DALLAS — In the post-midnight darkness, as Nov. 21, 1963, slipped into Nov. 22, 1963, a cold front that had carried Pacific moisture across the American Southwest approached Fort Worth and Dallas. Before dawn, the moisture began to fall in a misty drizzle – unremarkable except that it fell on the 35th, the 36th and the 37th presidents of the United States.
In downtown Dallas, behind durable drapery and metal Venetian blinds, former Vice President Richard Nixon slept alone in his suite at the Baker Hotel. Outside in the hallway stood a single Dallas police officer who was stationed at the nearby door of actress Joan Crawford to protect her from jewel thieves and autograph seekers.
It had been one year since Nixon’s political self-immolation. After he lost his 1962 comeback race for California governor, he resentfully told the press, “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Now, he was a corporate lawyer visiting Dallas on behalf of his client, Pepsi-Cola.
Just 30 miles west in Fort Worth, President John F. Kennedy slept under a Vincent van Gogh landscape. The might and majesty of the presidency radiated out from his Suite 850 at the Hotel Texas. In the inner ring, warrant officer Ira Gearhart slept in Room 804 near a satchel bearing the nuclear launch codes. In a room on the seventh floor, encrypted teletypes printed intelligence cables. At Carswell Air Force Base, the 43rd Bombardment Wing of B-58 Hustlers was joined by two well-guarded 707s – Air Force One and Air Force Two.
Early Friday morning, Kennedy looked down from his room at several thousand people gathered expectantly in the rain to hear him speak. Joined by Gov. John Connally and a few Texas legislators, the president and Lyndon Johnson walked across the street to address the crowd.
In Dallas, at Commerce and Akard streets, Nixon climbed into a car in near obscurity for his short ride to Love Field. Leaving the Baker behind, he looked toward the overcast sky and saw red, white and blue banners whipping in the wet wind above Main Street.
Four hours later, with the sun shining, they would be part of the tableau of the final minutes of Kennedy’s life.
For some, Nixon’s November 1963 visit to Dallas is a log to feed the fires of conspiracy. In the 1995 biopic “Nixon,” Oliver Stone walked the razor’s edge between fiction and libel by placing the future president at a secret Nov. 21 meeting of Dallas millionaires and obliging call girls at the home of Larry Hagman’s character, Jack Jones, an amalgam of H.L. Hunt and Clint Murchison.
The reality was less sinister. Kennedy and Nixon in close proximity was such a common occurrence, it was almost banal.
The Kennedy assassination and the Watergate break-in cast these multidimensional men in medieval bas-relief: Kennedy became the martyred king and Nixon the dark knight. But from the time they both arrived in Washington in January 1947 until Kennedy’s death in Dallas nearly 17 years later, their collegial relationship occasionally veered toward something approaching warmth.
Few men had observed Nixon’s gifts – his ambition, his perseverance and his intellect – from the intimate vantage point afforded Kennedy. In early 1947, a civic group in the steel town of McKeesport, Pa., asked their congressman, Frank Buchanan, to invite the two congressional freshmen with the brightest futures to come debate the Taft-Hartley labor bill. Buchanan picked Kennedy and Nixon, both just elected after naval service in the Pacific.
On April 21, 1947, the first Kennedy-Nixon debate was held in the ballroom of the Penn McKeesport Hotel, with Kennedy getting the more sympathetic proposition. Some of the blue-collar steelers booed Nixon’s warnings about encroaching union power.
Boarding the overnight Capitol Limited train back to D.C., the 29-year-old Kennedy and the 34-year-old Nixon drew straws for the lower berth. Nixon won, but the bed went largely unused as the awkward grocer’s son found an unexpected common denominator in the handsome playboy heir to one of America’s great fortunes.
“We sat up late talking,” Nixon recalled. “Neither of us was a backslapper, and we were both uncomfortable with boisterous displays of superficial camaraderie. He was shy, and that sometimes made him appear aloof. But it was shyness born of an instinct that guarded privacy and concealed emotions. I understood these qualities because I shared them.”
In 1950, Nixon planned his run for the Senate against Hollywood actress-turned-Democratic Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas, longtime mistress of Texan Lyndon Johnson. During that campaign, Douglas branded Nixon with an epithet that would stick for life: Tricky Dick.
In the infamously mean-spirited race, Nixon got a psychological and a financial windfall from an unexpected source.
Kennedy dropped into Nixon’s office and handed an envelope to administrative assistant Bill Arnold. “This man brought a personal check for $1,000,” Arnold would recall. “He explained that the check should be used in Nixon’s campaign for senator.” Kennedy’s contribution amounted to approximately one-third of the average American’s annual income.
After Kennedy’s 1952 election to the Senate, Nixon offered a different sort of help. The membership chairman of the exclusive, all-male Burning Tree golf club in Maryland got a letter from the new vice president: “I have known Senator Kennedy for a number of years as a personal friend and I feel he would make an excellent addition to the membership.”
In the Senate Office Building next to the Capitol, Kennedy was given Room 362. Nixon was right across the hall in Room 361. For eight years, there would be an easy camaraderie not just between Kennedy and Nixon but also between their secretaries. Kennedy’s assistant Evelyn Lincoln would recall, “Rose Mary Woods and I were very friendly.”
Kennedy’s 1960 victory meant that both men would abandon their comfortable Senate offices. After Nixon’s unsuccessful run for governor of California, he also surrendered his West Coast power base and moved to New York where his GOP rival Nelson Rockefeller was an absolute monarch. The Nixons’ new apartment at 810 Fifth Ave. occupied the building’s entire fifth floor, seven floors below Rockefeller, who, recovering from a scandalous divorce, had just married his second wife, Happy.
Before Nixon’s new life could begin, he had a promise to fulfill. In the summer of 1963, he took his wife and two daughters on a six-week overseas vacation. In a hotel room in Rome, Nixon picked up the ringing phone and heard the operator say that the president was calling. Five days after making his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, an ebullient Kennedy was in town.
“Sounding happy and relaxed, he said that he heard we were in Rome and just wanted to say hello,” Nixon said.
It was the last time Nixon and Kennedy spoke.
On Wednesday evening, Nov. 20, Nixon flew to Dallas for the annual meeting of the American Bottlers of Carbonated Beverages at Market Hall. Aboard the same private plane was Crawford, widow of the late Pepsi chairman Alfred Steele.
On Thursday morning, Nov. 21, Nixon agreed to meet print, TV and radio reporters in his suite at the Baker.
The approaching horror of Nov. 22 would make future dispassionate assessments of Kennedy’s presidential record almost impossible. But on the day before Kennedy died, just a few blocks from Dealey Plaza, Nixon gave a blunt, partisan critique. Reporters piled microphones on an ottoman in front of his leather armchair. “Despite the fact that President Kennedy has one of the largest majorities in Congress of any president in history,” Nixon said, “it’s one of the poorest percentage records of accomplishment in history.”
On Friday morning, Nov. 22, 1963, American Airlines VIP liaison Walter Hagen was at his post at Love Field preparing for the deluge of humanity that would signal the arrival of the Kennedys, Johnsons and Connallys.
Looking to the street from the concourse window, he spotted Nixon. “He didn’t look like he had a friend in the world,” Hagen remembered. “Somebody dropped him off at the curb there at the American Airlines ticket counter. I, of course, greeted him. He was very sociable.”
“It looks like you’re going to have a big day, today,” Nixon said.
“Yeah, we are expecting to in about an hour to an hour and a half,” Hagen replied as he escorted the former vice president to American Airlines Flight 82. The plane promptly departed for New York’s Idlewild Airport. (One month later on Christmas Eve, New Yorkers would rename it John F. Kennedy International Airport.)
Nixon was in a taxi in Queens when a man rushed up to the driver at a light near the 59th Street Bridge. “Do you have a radio in your cab?” he asked. “I just heard that Kennedy was shot.”
The cab had no radio and Nixon was uncertain what the comment meant. But when the car stopped at his home at Fifth Avenue and East 62nd, his doorman approached with tears on his face: “Oh, Mr. Nixon, have you heard, sir?”
Nixon entered the cocoon of his 10-room apartment overlooking Central Park. The long hallway was hung with Chinese paintings, a gift from Madame Chiang Kai-shek. The living room featured light colored drapery and large Oriental jardinieres.
His private library was furnished with comfortable, upholstered easy chairs and sofas. On the mantel was his extensive collection of elephants made from teak, ivory, crystal, stone and plastic.
“That night, I sat up late in my library,” Nixon remembered. He thought of his brothers Arthur and Harold, dead at ages 7 and 23, both from tuberculosis. He thought of Kennedy and the close-knit Kennedy family. From father, Joe, down to youngest child, Ted, Nixon knew all of the Kennedys. And he thought of Jackie, who had once interviewed him as part of her job as the “Inquiring Photographer” for the Washington Times-Herald.
While Jackie waited out the autopsy and embalming of her husband at Bethesda Naval Hospital, the fire in Nixon’s library burned itself out.
Before the dawn of Nov. 23, he put pen to paper.
Nixon began, “Dear Jackie, While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents, I always cherished the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to the Congress together in 1947.”
Several weeks later, he received a letter written in her precise, feminine script: “You two young men – colleagues in Congress, adversaries in 1960 – and now look what has happened.”
Jackie foresaw Nixon’s election as president. “Just one thought I would say to you,” she wrote. “If it doesn’t work out as you have hoped for so long, please be consoled by what you already have – your life and your family.”