Pattern Recognition

Finding the old in the new

Nixon in Caracas

I’ve been reading The Presidents Club, a detailed look at the friendships and conflicts between America’s presidents since Truman. In reading the section on John F. Kennedy, I came across an interesting anecdote related to the 1960 election season that pitted Senator Kennedy against then Vice President Richard Nixon. After Kennedy’s victory, former President Hoover tried to set up a meeting between the president-elect and lame duck VP. Nixon took the call from Hoover and agreed that a meeting would be in order. He checked in with the sitting president, Eisenhower, to let him know about the plan just minutes before receiving the formal request from Kennedy himself.

“As I hung up and walked slowly back to our table,” Nixon recalled, “it dawned on me that I had just participated in a probably unprecedented series of conversations. In the space of less than ten minutes, I had talked to a former President of the United States, the present president and the President-elect!”

As I read this quote from the future president, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had read it all before. And I had, in Nixon’s own book Six Crises. Written in the aftermath of his 1960 defeat, Six Crises documents several key events that Nixon identified as influential in his life, including his close defeat by Kennedy. The quote included in The Presidents Club was taken directly from Nixon’s post-election memoir.

It’s not surprising that authors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy would draw on a primary source like Six Crises for a chapter discussing the relationship between the 35th and 37th presidents. It’s even less shocking that I would recognize such a singular event from a biography. But that connection reminded me of another relatively recent news story that drew my mind back to Nixon’s first biographical work.

Earlier this year, on July 14—Bastille Day—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Egypt to meet with representatives of the post-Mubarak government. As her motorcade moved through Alexandria, protesters began tossing shoes and tomatoes at each vehicle, with one of the errant fruits (or are they vegetables?) striking an Egyptian official in the face. Secretary Clinton’s car was not directly in the line of fire, possibly kept at a distance after the lessons learned from a much more tense Nixon state visit.

In that same Six Crises book, Nixon documents a 1958 trip that he and his wife took to Caracas, Venezuela, as part of a diplomatic tour of several South American countries. A provisional junta controlled Venezuela at the time, and the political situation was in turmoil. By the time the veep’s group arrived, a large, agitated crowd had formed outside the airport. As the car crawled through the streets, the crowd began throwing rocks at the motorcade, breaking the bulletproof glass and putting the passengers in extreme danger. It took twelve minutes for the Secret Service to get the motorcade free from the rioters.

While the protests greeting Clinton in Egypt were certainly noteworthy, they take on a broader context of American international policy when examined in light of Nixon’s earlier trip to Venezuela. I never would have been able to see the broader picture had I not put historical and classical works in my reading path.

[Image Credits: Paul Schutzer snapped this image of Nixon’s long-suffering car as it moved through Caracas on May 13, 1958.]


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