OUT IN THE WEST, Richard Nixon of San Clemente, Calif., has $700,000 to spend on a New York apartment and no one seems to want him. He tried one building, a swell place on the East Side, and got turned down as a security risk. No one knows if he'll try again. Keep trying, Richard, someone will judge you on your merits yet.
Only I and a friend feel this way. Around a pool on the weekend, I went from wet body to wet body asking people what they felt about Nixon. It was like I was taking the sun from them. Go 'way, they said. Drop it, they said. It is, I have to tell you, very hard to get people worked up about the plight of Richard Nixon.
I understand. We are talking, after all, of the same Richard Nixon who took the money of the people of the United States and turned San Clemente from nothing more than a palace into a Xanadu right out of "Citizen Kane." He promosed he would someday give the whole thing to the very same people of the United States who paid for the improvements but instead sold it to someone, put the money into a very big pocket and sent to New York. It is hard to feel anyone could do him an injustice.
This is what the people were saying around the pool. They talked also of Watergate and Cambodia and redbaiting and Checkers and using the IRS for political purposes and the mean-spirited campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas who lives in New York now, is very sick, and should not be bothered. When it comes to Nixon, the people around the pool were saying there is no such thing as an injustice.
I suppose they have a point, but I have always had a hard time disliking Nixon. For some, that comes easy. Not me. Me, I feel sorry for him. I think I understand him. I identify with him a bit. He is America's premier klutz and I am the guy who always took a layup off the wrong foot. I know what it is to fight your mind for control of your body.
There is a picture of Richard Nixon I will always remember. It was printed in a glossy newspaper published in Palm Beach, Fla. This was an old issue and it showed Richard Nixon, then vice president, standing on a golf course with one of his rich benefactors - I think it was Elmer Bobst. It is a full-length picture and Nixon is wearing his pants too high, belted around his stomach. He looks faintly pregnant and his shirt, not a pull-over or something like that, it buttoned to the neck. He looks constricted, restricted, congested. He looks like a man ashamed of his body. I know it. I understand it. I feel sorry for him.
Around the pool, I tell people that. They give me funny looks. One of the people there, a dark-skinned woman in an orange, two-piece bathing suit, says she, too, was rejected once when she tried to buy a New York apartment. She thinks she was blackballed because she is Jewish. She is not sure. You never know these things. I look to her for understanding. She offers none. Nixon's plight does not move her. She thinks that when it comes to Nixon, the building did the right thing.
In a way. There are, after all, lots of reasons to keep Richard Nixon out of a building, especially one in New York. He has a history of returning to that city to reemerge later in political life, something he did in 1968 when he ran for president, both as a New York corporate lawyer and as something called the New Nixon. At neither law nor newness was he much of a success and not allowing Richard Nixon a toehold in New York has to be considered something of a public service.
But what is troubling here is that none of the residents of the building say anything about what sort of man or president Richard Nixon was - merely that he was a controversial president. He is thus a a security risk, a bother, an inconvenience - a real pain. It is as if they could be talking about FDR after the court-packing issue or Truman after the firing of McArthur and one of the residents put it more or less in those terms: "It was never a personal thing for me. I'd feel the same way about any of the Kennedy's moving here..."
So what the building has done is create a whole new class to be discriminated against - former presidents. It matters not if President Nixon was a good president, or a bad president, but just that he was a president. People will demonstrate. Tour buses will stop at the door. Someone will put a bomb into a box of Lady Godiva chocolates and leave it in the lobby and it will all be because a former president is a residence.
There's something unfair about this. It's unfair to Richard Nixon and all former presidents and, in an ironic way, it lets Nixon off the hook. Keep plugging, Richard.You'll be judged on your merits yet.