July 10, 2008
Former President Richard Nixon beat his wife, Pat, before, during, and after their White House years. Along the way, he sucker-punched a long list of aides and others who miffed him.
by Don Fulsom
Richard Nixon was certainly one of our most bared-knuckled political fighters. But probably no other American politician actually punched, pushed, kicked, slapped, shouldered, shoved or upended as many folks who'd ignited—usually without malicious intent—his volcanic temper. The way he repeatedly behaved would land most people behind bars.
Nixon's flying fists were usually dispatched as "sucker punches"—unexpected blows from out of left field when the target's guard was fully down. Nixon threw one such punch at a political aide—and a disabled one at that—nearly 50 years ago. Had that been confirmed at the time, the newspaper headline might have read, "Vice President Assaults Crippled Campaign Consultant." But the punch, which joins myriad evidence of Nixon's violent nature, only became verified in a newly released document from the National Archives.
The incident itself took place in the fading hours of Nixon's bitterly waged, losing 1960 presidential race against Sen. John Kennedy. The day before the election, Nixon put on a four-hour telethon from a Detroit studio. As airtime approached, Nixon became infuriated with TV consultant Everett Hart because Hart had declined to run a last-minute errand for the vice president. Before the aide even considered putting up his dukes, however, the short-fused Nixon let go with a haymaker to Hart's rib cage. One of the aide's arms was shriveled and he was recovering from major cardiac surgery. On loan to the Nixon campaign from a top Madison Avenue ad agency, Hart quit on the spot and refused to ever work for Nixon again.
Muckraking newspaper columnist Drew Pearson referred to the incident in a 1968 column. He opined that Nixon's punch "could have killed" Hart, who died in 1973 after more heart surgery.
Yet only now, in newly released documents, comes verification of the incident. In an Oct. 7, 1968 "confidential" memo to chief campaign advisor Bob Haldeman, Nixon's personal secretary Rose Mary Woods reported, "As far as the (Pearson) story is concerned, it really happened." She had just talked with Hart on the phone, and he had 'fessed up to being Pearson's likely source. Woods said she was told by Hart, "RN did hit me. I was really mad because I had had a rib removed when I had had open-heart surgery and that is where he hit me—in the ribs."
Another victim of a seething Nixon, also identified here for the first time, was Jim McManus, then a White House reporter for Westinghouse Broadcasting. In March of 1971, temporarily isolated from the rest of the press corps, McManus was striding along a street in Des Moines near Nixon hoping to ask the president about a bombing carried out that day by an anti-war group in a men's room at the U.S. Capitol. Nixon was still hot under the collar that several anti-war demonstrators had tossed snowballs his way as he left his speaking engagement in Des Moines. And to have a reporter so close to him seems to have fully sparked his notorious rage. McManus recalls the result with great clarity:
Dick Keiser, who was chief of the Secret Service protection detail and who was a friend of mine at Indiana University many years previously, let me move inside his protection and fall in step with Nixon on his left. I extended the mike toward his face and the Old Trickster, a onetime Whittier College footballer, took a sidestep and slammed his shoulder hard into mine. No question that it was intentional. I tripped and started to stumble sideways. Dick Keiser, in one elegant move, put his shoulder to me on the other side and straightened me up quickly.
After McManus regained his equilibrium, and Nixon his composure, McManus was able to get the president on tape denouncing the bombing as a "shocking act of violence that will outrage all Americans." McManus shared his tape with the rest of us reporters, but now discloses, "I did not mention to (Press Secretary Ron) Ziegler or any reporters about being whacked by POTUS (President of the United States). I considered it a small matter, and not a surprising response from Nixon." McManus also notes: "One doubts that (Nixon) ever picked on anyone whose relative status—or gender—guaranteed a counter-attack."
Despite such boasts as "the tougher it gets, the cooler I get," Nixon had been known to lose it publicly on a number of other occasions. He had a nasty disposition since boyhood, when he struck a playmate over the head with the blunt edge of a hatchet in order to steal a jar of pollywogs.
In 1952, the vice president-elect slapped a woman. The incident occurred in Long Beach, Calif. and involved Rita Remley, a Democrat who'd helped to expose one of Nixon's 1946 political tricks: the establishment of an anonymous telephone campaign in which women called Democrats and said, "(Congressman) Jerry Voorhis (Nixon's opponent) is a communist." According to Fawn Brodie, a Nixon biographer, "In a sudden fit of rage, he walked over and slapped her. There were no cameras or newsmen to catch the happening, and Mrs. Remley, fearful of losing her job, told only a few friends."
Vice President Nixon kicked an anti-Nixon demonstrator during a trip to Latin America. And during his 1960 presidential campaign Nixon got really steamed on an overly long motorcade ride. The candidate used both feet to repeatedly kick the back of the car seat occupied by his military aide, Major Don Hughes. "He wouldn't stop," remembered fellow passenger Bob Haldeman. "Thump! Thump! Thump! The seat and the hapless Hughes jolted forward jaggedly as Nixon vented his rage."
In 1962, in Nixon's most famous public loss of composure, a red-eyed, trembling, hung over, and defeated California gubernatorial candidate told the press: "Gentlemen, just think what you're going to be missing. You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore, because gentlemen, this is my last press conference." On his way off the stage, he told his press secretary, Herb Klein, "I gave it to them right in the ass!"
President John Kennedy led a host of political observers who thought Nixon's L.A. performance showed he had flipped his lid and probably ended his political life. In a congratulatory phone call to Governor Pat Brown—who beat Nixon by 300,000 votes—the president declared: "You reduced him to the nut house … That last farewell speech of his ... it shows that he belongs on the couch." Brown agreed, saying, "This is a very peculiar fellow ... I really think that he is psycho. He's an able man, but he's nuts!"
The Kennedy-Brown conversation is on a tape released in 1998 by the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.
Nixon biographer Anthony Summers is convinced that Nixon was so angry over his 1962 loss to Brown, he punched his wife Pat in the face. "I'm not talking about a smack," Summers quotes former Nixon aide John Sears as saying, "He blackened her eye." For a TV documentary, several Secret Service agents told Summers Nixon beat Pat before, during, and after their White House years. Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh learned of three alleged Nixon wife-beating incidents—one a post-resignation attack in San Clemente that sent Pat to a nearby emergency room. In the mid-'60s, as a pretty well clued in Capitol Hill reporter, I myself heard from two completely reliable sources that Nixon also beat Pat when he was a member of Congress.
As president, Nixon threw an ashtray against a wall when he learned of the arrests of the Watergate burglars. He pushed an FBI agent against a White House wall after Bob Haldeman's office was sealed off during Watergate. Nixon slapped Air Force Sgt. Edward Kleizo at a military airfield near Disney World after telling the world, "I am not a crook." And, while walking into an auditorium in New Orleans, the president grabbed Ron Ziegler by the shoulders, spun him around, and then shoved his press secretary so hard that the press immediately raised questions about Nixon's mental health and possible medication abuse.
There was no press on hand to witness a mad dash-and-bump by Nixon that landed presidential aide Joe Laitin on the floor near the stairway leading to the super-secret Situation Room in the White House basement. "And just as I was about to ascend the stairway, a guy came running down the stairs two steps at a time. He had a frantic look on his face, wild-eyed, like a madman. And he bowled me over, so I kind of lost my balance. And before I could pick myself up, six athletic-looking young men leapt over me, pursuing him. I suddenly realized they were Secret Service agents, that I'd been knocked over by the President of the United States."
Ron Ziegler was again on the bad end of a privately raging Nixon, who once wildly and loudly demanded that North Vietnam never again be referred to as anything other than "the enemy" in press briefings. The president stressed the importance of this strange order by bursting unannounced into Ziegler's office and kicking his press secretary's desk. As the door closed behind Nixon, the cowering Ziegler muttered, "The Old Man's really high again."
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger would later observe that Nixon's mood, since his 1972 election victory, was dominated by "sullen hostility." The New York Times reported that during some bombing offensives against the North Vietnamese, the president was "throwing stuff against the wall." Times columnist James Reston termed the bombing "war by tantrum." Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger noted that Nixon was overly hostile and not exactly in his right mind toward the end of his reign. Schlesinger instructed the Joint Chiefs of Staff to disregard any military order originating from the White House.
What kind of vengeful thoughts might have crossed Nixon consultant Everett Hart's mind if the 1960 victim of Nixon's physical abuse had watched the resurrected presidential contender's 1968 appearance on TV's Rowan and Martin's "Laugh-In?" In an effort to demonstrate he was just a regular guy, the "new" Nixon popped up on that hit show to utter its signature punch line: "Sock it to me!"
Don Fulsom covered the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton presidencies. He is an adjunct professor of government at American University in Washington, D.C.