HH Flashback: Nixon & Dave Remembered

[The Harold Herald, the blog prototype I launched in the early 1990s, was nothing if not political, though the coverage wasn’t always traditional, nor was it my own.  Mark Sullivan, a fellow alum/refugee from the Enterprise-Sun newsroom, was a frequent contributor. Today he’s a skilled and prolific blogger in his own right. His HH essay below, marking the passing of Richard Nixon, was always a favorite of mine.]

By MARK SULLIVAN

Dave was in a triumphant mood when he stopped by my dorm room one night early in the fall of my sophomore year at Boston University. He was quaffing mightily from his favorite mug, a prep-school tankard emblazoned with a Pegasus-like winged beaver, and was pickled to his sizable gills.

I have a picture in my mind’s eye of Dave as he looked that night: The jumbo build, characteristically clothed in club tie and seersucker that gave him the look of giant Ivy League Good Humor man, but this night wrapped in a too-small blue dressing gown; the large head, topped by an outsized Boys’ Regular haircut — part Kemp, part Koppel, crowned by an ungovernable cowlick; the Mr. Limpet-like fish-lips and spectacles, the latter worn for chronic nearsightedness and leading him a resemblance to Piggy, the precocious but doomed overweight boy in the film, Lord of the Flies.

Dave had brought his transcript of President Richard Nixon’s resignation speech, which he proceeded to read in his best Milhousian timbre. When he came to the end of a page, Dave would toss it with a flourish over his shoulder, the sheets fluttering through the air and landing between my bed frame and the wall.

As he approached the end, he summoned all the stage poignancy he could muster: “Uhh, this is, ehr, not goodbye,” he read in choked, Checkers-speech tones, building to the farewell line in fractured Nixonian French: “This is, uhh, ehr, au-rev-oyeur.”

There were tears in his eyes.

I thought of Dave recently when news came of Richard Nixon’s death. David idolized Nixon, or, as he called him, “the, euhr, Pray-sident.” In conversation, Dave would often lapse into his Nixon voice, which was similar to the Nixon impersonation Dan Ackroyd did on Saturday Night Live. The Nixon voice was always preceded and intermittently punctuated by a distinctive low “euhrr” from the back of the throat, as in, “Euhrr, get down on you knees and, euhr, pray with me, Henry.” The delivery was always accompanied by a dismissive, two-digit wave of his index and middle fingers.

Dave Kept about him trappings of his hero. On the large Papal flag that hung on his dorm-room wall were pinned various “Nixon’s The One” campaign buttons. He liked to compose memos, which he would initial “RN.” Opposed to the Kennedys on principle, he liked to play a 1960s novelty recording of the Troggs’ Wild Thing sung by a comic impersonating Bobby Kennedy.

Dave had Praetorian Guard leanings: He once assigned himself the job of advance man to a student-union candidate, preceding his man into the auditorium and giving the audience the “Up, up” gesture, proclaiming, “All rise! All rise for the Pray-sident!”

As a character, Dave was, in a word, preposterous.

He came from a Pennsylvania industrial town on Lake Erie where his family was in the tire business, and from which Dave, given his predilections, had happily escaped none too soon. He endured a checkered career in private school and ended up at Avon Old Farms, in Connecticut, which had been the prep school of last resort.

He weighed in at a good 250 and was given to blazers and oxford-cloth buttondowns of commodious cut, wide-wale corduroys, Norwegian fisherman sweaters, L.L. Bean duck loungers, which were tested by his wide, almost Flintstonian feet. In appearance, he suggested a cross between convicted Nixon aide Chuck Colson and Tweedledee.

Dave disliked the light and kept the shades in his room perpetually drawn, leaving his complexion continually pasty. He was ticklish and did not like to be touched. He chain smoked non-filtered Camels, several packs a day. The butts in his unemptied ashtrays were piled like Mayan pyramids, and his fingers were dyed yellow from the nicotine. He would rise some mornings at 6:30 and immediately begin drinking straight sloe-gin from his 28-ounce Avon Old Farms mug, the flying beaver on which was named Amy.

Dave’s romantic orientation was a matter of conjecture. Some thought him to be asexual. He became obsessed with one friend, John, an easy-going preppie from Wisconsin who sailed boats. Dave referred to John as “the Pray-sident” and kept an hour-by-hour itinerary of John’s classes, which Dave carried about in a case he called “the political football.” John and his roommates gave Dave a key to their dorm suite, which Dave would clean and vacuum.

Dave was put out when John took up with Lacey, a coquette who looked like one of the Sagal twins in the Doublemint ads, who wore lipstick and earrings in the boat when she coxed the women’s crew at Henley, and who interned one summer for Sen. Packwood. Dave thoroughly disapproved of Lacey whom he dismissed as a “hussy.”

•••

In the fall of 1980, when he was a freshman, Dave engineered a monumental prank on a hapless, pear-shaped junior named Bob, who had been the butt of numerous practical jokes when he lived on my floor the previous year. Dave telephoned a Bob, representing himself as an aide to President Carter, and convinced a credulous Bob the president wanted to interview him for a campaign radio spot featuring comments from the college students across America. Dave then segued to his Carter impersonation, taking in a flummoxed Bob hook, line and sinker.

In a follow-up call to the campus newspaper, Dave, once again pretending to be a Carter aide, convinced the editor that a BU student had been called by the president. The paper, swallowing it, ran a story and photo of Bob on the front page in the next morning’s edition. A happy Bob waddled up and down campus the next day, stacks of papers under his arm, handing out copies.

Dave was gleeful after he pulled off the hoax, arguably his greatest college triumph. In Nixonian fashion, he kept tapes of the calls, which had recorded off a phone jack.

Dave could be lavish in his attention to friends. For Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inaugural, he hosted a midday champagne reception in a study lounge he’d commandeered and papered with college Republican posters. He once presented me with a carton of Sullivans, imported British cigarettes he had purchased on a whim after spying the label. He behaved like a fat cat lobbyist in the way he dispensed gifts and favors; but rather than buying votes, he was trying, it seemed, to ensure friendship.

Dave expected, in return for his hospitality, to be paid proper court, as might be extended a Henry Adams-style host of a society salon. Perhaps I did not continue to pay him the appropriate attention, for in my last term at college, Dave began to cut me on the street. I never discovered what slight, real or perceived, I had committed to end up on the Enemies List.

I wonder where Dave is today.

Watching the Nixon funeral on C-Span, I scanned the faces in the crowd of mourners. G. Gordon Liddy was there, and Spiro Agnew, and Chuck Colson. There was no sign of Dave.

I picture him in Pennsylvania, unwilling heir to a tire company, a hunched figure walking the shore of Lake Erie alone, like his hero, in wingtips.

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