by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. Her name was Phoebe H. Dutcher, and she occupied the exalted elected office of Recorder of Deeds in DuPage County, Illinois circa 1960. As such she was an important part of the Republican Party apparatus in what was arguably one of the two most important counties (the other being Cook) in the key state of Illinois, the state that (in the event) determined who would become “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the next President of the United States…”
Phoebe and my grandfather Walt Lauing were political pals. Grampie, a blunt, plain-spoken man of Hanoverian provenance was a pillar of the GOP, knew all the wheels therein, had them all visit the house he built out of good Midwestern flagstones, about the only thing as tenacious and unyielding as he was. His habits were exemplary; his word was his bond; and he never watered his liquor for himself or any man he respected and befriended, especially if that fortunate one was a Republican.
On this basis his construction company prospered… and, bit by bit, he used some of its profits to build his network, keep the GOP green and flush, whilst keeping the free-spending socialist Democrats (tinged mit Communists no less) at bay, especially his arch nemesis Richard J. Daley, his honor of Chicagoland (mayor 1955-1976), the master of every political chicanery, including his legendary talent for voting the dead and voting them often, thereby sending John F. Kennedy to the Oval Office; one of the greatest swindles of all time and a matter of unending chagrin and the bluest of language from Grandpapa.
All that was ever required to see Grampie emerge as Hoch Deutsch, Gott Mit Uns was to whisper in his ear that well and fully hated name; an explosion was guaranteed, and of course knowing the means of producing it ensured that I, his oldest grandchild and the only one with political interests, would provoke it, but only after I had tormented his ridiculously coddled and slothful cat enough and needed something to amuse me.
Perhaps he thought the red leather autograph book he gave me in anticipation of a steady stream of Republican worthies would give me something to do and save Tommie from torment. It didn’t, for I was capable even then of multi-tasking as was soon apparent to all, angelic smile and demeanor always ready for covert action.
Thus did Phoebe H. Dutcher, whom I recall as a jolly soul not above a tasty toddy of my grandfather’s practised invention, visit the house where to visit meant autographing my book. She was in fact the first to do so and was promptly followed by Samuel Wittwer (soon-to-be unsuccessful) candidate for the Senate, then Congressman Elmer G. Hoffman, a man of consequence in Downers Grove, the safest of safe seats, a man whose true opinions on the issues confronting Fortress America were as pat, predictable, and pedestrian as a guaranteed lifetime position in Washington could ensure. His visit to the kitchen of Victoria Burgess Lauing was an event… and of course I had a prominent position and in due course an expansive autograph in my notable album.
Higher… and higher.
By now you may imagine that I loved my autograph book; more and more as each person of significance bent low over it, glad to sign, glad to have their importance recognized and confirmed by my respectful request and awe, for they were all entitled to that. This was particularly true with the next panjandrum who was, we knew, a great man indeed because hardly a day went by when his name (and photo too) were not found in Grampie’s newspaper, the “Chicago Tribune”.
The fine folks at “The Trib” knew their business, he averred over and over again; he followed their editorial line with punctilious and total regard. The fact that in 1948 they announced to the world that Dewey defeated Truman, the biggest media blooper in the annals of the Great Republic, was a fact never, ever to be mentioned… or even thought.
The man whose photo and stirring deeds were featured every day was, of course, William G. Stratton, now running for his third term as governor of the land of Lincoln. My grandfather was just as excited as I was when he told me that I as chairman of the Puffer Elementary School Republican Party would be greeting him and offering the remarks and sentiments thought de rigueur for such occasions. It was an honor to do this, as good as a telegram from on high that my future political career was a cinch, as good as launched.
It was late October of the year; Stratton, tired, gray, shop worn was running with the full burden of nearly eight years of governing on his care-worn shoulders. He was running on empty, but he was a seasoned pol and he knew the game. The helicopter containing the great man came into view, the entire Puffer School contingent was out, squealing students, teachers, administrators, our friends and neighbors, the most fervent Republicans…
And, of course, my grandfather who had helped build the school, not just as director of the project but with his own tough leathered hands and cunning fingers, laying bricks like a connoisseur. He was a man who believed in the virtues of work and spent a long lifetime displaying them. How proud he must have been when the most important citizen in the state, the most important Republican motioned to me that I was to come aboard.
“Local lad flies high” declared the Downers Grove Reporter newspaper, the “lad” a play on my middle name, Ladd. Stratton said, “Hold on, boy” and told me to smile and wave. Just 13 years old, I knew this was living, although I may not yet have understood its cost, why so many like Stratton give up so much to grasp the greasy poll, so ephemeral and unpredictable, so exciting and addictive.
“Smile and wave,” yeah, I could do that… and I did. I was flying high indeed with higher still to go. It turned out to be the only autograph I ever got off the ground… and was certainly the last time he was asked to sign anything other than an admission of guilt. For Governor Stratton was crushed by the restless and determined electorate and shortly thereafter found himself in federal prison on a fistful of charges, autographs derided, degraded, disdained. Had Grampie known this I wouldn’t have been allowed to get in that helicopter and imagine a possible future. Thus, knowing the future is not always a good thing.
Richard Milhous Nixon.
If you were alive and of voting age in 1960, would you have voted for Nixon or Kennedy? 97% of you would now say Kennedy, especially given the fact that I am writing this 50 years after President Kennedy’s assassination, his name, election and administration being much in the news. Of course you would voted for Kennedy; any other action would have been disloyal, disrespectful. But the first rule of history is that you must be willing and able to give up your clairvoyance and make your decisions and judgements solely based on the facts then known, incomplete though they were.
And so… “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the next president of these United States… Richard Milhous Nixon”… since 1946 servant of the people as Congressman, Senator from California and since 1953 Vice President to that most popular of presidents, Dwight David Eisenhower.
Nixon had oodles of relevant experience. Kennedy didn’t. Nixon was a prodigious worker. Kennedy was a party boy. Nixon was a devoted family man in love with a good woman. Kennedy was a scandal waiting to happen, in flagrante delicto a very real possibility. Nixon was plodding and cautious; the kind of guy to do your taxes. Kennedy was reckless, cute, fun on a date and…. very ill, dying in office a very real possibility, a fact virtually unknown.
The reasons went for Nixon… but Kennedy had an incomparable asset, his father Joseph P. Kennedy, a man of the deepest pockets and an axe to grind, the ultimate mick on the make. And this trumped everything…
That’s why my mother invited me to sit down at the kitchen table one day after the November 1960 election. She hand wrote her letter to Hannah Nixon, the Vice President’s mother, while I addressed my loyal sentiments to him. That started the process that showed me off to the world, the photo pictured above running in the Trib, an adamant Republican paper, a strong Nixon advocate. They ran my story with alacrity and pugnacious loyalty.
My smile was incandescent, Nixon’s signed campaign poster on the wall, a signed family portrait in hand, his message warm, honest and personal; the kind of letter almost no politician writes today; a small measure of our declension as a nation and our rampant political malignities, sharp, toxic, rancorous, all-consuming, pointless.
Had Nixon shown more of this, allowed himself to show more, how different the history of the Great Republic would have been… for Kennedy’s margin was tiny, his victory the result of Daley’s frauds and Nixon’s unwillingness to call him on them, so sparing the Great Republic from shocking insights into the electoral process.
I have often wondered if Nixon ever regretted this civic-spirited decision. Certainly no Kennedy with Papa Joe at hand would have done that. The Kennedys played politics the old-fashioned way, as the blood sport it was, vengeful, manor houses burnt at midnight, the howls of menacing banshees carried in the wind, a warning to lesser men; the single word “Remember” their charge for life, branded on every Irish heart, no mercy given, nothing forgiven, nothing forgotten. The presidency was worth all this and more…
Against this immemorial rage and fierce determination, Nixon hurled his inadequate weapons of fair play, integrity, the decency of his Quaker heritage; a campaign he refused to get dirty. Oh, yes, and one resounding, upbeat American melody, “Buckle Down, Winsocki”. You can find it in any search engine.
It was the parody of a typical collegiate gridiron tune, go-team-go, rah-rah-rah. Written for the 1941 Broadway show “One Step Forward” by Chris Hillman and Bill Wildes the Nixon camp altered the words to “We can win with Nixon/ If we buckle down.” But this wasn’t good enough to carry the day, not nearly good enough. Thus did events take their course, for good and ill.
My parents took me to a huge Nixon rally very near election day. The special guest was Mrs. (Pat) Nixon. To warm up the crowd on this typical Illinois fall day, the grayest of atmospheres, helpers handed out sheets with the updated “Buckle down, Winsocki” lyrics. It was sung rapturously by the partisans, the only time I ever heard the tune and felt the certainty of victory. I recall it all so clearly. No, sometimes it is not a good thing to know the future…