Robert G. Nixon Oral History Interview, November 20, 1970

Oral History Interview with
Robert G. Nixon

News correspondent with the International News Service, 1930-58; served as editor of the service for a time. He first came to Washington, D.C., in 1938 where he served as their State Department and foreign relations correspondent. He was a war correspondent, attached to the British army in France and Belgium, 1940, during invasion of the low countries; evacuated from Dunkirk but later returned to France; evacuated with remnants of the British army from Brest, June 20, 1940; covered London Blitz, 1940-41; war correspondent, attached to United States forces in European theater of operations, 1942-1943; correspondent in Northern Ireland, United Kingdom, and Mediterranean theater, participating in North African invasion and campaign. Covered Casablanca conference, 1943; Quebec conference, 1944; and Potsdam, 1945. Washington correspondent covering the White House beginning in 1944.

Bethesda, Maryland
November 20, 1970
By Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Nixon Oral History Transcripts]

This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened December, 1978
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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Oral History Interview with
Robert G. Nixon

Bethesda, Maryland
November 20, 1970
By Jerry N. Hess


HESS: Mr. Nixon, at the end of our last interview we were discussing the events of the 1952 campaign. What are your further impressions of that campaign?

NIXON: One of the things that has come to mind, was the nature of the Stevenson campaign, which rather appalled me at the time. Up to that time, it was certainly unique for a man trying to get himself elected President.

We've seen how Truman, by way of illustration, had conducted his '48 campaign. He had gone out and literally shaken the hands of hundreds of thousands of people. He had met them at railroad sidings in little hamlets, from coast to coast, thousands of miles all over the Nation. He had spoken in auditoriums,


stadiums, and enormous gatherings in cities. He had spoken face-to-face with literally tens of millions of American people.

When a candidate does this, there is a great psychological advantage. It means, to the people who come out to see him and listen to him, that he is identifying himself personally with the individual. This person goes away feeling that he knows the candidate (especially if this is a President campaigning for re-election), and knows and is a friend of the President of the United States. Come November, this person very likely is going to vote for the man. Not only that, but he will tell his children and his grandchildren about this occasion in his life when he met the President.

This was one of the impelling reasons why, in that '48 swing through Indiana and Illinois, people in the farm country drove hundreds of


miles to the railroad sidings where the President made these whistlestop speeches.

I enlarge upon the Truman use of this close contact with the people because in a sense he brought it to its highest peak of accomplishment. He, in a sense, refined the gold out of the quartz. Roosevelt, to a considerable extent, did the same, although the intensity of his whistlestop campaigning was necessarily limited by his poliomyelitis infirmity.

In the Stevenson campaign the contact with the American people was, if not entirely lost, certainly hamstrung by the decisions that were made for his campaign. Mind you, these decisions were made by the little group of people around Stevenson, and Stevenson himself, because he largely ignored the Democratic National Committee. He insisted on carrying on his own campaign with a


bunch of bumbling amateurs around him and without help from the Democratic National Committee or from Truman. Stevenson felt very strongly that Truman was an albatross, a millstone around his neck, and he wanted to disengage himself from any connection with the Truman administration. He seemed to resent the fact that Truman was out conducting a very intensive whistlestop campaign in his behalf.

All of this did not give reason to the manner in which the Stevenson campaign was conducted. As I've said, it was a proven fact, proven by history and by so many candidates before him, that if you are going to be elected President, you must have very close contact with the American people. You must associate yourself with them. You must make them feel that you are a part of them and that there is a very close personal contact.

If it's the first time you've ever seen a


President, that in itself, has a great personal impact upon you. You may drive a hundred miles just to see this man in action. This is an event in your life, and you can relate it to your children and grandchildren. It's this, "I shook the hand that shook the hand," sort of idea.

But what did Stevenson do? Did he relate himself closely to the American people, whose vote decided whether he would be President? Did he stand a few yards away from them or a few feet away from them and look them in the eye and speak to them, and talk with them? Hardly ever.

My recollection is that during the '56 campaign, the only time Stevenson got aboard a train, and did a little whistlestopping, was that dreadful and abortive trip through West Virginia, on a rainy day. The rest of the time he was on an airplane flying from here to there.


When he spoke, he spoke to organized crowds in some auditorium or stadium somewhere.

By way of illustration, he spoke in Los Angeles one day. We then boarded planes and flew entirely across the country to Boston for him to make another speech there. On still another occasion, if memory serves me right, we flew from Miami to Chicago. So went the campaign, always high, high, high up in the sky, 30,000 feet, cooped up in the fuselage of an airplane. He might as well have been on the moon without any intendent publicity.

Watching this, I would sit on one of these planes, high in the sky, and think, "My God, millions upon millions of votes and voters six or seven miles below us. Not a one knows that this man exists, and he's not speaking to a single one of them. How can he be elected President on that sort of basis?"


Of course, the answer was that he wasn't elected President. Granted, all candidates now must use airplanes to get from one large city to another. The more they do, the more they lose contact with the voters. The city vote and the urban vote is just one of the vote factors of this country. The farm vote, as we have seen, is extremely important. It's not only the impact of this personal contact with people, but it's the impact of the reporting of those events which gets in the newspapers and on the TV and radio, all over the Nation, every day and every night. So, this is what really struck me as a complete waste, a waste of time, a waste of effort, and a waste of finances which are always stretched to the breaking point in these campaigns.

HESS: Now you have been dealing with relations between Stevenson and the members of the public. What


seemed to be the relations and the nature of his relations with the local politicians who would come in to see him?

NIXON: Well, that's an interesting point which is really a very important part of the whole picture of Stevenson's personality as a presidential candidate.

Much later when Lyndon Johnson was President, he, against the advice of the Secret Service, insisted upon very close personal contact with the people who came out to see him.

HESS: I believe he called that "pressing the flesh."

NIXON: That is the phrase that I was going to use. While he did no real whistlestopping, at the airport where these crowds would gather, he would walk from his plane to the gates and shake the hands of just literally dozens and dozens of people. He said he liked the feeling of the


pressing of the flesh.

I relate this to illustrate, the difference in personalities. In a large sense, Truman and Roosevelt had also pressed the flesh. By campaigning from the rear platform of trains, all over the country, they had made very close personal contacts with individual people. Stevenson was the direct antithesis of this. This was perhaps one of the reasons why he did not feel comfortable in any whistlestopping campaign. He didn't like to get close to people. He particularly did not like people to get close to him. Local politicians, mind you, more or less, control the politics and the votes of their state, and most of them, as we know, are glad-handing, outgiving...

HESS: Backslappers.

NIXON: ...backslappers. They are usually quite demonstrative.


When anybody would throw their arm around Stevenson, he would actually cringe. You could see him cringe and pull away. There was sort of the feeling of resentment of a man embracing a girl when the girl doesn't want to be embraced. This was the peculiarity of this man, and it did him no good whatsoever. This was another reason why he didn't want the closeness of whistlestops, the closeness of getting out of an automobile and going over and shaking the hands of people.

He was a very reserved candidate. He had no warm gestures for the populace. Regardless of his intellectual abilities, he was not a warm person in contact with large groups of people, nor did he have that warm boyish grin of Eisenhower's. He was a candidate with a personality of an earlier age. Perhaps his being likened to Woodrow Wilson was accurate. His mannerisms


were those of the times, but they were the mannerisms, of what today we would call, a stuffed shirt. He was an egghead, which is a description of an intellectual stuffed shirt.

HESS: But a stuffed shirt nevertheless?

NIXON: Yes. So, he just did not go over as a candidate. It's not the intellectual qualities of a person that, in these years, takes them to the White House. The intellectual qualities perhaps do not harm them, if they have the warmth of personality and the things that go along with it at the same time. After all, we don't want an idiot in the White House, or a playboy, or one of those shallow brained Hollywood movie types.

HESS: Anybody in mind there?

NIXON: Well, without specific reference I believe it is obvious.


HESS: The gentleman from California?

NIXON: There have been two of them, one in the Senate, and one I guess in the state house. With all due respect to them, a man should have more qualities as a President than to just be a play actor with someone entirely writing his lines for him.

But they have to have some of these warm qualities as well as having intellectual qualities. Stevenson was simply miscast in his role as candidate. I speak of him only in that category, not to diminish in any way, whatever his intellectual qualities were. But there were guttier things. Breadbasket things, rather than the academic area, are what brings out the votes.

In all justice to the manner in which the Stevenson campaign was conducted (and for that matter, the way in which the Eisenhower campaign was being conducted at the same time), we in this country had begun to move into the electronic age, in which, by gradual development, the impact of the TV screen


had become enormous. It was a realization, I'm sure, of the potentialities of TV that had a considerable impact on Stevenson flying back and forth across the country making one stop one day on the Atlantic Coast and the next stop the next day on the Pacific Coast, with all these millions of people in between, never seeing him, never hearing him. The idea was that by using TV for these national broadcasts, he would reach the people.

Well, it didn't pan out. Certainly, in 1956, he was lost before he started. To have an impact on TV one must have a TV personality. They must be able to project themselves to people through the TV screen. Stevenson was lost before he began, simply because he did not have a TV personality.

When he got up before a large audience to make a speech (he was before the TV cameras, if his campaign supporters were able to plunk down a hundred thousand dollars for a half hour speech), he frequently just didn't go over.

He frequently muffed his lines. His eyes would


be down on the paper he was reading. It was bad enough, that they began trying to use a scanner. This was a device which line by line projected what a person was to say on a strip in front of the podium, behind which the person was speaking. It was visible to the speaker, but not visible to his audience. This enabled a speaker to look out at the audience, project his personality to them and at the same time read the lines on the scanner. That didn't work either. Stevenson just could not bring himself to use it. So, his personality, whatever part of it went over on the TV screen, wasn't particularly good.

While the TV has its tremendous impact, it had it to a lesser degree in 1956. It must be remembered again, that it's a different thing to speak to small whistlestop crowds than to huge crowds in cities. These are people who come there because they want to be there. It's another thing for a man to put his image on a TV screen and expect to reach people who are not sitting before the screen necessarily because they want to hear a political speech. After all,


they haven't gone somewhere to see a man and to hear a man. They can flip their TV on or off as they wish. The impact of a political speech, unless it bears upon something of a critical nature, like the missile crisis in Cuba, may not be of importance to them. They may be out of the town. They may be in the other room on the telephone. They may be in no mood to turn on the TV that evening. They may be (and probably are), anywhere but sitting in their home gazing at a TV screen. So, you have a tremendous loss of contact there.

Let's face it, the impact of the TV screen has had a great deal to do with the changing of the methods of conducting campaigns. It may be that the whistlestop is a thing of the past. It's gotten to the point where the wiseacres are now saying that the qualities that you need to win a presidential election are to be a relatively young man, with an appealing, youthful personality, someone who looks very good on the TV screen (a pretty boy, let's put it that way), and hires a high powered TV public relations outfit.


If those are the only qualifications, God help this Nation! The reality, looking back, and looking at today's picture, is that a combination of all of these various factors is certainly needed. I have a distinct feeling that if conditions were such that we were in a critical situation, as we h