The Last Press Conference (Part II)

“Now that Mr. Klein has made his statement, and now that all the members of the press are so delighted that I have lost, I’d like to make a statement of my own,” Nixon said, immediately putting the stunned reporters in attendance on notice. After asserting that he had “no complaints about the press coverage,” he then spent the next few minutes reeling off a laundry list of complaints, singling out the dominant Los Angeles newspaper, the LA Times, for treating him unfairly. Nixon angrily laid into all of the reporters present, complaining that they misrepresented him on the campaign trail and refused to accurately report what he had said. He asserted that his few flubs, including the one where he had said he was running for “governor of the United States,” had been blown out of proportion while reporters had given Brown a free ride. He also lectured them about how to do their jobs, maintaining that if they were going to back one candidate over the other, they should do it on the editorial pages rather than as part of their news coverage.

Nixon then launched into his concession speech. Except, rather than fall back on the usual vague platitudes that are standard components of almost all concession speeches, such as moving forward together and being grateful to God and family, Nixon launched into an attack on the man that had just defeated him by nearly 300,000 votes out of nearly 5.8 million cast.

I congratulate Governor Brown, as Herb Klein has already indicated, for his victory. He has, I think, the greatest honor and the greatest responsibility of any Governor in the United States . . . I believe Governor Brown has a heart, even though he believes I do not. I believe he is a good American, even though he feels I am not . . . I am proud of the fact that I defended my opponent’s patriotism. You gentlemen didn’t report it, but I am proud that I did that. I am proud also that I defended the fact that he was a man of good motives, a man that I disagreed with very strongly, but a man of good motives. I want that— for once, gentlemen, I would appreciate if you would write what I say, in that respect. I think it’s very important what you write i —in the lead—in the lead.

After some general observations about election results throughout the country, Nixon then dropped the bombshell. He was finished with electoral politics. The Republican Party would have to continue on without him— preferably with one of the men who had actually won on Election Night as its new titular head. Nixon specifically mentioned governors Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Jim Rhodes of Ohio, who had been reelected, and governors-elect George Romney of Michigan and William Scranton of Pennsylvania, who had just won their first terms, as four men that could vie for the presidential nomination in 1964. “In 1964, the Republican Party will be revitalized,” Nixon noted. “Now, it will be revitalized, of course, provided the Republicans in California also can under new leadership—not mine— because I have fought the fight and now it’s up to others to take this responsibility of leadership, and I don’t say this with any bitterness, because I just feel that that’s the way it should be.”

He also thanked his staff and his volunteers, telling them that they did a magnificent job—kind of. “I only wish they could have gotten out a few more votes in the key precincts, but because they didn’t Mr. Brown has won and I have lost the election,” he said. He weighed in on domestic and foreign affairs while noting that President Kennedy had a lot of things he needed to do in order to keep the country safe while revitalizing the economy.

He also said “one last thing” multiple times as he looked for the right note to go out on. First, he went the personal route. “One last thing,” Nixon said. “What are my plans? Well, my plans are to go home. I’m going to get acquainted with my family again. And my plans, incidentally, are, from a political standpoint, of course, to take a holiday. It will be a long holiday.” A few moments later, he tried, once again, to wrap things up. This time, he tried the magnanimous route. “One last thing. People say: ‘What about the past? What about losing in ’60 and losing in ’62?’” he said again. “I did not win. I have no hard feelings against anybody, against my opponent, and least of all the people of California. We got our message through as well as we could.”

Ultimately, he decided to wrap up by hitting the press one last time while seemingly writing his own epitaph.

One last thing. At the outset, I said a couple of things with regard to the press that I noticed some of you looked a little irritated about. And my philosophy with respect to the press has really never gotten through. And I want to get it through. This cannot be said for any other American political figure today, I guess. Never in my 16 years of campaigning have I complained to a publisher, to an editor, about the coverage of a reporter. I believe a reporter has got a right to write it as he feels it. I believe if a reporter believes that one man ought to win rather than the other, rather it’s on television or radio or the like, he ought to say so. I will say to the reporter sometimes that I think well, look, I wish you’d give my opponent the same going over that you give me. And as I leave the press, all I can say is this: For 16 years, ever since the Hiss case, you’ve had a lot of—a lot of fun—that you’ve had an opportunity to attack me and I think I’ve given as good as I’ve taken. It was carried right up to the last day.

Finally, Nixon signed off with one of the most infamous and repeated lines in political history. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference and it will be one in which I have welcomed the opportunity to test wits with you,” he said.

When he finally ended his speech, there were no smiles and no handshakes. There was no defiant “victory” pose like there would be twelve years later when Nixon boarded the White House helicopter after resigning the presidency. Instead, he left the ballroom unceremoniously and went home to face an uncertain future and a family that suddenly had their patriarch all to themselves.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Richard Nixon had enjoyed a meteoric rise to power that had seemed destined to land him in the White House. Instead, as he returned home from the Beverly Hilton a deflated and devastated man, he was forced to confront a new reality: he was finished as a politician, and he hadn’t even turned fifty yet. His wife, Pat, and his two daughters, Tricia and Julie, had watched his defiant stand against the press on television and had cheered him on. When he arrived home, however, reality set in and all four Nixons started to absorb the full magnitude of the defeat. Pat’s voice quivered as she tried to suppress tears, and all she was able to say was: “Oh, Dick!” Nixon then brushed past her and went to the backyard, where he broke down and wept. Seeing their parents in emotional turmoil was a new experience for the Nixon girls, and Tricia recalled that the dark cloud over the family, particularly between her parents, didn’t dissipate for a long time. “There was a sadness,” Tricia said. “And the sadness went on for years."

[T]he media seemed keen to take a victory lap after Nixon’s defeat and self-implosion. Time magazine declared Nixon’s political career to be dead, while James “Scotty” Reston of the New York Times called Nixon “unelected and unmourned, an unemployed lawyer.” ABC inadvertently lent Nixon a helping hand when it broadcast “The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon” on the Sunday after the election. Journalist Howard Smith hosted a documentary that included interviews with two Nixon allies, Murray Chotiner and Republican congressman (and future Nixon vice president) Gerald Ford, as well as two Nixon enemies, Jerry Voorhis and Alger Hiss. The appearance of Hiss on the program resulted in an uproar as viewers took umbrage with Smith’s decision to provide the convicted perjurer with a platform to denounce the guy who got him. “[Nixon] was less interested in developing the facts objectively than in seeking ways of making a preconceived plan appear plausible,” Hiss said when asked about Nixon’s conduct toward him. “I regard his actions as motivated by ambition, by personal self- serving.”

According to Smith himself, ABC was flooded with nearly sixty thousand angry letters. The pressure was such that James Hagerty, the network’s vice president in charge of news (and former White House press secretary under Eisenhower), felt compelled to defend his network’s use of Hiss, while emphasizing that he was “against Hiss and everything he stands for.” Instead, Hagerty pointed out that Hiss was a newsmaker and that he had, undoubtedly, played a major role in Nixon’s political career.

ABC stood by Smith but couldn’t find companies to sponsor the program following the season, and Smith’s show was eventually cancelled. Smith’s career didn’t recover for six years, ironically enough, right around the time a certain ex-politician was preparing to run for president.

Nixon, meanwhile, played the incident perfectly and even got some sympathy as a result of Hiss’s comments. “What does an attack by one convicted perjurer mean when weighed on the scale against thousands of wires and letters from patriotic Americans?” Nixon said in a statement at the time. In his memoirs, he reflected: “The immediate uproar of this remark helped to turn me from the sore loser of the ‘last press conference’ into something of an injured party.”

Indeed, Nixon’s 1962 loss and subsequent meltdown may have actually helped pave the way for his comeback in 1968. For one thing, it took him out of the running in 1964, avoiding what he assumed, then, would be a rematch with Kennedy. Nixon knew how hard it was to unseat an incumbent president, and the last thing he wanted was to become the next Adlai Stevenson, who had waged two consecutive losing campaigns to Eisenhower and was finished as a national politician even before all of the ballots were counted the second time around. “Far from wanting to use the state-house in Sacramento to launch another Presidential bid in 1964, as Brown successfully charged in the 1962 campaign, Nixon actually hoped to use it as a four year hiding place, from which he could avoid making another losing race against Kennedy,” Jules Witcover wrote in The Resurrection of Richard Nixon. “Inherent in his decision to run for governor was a Presidential timetable not of 1964, but of 1968, when he finally did make his second try.”

Nixon, himself, would eventually subscribe to this view, saying that the 1962 loss helped him because, otherwise, he would have either been drafted as the candidate in 1964 and lost to the unbeatable Lyndon Johnson that year, or he would have suffered a humiliating defeat at the 1964 GOP National Convention to eventual nominee Barry Goldwater, ending his national ambitions once and for all. “There is no question that running for governor was a bad risk,” Nixon said. “But the road to victory is sometimes paved with defeat.”

In fact, Stephen Ambrose argued that the “last press conference” was actually the start of his presidential race—the reporters just didn’t know it because they were too busy watching the train wreck unfold before them. “The story that the reporters had missed was that Nixon had just made the press an issue,” Ambrose wrote. “Nixon knew that the national press did not speak for or to millions of Republicans. He understood and enunciated a point of view: that the press was liberal, Democratic, do-gooder, pro-big government and big labor for high taxes, yet craven in the face of the Communist menace, and always out to give the shaft to Republicans.” Indeed,it’s a play that many Republicans continue to run today, and it’s one of the main reasons for the overwhelming success of Fox News, a network that was launched by former Nixon media consultant Roger Ailes.

It’s possible that Nixon, at the time of his on-stage meltdown, truly believed he was finished as a politician. He was under no illusions about how damaging the loss to Brown, as well as his temper tantrum, had been to his political prospects. “He felt as though he were through with politics,” Chotiner said many years later. “Not by choice, but by outcome.” He knew he had come across as a poor sport and that no one liked a sore loser. As he was leaving the stage, he had said to Klein: “Damn it, I know you didn’t want me to do that, but I had to say it!”

However, as Witcover argued, Nixon was, by nature, a political animal, and he was never going to be content being away from the game. “Nixon never permitted the thought to enter his mind that he would get out of politics— public life, party activity, discussion of issues altogether,” Witcover wrote. As such, Nixon may not have been thinking about the White House as he arrived home from the Beverly Hilton that November morning—except that his ultimate goal seemed further away than ever.

Years later, Nixon remarked that the press conference had “served a purpose.” “The press had a guilt complex about their inaccuracy,” he argued. “Since then, they’ve become more accurate and respectful.” In fact, he admitted that he had gone on his tirade to serve notice that he was done being the media’s whipping boy and that he wished he had done it sooner.  “I believe that it gave the media a warning that I would not sit back and take whatever biased coverage was dished out to me,” Nixon said. If he were truly finished as a politician, then this begs the question why he would care about his press coverage in the future. Instead, as Ambrose argued, Nixon knew he would run for president again and all he had to do was be ready to seize the opportunity when it came around. “He used his assets shrewdly, and succeeded with the qualities that had made him successful in the past—hard work, boldness, risk taking and attacking the Democrats,” Ambrose wrote. 

Most importantly, Nixon had learned his lesson about the price of losing his temper. “From the moment of his disastrous ‘last press conference,’ the man embarked on a determined effort never again to inflict damage on himself through lack of self-discipline,” Witcover wrote. In that regard, being a lawyer helped him because, if there’s anything they teach you in law school, it’s that every word matters and lawyers must choose them carefully.

In the meantime, he needed a break—from everything. Politically, his reputation was toxic, and after two consecutive losses, the only race he could have possibly won was for county coroner—and only because the voters probably would have gotten a kick out of seeing him surrounded by corpses who were as dead as his White House ambitions. He was a divisive figure who seemed to inspire suspicion, distrust, and even hate. Moreover, many of his biggest and most serious professional wounds had been self-inflicted. A move to the private sector would allow him to leave the echo chamber of electoral politics, broadening his horizons while giving him access to intelligent minds and different points of view. In other words, leaving politics, if only for a little while, could allow Richard Nixon to think differently. And everyone was pretty much in agreement that Nixon, if he ever wanted to have a future in electoral politics, needed to be different.

And he had to get out of California. Luckily, he had some friends in high places that would help him find a nice landing place.

Victor Li

chicago, il