“I did not win. I have no hard feelings against anybody, against my opponent, and least of all the people of California. We got our message through as well as we could. The Cuban (missile crisis) thing did not enable us to get it through in the two critical weeks that we wanted to, but nevertheless we got it through and it is the people's choice.”—Richard Nixon, from the morning-after press conference conceding defeat in the California gubernatorial race to Pat Brown, November 7, 1962
“It is the people’s choice.” Despite the surface graciousness, the words were so at odds with everything else coming before and after them that candidate Richard Nixon might have been better off using the line later attributed to a concession speech of the Democratic operative who bedeviled him through much of his career, Dick Tuck: “The people have spoken—the bastards!”
Nixon’s remarks are far more famous for the vow (eventually broken, to a nation’s regret): “You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”
For years, I had heard about the latter statement, but the press conference remarks should be read in their entirety. It’s a fascinating example of a personality imploding from pent-up bitterness, despite disavowals by Nixon to the contrary—kind of like those Edgar Allan Poe horror stories where the narrator tells us he’s not crazy, but every word and action expressed throughout the tale reveals otherwise.
Maybe Nixon’s anger was compounded by the little indignities he had to endure. One came at the hands of the aforementioned Tuck. At one point, the consultant-advance man for Brown decided to increase Nixon’s discomfort with revelations about his brother Donald’s financial relationship with nutty reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. At a point in the campaign when Nixon felt especially tense, Tuck somehow arranged matters so that a little surprise was awaiting the Republican when he thought he could relax at dinner in a Chinese restaurant. As Nixon unfurled the message in a fortune cookie, he read: “What about the Hughes loan?”
I would love to have had a chance to ask a reporter at Nixon's "final" press conference what it was like to sit there and listen to it. My guess is that they would have first sat up and taken notice with this heat-seeking missile about his victorious opponent, the Democratic incumbent (and father of the current holder of the same office), Pat Brown: “I believe Governor Brown has a heart, even though he believes I do not. I believe he is a good American, even though he feels I am not.”
Nixon being Nixon, the last statement needs footnotes acknowledging the truth. Nixon charged Brown with being soft on Communism, the same strategy that had worked successfully against opponents Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas earlier in his career. This time, it didn’t work—perhaps because voters (correctly) sensed, as Brown charged, that Nixon was only using the governor’s office as a steppingstone to the Presidency he had come so close to gaining only two years before against John F. Kennedy.
(Actually, the Kennedy election was the first indication that Nixon was a sore loser. It wasn’t only that the concession speech was curt, but that the Vice-President had it read by press secretary Herbert Klein. JFK’s private dismissal of his rival was brutal: “He went out the way he came in: no class.")
After the election, TV newsman Howard K. Smith aired a documentary, “The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon,” that was, to say the least, premature. A decade to the day of his “last press conference,” Nixon celebrated a landslide Presidential reelection victory over George McGovern.
But the resentment and paranoia that poured out into the open when he thought he was leaving public life for good manifested itself even in his moment of triumph. The morning after his landslide (60% of the popular vote going to him), Nixon told Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, according to the latter's diaries, that he wanted "total discipline on the press, they're to be used as enemies, not played for help." Even before that, in his last campaign, his operatives were working overtime to undercut his Democratic opponents. The resulting Watergate scandal finally really did force him from electoral politics, a kind of hell on earth for a politico who gave no quarter but found that he craved some.
(The photo accompanying this post appeared first, on the day of Nixon's "last press conference," in the Los Angeles Times—once a paper that championed him, but by this time one singled out by him as among his worst media tormenters. The original caption for the photo—now part of the paper’s photographic archive at UCLA Library—indicates that Nixon was picking out some tunes, “including ‘The Missouri Waltz,’” in the Beverly Hills home where he cast his ballot. Given the circumstances, the candidate might have been better off singing a recent pop hit whose original melody had been written by another Republican Vice-President, Charles G. Dawes. The lyrics are so apropos: “Many a tear has to fall,/But it’s all in the game.”)