One legacy of the Nixon Administration that has never ceased to enjoy widespread popularity in America is the tradition of “panda diplomacy,” in which the People’s Republic of China sends giant pandas to the National Zoo, to the delight of visitors of all ages.
This saga began some weeks after President Nixon’s visit to the PRC in 1972, when Chinese leader Mao Zedong sent two pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, to the National Zoo. They were the Zoo’s most popular attractions by far until they died in the 1990s, the two oldest pandas to survive in captivity. During their decades in Washington, efforts were made to breed them, but all the offspring died after a few days.
In 2000, the PRC sent two pandas to replace them. Unlike Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, which were gifts to the United States, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are on loan to this country. For five years, the two new animals enjoyed an effective monopoly on American panda-mania.
That changed in 2005, when the black-and-white couple welcomed a son. According to Chinese tradition pandas are not given names until they are 100 days old, so it was not until then that the youngster was christened Tai Shan. But a zoo worker’s remark that the animal, at birth, weighed about as much as an average stick of butter resulted in the nickname by which the panda is far better known.
For the four years since his birth, “Butterstick” has effortlessly projected a charisma unequaled by any other Washington resident, including the current President, and each year on his birthday, thousands descend on the zoo to celebrate, lining up to wait for hours before opening time.
But all good things must, sometime, come to an end, and Tai Shan is no exception. From his birth he belonged to the PRC, under the terms of the agreement which brought his parents to the Zoo, and that nation had the right to ask for his return. This month, the Chinese government asked for his return, and so “Butterstick” must leave the zoo before long, probably at the end of next month. But he’ll be long, long remembered by a city, and a nation, for whom he provided countless hours of fascination and joy. And as he leaves, he has the distinction of being part of a great tradition founded by the two leaders who shook hands in Beijing twenty-seven years ago.
The #1 Fan in the 1950s: Vice President Nixon tosses a ball around in his Capitol Office.
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.”
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.
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.
Word came from Los Angeles this evening of the death yesterday of actor Gene Barry at the age of 90. Barry’s career was a very long one – he made his Broadway debut in 1942 – and highly varied. In 1944, he performed opposite Mae West in her show Catherine Was Great. A decade later, he was starring in what probably still is, despite the best efforts of Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise, the most loved film adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War Of The Worlds. By the end of the 1950s he was starring as the dapper Bat Masterson on television, and a few years after that was a hit as the wealthy policeman Amos Burke on Burke’s Law. Another popular series, The Name Of The Game, followed.
The next decade proved rather more low-key, as Barry shuttled between TV guest spots and that vanished institution which is an even more cherished memory of the 1970s than pet rocks or Pong, the dinner-theater circuit. Then, in 1983, he came back to Broadway for the first time in 21 years as Georges, the gay nightclub owner in the blockbuster musical La Cage Aux Folles, a role which earned him a Tony nomination and ultimately helped win him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
But it came as quite a surprise, reading Barry’s obituaries this evening, to find out that the previous year, he had starred in a show that seemed destined for Broadway but (according to this interview with the actor) opened and closed in Atlanta in July 1982, proving so expensive to produce in its three-week run that plans to bring it to New York were set aside.
The show was co-written by Tommy Oliver and Edward J. Lakso, and its title was simple yet quite descriptive – Watergate: The Musical – with Gene Barry starring as Richard Nixon. His wife, Betty Clair Barry, played Pat Nixon. Ed Herlihy, the instantly recognizable narrator of countless ’40s and ’50s newsreels, played Sen. Sam Ervin.
I imagine many readers of TNN are trying to visualize TV’s Bat Masterson trading in his embroidered vest for a dark blue suit and wingtips, so here’s a photo of Barry as RN – before the offer to play Georges came and he went back to his finery.
Forty years ago today, on 9 December 1969, President Nixon flew to New York to receive the National Football Foundation’s Gold Medal and to deliver a speech that was truly a labor of love.
He was the guest of honor at the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame Dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. The toastmaster was ABC sportscaster Chris Schenkel, with whom RN had bantered on national TV during the halftime at the Texas-Arkansas game three days before.
9 December 1969: RN at the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame Dinner:
This speech —on a congenial topic and to be delivered to a friendly and receptive audience in the wake of his phenomenally successful 3 November speech— was mostly written by RN himself. It contains many spontaneous observations and recollections, and it provides a real insight into the man and the President.
Before RN rose to speak, Archibald MacLeish, the Harvard professor, poet, playwright, Librarian of Congress, and erstwhile Yale football terror, was awarded the Foundation’s Distinguished American Award. He said, “Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, there is no reason in football or in poetry why the two should not meet in a man’s life if he has the weight and cares about the words.”
RN opened with a graceful reference to McLeish’s remarks, in which he had quoted former Secretary of State Dean Acheson. This managed to defang one critic (who was sitting on the stage) while saluting another. Acheson, who had been the focus of some of RN’s strongest campaign rhetoric during late ’40s and early ’50s, had been among RN’s strongest supporters after the “silent majority” speech delivered just five weeks before. RN also worked in a reference to the Apollo XI moon landing in July.
I was trying to think of something that would appropriately describe how I feel in accepting this award. I would have to be less than candid if I were not to say that because of the offices I have held I have received many awards.
But I think Archibald MacLeish, in that perfectly eloquent tribute to football, quoting Secretary of State Dean Acheson, put it very well. He said, “The honors you don’t deserve are the ones you are most grateful to receive.”
I simply want to set the record straight with regard to my football qualifications. This is a candid, open administration. We believe in telling the truth about football and everything.
I can only say that as far as this award is concerned, that it is certainly a small step for the National Football Foundation and a small step for football, but it is a giant leap for a man who never even made the team at Whittier.
RN opened with a tip of the hat to his former nemesis, but post-3-November Vietnam supporter, Secretary of State Dean Acheson.
Having raised the subject of his college gridiron career, he embarked on some charming self-deprecation:
I have looked around that wall, Whittier is not up there, I can assure you. I didn’t hear the Whittier song, either, a moment ago. In fact, only the coach from Loyola knows where Whittier is. We used to play Loyola.
I got into a game once when we were so far behind it didn’t matter. I even got into one against Southern Cal once when we were so far behind it didn’t matter.
Now just to tell you a little about Whittier because I want the record to be straight: It is a school with very high academic standing. We had a very remarkable coach.
I pointed out in my acceptance address in Miami that one of the men who influenced me most in my life was my coach and I think that could be true of many public men.
My coach was an American Indian, Chief Newman. He was a perfectly remarkable man and a great leader. I learned more from him about life really than I did about football, but a little about football.
One of the reasons, I guess, he didn’t put me in was because I didn’t know the plays. Now there was a good reason for that. It wasn’t because I wasn’t smart enough. I knew the enemy’s plays.. I played them all week long. Believe me, nobody in the Southern California Conference knew Occidental’s or Pomona’s or Redlands’ or Cal Tech’s or Loyola’s plays better than I did, because I was on that side.
I learned a lot sitting by the coach on the bench–learned about football and learned about life.
In his speech, RN saluted the legendary Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson —who had been named to the Football Hall of Fame— whom he had invited onto the White House staff as a Special Assistant to the President.
RN wasn’t kidding when he said —as he did many times— that he would have enjoyed being a sports writer. He put it right out front again in the first of several remarkably detailed (and mostly completely accurate) reminiscences in this speech:
Among all of the people who have been honored tonight, let me just say a good word about sports writers. After all, I must say that this is not an unselfish statement, most sports writers become political writers in the end–”Scotty” Reston, Bob Considine, Bill Henry. So I am just planning for the future.
But, in any event, thinking of sports writers for the moment, they have made football live before the days of television and even now for many who never got to the games.
My first recollection of big-time college football was Ernie Nevers against Notre Dame in 1925–I see Ernie Nevers here. And I sat in the stands with Father Hesburgh [President of Notre Dame] when Southern Cal played and lost to Notre Dame, and I know the great spirit between those two schools. But I remember that game. I remember the score. I think it was 25 to 10, or four touchdowns to a touchdown and a field goal, and I remember that the sports writers, Bill Henry of the Los Angeles Times, and others were writing about the game, wrote about one play where Nevers went through the line close to the goal and there was a dispute as to, whether he went over and was pushed back.
Stanford All-American Ernie Nevers played in the 1925 Rose Bowl against Notre Dame. He rushed for 114 yards — more than all the Four Horsemen combined — and was named Player of the Game.
Characteristically, RN remembered the great players as well as the winners:
Then my memory goes on, just to share them with you, and interestingly enough I remember performances by men who lost as well as those who won. That is rather natural, I am sure you can understand.
The first Rose Bowl game I saw was between one of the great Howard Jones’ teams of the early thirties and Jock Sutherland’s Pitt team. Pitt was overmanned. They had a fine quarterback in Warren Heller, a good passer. And Howard Jones had a team that beat them 35 to 0.
But my memories of that team were not of the awesome power of Howard Jones’ team moving down with the unbalanced single wing going down, down, down the field and scoring again and again with that tremendous blocking, but of two very gallant Pittsburgh ends, Skaladany and Dailey.
For the first half, I remember they plowed into that awesome USC interference and knocked it down time and time again and held the score down. The game was lost, but I remember right to the last they were in there fighting and that spirit stayed with me as a memory; and the years go on.
RN’s first Rose Bowl: 2 January 1933. Although the game was a 35-0 USC victory, thirty-six years later RN remembered the spectacular playing of Pitt ends Ted Dailey and Joe Skaladany (above).
RN remembered another Rose Bowl — 1939′s — in which, as a Duke alum, he had a stake. His stroll down memory lane ended with a slight detour — clearly taken for dramatic purposes; although his date for the game was Thelma Ryan, he had already met her at the Whittier Community Players.
I think of another game, Southern Cal and Duke, 1938 [sic]. I had attended Duke University for law school, and I remember that Duke came there undefeated, untied, unscored upon. The score was 3 to 0 going into the last few minutes of the game. So out came a fourth-string quarterback, not a third-string, Doyle Nave, and he threw passes as they throw them today, one after another, to Al Kreuger, an end from Antelope Valley, California. And finally Southern California scored. It was 7 to 3.
I must say that I was terribly disappointed, of course, but the woman who was to be my future wife went to Southern Cal and that is how it all worked out. We met at that game.
Shutting down the hitherto undefeated Blue Devils: “Antelope” Al Krueger catches the the historic pass well remembered by RN.
Although RN was such a vociferous fan that he shouted himself hoarse at Duke games, that isn’t him standing — but he and the future PN (a former Trojan) were in this crowd of Duke supporters at the Rose Bowl on 1 January 1939.
After some more reminiscences —of Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes— RN reached his peroration:
But now, one serious moment. Archibald MacLeish did say what I wish I could have written about what football means to this country, what it means to me as an individual, what it means to me as one who is serving as President of the United States. I can only tell you that in the Cabinet Room there are the pictures of three men whom I consider to be great Presidents: President Eisenhower, president Woodrow Wilson, President Theodore Roosevelt. There were other great ones, but these three in this century, I consider to be among the great presidents.
All of them had one thing in common. They were very different men: Eisenhower, the great general; Theodore Roosevelt, the tremendous extrovert, explorer, writer, one of the most talented men of our time in so many fields; Woodrow Wilson, probably the greatest scholar who has ever occupied the Presidency, a man with the biggest vocabulary of any President in our history, in case you want to put it down in your memory book•
But each of them had a passion for football. Woodrow Wilson, when he taught at Wesleyan [Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn.] used to talk about the spirit of football, and later on when he was president of Princeton, he insisted on scholarship, but he recognized and tried to encourage football.
T. R. was dictating a speech one day, a very important one. He got a call telling of two of his sons participating in a prep school game which they had won. He dropped the speech and ran shouting for joy to his wife and said, “They won, they won!”
I remember President Eisenhower talking to me after his heart attack. He said one of the things he hated to give up was that the doctor said he should not listen to those football games because he got too excited and became too involved.
What does this mean, this common interest in football of Presidents, of leaders, of people generally? It means a competitive spirit. It means, also, to me, the ability and the determination to be able to lose and then come back and try again, to sit on the bench and then come back• It means basically the character, the drive, the pride, the teamwork, the feeling of being in a cause bigger than yourself.
All of these great factors are essential if a nation is to maintain character and greatness for that nation. So, in the 100th year of football, as we approach the 200th year of the United States, remember that our great assets are not our military strength or our economic wealth, but the character of our young people, and I am glad that America’s young people produce the kind of men that we have in American football today.
He concluded with a wrap-up of the ’69 season-to-date, illuminated by an unexpected example from a very different sport:
I close on a note that will tell you why I think Texas deserved to be Number 1. It was not because they scored the second touchdown, but it was because after the first touchdown when they were ahead [sic] 14 to 0, the coach sent in a play. They executed the play and they went for two. When they went for two and the score was 18  to 14, they moved the momentum in their direction. They were not sure to win because Arkansas still had a lot of fight left and I remember that great Arkansas drive in those last few minutes. But Texas, by that very act, demonstrated the qualities of a champion, the qualities to come back when they were behind and then when they could have played it safe just to tie, they played to win.
This allows me to tell a favorite anecdote of mine in the world of sports. In another field, one of the great tennis players of all time, of course–the first really big tennis player in terms of the big serve and the rest, in our time–was Bill Tilden.
When he was coaching, after he completed his playing years, a young player had won a match in a minor tournament and won it rather well. He came off the court and expected Tilden to say something to him in words of congratulation, and Tilden didn’t.
The player said to him, “What is the matter, I won, didn’t I?” Tilden said, “Yes, you won, but playing that way you will never be a champion, because you played not to lose. You didn’t play to win.”
That is what America needs today. What we need in the spirit of this country and the spirit of our young people is not playing it safe always, not being afraid of defeat—being ready to get into the battle and playing to win, not with the idea of destroying or defeating or hurting anybody else, but with the idea of achieving excellence.
Because Texas demonstrated that day that they were playing to win, they set an example worthy of being Number 1 in the 100th year of college football.
RN warmed the bench at Whittier High School (above) as well as at Whittier College (below).
Barry Blitt‘s cover for this week’s New Yorker: