirty tricks and Segretti stuff.
Another view is held by some longtime Reagan watchers. They conclude that Nofziger, the original conservative guru of the Reagan phenomenon, has been put out ot pasture. They say he has been banished, after one too many sharp-tongued comments, after one too many groans from Nancy. They say the luxury of the three spacious rooms of Suite 175 is a cell for Nofziger, just as it became for Nixon; that in the hideaway he can hold the hands of frustrated right-wingers who aren't getting all they want now, serve that useful political purpose, and be insulated from more public problems.
In all likelihood, neither side is quite on target. Nofziger has been around too long, waited for all this too long, to go the Colson route. He also has been around too long, been through too many internecine Reagan staff battles, to settle for a side track near the Oval Office. Not without a fight, at least.
Over the past 14 years, Nofziger has come and gone from the Reagan epic so many times, almost always under strained conditions, that he has trouble counting the departures. He tendered his first resignation after a staff flap in the tumultuous early months of Reagan's reign as governor of California. During that episode, Nancy Reagan didn't talk to him for five months, a silent treatment that started the long subplot about friction between the two. The resignation wasn't accepted for more than a year, after Nofziger failed in a premature 1968 Reagan presidential effort.
After that, Nofziger was in, out and around several more times before the successful 1980 campaign. He got bumped early in that one after a feud with Reagan's first campaign manager, John Sears. Sears later went down in his own flames and, shortly after that, Nofziger squirmed back aboard. He still delights in surviving his nemesis and especially delights in repeating a Reagan line about Sears: "He won't look me in the eye; he looks me in the tie."
Still, that was not the end of Nofziger's collisions within the changing inner circle. Six days after Reagan's election, Nofziger held a press briefing in Los Angeles. A sizable part of the president-elect's team had the palace spears sharpened for Nofziger again. It was getting too serious now, heady stuff running the country, and who needed a guy whose belly always bulged and mouth always spouted?
The word also was floating around once again that, with the glitter of the White House ahead of them, Nancy thought Nofziger wasn't the right person to be filling television screens on behalf of her husband. The "pretty face" line came later, but everyone at the briefing knew what was coming now.
Nofziger, this self-parody of a loud-mouth slob who had kept the Reagan presidential flame burning for 14 tumultuous years, was quitting again. Or getting dumped. Or facing reality. Or whatever it is that Nofziger does when he gets caught up in the byzantine battling of the Reagan advisers, much of which he starts himself, and loses as he has so many times since Ronald Reagan emerged from the ashes of television's "Death Valley Days," Hollywood's "Bedtime for Bonzo."
"I had a discussion with Mr. Meese yesterday and we made a deal," Nofziger said of his postelection talk with the head of the president-elect's transition team. "I will stay around until the 30th of November, if he will leave me alone after that."
It was classic Nofziger. So was the rest of the story. On Nov. 30 Nancy hugged him a fond and public farewell. By the second week in December he had taken the political job. By late January he could wave from his windows to Ed Meese, now the counselor to the president.
On March 30, after hours of chaos and confusion following the shootings of Reagan and his press secretary, Jim Brady, it was Nofziger who filled the television screens with the first calming account from a White House aide. He also managed to throw in Reagan's hospital-room one-liners. It was Nofziger at his best. He surely filled the television screen, the belly giving buttons number 5 and 6 national exposure during the usual stress test. The next day he was back out of the spotlight, holed up in Suite 175 with others talking for the wounded administration.
All is not philsophy and reflection in the Nixon hideaway's new incarnation. Nor is it simply somewhere to stash Nofziger out of sight and mind.
As political director for the White House, Nofziger, 56, has a rare opportunity for a person who admittedly is a conservative ideologue. He is in effect the chief political patronage officer for the White House. He also is a campaign pro who understands the mechanics of the upcoming 1982 congressional and legislative races so crucial to maintaining the consevative tide that began running in 1980.
Through the last months of the Reagan presidential campaign, Nofziger served as press secretary, a job he had held off and on through all the ups and downs with the man he "discovered." He was, by almost all accounts, a mixed blessing handling the press, a man who charmed some with his pointed one-liners, offended others not only with the raw humor but with the transparent use of it to deflect serious issues.
Once, after a particularly good Reagan campaign day last fall, the "real" Lyn Nofziger was living it up on the campaign plane and delighting in his own gut-shot political successes. David Broder recorded the scene for The Washington Post.Nofziger was sitting there looking, as always, Broder wrote, like a "permanently disheveled Bowery bum. He was knocking down Bombay gin, in prodigious quantities, and reveling in the belief that the Reagan forces had Carter on the run. 'Those assholes don't know where to turn,' he enthused."
After a bad day, like the day he dreamed up a Ku Klux Klan line that backfired after Reagan used it, the real Lyn Nofziger sulked more, consumed equal amounts of Bombay gin, shot off even rawer one-liners and told the press to lay off or get ready to deal with Ron Ziegler again. "We've got him in training, you know," Nofziger said, grinning impishly.
In an era when Hollywood glitter has overtaken staid old Washington -- when the town is filled, as Mark Russell puts it, with folks whose idea of relaxing is slipping from white tie into black tie -- Franklyn Curran Nofziger just doesn't fit.
Shortly after the inauguration, Washington society forced Nofziger into a tuxedo. He responded by wearing Mickey Mouse pins on both sides of his black bow tie, saying the pins represented the kind of business he was in. He left it to the imagination to determine which business he meant -- the care and feeding of the press, which he handled for Ronald Reagan for more than a decade, or the hardball politics preoccupying him now.
So why is he here at all?
Nofziger is what the pols call a "movement conservative." That and an extraordinary two-way loyalty between him and the man to whom he attached himself years ago are the main reasons Nofziger finds himself in Suite 175.
Despite the surface image, Reagan's ties to the hard right are not as close as they appear. Nofziger reinforces those ties. He also is, by the estimate of both his friends and foes, an unusually good political mechanic, a man who understands the organizational side of the game. And when it came down to the bottom line, loyalty being what it is in politics, Reagan simply wasn't going to keep Nofziger out of his final act if he wanted in. He wanted in.
Nofziger is moving now, shirt-tail trailing out of the bakc of his sloppy pants, through Nixon's old digs. He pauses at the desk where another man slumped almost seven years earlier, his presidential back to the windows and the Oval Office he was about to leave.
Nofziger sweeps up an armful of unanswered yellow phone slips, unanswered phone calls being Washington's ultimate power trip, and tosses them high toward the vaulted ceiling, watching happily as they flutter down onto the rug, floating among the ghosts like confetti at a victory parade.
At the time of Watergate, Nofziger said the debacle would last only a year or two, that the victory parade was just around the corner. People "have short memories," he said, and the memories would be even shorter if the Republicans would just stop thinking they have to be "nice guys."
"I learned long ago that winning is more fun than losing," he says. He learned a lot a long time ago, starting as a conservative newspaper reporter arriving here in 1958 to represent the right-wing Copley newspapers of California. By 1960 he was covering the presidential campaign -- and in the eyes of most of his journalistic traveling companions the campaign was simplicity personified: Prince Charming versus the Black Prince, Camelot versus a 5 o'clock shadow.
"Sure, I felt like an outsider. All those hot-shot names, whose bylines I had read out in California, were on the other side of my fence, acting like pseudo-sophisticates who loved to sit around in the bars and aboard the plane making superior comments about Nixon. And they thought my ideology was getting in the way."
Nofziger went through the entire Kennedy campaign without making it into that tight little group of acceptable insiders, the reporters' pool, even though the assignments normally were handled on a rotating basis. The wisecracks didn't help. But every time he got to the top of the list something would happen and, the next time he saw the list, Nofziger, Lyn, would be at the bottom again. Nofziger suffered, truly (as they like to say these days) suffered, through the Camelot days and the Great Society beginnings as an unkempt, wise-cracking Westerner who simply wasn't in the Washington groove. His hangout was the men's bar at the National Press Club, a place already abandoned by the journalistic aristocracy.
And then suddenly he disappeared -- off into never-never land, the land of make-believe in California, like one of those journalistic friends who occasionally falls off the edge into a hopeless love affair with a sultry actress and disappears abruptly, totally into the maw. Nofziger's siren was an over-the-hill movie star named Ronald Reagan who, at the depths of the conservatives' 1964 Barry Goldwater despair, electrified the devastated right with The Speech. Still, it was not one of those instantaneous, star-struck love affairs.
Nofziger didn't see the speech till 10 days later on election day. He watched a televised replay at Goldwater's retreat at the Camelback Inn in Scottsdale, Ariz. By then the Johnson landslide was rolling westward across the country, the returns were so bleak even Goldwater's Arizona was in doubt and the depression was dreadful. He saw the speech, thought it was a nice job by an actor and forgot it.
"I didn't see white horses racing to the presidency," Nofziger says. "I saw Lyndon Johnson racing to the presidency."
The next year he sought an interview with Reagan. The interview was at the Brown Derby in Hollywood and Nofziger, the poltergeist, still sees the piquant touches in that, meeting Ronald Reagan at the place where dreamy kids from Middle America sat and waited to be discovered. Make me a star. Nofziger still didn't see white horses. It was less make me a star than catch a falling star.
By that time, however, reagan was gathering momentum. The wealthy California right was gathering around him and the Hollywood run on the governorship was already under way. The Reagan money men went to Jim Copley, publisher of Nofziger's conservative newspapers, and told Copley they needed his man. Copley called in his Washington correspondent and told him he was on a two-year leave of absence. The going was not always easy, but Nofziger never was at the botom of a pool list again.
After three speeches, Nofziger was as hooked as the kids in the Brown Derby. He recalls going to one of Reagan's strategists, Bill Roberts, and blurting out: "This guy will be president some day."
Good Lord," Roberts replied, "what'll the poor man do if he becomes governor?"
The second black loafer teeters off the other foot and lands on the carpet, another gold toe pointing in another direction, this time at the don't-get-mad-get-even motto, and the face turns guru-inscrutable, as if the student next to him has no way of understanding the complexity of this.
"That story was one we recalled many times after we won. Do you remember that last line from the film 'The Candidate'? When it is all over, the campaign is all over, and they turn to each other and say, with sheer horror on their faces, 'Well, we've won. What do we do now?'"
Nofziger is being slightly more careful now, bcause he believes Reagan was a good governor and will be a great president. But facts are facts and, as 1966 turned into 1967, with Berkeley erupting and California overflowing with new-life immigrants, the most dynamic state in the country had an actor in the governor's chair.
He was a man who had been groomed and tuned to win, not govern. Reagan "materialized out of thin air with no political background," Nofziger said at the time. "He didn't even run his own campaign. His campaign was run by hired people who then walked away and left it." The first six months were chaotic.
Not only was Reagan an actor, surrounded by a highly suspicious press corps, but he was a 9-to-5 governor, a paradox with a glamorous Hollywood wife but a lifestyle that rejected the kind of glamor Sacramento understood. He went home at 5, showered, slipped into a bathrobe, ate dinner and stayed in the bathrobe the rest of the evening, usually watching television. The press quickly and gleefully discovered that his favorite television shows were "Bonanza" and "Mission Impossible" . . . Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to run a state of 20 million people. In five seconds this tape will self-destruct.
"He'd come out of his office at 5," Nofziger says, "and look at all the people working away at jobs that seemed endless. He'd walk by and say, 'Go home.'
"And we'd say, 'But who is going to get the work done?'
"And he'd say, 'It isn't that important. go home.' And he'd go home."
The guru look turns deadly serious. The toes stop twitching. The slouching porpoise becomes partly erect, laboriously pulling itself up from the couch. Buttons number 5 and 6 enjoy a moment of relief, as the stomach is pulled inward intentionally, if briefly. For the guru, understanding is curcial here, a great need existing for that kind of mystical connection that moves communication beyond the obvious.
It is clear that the guru has not had universal luck in making that kind of connection with others, with the Camelot-struck, with those who define the presidency in terms of Great Society, Lyndon Johnson frenzy. The eyes turn beady black, as if the real Lyn Nofziger sees the line . . . In five seconds this tape will self destruct. . . running through a hopeless student's head.
"Whatever his system is," Nofziger says, pugnaciously, "it works. He does it his way. The job is not going to run him. He's going to run the job. He isn't panicked by criticism or panicked by the problems."
Nofziger doesn't like this part, the continual chore of justifying Ronald Reagan. His voice meanders back over 14 years of justifying, over all those years of using the same set of justifications during each new campaign and each step upward for each new generation of doubting liberal reporters who never accepted Lyn Nofziger and won't accept Ronald Reagan.
The same questions: Does he read, does he think, does he cap his teeth, does he dye his hair (that "nice guy," Jerry Ford, didn't help matters in 1976 when he popped off that Reagan's hair had gone "prematurley orange")? Is he a product, packaged like Sugar Pops or the candidate in "The Candiate"? Is he real? Is there a rest of him as he asked in his own autobiography, Where Is the Rest of Me ?
Write all this down. It's the real Lyn . . . Maybe. If the secretary's smile was hopeless, it also was fond. The loyalty that goes up to the man in the Oval Office also goes out to his own aides who stick by him throught the endless battles of Byzantine as well as the neverending hoedown with the liberal outside world. Nofziger has as many top-flight women aides as any man in the Reagan administration. They are known as "Nofzier's Harem." His longtime marriage also is one of the most stable in the rocky world in which Lyn and Bonnie Nofziger have chosen to live.Nofziger works hard, jokes hard, drinks hard -- and goes home at night.
Those intense loyalties are the anchors, perhaps, for a man who also can be a mean, tough, shrewd ayatollah of the right; for a man who can find himself out of step with the world he chose, then fight friend and foe to bring the world into step instead of changing stride himself.
In Suite 175 the "real" Lyn Nofziger is downright restless now. Antsy. Tired of justifying Reagan, tired of explaining himself. He would rather be thrusting Democrats. A revolution is underway, even if the leader runs it 9 to 5.
The revolution, if it works right, will mean that someday a young Lyn Nofziger will arrive in Washington, belly up to the Press Club bar with his Western wisecracks and bedraggled tie and the Ivy Leaguers will be the outsiders, reaching for the top of the pool list and then suddenly being dropped -- thrust -- to the bottom.
Don't get mad, get even. This is the ultimate chance to get even, to remake the philosophical base from the ground up so those young Lyns will arrive here naturally superior. But it isn't there yet and Nofziger's attention span has run its limit after two hours of this in the office of ghosts, the sun long down.
"We've been bouncing all over the place," Nofziger complains. "Have you read up? Some people come in here and just waste my time, and I have to give them bios and clippings and all kinds of stuff. You've read the clips?"
You remember Lyn Nofziger at the Press Club bar 15 years ago. All the clips, Lyn, you reply.
"Yeah, all lies," Nofziger says, grinning but rising from the couch.
"I'll tell you, though, there is one lie in there and it's the Nancy thing. We had our problems, back in California, back in 1967, and it probably was my fault. We didn't talk for a few months. By early '68 we were back on speaking terms. My relations with Nancy are good."
He pauses by the Bombay Gin sign.
"That doesn't mean we have to go to the same parties, have the same friends . . .
"They don't drink enough," he adds again, and Rasputin dissolves into the poltergeist prankster, leaving the "real" Lyn Nofziger untouched.
"I gotta be me. That'd make a great song, wouldn't it? I have to comfortable with me and if that doesn't work, they can always fire me."
He is at the door now, the one Richard Nixon closed tightly as he listened to the haunting voices. You ask how many times he has been fired, or quit, or got caught up in the byzantine battling and faced reality during the 14 years from "Death Valley Days" to "Mission Impossible" to the bonanza of the Oval Office.
He is counting as you walk away from Suite 175. "Three, four, five . . . "