When Dick Nixon came to San Diego

Why did Nixon biographer Anthony Summers need C. Arnholt Smith?

The Nixon campaign travels down Broadway in San Diego, October 1956
  • The Nixon campaign travels down Broadway in San Diego, October 1956

Richard Nixon called San Diego his “lucky city,” and some of his best friends lived here. Herb Klein, one-time editor of the San Diego Union, who took “leaves of absence” from the paper to work on Nixon’s campaigns for Congress, Senate, and the Presidency, along with his boss, Union-Tribune publisher Jim Copley, were Nixon’s stalwart political allies. Banker C. Arnholt Smith, who for decades controlled San Diego’s business and political life, counted Nixon as a personal friend and confidant.

Richard Nixon in New York

Richard Nixon in New York

Copley’s devotion to Nixon is shown in a series of letters, housed in the National Archives, that he wrote to Nixon during his presidential campaign in the fall of 1960.

Anthony Summers had written Goddess, a best-selling biography of Marilyn Monroe that linked her to the Kennedy brothers, and Conspiracy, about John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Anthony Summers had written Goddess, a best-selling biography of Marilyn Monroe that linked her to the Kennedy brothers, and Conspiracy, about John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

September 16, 1960

Dear Dick:

As you know, I am going to do everything possible through the Copley Newspapers to assist you in your campaign. I feel so vehemently that we need you as the next President of the United States.

In your campaigning, I certainly hope you will not overlook San Diego. It is now the nineteenth city [sic] in the country. I believe I can swing a lot of votes into your column. However, I feel it is imperative that you include this city on your schedule to be sure you will get the full support you deserve. I discussed this with Union editor] Herb Klein. He assured me you were going to come here, but I thought I would take this opportunity to personally give you my sentiments on the subject. I wish you Godspeed, and am rooting for your election in November. Please do not hesitate to call on my organization if we can help you.

Richard Nixon and C. Arnholt Smith, c. 1960. "Smith had known Nixon from boyhood. In the Whittier area he had known him, and he had given a large sum of money to one of his very first campaigns."

Richard Nixon and C. Arnholt Smith, c. 1960. "Smith had known Nixon from boyhood. In the Whittier area he had known him, and he had given a large sum of money to one of his very first campaigns."

On September 26,1960, Copley wrote to Herb Klein, the San Diego Union editor then “on loan” to the Nixon campaign, complaining of Nixon’s poor performance in a televised debate with John F. Kennedy the night before:

Richard and Pat Nixon at resignation, August 9, 1974. Smith: “I think she would have divorced him, if he had not agreed to stay out of politics."

Richard and Pat Nixon at resignation, August 9, 1974. Smith: “I think she would have divorced him, if he had not agreed to stay out of politics."

Dear Herb:

As a personal letter to you, I wish to say that I think Dick came out second best in the “debate” last night. I think the campaign played up Kennedy. Kennedy looked fresher; Dick looked tired, and I thought it was a shame that his suit did not appear too well on the set that I was looking at.

Also, Kennedy's expression seemed to indicate that he was ready for anything, whereas Dick's expression was very studious but to the point where it looked almost like he was mad or disturbed. I certainly hope we can do better in future exchanges.

Herb Klein. Copley in letter to Klein: "As a personal letter to you, I wish to say that I think Dick came out second best in the “debate” last night. I think the campaign played up Kennedy."

Herb Klein. Copley in letter to Klein: "As a personal letter to you, I wish to say that I think Dick came out second best in the “debate” last night. I think the campaign played up Kennedy."

That same October, Nixon wrote back to Copley, expressing gratitude for his support:

Dear Jim:

I want to thank you for your letter of September 22 and tell you how much I appreciate your efforts toward insuring a big turn out on October 11. Needless to say, I regret that we won't be able to get together during my trip to San Diego.

The all-out assistance you are giving us — ranging from the loan of Herb Klein and [Union reporter] Peter Kaye to the help on the San Diego programs — is most gratifying. I only wish we had more like you!

Nixon and James Copley, October 8, 1973. Copley once boasted that his papers had “delivered” San Diego to Nixon during the closely fought 1960 presidential campaign.

Nixon and James Copley, October 8, 1973. Copley once boasted that his papers had “delivered” San Diego to Nixon during the closely fought 1960 presidential campaign.

Thus it was that Irish author Anthony Summers, who had written Goddess, a best-selling biography of Marilyn Monroe that linked her to the Kennedy brothers, and

Conspiracy, about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, arrived here a decade ago. Summers also offered a brutally candid portrait of J. Edgar Hoover in 1993’s Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, and then began research for a new biography about Nixon. Copley, who once boasted to a Copley company biographer that his papers had “delivered” San Diego to Nixon during the closely fought 1960 presidential campaign, was long dead. But Klein, Smith, and others survived.

After interviewing Klein, Summers set out to find Smith, who had been toppled in 1973 by what was at the time the nation’s worst bank failure. Convicted ten years later on state charges relating to misappropriation of the bank’s money, Smith had served a brief jail term at a halfway house in Southeast San Diego and then vanished from public view. Summers needed Smith; he had been told that the disgraced financier had been a crucial eyewitness to Nixon’s past. The author finally caught up with Smith, and much of what he learned during a five-hour interview formed the partial foundation of Summer’s controversial allegations about Nixon’s rocky relationship with his wife, Pat.

Interviewed earlier this month, just after publication of his book The Arrogance of Power: the Secret World of Richard Nixon, Summers related details of his search for Smith and offered his thoughts and opinions about the fierce reception the book has received from Nixon loyalists, as well as his opinion of the Nixon Library near Whittier.

Q. So how did you finally catch up with C. Arnholt Smith?

A. Well, as you recall, funnily enough, finding this man, who had once been Mr. San Diego, was extraordinarily difficult. Of course he was old, well into the 90s. It was extraordinary how much this man who had been so public had disappeared and how many people who ought to have known otherwise had assumed his death. I remember spending an absolutely intensive day and a half doing virtually nothing except endlessly tying up the phones trying to reach him.

I found somebody who knew his daughter and then I found the daughter and him staying in the house, at the time, of someone else in this place called Temecula. And once I found him, he came to the telephone, and he talked to me on the phone. He was still articulate, a bit hard of hearing, but was perfectly ready to say what he said. I got there and his daughter was with him, and his memory was very sharp, and then, as is often the case with very old people, his memory was much better about events long gone than they were about things that happened last week. And he was still full of energy, sitting there upright, very intelligent eyes. And he sat there for probably three hours apparently without significantly tiring.

There had been things in the press over the years that said, of course, that he knew the Nixons. And Pat Nixon had been quoted as saying, “Arnie was one of our first supporters,” but it had not been clear to me that he had known Nixon from boyhood. In the Whittier area he had known him, and he had given a large sum of money to one of his very first campaigns. I believe it’s $50,000 he mentioned. Which, of course, in those vintage years was a handsome sum.

Arnholt Smith, the San Diego banker, remembered by Pat Nixon as “one of our first supporters,” reportedly personally donated $250,000 in 1968, and the contributions he generated totaled four times that. An associate of his, bookmaker John Alessio, gave $26,000. On election night Smith would be part of the Nixon inner circle at the Waldorf Towers. (Both Smith and Alessio would later go to jail for tax evasion, but only after secret efforts by the Nixon White House to intervene on their behalf.)

Former IRS Special Agent David Stutz, later a deputy district attorney in San Diego, recalled receiving a call from John Caulfield at the White House. Saying he was phoning on behalf of [Nixon aide John] Ehrlichman, Caulfield asked Stutz to fly to Washington with all the information he had on Alessio and Smith — without informing his superiors. Stutz took the call with a colleague listening in and told Caulfield to put his request in writing. The line then went dead.

The Arrogance of Power

And Smith talked in general — I mean, this is a man who supported Nixon — he talked in general about him politically as somebody, that to a businessman like Smith, was logical and sensible as a business measure to support.

But I had the impression that he’d always felt that that was sort of a business decision. That his view of Nixon as a person had possibly always been one of “I work with him, but this is not somebody that I could ever think of as a friend.” Nixon had always held himself aloof and Arnholt Smith thought him rather stuck up. That’s not a quote. Write it down as a quote from me, but that’s not a quote from him. But it was interesting because this is the memory that he had of him from the very beginning of the teenage years.

He liked and was much more sympathetic, talked compassionately about, Pat Nixon. And again, this story is in the book. It followed some sort of political meeting, which Nixon had been at with a group of political men. And in an irritated sort of way, Nixon had said, “Could you get Pat out of here? Would you take her away and do something with her.”

Which would fit because this was a time at which we know from all sorts of other bits of information that Pat was—had been—delighted after 1960 to be starting to find a life away from politics, where she could become the mother of her children and settle down with increased secure income from...with Nixon joining the legal firm in Los Angeles. And to say that she was dubious about getting back into the political fray—and taking part in the ’62 gubernatorial campaign — was a huge understatement.

It happened aboard Smith’s yacht, the old Mexican president’s yacht, of the old style of wooden-hulled boat with lots of teak and brass inside it. He obviously loved it when he had it. And he said that they were being served by the steward dinner, and there came a point of just him and Pat at a long table with him at one end, her at the other end.

San Diego entrepreneur Arnholt Smith, one of Nixon’s earliest supporters, remembered a melancholy evening in the early ’60s when Nixon was holding a meeting and asked him to get Pat out of the way. “Pat was not feeling well physically, and even worse...mentally,” Smith said. “Dick sent word, ‘Could I please take her and hide her from the public, so to speak, let her rest her mind and what have you.’”

Smith took Pat to dinner that night on the Chito, a yacht that had once belonged to the president of Mexico. “‘Arnie,’” she burst out, as they sat at the long table in the wood-paneled dining room, “‘is it ever going to stop?’ She felt pounded,” Smith said, “in the sense that when they pounded Nixon, they pounded her.”

Pat now even talked of divorce. “I think she would have divorced him,” Smith went on, “if he had not agreed to stay out of politics. But Nixon wanted to go on, and without her it wouldn’t work. He’d got to have the wife, the whole nine yards. She’d have to sacrifice her feelings to go forward.”

The Arrogance of Power

The reason I’ve gone on about it at length is that this interview was conducted very early on in a five-year project that included more than 1200 interviews. It took on a special significance for me when I finally started to look at the area that has been getting such hoo-hah in terms of instant media frenzy: the allegations that things got so bad that Richard Nixon hit his wife in 1962.

Most people say Nixon never played around with other women. I have looked into indications that he did on occasion. I have found virtually nothing, and I have looked hard. [Nixon was] a tormented personality whose emotional problems most certainly affected his career and his behavior at key times and including during the presidency. Of course, the personal life is legitimate territory for a biographer.

Arnholt Smith, who had known Nixon from childhood, recalled an episode during another party in California. “I was looking for my wife and—jeez! — I couldn’t find her. Apparently Dick had maneuvered her into the john, and they were drinking highballs. I finally found out where they were and had to jerk her out. He was high as a kite, and he said, ‘We’re not doing anything, we’re not doing any-thing!’....When he got to drinking, Nixon was really something Pat was a wonderful woman but very straitlaced. She was Queen Victoria. I think he sought a change from that... He sometimes wandered.”

The Arrogance of Power

Q. The week after your book came out, you appeared on MSNBC's Hardball program with Chris Matthews, who was highly critical of you and the book. What did you make of that?

A. Well, if you’re sitting four feet from him and he doesn’t shake your hand before the program begins—you know, you don’t need to before the program begins. You virtually have a count of 45 seconds, and then this apparent lunatic, red in the face, spitting and foaming at the mouth, goes straight into saying—not discussing the book in terms of civil discourse in any way at all — but goes straight into, “Do you agree that the West had to confront the Communists over a period of half a century?” And to which I said whatever I said, like uh, “Yes.” “That the confrontation was necessary,” I believe is what I said. And he just went into an extraordinary tirade and then went on through the interview throwing extraordinary aspersions when he said, “What are your sources for...” talking about a previous book of mine, not even talking about the book we’d just published but my book about J. Edgar Hoover.... “You suggest that blackmail information about Jack Kennedy's sex life was a factor in LBJ becoming their vice presidential running mate. What’s your source?” Well, if he’d read the book, which he apparently had, he knows bloody well who the source is.

So I said, “Well, my source was the only other person who was in and out of the room while John and Bobby .Kennedy were discussing the issue of who would be their running mate, which was their secretary, their long-term secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, who was the equivalent in John Kennedy’s life of Rose Wood’s in Nixon’s. And I got the first [interview] with Evelyn Lincoln about that” And he sat there continuing to spit and growl and grimace and say, “Evelyn Lincoln. Your source was Evelyn Lincoln, the president’s secretary? That’s all?” As if to, you know, cast aspersions on Evelyn Lincoln. Now, had one had time between his epithets and shouting and grotesqueness, had one had time to say, I would have said to him, “Well, what’s your problem with Evelyn Lincoln, Mr. Matthews? No one else that I have seen has ever expressed any problems about Evelyn Lincoln, who was the president’s, Jack Kennedy’s intimate secretary for all of his career, essentially.” And then, of course, at the end he got down to some quibbling about a date on a page. It was bizarre. And I can only hope that the viewer, to the intelligent viewer, that he looked as bizarre as it was. He seemed to me excessively unpleasant with us.

Q. You wrote a book about the John F. Kennedy assassination called Conspiracy. Does that mean you were a conspiracy buff?

A. The book was called Conspiracy. But the story behind why it was called conspiracy is that, as often happens with books, late in the day I was sitting in McGraw-Hill’s office in New York with my editor and publication team. They were saying, “What are we going to call it?” I was coming up with various ideas. They were saying, “No, no. The vogue these days, it’s got to be one word.” They wanted, you know, one-word titles, like Epic or Legend or whatever. On the assassination, what was it to be? So I said, “Well, that’s very hard to say, you see...” but this was just after the House Assassinations Committee had come out with the conclusion that Martin Luther King was killed as a result of a conspiracy and that John F. Kennedy had probably been killed as a result of a conspiracy. So as the author, I piped up from my chair, “A Conspiracy Probably.” And, you know, when they finished throwing tomatoes at me and bad eggs and saying, “You can’t call a book Conspiracy Probably.” The editor or the publisher said, “That’s it! We call it Conspiracy.” So over my protests, it was called Conspiracy. And the rest of the inside of the book makes it completely— which is rather sober-sided— makes it very clear that I take no particular view and that the view, the word “conspiracy” comes from the verdict of a congressional committee.

But when the book was reissued two or three years ago, I insisted that the title be changed and it has been republished as Not in Your Lifetime. That’s the title. So I had it republished as Not in Your Lifetime because when after the Warren Commission report was published, Chief Justice Earl Warren was asked whether all the information they'd had would be published. He said, “It will be published in due course, but there are some matters involving national security and they, I think, will not be released in your lifetime.” And hence, Not in Your Lifetime.

Nearly 40 years have passed. If it was so simple, that the one lone wacko hit killed the president from the book depository that day, and with the Cold War over and all intelligence methods and sources long since redundantly out of date, it’s an insult to the intelligence of the American people to say that anything should be withheld and, of course, numerous intelligence things that have to do with the assassination are still withheld. So my view is simply that if there’s nothing there being hidden that’s of substance, then let the whole thing out.

Q. In the Nixon book, you talk extensively about Nixon’s involvement in the CIA’s attempts to kill Castro.

A. Personally, I think the evidence clearly indicates that both JFK and RFK were aware of the assassination plots, and I have the impression from the evidence that they favored them and pursued them. And I think that’s what almost all informed observers of the story do now feel. But it isn’t fair to single them out because the whole thing clearly began under the Eisenhower — the end of the Eisenhower administration...in the last spring and summer and fall of 1960. And it is clear from the evidence that I collected that— as had been rumored in the past but now seems established by the sources that I’ve put together — Vice President Richard Nixon was the person deputed by Ike—within the White House—to manage whatever was going on about Cuba, in terms of covert operations and so on.

What we have in the book is a brand new analysis of the information, including new information that hasn’t been seen before, indicating quite clearly that Nixon was involved in the plotting to overthrow Castro. This is something he didn’t respond on and wasn’t even asked about by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which investigated this after he’d been president. Which is extraordinary. There’s a passage on that. It’s quite extraordinary because, of course, there were long, long sessions of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in which they questioned people high and low from the Eisenhower administration, from the Kennedy administration, from the Johnson administration, about who knew what in the White House. But all of the principals — in terms of presidents and vice presidents — were gone, not there to be interviewed. Johnson was gone, Humphrey was gone by then, I believe. RFK was gone. Jack Kennedy was gone. Eisenhower was dead. But Nixon, who was the progenitor of the Cuban operations, deeply involved in the Cuban operations during the formative period when Castro-assassination plots were first initiated, was alive and well and sitting in San Clemente. And they didn’t ask him about it. Here’s a measure of the way things go. One of the former counsels from the former staff members of the Senate Intelligence Committee said to me, “Yeah well, you know, I don’t quite recall exactly why we didn’t question him on this specific matter, but actually, you know, maybe it was just that we thought that we were very unlikely to get anything like the truth out of Richard Nixon anyway.”

Q. Clearly, much of what you research is highly sensitive and resides on documents held by the government. How do you manage to get at it? Is that a problem?

A. Of course, if the Freedom of Information Act as originally conceived and acted into law were functioning in the way that it’s supposed to function, then we would have much better access to all manner of things. But the fact is that, I believe during the Reagan administration, the Freedom of Information Act was emasculated. And in particular the agencies that are in the areas we’ve been discussing—most relevant, the CIA and the FBI — have been given extraordinary powers to withhold and delay with the result that an author starting a nonfiction book in the year 2000 will be bloody lucky if he gets anything of significance within three or four years.

And of course they know this bloody well. But you can get things. I mean, we did manage on this project — which is the key thing — to get in that factor about the — which would mean the most historically important thing in the book — the Nixonian sabotage of the 1968 Johnson Peace Initiative.

We obtained the FBI surveillance record—some of it is still sensitive, but most of it is not. I believe we have most of it, and we’ve published a couple of the documents from it. It contains a key document showing that Nixon’s go-between with Vietnam’s President Thieu called the South Vietnamese ambassador shortly before the election and said—you have to look at the document, please, but this is roughly it—“Hold on. Hold on. We’re going to win.” And the subtext to all of it , according to her, because we’ve interviewed her, Anna Chennault, was that this was, you know, “Try to hold on, cause you’re gonna get a better deal out of us after the election.” In the same message—which was monitored by the FBI, because of the surveillance ordered by Johnson—she referred to her boss. This message was from her boss. Who was her boss? Her boss was Richard Nixon.

So that was useful. As for the way most other documents are kept, of course, the issue of war happens to Nixon’s presidential documents is a long, long, long-running legal issue. The huge numbers of them are with the Nixon project at he National Archives in Washington D.C.—who are extraordinarily helpful and learned and useful to biographers and journalists—which is where the tapes are.

As for the Nixon Library, that is an interesting issue. I have had to deal over the past 15, 20 years with, I think, with all the presidential libraries but certainly with the Eisenhower Library, with the FDR Library, with the Johnson Library, with the Kennedy Library, with the Hoover Institution, and the Gerald Ford Library. And they are all what they’re described as. They’re all libraries. If you go along and you don’t have two heads and you’re not obviously intoxicated, and you have a driver’s license, and your wearing trousers, they will give you a card and give you a chair and sit you down and give you a form, and you can ask for documents. And they will help you, if they have it, and they’re courteous and cooperative.

We approached the Nixon Library at the very beginning because I was on the East Coast and then I thought I’d do the initial approach to the Nixon Library through a Los Angeles researcher who is working for me who was 45 years old, with a degree, wore a suit, was knowledgeable on history. And I sent him to do some very basic, initial questions. And he came back on the telephone in total astonishment about six hours after I had sent him down to the Nixon Library to say, “I was turned away and I felt that I was an intruder, that they didn’t want to talk to me, that I had absolutely no hope of getting in to see them.” He’d arrived with the references from the publishers—completely respectable researcher. And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Well, they said something about you’d have to come and do any studying here, and you have to be a Ph.D.” And I later established that this was so, that you did have to be a Ph.D.

It is not a library that seems to be there to serve interested scholars or members of the public who want to inform themselves. It appears to me to be a library that is there to very carefully sift the nature and views of the people who wish to use the library. To reject those it decides it doesn’t want to come to the library and that basically exists [to foster] the greater glory, the memory of Richard Nixon. I mean, their propaganda that they put out is quite, quite bizarre. It regularly goes out. It says, “Nixon’s the One” at the top of the letterhead. If you replaced the word Nixon in their propaganda with the word Mao it would read equally well in terms of the worst years of Chinese deification of Chairman Mao. And that’s a quote. It is quite, quite extraordinary.

They did have an archivist there called Susan Naulty with whom I finally was able to correspond in detail, like, “Can you inform me as to whether Nixon was in Peru on the 15th of January to the 20th or the 17th of April,” you know. One or two matters like that, she did correspond. She was courteous and helpful after a rather rocky start But all this was done at long range. I’ve been to the Nixon birthplace, of course, and looked around, but I haven’t been in the library.

Oh, there’s another chilling thing. Time after time when we were working on the story—and remember, we talked to 1200 people —really senior people, former senior people, and associates and friends and relatives would say, “Oh, hello. Yes. Uh, yes, I would be prepared to meet with you. But I would first have to check with the Nixon Library to see if I may.”

I mean, this is America. This is supposed to be the land of free speech that as a cold warrior Nixon stood up in defense of for all those years. And yet, it’s humiliating to hear these people say, “I will have to check with the Nixon Library before I can talk to you.”

Q. You've got a good story about a difference in a transcript of one of Nixon's taped White House conversations about Senator Howard Baker during Watergate. It's about the difference between the transcript made by Stanley Cutler in his book, The Abuse of Power, and the Nixon Library's version of the same tape.

A. There’s a lovely line there that turns up in Cutler’s transcript as “We’ve got to fuck Baker up as well as we can,” and the Nixon Library version of the tape is “We’ve got to buck Howard Baker up as well as we can,” which, of course, is the complete reverse. But who knows who is right. I haven’t particularly gone and listened to this — that particular tape — because I haven’t used the quote; otherwise I would. But we went to enormous lengths. Every time we’ve used a tape that is either a newly released tape or a tape about which there is any controversy about how it reads or what the meaning is at all, I have sent a researcher back to listen word by word to that tape and to send me a report on whether it is clear, whether it’s not.

And this has been a huge operation. In Ireland, we have our own home and then across the other side of the lawn, we have a four-bedroom house, which is the office. And it is floor-to-ceiling, lined with Nixon material, either tapes or documents or books or copies of books, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of things. But the whole house, pantry, living room, bedrooms, former bathroom, is just wall-to-wall stuff. It’s more than I had for Hoover, and Hoover fills the loft of a big house at our house.

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In his hometown of Whittier, Tricky Dicky has a tiny street named after him. Here's a pic from a few years back; not sure if the sign is still there, but the street is. It goes to a parking lot behind the Whittier Police Station.


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