After working in news for, like, fifty years, I finally have a coworker who shares my appreciation for Richard Nixon. His name is Jeff Hullinger.
Given the fact that I shared a workplace with Hullinger for some sixteen years in a previous life, you’d think I’d have already known this. And yes, when Hullinger covered sports at WAGA and I covered news, we clearly shared an affinity for Cold War trivia and other 20th century historical relics.
But then we began covering politics together at WXIA, with desks a few feet apart. One morning last week, I heard him utter these words: “I can’t get enough of Nixon.” It was like hearing a whipoorwill on a summer evening, haunting and lovely.
“Look at this,” Hullinger said as I entered the newsroom for the first time on primary day (he always gets to work before I do, and is usually still there when I leave).
“It’s a Nixon for Governor commercial. Talk about obscure.” We both watched the Youtube video, chuckling as images of Eisenhower, Khruschev and Billy Graham (twice!) flashed on the screen in the cartoonishly dated spot. As any Nixonphile knows, after he lost the presidential election to John Kennedy in 1960, he ran for Governor of California in 1962.
“I have a Nixon for Governor button,” I answered. “It’s one of my favorites.”
In some ways, Hullinger and I became similarly taken with John Oxendine. The Republican gubernatorial candidate had a Nixonian haircut, a sometimes-awkward personal style, an us-against-them mentality, and walked heavy-footed into the brackish waters of scandal. Opponents and bloggers have written that Oxendine had a “the rules don’t apply to me” approach to politics. Winning was what mattered. Nixon, still considered by many to be a mostly-great president, would have approved.
Oxendine had a remarkable record of electoral success early in his career, winning statewide races four straight times. The first time, he unseated incumbent insurance commissioner Tim Ryles, Oxendine’s Jerry Voorhis. Nixon also began his electoral career with roaring success, winning election to Congress, the Senate and the vice presidency.
When Oxendine lost Tuesday to Karen Handel, his campaign had undergone a breathtaking collapse. A week earlier, polls had showed him to be the frontrunner. He finished fourth, but only after attempting to smear Handel with innuendo and half-truths. His strategy could have come straight from Nixon’s treatment of Sen. Helen Gahagan Douglas, “the pink lady” who lost her seat to Nixon after Nixon tarred her as a Red (“pink right down to her underwear”).
Gahagan Douglas reciprocated by coining the term “Tricky Dick,” a gift to history.
Oxendine flavored his concession speech with a fine swipe at the news media, hinting that parasitic reporters drain the life from good and decent public servants like John Oxendine. Hullinger got to watch it in person. “Half the reporters would probably be unemployed,” Oxendine said, if it wasn’t for public-spirited men and women like him. (Oxendine’s concession speech is posted below; his remarks about the media start at 1:20.)
He got it half right. Our job is to tell stories the public wants to hear and see. When public servants provide such fodder, we happily bite. But the size of the news workforce is determined by our ability to sustain ourselves commercially, not by the number of public servants who provide stories.
Minutes after Oxendine’s concession speech, Hullinger texted me: “My mother was a saint.” It referred, of course, to Nixon’s post-resignation speech in the East Room of the White House on August 9, 1974.
“You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” Nixon told the press after losing in 1962. Afterward, he mostly went dark for six years. What followed were the two greatest election victories of his career, 1968 and 1972. Nixon’s rebirth produced spectacular stories that invigorated the news media as an industry.
Perhaps Oxendine has a comeback in him.