The Last Press Conference (Part I)

Richard Nixon was in a foul mood when he took to the stage inside the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton on the morning of November 7, 1962. Sometimes, it could be hard to tell how he was feeling. He was an enigma even to his friends and admirers, while his enemies—well, his enemies were so numerous and varied that, one day, he would have his own official “Enemies List” that consisted of hundreds of names yet still seemed incomplete. On this morning, though, his feelings were pretty obvious to anyone with a pulse. He was so furious that one could almost see the proverbial steam coming from his ears as feelings of bitterness and failure permeated from his pores.

Worse, he’d have to face perhaps his greatest enemy: the press. He had once been their darling, harnessing their approval and acclaim to facilitate a rapid rise through the Republican ranks to become one of the most famous politicians in the country. Now he considered the media to be an implacable foe that was largely responsible for his current predicament.

It was the day after the California gubernatorial election, and Nixon had just gotten humiliated at the polls. Only two years earlier, the two-term vice president had nearly fulfilled his lifelong ambition when he came within an eyelash of winning the presidency in one of the closest elections in American history. That race, against John F. Kennedy, had also been one of the most controversial, marred by accusations of voter fraud, ballot box stuffing, and Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago playing the part of Victor Frankenstein by resurrecting thousands of dead men to vote Democratic.

After returning to California to plot his next move, he had decided to throw his hat in the ring for the governorship. His victory in 1962 had been considered a fait accompli—a savvy move by a smart, calculating, and shrewd politician in advance of another run at the ultimate prize, the White House. Nixon had challenged sitting governor Edmund “Pat” Brown, and while it’s never easy to unseat an incumbent, Nixon was still supposed to win. However, when all the ballots were counted, Nixon had lost by five percentage points in a state where he had only known victories. Unlike the race against Kennedy, the gubernatorial contest was such a definitive loss for Nixon that the electoral magicians were not needed. For Nixon, who loved football almost as much as he loved politics, it was like he had come within a few yards of winning the Super Bowl, and in his zeal to get back to the big game played poorly during the following season and missed the playoffs entirely.

He had never even wanted to run for governor. He, admittedly, cared little for local issues and knew almost nothing about state politics, having served his entire political career in Washington. His strengths, particularly his deep knowledge of foreign policy, would be next to useless in a gubernatorial race. His wife, Pat, had also warned him against taking the race, making the prescient argument that it was the wrong job for him, it was the wrong time to run because it was too soon after his presidential defeat, and it was the wrong place. “We had been away from California for 14 years, and she knew how difficult it would be to build a political organization, particularly at the county, city and precinct levels,” Nixon reflected.

However, Nixon had been under a constant stream of pressure, almost from the moment he arrived home after his term as vice president ended, to run against Brown. Dwight D. Eisenhower, J. Edgar Hoover, and Thomas Dewey had all encouraged him to run, telling him that he needed a strong electoral base from which to mount another campaign for the White House.

He chose to listen to them and not to the likes of Herbert Hoover, Douglas MacArthur, and ex–LA Times publisher Norman Chandler—to say nothing of his wife—who all encouraged him to stay away from the race. “MacArthur put it in his usual characteristically oracular way: ‘California is a great state but it is too parochial. You should be in Washington, not Sacramento,’” Nixon recounted.

The one saving grace for Nixon was that the job seemed to be his for the taking. Brown had a reputation as a lightweight and, in a state where Republicans had dominated the political scene for much of the century, his incumbency seemed like a fluke. In fact, when Brown first won the governor’s mansion in 1958, defeating then-US Senate Minority Leader William Knowland in a massive upset, he became only the second Democrat to win a gubernatorial election in California in the twentieth century.

Brown, however, proved to be a much more formidable candidate than Nixon had anticipated. Jolly and stocky, with a thinning head of hair and a thick set of spectacles, the self-effacing Brown was like everyone’s grandpa—in stark contrast to the brooding Nixon. Beneath that nonthreatening exterior, however, was a shrewd operator who, smartly, used his “bumbler” image as both a shield and sword. Brown’s opponents routinely underestimated him while voters embraced his everyman appeal. Even the Los Angeles Times, known as a pro-Republican newspaper, liked him and gave him favorable coverage.

As Nixon soon found out, Brown and his backers could punch with the best of them. One leaflet that was, purportedly, distributed by the “Independent Voters of California” contained a copy of a property deed signed by Nixon when he was still living in Washington, D.C., that included a restrictive covenant forbidding the resale of the property to blacks or Jews. Those kinds of covenants were common back then, and Ehrlichman had encouraged Nixon to say that he had simply signed the contract without reading the fine print (admittedly, not a great position for any lawyer to take). Nixon demurred, reasoning that “most of the people who would vote for him approved of such covenants.”

Perhaps his biggest handicap was that his initial lack of interest in the job had never really gone away. While he was, undoubtedly, a formidable politician who knew more about national and international affairs than almost any other politician in the country at the time, when it came to issues important to California, he lacked that same level of knowledge, especially in comparison to Brown. Having spent his entire career in Washington, Nixon’s unfamiliarity with his home state hampered him and forced him to talk in vague generalities about cleaning up Sacramento without going into specifics. The press picked up on this and began questioning whether he actually knew anything about the state he sought to lead. Nixon even fell back on a tried-and-true tactic: accusing his opponent of being soft on communism. However, this only prompted more skeptical questions from reporters—something that annoyed Nixon greatly.

He also had to swat away speculation that he was planning on running for president in 1964 and was only using the job to stay relevant until then. When he announced his candidacy for governor in September 1961, he had pledged not to be a candidate for president in 1964. Brown, however, had done a good job convincing voters that Nixon would break that pledge on day one in Sacramento. Nixon had added fuel to the fire by committing an unforced error, telling reporters that he was running for “governor of the United States.”

Finally, in a race that was characterized by Nixon’s focus on national and international issues at the expense of local ones, it was, ironically enough, an international issue that helped condemn him to defeat. The Cuban Missile Crisis resulted in President Kennedy’s popularity hitting the stratosphere, and Democrats throughout America, including Brown, benefitted from Kennedy’s bounce in the polls. Brown surged ahead, and Nixon knew it was over well before polls opened on the morning of November 6, 1962.

As the returns came in and the realization set in that he had lost another race, Nixon decided to drown his sorrows. His resentment grew as his wife wept bitterly in the bedroom of his hotel suite at the Beverly Hilton where his campaign had set up shop to monitor the returns, and his campaign team was scattered throughout the living room trying to recover from the shellshock of losing a race that had seemed like a mere formality. H. R. (Bob) Haldeman, who served as Nixon’s campaign manager in 1962 and would go on to greater infamy as White House Chief of Staff under Nixon, recounted that, when his boss was tired, “one beer would transform his normal speech into the rambling elocution of a Bowery wino.”

The drinking hadn’t clouded his judgment too much, as he had telegrammed Brown a gracious note of congratulations. When he woke up the next morning, however, he was bitter and hungover and was no longer in a conciliatory mood. With reporters waiting for him in the Hilton ballroom, ready to conduct a postmortem of his campaign, Nixon had initially decided not to speak with them. It seemed like the right call. After all, nothing good could possibly come from him going in front of a live microphone with a dark cloud of failure, resentment, and alcohol swirling around him. 

“I had not had time to shave,” Nixon recalled. “I felt terrible, and I looked worse.”

Originally, he had planned on leaving it to his press secretary, Herbert Klein, to feed the pigeons. But like a guy who just couldn’t resist pressing the gigantic red button marked “danger,” Nixon couldn’t stay away from the throng of reporters. According to Nixon’s recollection, he had made up his mind not to speak to the reporters and was about to start heading home when he looked at the television screen in his suite and saw that the press conference was already underway. Then he heard overheard one of the reporters on the screen ask, “Where’s Nixon?” Thinking that this reporter sounded disrespectful and rude, Nixon, who was already spoiling for a fight, abruptly changed his mind and decided to face off with the media after all.

Others recalled that Nixon was goaded into confronting the reporters by a couple of his aides. Klein himself has stated that he believed Nixon was resigned to going home without incident until two of his aides, Ray Arbuthnot and Jack Drown, changed his mind. “You can’t let the press chase you out the back door,” they told him. “You ought to face them.”

Either way, Nixon had decided he wasn’t going to go quietly into the night. “I was holding this briefing, and the next thing I saw was Bob Haldeman waving at me, so I thought this was the signal,” Klein recalled. “I said ‘the Vice-President has just left to go to his home.’ About ten seconds later, I heard applause coming across the hotel lobby and [Nixon emerged] through the door.”

Wearing a blue suit, shirt, and tie that matched his mood, Nixon took the stage and peered imperiously at the crowd of reporters. He thrust his left hand in his pants pocket and walked up to the microphone. Editorial cartoonists and satirists enjoyed drawing Nixon as a scowling or brooding man with dark circles around his eyes, a perennial five-o-clock shadow on his face and a large nose that became more and more prominent as his career progressed (his enemies likened it to Pinocchio’s nose—only they believed that Nixon’s telltale sign of lying was that his lips were moving). He was like a mean version of Droopy the Dog, a sad-sack cartoon pooch who had long, prominent jowls and a permanent hangdog expression on his face. Campaign staffer Ehrlichman later described Nixon as “hung-over, trembling and red-eyed” as he launched into one of the more astonishing post-campaign tirades in American political history.

Victor Li

chicago, il