Excerpted from Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life by Michael Moore
ACT I: Nixon’s the One
Every good Catholic blamed Lyndon Johnson for Kennedy’s death. Not that he had anything to do with the actual assassination (though there were those who believed he did). But we all knew he hated Kennedy, and Kennedy didn’t care much for him. Kennedy was forced to put Johnson on the ticket in order to get the racist Southern states to vote for him, states that were too dumb to figure out that Johnson shared none of their hatred for black people and would, in fact, ram the most important civil rights legislation since the Civil War down their throats the instant he became president.
What we couldn’t accept was that Kennedy was murdered in Johnson’s state, and if anyone should have been on their toes preventing such a tragedy it should’ve been Lyndon Baines Johnson. If there was one mental note all Catholics made after November 1963, it was that we would never, ever vacation in Dallas.
Johnson, within nine months of JFK’s death, escalated the Vietnam War by telling a lie. On August 4, 1964, he announced that earlier in the day, the North Vietnamese attacked a U.S. ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. This did not happen. Johnson then presided over a slaughter of epic proportion, and any other good he might have been remembered for, like the civil rights laws or his war on poverty, was out the window.
In March 1968, Johnson gave up and declared he would not seek reelection. Even though I was only fourteen, I followed all of this and pinned my hopes on either Eugene McCarthy or Bobby Kennedy to win the Democratic nomination. What was unacceptable to me was the accession of the vice president, Hubert Horatio Humphrey, to the White House. He had loyally backed Johnson in the war, and so for me that was that, done and done, Humphrey was out.
I was up late watching The Joey Bishop Show when Joey was handed a note that made him choke. He announced that Robert F. Kennedy, who the night before had been shot after winning the California presidential primary, had just died. I screamed, and my parents, who were already in bed, came out in the living room.
“What are you doing up watching TV?” my mother asked. “Bobby is dead!”
“No!” my mother said, clutching her chest and sitting down. “Oh, God. Oh, God.”
“Just hang it right there on your door,” Salt said, instructing me where to place the “Nixon’s the One” poster. “There. Perfect.”
Thomas Salt was a high school senior and in charge of the Students for Nixon club, and although I was just a freshman, I had already moved up as his number two in charge of everything he didn’t want to do. We were students at St. Paul’s Seminary in Saginaw, Michigan, and we were certainly in the minority when it came to supporting the scoundrel Richard Milhous Nixon. We lived in a haven of Democrats (obviously, they were all Catholics, and Nixon was the evil one who’d been defeated by our only Catholic president). The entire seminary was blindly supporting Humphrey—but not Salt and not me, and not a few brave others. We weren’t supporting warmongers, period, regardless of what their party affiliation was.
Well, I’m not so sure about the we of that statement, as the four others were the sons of well-to-do Republicans whose fathers were either corporate attorneys or executives at Dow Chemical or one of the car companies. They probably liked Nixon because that was how they were wired. Me, I had joined in with them because I refused to support Humphrey on purely moral grounds — and while it may seem strange to use the word moral while backing Richard Nixon, the way I saw it, I just didn’t have a choice.
Oh, sorry — there was a choice. There was George Wallace running as an independent Klandidate for president (he would go on to win five Southern states). My congressman from Flint, Don Riegle, said that Nixon told him he had a “secret plan to end the war.” He promised that Vietnam would be over within six months of his election. (And it was. Six months after his second election, in 1972.)
But for now, Nixon was the “peace candidate,” and that was all I needed to hear. He was also in favor of lowering the voting age to eighteen years old. He said he would create an environmental protection agency (the EPA). He said he would make it illegal to treat girls in schools any different than boys (Title IX). He was also a shady, shifty character, and your gut knew he couldn’t be trusted any further than you could throw his dog, Checkers. But he said he would end the war.
In addition to our campaigning on the high school campus, we spent Saturday afternoons knocking on doors in Saginaw, a blue-collar town that didn’t have much use for Republicans. We soldiered on nonetheless, and we did our best for the man everyone called Tricky Dick.
I was a freshman, so I needed to get special permission to campaign off campus for Nixon. This was granted, so long as I agreed to do some extra chores at the home of the diocese’s auxiliary bishop (and the seminary’s former rector), James Hickey.
It was early October 1968, and my job was to help drain and clean the bishop’s outdoor pool. Bishop Hickey remained close to the goings-on at the seminary he helped to found a decade ago, and in turn that meant he had heard about our efforts for Richard Nixon.
“I hear you’re interested in politics,” he said to me, as I mopped up the pool’s interior.
“Yes, Bishop. My family has always paid attention to government and stuff.”
“I see. But why Nixon?”
I was nervous enough because I hadn’t the slightest idea how to clean a pool. I was afraid I might give the wrong answer — and it would be “good-bye priesthood.”
“The war is wrong. Killing people is wrong. He will end the war.”
“Will he, now?” the Bishop said, looking at me squarely over the top of his wire-rim spectacles.
“Uh, that’s what he says. Six months and no war.”
“You know this man has a—how shall we say it?—a history of not telling the truth.”
I was now in huge trouble. The next thing I expected to hear was that I was committing a mortal sin by helping Richard Nixon.
“I remember when he first ran for the Senate in California,” the Bishop continued. “Made up a bunch of things about his lady opponent that weren’t true. Awful things. People didn’t find out until later. But it was too late. He was already a senator then.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. The October temperature was dropping, and the water from the hose that would splash on me was cold and unpleasant. I did not want to listen to this sermon. Besides — what’s a bishop doing with his own swimming pool?
“I didn’t know that,” I said respectfully. “I wasn’t for him in 1960,” I added, hoping that would give me some dispensation.
“How old were you in 1960?”
“First grade. I even memorized President Kennedy’s inaugural address.”
“Can you still recite it?
Of course I could. I’d been giving the speech to the nuns for years for extra credit.
“Well, let me hear a little of it.”
And so there I stood, mop and squeegee in hand, and gave him my favorite part:
“The world is very different now. For man holds in?his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still?at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from?the hand of God.”
He enjoyed that. So I thought I’d continue with another one, this time with the Kennedy accent:
“To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required—not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
“Very impressive!” he offered, an approving smile on his face. “These are important words. Never forget them.” He paused.
“And, of course, I’m not telling you how to vote, but if you would, please do me a favor and reflect on those words you just recited to me.”
The war, of course, didn’t end six months after Nixon took office. It got bigger. We invaded another country (Cambodia), antiwar groups and journalists were spied on, and to celebrate Christmas of 1972 we dropped more bombs on North Vietnam than we dropped during any campaign of the war. In all, we would end up killing over three million southeast Asians, and over fifty-eight thousand of our troops would never come back alive. The bishop knew this, and I later would realize he had me over not to clean a pool but to clean my head. The following spring Bishop Hickey was sent to Rome and then later became the bishop of Cleveland, and finally, the cardinal of the archdiocese of Washington, D.C. Two women missionaries he dispatched to El Salvador were brutally murdered along with two other religious women by the American-backed government there. He became outspoken while in D.C., opposing the U.S. wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
A year later, after leaving the seminary, I made a pact with myself never to reveal to anyone that I had campaigned for Richard Milhous Nixon.
ACT II: Horses on the Ellipse
“You’re not taking your sister to Washington,” my father said, sitting at the dinner table. “No, you are not,” my mother chimed in.
I was eighteen and an adult and could do what I wanted, but my sister Anne was seventeen and still in high school. I had announced that I was going with friends on a trip to Washington, D.C, to participate in a massive antiwar demonstration on the day Nixon was to be inaugurated for his second term. The car was to contain myself; our church’s youth leaders, Gary Wood and Phyllis Valdez, and their friend Peter Case; my buddy Jeff Gibbs; and my sister Anne.
The fight at the dinner table for Anne to go became more intense. All subjects were now open to debate: the war, the long hair, the guitar Mass, John Sinclair (who grew up down the street), the Weathermen gathering in Flint, the peace signs we painted on the walls in the basement, the effect all this was having on our younger sister, Veronica, etc., etc.
In the end, Anne said she was going and there would be no further discussion. Silence. End of dinner.
We got to my cousin Pat’s house outside D.C. before midnight. We crashed there, and when we awoke, we made our plans for the day. There was a teach-in, and Leonard Bernstein was going to conduct a “Concert as a Plea for Peace” at the National Cathedral, with Senators Edward Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy speaking.
When we got to the cathedral the following evening, we were shocked at the size of the crowd trying to get in. The line stretched for what seemed like a mile. There was no way we were going to get inside — until Peter said he had an idea.
“Just keep your eye on me,” he said, “and one by one come up and join me.”
Peter broke out a bag of peanuts and went up toward the front of the line, found someone who looked like he had a friendly face, and offered him some of his nuts. A jovial conversation ensued, making it seem like Peter knew the guy who was “obviously” holding a place for him. Now five more of us had to make this look casual enough to walk up and appear as if we belonged there. And one by one we did. This apparently was too much for one guy in line who was watching the whole ruse unfold. He left his place in the line and walked up to us.
“I’m wondering how your conscience is handling this right now,” he said in a voice that sounded remarkably similar to my conscience. “Do you think it’s right to make cuts like this and deny people who’ve been here before you a chance to go inside?”
None of us said anything. No one made eye contact with him. It’s as if he wasn’t there. But we were.
“Amazing,” he remarked, shaking his head. “Nothing to say for yourselves? And at a church, no less.”
None of us felt very good about ourselves. What we had done was wrong. We’d also driven six hundred miles and didn’t really give a shit. Or at least tried to pretend we didn’t. Everyone around us heard the scolding and all eyes were on us. We couldn’t wait to get inside the church and be taken off the cross.
The concert was unlike anything I had ever attended. Bernstein conducted members of the National Symphony and other orchestras in Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War.” It was a haunting, beautiful work of classical music, and I noticed the sadness on the faces of many around me. There were readings and poems, and it deeply moved the twenty-five hundred who were present (another twenty-five thousand listened on loudspeakers outside on the lawn of the cathedral).
On Inauguration Day we got there early so we could try to get a glimpse of Nixon’s limo before he went to Capitol Hill. Security was very tight, but we got close enough to see the armored car and jeer at it and hold our signs so he could see them. As he passed, he waved, and we waved back, though not with the entire hand. I was a long way from the seminary.
The rally on the Ellipse by the Washington Monument was not as large as previous antiwar rallies, but it was still populated by upwards of seventy-five thousand people. It was the largest crowd I had ever been in, and it was intense and angry. People were fed up with Nixon and his murderous ways. We stood on top of the hill at the base of the Washington Monument, looking out across the demonstration and to the White House, hoping Nixon was back and looking out the window.
After about two hours, some of the demonstrators decided it was time for more aggressive action. The Washington Monument is encircled by fifty United States flags. A group of students thought the flags might look better if they were flown upside down. And that’s what they did. The National Parks police were outnumbered and called for reinforcements. Within minutes, in rode the cavalry. Dozens of cops on horseback ascended the hill to the monument. As we were not participating in this sidebar demo, we weren’t worried about anything happening to us. Wrong assumption. The horsemen started attacking anyone in sight with their clubs. We took off, like most of the crowd, running down the hill. The police decided to pursue us. I did not know it was humanly possible to outrun a horse, but somehow we shot down that hill like bullets. I could hear one horse right behind me, and at that moment I figured I could do something instantly that the horse couldn’t do.
As I stopped dead in my tracks, the horse just kept going. There were plenty of other protesters to chase. I yelled at the others in our group to follow me, and we moved out to the right side of the crowd where there were no police. Out of breath, we all agreed that was too close a call and decided that we had done enough to make our voices heard. We flipped off the White House one last time (“Did you see him in the window?” “Yes, I think I saw him!”), and headed back to Michigan.
ACT III: Bad Axe
I had worked for him, I had protested him. And now I wanted closure. I wanted to say good-bye.
It was clear that Nixon wasn’t long for the White House. By the late spring of 1974, after the break-in of the Watergate offices of the Democratic Party, after the Senate Watergate hearings and John Dean’s revelations, after Alexander Butterfield admitted Nixon taped every conversation in the Oval Office, after the White House authorized the break-in of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, after Nixon lost at the Supreme Court and the Pentagon Papers were published, and after he tried to cover it all up, President Richard Milhous Nixon was hanging on by a thread when he decided to pay a visit to three small towns northeast of Flint, Michigan.
He had been hiding in the White House, drinking, talking to old paintings on the wall, afraid to go out and be with the public, the majority of whom now wanted him to either leave the presidency of his own volition or be the first president to be tossed out. He wanted neither. He was a fighter. He never gave up, even when all his chips were down, many times before. He was Dick Nixon of Yorba Linda, California, and he wasn’t going anywhere but where destiny intended him to be.
Forced to have to say during a press conference, “I’m not a crook” (the mantra of crooks everywhere), Nixon was looking for a way to bypass the press—“the enemy,” “the Jews” — and reach out directly to the people, his “silent majority,” whom he knew loved him.
That opportunity came when he appointed Republican congressman James Harvey to the federal bench in January of ’74. This created the need for a special election to fill his seat, and Nixon decided that the solidly Republican “thumb” area of Michigan was the perfect place to go for the pick-meup that he needed.
It was also where I decided I would finally meet the man and ask him to leave. It was April 10, 1974, and my friend Jeff, my sister Veronica, and I got in the car and drove over to Bad Axe, Michigan, the small town where Nixon would make what would turn out to be the last campaign appearance of his presidency.
Bad Axe was the county seat of Huron County, Michigan. It had a courthouse and a movie theater and was surrounded by miles and miles of farmland. (It was on one of these farms south of Bad Axe where Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols stayed with Nichols’s brother before the Oklahoma City bombing.)
The area was part of a peninsula surrounded on three sides by Lake Huron, and it was full of some of the most conservative people in the state of Michigan. How conservative? The nearest liberal probably lived across the lake in Canada.
Bad Axe had never had a presidential visit. So the whole town showed up in full red, white, and blue regalia to greet the nation’s First Felon. A parade for Nixon was planned, and we were prepared to join the welcoming party.
Fortunately, when we arrived in Bad Axe, we were not the only ones who thought Nixon had to go. There were at least three hundred other protesters among the few thousand happy Bad Axers who were anxiously awaiting Nixon’s arrival.
I found a good spot right on the curb of the town’s main street. I brought a sign that said in big, bold letters: Nixon’s a Crook. Jeff and Veronica had signs that said Impeachment Now and War Criminal. Basic, straightforward stuff. No ambiguity or subtlety. Short enough for him to read as he passed us by.
The locals standing around us tried to block our signs. But with three hundred fellow travelers there with us, it was impossible to make us go away. People shouted at us: “Outsiders go home!” and “Hippies burn in Hell!” Simple. No ambiguity. But no violence.
After about an hour, the parade/motorcade began to make its way down Huron Avenue. There were fire trucks and police cars and a marching band and cheerleaders and Boy Scouts and Future Farmers of America. On the tops of convertibles sat the mayor and the Republican candidate for Congress, James “No One Has Ever Heard of Me” Sparling, waving to the cheering crowd. If this was what Nixon was hoping for—an emotional outpouring of support—he was about to get it in Bad Axe.
Finally, his presidential limo came into view. He was standing up and sticking out of its sun roof, bobbing and waving like a forlorn jack-in-the-box. He flashed his famous Nixon smile, thrusting out his hands with the “V for Victory” sign he made with his index and middle fingers. We weren’t more than ten feet from him, and I held up my sign at eye level so he could clearly see it.
And he did. The car was not going more than five miles per hour. As it crept past me I looked directly into his eyes — and he into mine. It seemed in that instant everything went into slow motion. He looked at me, standing there in my bibbed overalls and long hair. I looked at him. The pancake makeup on him was so overdone, so thick and caked, that his face was like a slab of petrified orange, and his attempts to smile were somehow being impeded by the plaster that had been put on his mug. He looked ill. Seriously ill. I did not expect to see this. For reasons that I will have to explain later at St. Peter’s Gate, I felt an instant sadness for him. He was like a corpse who had been wheeled out to whip up the people and get them to vote for a man he didn’t even know. Though the small-town crowd was spirited and happy to see him, he really wasn’t happy to see them. You know when you go to a play or a movie and you can see the acting, see the actor performing his lines, going through the motions, and at that moment the performance has lost you and it is over and it can’t be recovered? That was Nixon in Bad Axe. The man who had been a congressman, senator, vice president, and now president, the man who had met with world leaders and at one time considered dropping The Bomb on North Vietnam, the man who clawed and climbed his way to the top more than once — now here he was in a place he’d never seen, reduced to sitting on the pop-top of a Pontiac in a staged parade of hopeful photo ops, a nice piece for the evening news, but there was no fooling anyone: This was not Nixon in China. This was Nixon in Bad Axe. Crushing, and irrevocably humiliating. It was all that he had left.
As his eyes glanced down at my Nixon’s a Crook sign he did his best to look away and pretend to be happy, but there was just the next sign after me and the one after that and the 297 after that. When I saw his sad reaction to my sign, I instinctively lowered it, ashamed that I was now kicking a man when he was down — a pretty ruthless, despicable man, but nonetheless, a man shamed and alone. A man on his way back to Orange County or to prison. He may have been surrounded by thousands there in Bad Axe, but the only axe that mattered now was the one that was just weeks away from being lowered on his head. The Republican governor of Michigan, William Milliken, declined to join him in the parade. Milhous was a pariah, he knew it, and, really, what was the point at this juncture?
I’ll tell you what it was. He said he would end the war — he told us he would end the war!—and instead he sent another twenty thousand American boys to their deaths. He rained so many bombs down on the civilians of Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia that to this day no one can give an exact body count. (Is it 2 million? 3 million? 4 million? At this level, you’re talking Holocaust numbers, and if you paid your taxes, then you supported this and you are culpable and you know it and you just want to puke.) He had committed war crimes so heinous that we still live with the legacy of his actions to this day. We lost our moral compass with him and we’ve never gotten it back. We no longer know when we’re the good guys and when we’re the terrorists. History has already written our demise, and History will say it began with Vietnam and Nixon. Before Vietnam there was so much hope. Since Nixon we have known only the Permanent War.
For some reason, not knowing then what would come of our country, I lifted my sign back up. I wanted none of it and none of him.
We walked down to where he was going to give his speech, but the police made sure we got nowhere near him.
He got on the loudspeaker and bragged about his subsidies to the local farmers. He asked the crowd if their doctor “should work for his patients or for the government?” And then he addressed the young people who were there.
“I have brought you a lasting peace,” he told them. “Yours will be the first generation in this century who will not know war. And to you young boys here, you will be the first group of eighteen-year-olds not drafted in over twenty-five years!”
The crowd cheered. Nixon, the peace president. We booed as loud as we could. It was more like a howl. Nixon would not make another campaign appearance before resigning from the presidency a few months later. We were there for his last one.
If only we could have said the same about that being America’s last war.
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