November 17, 2013

Commentary: Nixon and Kennedy 
were friends

Both men arrived in Washington in 1947, elected after naval service, and in the years that followed, their paths crossed often.

By Alan Peppard
The Dallas Morning News

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.

click image to enlarge

Sen. John F. Kennedy, left, and Richard M. Nixon in an ABC television studio, during off the air time of their fourth presidential debate in New York, Oct. 21, 1960.

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.

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