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Richard Nixon’s Rosebud: Defrocked President Went Wild for Horses
Posted on Dec 14, 2011
Dec. 15 marks the 40th anniversary of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, a landmark piece of legislation signed into law by Richard Nixon. His association with this bill comes as a surprise to many and so does the fact that the late and oft-maligned president signed a number of critical pieces of environmental legislation—most of which his fellow Republicans are trying to unravel or outright obliterate now. I don’t think widespread acknowledgment of Nixon’s swinging that way would save any of those endangered laws, but his wilderness-minded legacy is generally overshadowed by the Watergate scandal and every other scandal that harks back to it whenever the suffix “—gate” is attached. And that makes it almost impossible to try to broaden the conversation about the big environmental bills that were passed during the Nixon era and now may go the way of the creatures they are protecting.
Nixon’s endorsement of such rules and regulations is often dismissed as being politically advantageous. It was. Yet in recent days, I’ve come to realize that his motivation was fueled by a childhood secret, something that was revealed to an interviewer years after he left office. In the annals of Nixon decoding, this secret stands as the full-on Rosebud of the man who is perhaps the most misunderstood president in history, the very Citizen Kane of the East Coast Xanadu that is the White House.
Weirdly, as ever, the beleaguered and awkward commander in chief resurfaced a few weeks ago with the release of some long-held secret Watergate tapes that featured his testimony before a grand jury. Of course the unveiling triggered a brief flurry of coverage, most of which rehashed old conversations about the scandal or lamented the lack of anything that could top what’s already known, which is basically that a shadowy crew called the Plumbers were paid by Richard Nixon and his aides to wage a bizarre surveillance campaign against Democrats, beginning with a burglary at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.—the vast apartment complex where many who toil in the nation’s capital reside. It all culminated in the impeachment and resignation of the president, and a movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as the reporters who broke the story, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward—or “Woodstein” as they’re known in some circles. The scandal produced such memorable characters as Deep Throat, the mysterious source who has since been unveiled and died, and G. Gordon Liddy, the spy who was apparently the brains behind the Plumbers’ operation.
With the release of the latest Watergate testimony, there came yet one more round of the usual Nixon coverage. Nixon was a creep, Nixon was a spy, Nixon just didn’t cut it. Well, it’s true—Nixon was a creep in certain ways, or creepy anyway, and he was a spy, having carried out intelligence operations against all manner of American citizens, as well as those inside his own camp who opposed him. And for sure, he didn’t have that one thing that would have rendered all of this irrelevant: charisma.
Yet the flurry of coverage quickly played itself out; Watergate is hardly front-and-center in the national consciousness, and when the story broke, once again the defrocked president had some tough competition in the form of better-looking people. In this case it was a double-header involving Marilyn Monroe, about whom a new movie called “My Week With Marilyn” was on its way to release, and Nixon’s old nemesis, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, whose presence hovered over the entire story due to the stirring of the Marilyn hive, as well as the opening of the new Errol Morris documentary about the mysterious man holding the umbrella near the site of the JFK assassination in the famous Zapruder footage of the incident.
At this point, let me make a strange confession: I wouldn’t say that I have a Nixon obsession, but I’ve been thinking about his legacy for some time. It started more than 10 years ago, when I began writing my book “Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West” and looking into what happened to the wild horses of America. Along the trail, I learned—among other equine-related stories about presidents—that Ulysses S. Grant kept his beloved horses in a stable on the White House grounds and that Richard Nixon had a role in saving the country’s mustangs and burros. In fact, in terms of presidents of the modern era, Nixon was the last friend of the wild horse to occupy the White House—a true cowboy, in effect. Since his time in office, every president has either presided over legislation that modifies the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act and/or policy that wages war on our four-legged partner in the making of America.
The 1971 law was the fourth in a series of hard fought legislative victories won by an intrepid Nevada figure named Velma Johnston; she later came to be known as Wild Horse Annie—a joke that backfired and gave her a name that helped make her a hero. As she herself said at the time of her visit to D.C., she had gone from the courthouse—referring to the room in Storey County, Nev., where the first legal battle was waged in the 1950s—to the White House, a long and difficult journey. “We need the tonic of wildness,” Nixon said during the signing ceremony for the bill, invoking Henry David Thoreau—a statement that still ranks as a truly astonishing moment in contemporary American history. Can you picture Nixon making that remark? The more I pondered this scenario, the more I started to question my role in the national loathing of the president who came to be known as Tricky Dick.
It went beyond dislike of his policies and included my participation in a peculiar episode of mob behavior at Yankee Stadium at the height of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. I happened to have been there during a playoff game, though I don’t remember who the opposing team was. With the Yankees, does it really matter? As always, the ballpark was packed to the rafters and that’s where I was sitting, having purchased tickets with my then-boyfriend at the last minute and taking whatever seating was available.
Suddenly, a chant went up. It wasn’t REGGIE! REGGIE! REGGIE! or anything game related, and I didn’t see any indication of a rally wave breaking out. But very quickly the chant became loud and clear. NIXON SUCKS! NIXON SUCKS! NIXON SUCKS! I joined in, figuring it was yet one more moment of stadium madness that was perhaps responding to an exhortation on the giant fan billboard overlooking the outfield. At the time, it didn’t matter to me; I was down with the Yankees and understood Yankee mania, having had my share of disputes with fans who would show up claiming a box seat that I happened to have at one time or another, claiming it was theirs and producing a ticket stub from some event that happened months earlier—even at other venues—in a desperate attempt to prove it. But as the chant became louder, I quickly realized that something way beyond Yankee fever was playing out. People weren’t just chanting, they were pointing—in the direction of George Steinbrenner’s box. As I looked through my binoculars, I quickly saw that Steinbrenner was entering, along with President Richard Nixon himself.
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