Nixon: Behind the Scenes

Nixon: Behind the Scenes

Photo credit: Janet Donovan

“He was a very interesting guy. He certainly didn’t get elected on his charm and good looks; but he probably knew more about the political process than anyone,” John Damgard, former Assistant to President Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew, told Hollywood on the Potomac during our inaugural series on Presidents.  “There are lots of stories about Old Milhous sitting on the bench at Whittier College, which wasn’t exactly competing for a Rose Bowl slot. Twelve guys went out for football, one guy got to sit on the bench and that was Milhous. I think he was a tremendous achiever in a variety of ways that sort of made up for some of his insecurities, quite honestly.”

Although in 2007 Damgard celebrated his 25th year as president of the Futures Industry Association and has been the voice of the futures industry before Congress and regulatory agencies in the U.S. and abroad and in the press, he talked gingerly about his time at the White House and gave us a walk down memory lane with finite detail.  This week marks the 40th Anniversary of Nixon’s resignation.


Johnny Damgard at the home of Esther Coopersmith

“I had been an advance man in the ’68 campaign. I got a call in the middle of the summer saying, ‘Do you want to come, be a volunteer, advance man for Richard Nixon?’ and it sounded like fun and it was early on and the caller said, ‘Yeah, he’s going to be the next President.'” 

Damgard revived his memories of those days and passed along some interesting stories.  “Did you hear the one about the train wreck?” – one of his favorites.

There was a guy named Booth Turner and his job was to organize a campaign trip.  We thought at some point during the campaign that the typical airplane stop and rally in an airport would get to be old stuff, so we needed something to be more exciting. So Booth Turner figured out a train trip.  He borrowed fancy railroad cars so the rally looked even bigger than what it was. I think it was in Deshler, Ohio or something where, ‘My fellow Americans’ speech took place.  It was Nixon and Pat and the two girls and I think David Eisenhower who was on that trip, and standing behind them were Bill Duncan, who was the Secret Service guy, and Bob Haldeman. In those days you put on the microphone, clipped them up on the railing around the back of the observation car. Just as he was starting the speech, the train lurched forward and the mic started popping off and the train went down the track and there was nobody on the train, except Haldeman and Erlichman, or maybe just Erlichman.


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He and Duncan ran through 14 cars and got to the engineer. I wasn’t there, but I can imagine they said something like, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?”‘ It seemed the one of the great pranksters in the Democratic Party, a guy named Dick Tuck, had snuck onto the locomotive and said, ‘I’m a member of the FBI that’s part of the supportive staff, and we’ve just learned that there’s been a threat on the candidate’s life, and if you’re any kind of patriotic American, you’re going to get this train out of here, you’re going to get it out of here right now.’ This little man was of course shocked and I think Tuck also said, “If anybody tries to stop you, it’s probably part of that conspiracy.” This little guy was chugging down the tracks and the Secret Service guy, Duncan, came up and the little engineer turned around and hit him right in the jaw. Well, finally they subdued him and the train backed into the station. Of course, that was the story.”

Damgard went on to tell us about his transition to the Vice Presidents’ office.  “Bill Safire, Pat Buchanan, Brice Harlow, Marty Anderson and I, and I think David Key, we were all loaned to Agnew out of the cadre of supporters of Nixon from the ’68 campaign, for that off-year ’70 campaign. It was a smaller entourage. We didn’t have the same kind of press corps following us around. It was the last of the really intimate campaigns. We went to 46 or 47 states in a chartered airplane and you get to know somebody pretty well as a result of that.

After that, Safire and Buchanan went back to their respective posts in the White House. I did briefly, but then I was asked by both Nixon and Agnew to stay on and do some of the structuring of Agnew’s participation in the ’72 campaign. The whole theory, you’ll recall, is Committee to Re-Elect the President and the President was so busy being the president that he didn’t have time to go out and do all the campaigning. That was left to Agnew, so we were in all 50 states. The fact that we ran against McGovern may have had something to do with the margin of our victory.”

Johnny Damgard

Damgard reflected on how to emphasize things, Nixon was pretty profane. “He’d say, ‘And we’ve got to go get those blanks,’ and I was thinking, I was in my late 20’s, I was thinking, The President of the United States is using pretty graphic language to describe…….such and such.  Out of that came the enemies list, so there was that kind of diabolical mentality. I think people that worked for him understood how much he knew about the process and what a great patriot he was.

This was a dedicated, patriotic American who obviously made a mistake during Watergate. It was not really the act of the simple burglary by a bunch of jerks, it was this part of his personality that he just didn’t ever want anybody to be able to call him a failure or that he got caught doing something wrong. It was really the cover-up that got him in trouble.

If you look at what he did with China, if you look at what he did with the Strategic Arms Limitation in Russia, and Kissinger clearly laid all these things out, it reminds us of all the enormous contributions Nixon made to world peace when he was President – you remember why.