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Robert G. Nixon Oral History Interview, October 29, 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
October 29, 1970
By Jerry N. Hess

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


Notice
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.

RESTRICTIONS
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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
October 29, 1970
By Jerry N. Hess

[556]

NIXON: This incident took place outside of the little town of Carey, Idaho.

From Omaha we had gone to Denver where the President made a speech on the steps of the state capital. He conferred with the Democratic leaders of the state at a famous hotel called the Brown Palace.

Averell Harriman had invited the President to stop over at Sun Valley, this famous ski resort in Idaho that he built. I guess it was the most famous ski resort in the United States. Averell Harriman, I suppose, was Chairman of the Board of the Union Pacific. His papa was before him, and he left him a hundred million dollars when he died.

Harriman was a great skier and polo player in his younger days. He would go to Switzerland

[557]

to ski, but he wanted to duplicate the Swiss ski slopes in this country. He employed a famous Swiss skier and ski architect to search the entire West for mountains with the proper configuration for ski slopes. Apparently you needed rolling terrain, without abrupt up thrusts, and that was common in the Rockies. They finally found what they wanted in Idaho.

Averell invited the President on his trip to stop over at Sun Valley as his guest for two or three days. We were scheduled to leave around 9 o'clock. Sometime after 7:30 in the morning (I had just sat down in the dining room to order breakfast), Bill Simmons, the White House receptionist, came tearing down the hallway into the breakfast room shouting, "Everybody leave, everybody leave, the President's ready to go."

I hadn't even been able to get a waitress

[558]

to give my order to, not a crust of bread on the table, nothing. I knew that we had a long hard day ahead of us and heaven only knows when we would get any food. As it turned out, it wasn't until late that afternoon that I finally got back to the train to get some food. I wasn't the only one. Everybody else, including members of the President's party itself, found themselves in that predicament.

What had happened, was that the President, who was a very early riser, had awakened at 6 that morning. He had taken a little morning walk, had breakfast, and then announced, "I'm ready to go," much ahead of schedule. Incidentally, he was not staying at the lodge, he was in a private residence on the huge grounds of this ski resort.

So, we went away hungry in automobiles. We drove a few miles to this little town of

[559]

Carey, Idaho. Outside of the little crossroads settlement, there was a line of automobiles parked on the side of the road, and there we stopped. Over to our left was what looked like a cow pasture with a mountain on the far side of it. This turned out to be a country air strip for small, private planes. The President was in an open car, and the reason soon became apparent. He had agreed to stop there and make a little talk dedicating this air strip. It was being dedicated in the name of Wilma Coates, who had been killed in an airplane accident, sometime earlier when the plane flew into the mountain.

Truman was completely unprepared. As it turned out, he had been given the wrong briefing. All the President knew was that here was an air strip. He was under the impression that it was being dedicated to a young man who had been

[560]

killed in the war and was a war hero.

He began making this little talk praising this war hero and dedicating the airport in his name. This had something to do with the American Legion, because the Legion veterans were out there in their split caps. As he talked, standing in this open car, there was a woman on the side of the road who started tugging at his coattails saying, "Mr. President, it wasn't my son, it was my daughter, and she was not a hero. She was killed in an airplane accident here at this airport."

As it turned out, she had been out joyriding in a small plane with her boyfriend. He had flown the plane into the mountainside killing them both. The name Wilma, which had been given the President, unknown to him, was spelled W-i-1-m-a, the feminine spelling, instead of W-i-1-m-e-r the masculine spelling.

[561]

He had taken it for granted that it was a man. The little information that had been given to him about dedicating the airport, apparently came not from Charlie Ross, but from General Harry Vaughan his Military Aide, who had been contacted by these Legion people in the small town, and it was agreed that the President would stop there and dedicate it. Everything was fouled up.

When this plaintive voice of the mother, finally got through to the President, that he did not have the proper facts at all, he abruptly wound up his little talk and said, "Well, she was a hero anyway."

Here was another foul up. It made the President look inept and his staff look inept (which they were). On top of the foul-up at Omaha, this was another disaster, widely reported in the Nation's press and on the

[562]

radio. It made him look sort of stupid and sort of like an idiot.

This was a very sparsely settled part of the country. For the rest of the day we went through very small towns, stopping to make speeches. We went through a national park there that looked like the surface of the moon. This was a volcanic area at one time and the ground for miles was covered with nothing but black lava and basalt. We went on through the potato growing part of Idaho where the famous Idaho baking potatoes came from, and where there's a farm vote. Late in the afternoon, we got to the little town of Ephrata, where the train was parked.

HESS: Did you finally get something to eat?

NIXON: Yes. For once I just stopped my typewriter and went to the dining car.

[563]

HESS: Either that or starve, huh?

NIXON: I sat down in a semi-collapsed state and finally got some food. I understand that Charlie Murphy, one of the President's aides, was in a similar state, as were others. From then on I never went without a package of peanut butter crackers in my pocket, as a...

HESS: Emergency ration.

NIXON: Emergency rations are right!

Now, that about covers that little embarrassing incident at Carey.

HESS: What else do you recall about the June trip? Anything in particular? One of the main stops that he made on that trip was in Berkeley, California. He delivered the commencement address at the University of California. Do you recall that?

[564]

NIXON: Yes, I do. But only in just small little snatches.

It was a broiling hot day. This was the San Francisco area, just across the bay above Oakland. The weather was usually cool and moist in San Francisco. But this was a broiling hot day. First we went to the residence of the president of the university, a staunch Republican. Then he made his talk there in the football stadium to the graduating class, all their parents, other relatives, and well-wishers. The burden of the speech, I have no recollection of whatsoever.

HESS: Following that the President spoke at Los Angeles. I think it was a major political speech. Do you recall the stop in L.A.?

NIXON: I recall one stop in L.A. Again, there's the confusion of which trip was it.

[565]

On the occasion I recall, he made a speech at night out on a baseball diamond. My recollection is, that this was actually in Hollywood, because the place was just loaded down with various actors and actresses. I recall Lauren Bacall on the stage, Lucille Ball and her then husband, Desi Arnaz, and various well-known movie people. Again, it's impossible to remember what the speech was about.

HESS: Did you think that his speaking ability showed any signs of improvement during the June trip?

NIXON: Oh, yes. I mentioned much earlier that he told me one time that he seldom ever got on the floor of the Senate to make a speech. When the newsreel men would come around to ask him to make a talk about some piece of

[566]

legislation for their newsreel cameras, he said, "I'd always tell them to go away and to find somebody else who could make a speech."

When they got to the White House, they got a voice tutor for him. Everything got fouled up. They were trying to make a President Roosevelt speaker out of, what the President called, "a Missouri clodhopper," which was impossible. It just didn't go over. When he would read his speeches to Congress, it became obvious that this wouldn't work. If he was going to be an effective speaker, he would have to be let alone to be himself.

This began to take place on the June trip. His perfect platform was the whistlestop. He made these homey little five minute talks at whistlestops.

These talks were put together for him by George Elsey, one of the staff members.

[567]

They were carefully done. They were researched beforehand, so that any local happening that might have taken place as far back as the Civil War could be mentioned. It didn't matter what it was, as long as it was something regarding the town itself or some inhabitant. This was always included in these little talks. Obviously it was very effective.

Truman began to just talk. He spoke, in contrast to the conscious reading of words that were not his words at all. As I say, he began to talk, instead of orating. He used his Missouri dialect. He became natural in every way. His talks began to be highly effective and to go over. Mind you he wasn't talking to a Harvard commencement audience, he was talking to people just like himself--the country folk, the grassroots people, who have a way of very quickly spotting a stuffed

[568]

shirt. By the same token, they very quickly realized when someone was being natural and being himself.

It took a little time for it to happen, but it gradually came into being. It happened even in his prepared speeches like the ones at Berkeley and Los Angeles. He began to deliver them in a natural manner, rather than like a schoolboy making a classroom oration of the Gettysburg speech. From then on he became natural and ceased to be awkward on the platform. At times he simply tore up the set speech that he had prepared for him by his staff, and made his own speech right off the top of his head. When he did that he was most effective of all, because he was just saying what he wanted to say. He was dealing with subject matter that was in his own mind. He was particularly good later when

[569]

he began to tear into the 80th Republican Congress.

HESS: What do you recall about the events between the June trip and the convention in Philadelphia? One thing at this time we might discuss, was the fact that there were still elements within the party who were trying to take the nomination away from Mr. Truman. You mentioned Colonel Arvey in Chicago who wanted General Eisenhower on the ticket. One other group of people was also the ADA, the Americans for Democratic Action, who wanted Mr. Eisenhower at this time.

NIXON: That's right.

HESS: Anything come to mind about that?

NIXON: Not specifically. The only recollection that I have is a general one and that is that

[570]

despite the fact that Truman did well on this first cross-country whistlestop trip, he had to fight, right up to the convention time, to get the nomination. These dissidents in the party, on the basis of his earlier record, were still after him. When I say his earlier record, let us be fair about this. Truman's record on the whole was not bad. He did some very courageous things, such as the intervention in Greece and Turkey.

Eddie Folliard of the Washington Post and I were talking about it later. Eddie said that when he read the President's proposal to intervene in Greece and Turkey, "It made my hair stand up." This was a very daring and courageous thing.

Another very fine and highly necessary thing, was the Marshall plan, both of these being to stop the further spread of Russian

[571]

communism in Europe.

There were mistakes. It seems, that in this world, evil gets more attention than good. The people in his own party who were gunning for him never remembered those daring and courageous things that he did. It was only the small and petty errors that they tended to magnify. He had to fight right up to convention time for his nomination.

HESS: What do you recall about the convention in Philadelphia that year?

NIXON: Again, it seemed like almost everything was going wrong. On this occasion it wasn't Truman's fault, it was the convention's fault. I will describe what I mean.

We went up by train to Philadelphia where the Demo