Nashua '68: What A Short Strange Trip It Was

    IH186155

    The #1 Fan in the 1950s: Vice President Nixon tosses a ball around in his Capitol Office.

    Several recent TNN posts (here, here, and here) have presented RN as a serious football fan.  In fact, that puts the case mildly; he was the kind of enthusiast who puts the “fan” in “fanatic.”

    But, unlike many who mostly talk the talk, RN could really walk the walk — a fact discovered and recorded by no less an authority (and no less rabid a Nixon critic) than the uber-Gonzo journalist and Rolling Stone National Correspondent Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

    In Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 —his bizarre and superb account of the 1972 presidential campaign— there are few moments more superbly bizarre than the limo ride with RN that he recalled and recounted from the eve of the New Hampshire primary during the 1968 presidential campaign.

    For Thompson, of course, this was, literally, a case of giving the devil his due.  But that makes his admiration all the more interesting and impressive.  And when Dr. Hunter S. Thompson describes something as “one of the weirdest things I’ve ever done,” attention really must be paid.

    Hunter S. Thompson

    “Weird Memories of ’68: A Private Conversation with Richard Nixon” from Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (pp. 58-61)

    It was a big yellow sedan with a civvy-clothes cop at the wheel.  Sitting next to the cop, up front, were two of Nixon’s top speechwriters: Ray Price and Pat Buchannan [sic].

    There were only two of us in back: just me and Richard Nixon, and we were talking football in a very serious way.  It was late —almost midnight then, too— and the cop was holding the beg Merc at exactly sixty-five as we hissed along the highway for more than an hour between some American Legion hall in a small town somewhere near Nashua where Nixon had just made a speech, to the airport up in Manchester where a Lear Jet was waiting to whisk the candidate and his brain-trust off to Key Biscayne for a Think Session.

    It was a very weird trip; probably one of the weirdest things I’ve ever done, and especially weird because both Nixon and I enjoyed it.  We had a good talk, and when we got to the airport, I stood around the Lear Jet with Dick and the others, chatting in a very relaxed way about how successful his swing through New Hampshire had been…and as he climbed into the plane it seemed only natural to thank him for the ride and shake hands….

    But suddenly I was seized from behind and jerked away from the plane.  Good God, I thought as I reeled backwards, Here We Go … “Watch out!” somebody was shouting.  “Get the cigarette!”  A hand lashed out of the darkness to snatch the cigarette out of my mouth, then other hands kept me from falling and I recognized the voice of Nick Ruwe, Nixon’s chief advance man for New Hampshire, saying, “God damnit, Hunter, you almost blew up the plane!”

    I shrugged.  He was right.  I’d been leaning over the fuel tank with a burning butt in my mouth.  Nixon smiled and reached out to shake hands again, while Ruwe muttered darkly and the others stared down at the asphalt.

    The plane took off and I rode back to the Holiday Inn with Nick Ruwe.  We laughed about the cigarette scare, but he was still brooding.  “What worries me,” he said, “is that nobody else noticed it.  Christ, those guys get paid to protect the boss….”

    “Very bad show,” I said, “especially when you remember that I did about three king-size Marlboros while we were standing there.  Hell, I was flicking the butts away, lighting new ones …. You people are lucky I’m a sane, responsible journalist; otherwise I might have hurled my flaming Zippo into the fuel tank.”

    “Not you,” he said.  “egomaniacs don’t do that kind of thing.”  He smiled.  “You wouldn’t do anything you couldn’t live to write about, would you?”

    “You’re probably right, I said.  “Kamikaze is not my style.  I much prefer subtleties, the low-key approach — because I am, after all, a professional.”

    “We know.  That’s why you’re along.”

    NA012840

    The #1 Fan in the 1960s: presidential candidate Nixon, just a few months after his late night New Hampshire encounter with Hunter Thompson, was at the LA Coliseum (with campaign manager John Mitchell) attending a preseason game between the Rams and the Chiefs.

    Actually the reason was very different: I was the only one in the press corps that evening who claimed to be as seriously addicted to pro football as Nixon himself.  I was also the only out-front openly hostile Peace Freak; the only one wearing old Levis and a ski jacket, the only one (no, there was one other) who’d smoked grass on Nixon’s big Greyhound press bus, and certainly the only one who habitually referred to the candidate as “the Dingbat.”

    So I still had to credit the bastard for having the balls to choose me — out of the fifteen or twenty straight/heavy press types who’d been pleading for two or three weeks for even a five-minute interview— as the one who should share the back seat with him on this Final Ride through New Hampshire.

    But there was, of course, a catch.  I had to agree to talk about nothing except football.  “We want the Boss to relax,” Ray Price told me, “but he can’t relax if you start yelling about Vietnam, race riots or drugs.  He wants to ride with somebody who can talk football.”  He cast a baleful eye at the dozen or so reporters waiting to board the press bus, then shook his head sadly.  “I checked around,” he said. “But the others are hopeless — so I guess you’re it.”

    “Wonderful,” I said.  “Let’s do it.”

    We had a fine time.  I enjoyed it — which put me a bit off balance, because I’d figured Nixon didn’t know any more about football than he did about ending the war in Vietnam.  He had made a lot of allusions to things like “end runs” and “power sweeps” on the stump but it never occurred to me that he actually knew anything more about football than he knew about the Grateful Dead.

    But I was wrong.  Whatever else might be said about Nixon —and there is still serious doubt in my mind that he could pass for Human— he is a goddamn stone fanatic on every fact of pro football.  At one point in our conversation, when I was feeling a bit pressed for leverage, I mentioned a down & out pass —in the waning moments of the 1967 Super Bowl mismatch between Green Bay and Oakland — to an obscure, second-string Oakland receiver named Bill Miller that had stuck in my mind because of its pinpoint style & precision.

    He hesitated for a moment, lost in thought, then he whacked me on the thigh & laughed: “That’s right, by God!  The Miami boy!”

    I was stunned.  He not only remembered the play, but he knew where Miller had played in college.

    Those who knew RN will know that that Miller call that so amazed Dr. Thompson actually bordered on being a no-brainer for RN, whose memory for games and players and statistics was as vivid as it was phenomenal.

    a_nixon_i
    The #1 Fan in the 1970s: President Nixon greets coach George Allen and his family in the Rose Garden after the Redskins won the NFC championship.


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