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Richard Nixon’s Rosebud: Defrocked President Went Wild for Horses

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Posted on Dec 14, 2011
Wikimedia Commons / U.S. Federal Government

Richard Nixon in 1972 at the “Western White House,” or La Casa Pacifica in San Clemente, Calif.

By Deanne Stillman

(Page 2)

Steinbrenner was somehow embroiled in the Watergate scandal, so seeing them together wasn’t really a surprise. Did the Boss realize that they wouldn’t get a bye, if I may call in a football term, as he entered his kingdom with America’s most reviled figure? Did he care? In any case, on they went as the chant grew to a crescendo, moving toward their seats and taking them. The president managed a wave in spite of 80,000 people yelling that he sucked, and then someone hit a single, I think, and another Yankee rally was under way. 

By the time I learned of Nixon’s involvement in wild horse preservation, this kind of behavior on my part—public shouting en masse—had long since fallen away. At some point, I realized that Nixon was a truly tormented man, one who hated rock ’n’ roll and asked radio stations not to play it but happily shook hands with Elvis when he came a knockin’ at the White House gates, a man who spied on fellow citizens making use of the First Amendment when they criticized him, while at the same time defending the one animal that most represents freedom (for the sake of argument, I’m laying down a hierarchy here, with all due respect to brother eagle). And it wasn’t just that he signed the bill and then quoted Thoreau, which would have been more than enough; as I document in my book, he actually went further, much further, and this is the rest of what Nixon said when he signed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971: “In the past 70 years, civilization and economics have brought the wild horse to 99 percent extinction. They are a living link with the conquistadors, through the heroic times of the western Indians and pioneers to our own day. … More than that, they merit protection as a matter of ecological right—as anyone knows who has stood awed at the indomitable spirit and sheer energy of a mustang running free.” 

Often it’s actors who have the greatest insight into motivation and the true essence of a particular character. The more I thought about the paradox of Nixon, about his own private wars and how they became public, as they always do,in his case, playing out on the world’s stage, the more I wanted to understand him. So I turned to my friend Wendie Malick, a wonderful actress who has spoken so eloquently on behalf of wild horses and other animals on many occasions over the years. What was it in Nixon, I asked, that brought about his defense of wild horses? Clearly there was much more to the story than the sweaty, paranoid guy who hated Eastern elites and didn’t look good on television. “I think he identified with them,” Wendie said. “They weren’t being treated well. They were being rounded up and trapped, sent to the slaughterhouse.” Cast aside, in other words. Not appreciated. And then forgotten. As Nixon himself said in 1952, during his famous Checkers speech, “You won’t have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore.” But actually we do, because that’s what happens whenever anyone mentions his name, and that’s what’s still going on with wild horses.

Which brings me to Richard Nixon’s secret. It has to do with his earliest childhood memories, and as it happens, one of them—to my surprise, and then, ultimately not—is all about a running horse. As the anniversary of the 1971 act drew closer, I found myself again pondering the man whose signature made it official. Armed with Wendie’s insight, I began poring over the Internet for more information about this misunderstood president, hoping to find the thing that led him to identify with wild horses. Why did he feel kicked around? It’s one thing to lose an election and endure an endless media hazing.  And who among us could recover from being told by 80,000 people that you suck?  Yet his torment seemed so profound, so ancient, that I suspected those experiences must have opened up some unresolved wound. As it turned out, that’s exactly what happened.

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And that’s how I came across the Rosebud of this president’s story. Trekking through the Internet, I discovered a series of interviews that he did with reporter Frank Gannon. He talks about his boyhood in Yorba Linda and later Whittier, and recounts loving memories of his parents, like the one in which his mother goes outside to make pie filling, whipping the fresh California air into it to add that special something. But there’s another one, the one that seems to explain a lot, everything perhaps, if one is predisposed to look for that one thing, and even if not, here it is: In this one, he’s a toddler, riding with his mother and sister in a horse-drawn buggy. The buggy rounds a corner and there is a jolt; he is thrown from the vehicle as it continues on, hitting his head as he falls. The horse runs away with the buggy, and young Richard races after it, to no avail. And there he is, dizzy perhaps, stunned maybe, possibly bleeding but determined nonetheless—left in the streets by a runaway horse, an animal that is running faster and faster, trying to break free, vanishing in a trail of dust. And on runs the future president, into his life, the world, the White House, ranting about people who oppose him, compiling an enemies list, making war with Vietnam, peace with China, awed by the sight of a horse running free, forever left behind.


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By Byard Pidgeon, December 15, 2011 at 8:43 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Nixon’s comment about “not having Nixon to kick around” was made during his
press conference after he lost the election for Governor of California, quite a few
years after the Checkers speech.

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By kerryrose, December 14, 2011 at 8:09 pm Link to this comment

Ms Stillman

I wish I knew what you thought of the new legislation that makes horse slaughter legal again in the United States.  I can’t help but feel it is just an excuse to exterminate our wild horses who are in the way of the welfare cattle ranchers and the welfare oil companies.

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By William, December 14, 2011 at 7:56 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Great example of why writers need editors. 90% of this article is useless fill—including the entire last paragraph. So many interesting potential angles and facets of this story that would have made for good reading.

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