No One to Kick Around Anymore

As a child, what I lacked in peer social skills I more than made up for with my ability to entertain the adults around me. Who needs whiffle ball or hopscotch when you can try out your latest celebrity impersonation in front of your parents’ doting dinner guests? My subjects included Cher, Lucille Ball, and Arte Johnson from “Laugh-In.” By the time I was ten, I was mimicking the idiosyncratic gestures and speech patterns of Richard Milhous Nixon.

Why, at such a tender age, was I somewhat obsessed with the 37th president of the United States? Blame the two strong-willed patriarchs in my family: my paternal grandfather, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, and his son, a liberal academic.

Gramps had served in Europe as a chaplain during World War II. He became a faithful US News & World Report subscriber, voted for Goldwater in ‘64, and worshipped Nixon. The consummate extrovert, he loved big, loud Fourth of July parades and always had an American flag on full display. My father, an only son, took his parents’ dreams for him to become a doctor as far as he could—halfway around the world to Korea, where he served as part of a MASH unit during the Korean War. After being transferred to Tokyo, he met and fell in love with my mother and her country. It was there he also uncovered a passion for history. After my parents moved to the US in 1958, Dad went on to become a professor of history. During the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, he often turned his college lectures into thinly veiled rants against our involvement in the Vietnam War.

Family gatherings could be intense, especially when Gramps and Dad locked horns over politics and patriotism—which happened a lot. My grandfather’s way was to respect authority; my father’s was to question it. You could say they were my family’s versions of Archie Bunker and the Meathead.

In 1974, a few months shy of my eleventh birthday, I spent the summer with my mother’s sister and her husband in Long Beach, California. It was my first solo airplane trip and my first summer away from my parents and siblings. Once the novelty of palm trees and stucco houses wore off, I became homesick for the East Coast. To pass the time and to entertain my aunt and her neighbors, I did my Nixon impersonation. I raised my arms to flash a defiant victory sign and made the most of every slurred syllable. My fellow Americans, let me make one thing perfectly clear … I am not a crook!

One early evening in August, I was sitting on the hassock in the living room, getting ready to watch another “Bonanza” rerun. Aunt Kiyoko was in the kitchen making dinner, and Uncle Dave was out in the garage tinkering with his car. I was sitting too close to the TV as usual, and just as my show was about to come on, the station cut to a special news bulletin. There on the screen was President Nixon. With his piercing dark-brown eyes and droopy jowls, he was announcing his decision to resign. I knew this was a serious, shocking event, and from that moment on, I had no desire to impersonate him.

It’s been 45 years since that historic broadcast. Now when I remember the disgraced president, I think of my dad, whose disdain for “Tricky Dick” taught me about adult rage and cheerless sanctimony. I also think of my grandfather, whose dogged support for his political idol made him both honorable and pathetic in my young eyes. I still remember Gramps describing to my brother and me the heartfelt letter he had written during the Watergate hearings. He then proudly showed us the printed thank-you note from the White House.

Richard Nixon, HR Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and my favorite white-haired celebrity at the time—Senator Sam Ervin—have long been gone from the political stage. Gramps died in 1977 and we lost Dad in 2007. Neither is around to witness today’s presidential drama and political chaos, and for that I’m grateful. Still, I can’t help but wonder: If father and son were alive right now, what would they make of it all? I’d like to think that at long last, they’d be fighting on the same side.

The title is a reference to Nixon’s concession speech after losing the 1962 California gubernatorial election. The speech was given at what was supposed to be his last press conference.

Dad and Gramps in the early ’50s, just before my father left for Korea with the US Army.

Chasing Hillary

Whether you revere or revile her, Hillary Rodham Clinton is a force of nature in America’s intense political climate. The first First Lady to hold a post-graduate degree, she was also the first president’s wife to assume a high-profile role in shaping national policy through an ambitious—and some would say overzealous—healthcare initiative. More than a decade later, as New York’s junior senator, she’s not only one of the most influential politicians in the Northeast, but widely regarded as the front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. It’s no surprise, then (though she’s technically not a Western New Yorker) that Clinton makes Spree’s list of powerful women.

I still remember when then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton made his 1992 appearance on Sixty Minutes. Not yet sure about the silver-haired Southerner, I remember being intrigued by the woman with the Junior League hairdo and enormous blue eyes sitting next to him. Unlike a lot of politicians’ wives, she spoke bluntly, looking directly at the interviewer. There was nothing coy about her—which was refreshing. I could even forgive her clumsy comment about Tammy Wynette’s song; it seemed pretty clear that like her husband, this woman was destined for a long engagement with the American electorate.

She was born Hillary Diane Rodham on October 26, 1947. The daughter of a conservative businessman and a traditional homemaker, she grew up in a Chicago suburb and attended public school. Clinton first became politically active at age sixteen, when she supported presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater. A star student at Wellesley, she presided over its chapter of the College Republicans. By 1968, she had moved toward the liberal end of the political spectrum, and on May 31, 1969, became the first student ever to deliver the school’s commencement address. With the Vietnam War protests as her historical backdrop, it was a speech that proved to be as prescient as it was controversial.

The first time I saw Clinton live, albeit from a great distance, was during her initial bid for the senate. Introduced at a rally by comedian/activist Bill Cosby, she was, at first, barely audible over the loud cheers. Within minutes, her exhortations equaled, both in volume and passion, the cheers of her young supporters. It was as surreal as any rock concert. The year was 2000—I had no idea that my next, brief encounter with the Yale Law School graduate would be up close and personal.

Just this past summer, Senator Clinton kicked off Biotech Partnership Day at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Through some delicate negotiations, thanks in large part to a friend with political connections, I had gained prior knowledge of Clinton’s July 31 visit. During the weeks leading up to that day, I prepared a set of interview questions—in between reading Living History, her 2003 memoir; It Takes a Village, her 1996 bestseller; and anything else I could get my hands on.

When the day for the interview opportunity finally came, I was surprisingly calm. Spree photographer Jim Bush and I drove to the Center of Excellence for Bioinformatics. Within a few minutes, we were greeted by Press Secretary Jennifer Hanley. The Secret Service agents were milling about, as were Clinton’s stalwart staffers, all dressed in smart navy blue pantsuits. In my white jeans and tank top, I felt a little underdressed. But at least I was keeping cool on what promised to be a sweltering day.

Clinton addressed the invitation-only crowd at the conference, cosponsored by Pfizer and New Jobs for New York, Inc. During her opening remarks, she promoted a plan to preserve Western New York’s “intellectual capital” while creating manufacturing jobs in the biotech industry. Immediately after her talk, reporters were directed to a small room, where Clinton took to the podium. After introducing Mayor Brown and others, she fielded questions on everything from biotechnology to Hezbollah.

The next stop was the Robinson Farms in Lockport, where Clinton unveiled her policy on upstate New York’s rural economy. Standing in front of a John Deere tractor in an enormous barn packed with local residents and the media, she still looked remarkably fresh in her beige pantsuit. (The rest of us were drenched.) As she talked about bringing broadband technology to the countryside and the importance of being competitive with countries like China, a nine-year-old boy named Todd worked his way through the crowd and began handing out cherries.

After her speech, the press, local residents, and anyone else who had survived the heat surrounded the charismatic woman. All were eager for a handshake or a photo op. Young Todd suddenly reappeared and burst into a solo rendition of “America the Beautiful.” Mrs. Clinton led the rousing ovation. Glancing at my watch, I started to have my doubts about getting in any of my own questions.

Just as I felt hope slipping away, I found myself six inches from the former First Lady and being formally introduced by Press Secretary Hanley. Flipping the record button on my tiny machine, I commented on the Magical Mystery Tour-like morning and asked Clinton how she could talk so easily on complex matters. She flashed her trademark smile. “It takes time to study up on everything, and my good staff keeps me informed about things that are going on. It’s part of my job.”

A car waiting to go to the airport had already pulled up outside the barn. I asked Clinton about her role during the 1970 student protests at Yale University. “Although your heart was with the so-called radicals, you maintained your father’s pragmatism. You were singled out as the voice of reason…”

Before I could continue, she interjected calmly, “Well, we’re goin’ through it again, aren’t we? The challenge is to try to figure out how to bring people together to seek some common ground because we have so many big problems. And that’s kind of how I see my role: to try to keep being a bridge. It’s not easy, because lots of times people want you on one side or the other.” By then, she’d already handed me back my copy of It Takes a Village, specially autographed for my daughter.

My own makeup having melted away hours ago, it seemed only natural to look her in the eye and chuckle, “How can you not sweat on a day like today?!” She simply smiled.

And then she was off—the lady from Park Ridge who married the man from Hope. Will she become the first woman leader of the Free World someday?

Only time will tell.

Originally published in the September/October 2006 issue of Buffalo Spree as part of a series on powerful Western New York women.