You can credit President Richard Nixon with the “America’s Finest City” slogan.
Back in 1972, the GOP planned to hold the Republican National Convention here. It would be a triumphant coronation in Nixon’s “Lucky City” for the man who’d go on to wallop his opponent in the November election.
Then a scandal erupted over a convention-related bribe, and San Diego’s dream of Republican glory vanished. But soon, the city’s young mayor, Pete Wilson, created the new “Finest City” slogan to boost the city’s sagging spirits. The scandal itself was quickly forgotten as Watergate and a presidential resignation captured the public’s attention.
A new book puts the bribery scandal into perspective, revealing its crucial role in the downfall of a president. I interviewed the book’s author, Mark Feldstein, about the dirt he discovered while writing “Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture.”
Why did President Nixon want the GOP convention to be here in the first place?
He loved San Diego and was very anxious to avoid any kind of demonstrations like those that had disrupted the Democrats in Chicago four years later. He felt safe there. It was Nixon country and near Orange County, and as they put it in a memo, “there are few Negroes.”
He really was a recluse in a lot of ways. It was close enough to the Western White House in San Clemente that he could helicopter back and forth and sleep in his bed at night.
As you write, the scandal hinged on a $400,000 donation from the giant International Telephone and Telegraph Corp. to support the convention.
ITT was anxious to curry favor, and they wanted antitrust litigation settled on their terms. That was a lot of money back then, and in return for them ponying up this money, Nixon ordered his staff to give ITT what it wanted and lay off the antitrust litigation.
Some people might assume that this sort of thing happens all the time in Washington: You donate money so you get what you want. Why was this case special?
That’s true in a sense. Most campaign contributors, especially on the big scale, are not philanthropists. The system is inherently dirty.
Usually it’s done with a nod and a wink. What was amazing about this story was that (syndicated columnist and investigative journalist) Jack Anderson got the smoking-gun memo that proved it — a document that an ITT lobbyist who engineered all this put in writing, along with a note saying “Please destroy this.’”
Instead of being destroyed, it got published in 1,000 newspapers across the country, shaking the White House to the core.
Who leaked the memo in the first place?
I believe and Anderson believed it was the result of internecine warfare within ITT. It came in to Anderson anonymously in the mail. His young leg man Brit Hume (now a political analyst with Fox News) got crucial corroboration from the author, lobbyist Dita Beard.
It actually proved in black and white what everybody suspected about so many of these enormous corporate contributions to the Nixon campaign and, for that matter, all campaigns. It was essentially a bribe.
It was further compounded when the attorney general and CIA director perjured themselves before Congress denying it. They ended up pleading guilty to deceiving Congress. That’s an incredible scandal.
You write that Dita Beard, the ITT lobbyist who wrote the memo, was quite a character.
She was this hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking dealmaker in Washington at a time when very few women had any power. She did not dress or act the ladylike part. She would walk around disheveled and drink like a fish and curse like a sailor.
And she was pretty frank, and that’s what got her in trouble by writing the memo in the first place and admitting it to Hume in the second place. And then refusing to recant until it was too late in the game when it was obvious that she was being cornered, which she was.
If Hollywood ever makes a movie, whoever gets to play Dita will have a great role.
I’m thinking Kathy Bates.
You write that the Nixon administration was incredibly anti-gay and wanted to expose just about everybody — Jack Anderson, Brit Hume, Dita Beard — as being gay even though they weren’t. But Anderson was a gay-baiter too, just like Nixon, right?
That was a perennial theme in both their careers. Men and women of that generation were pretty ignorant and prejudiced about gays, and it was the ultimate smear.
Homosexual smears were one more weapon that Nixon tried to use to conduct damage control. The White House tapes reveal Nixon saying he thought Anderson was gay. With Hume, the others saying he’s too pretty, he just looks gay, he has a curious demeanor. It was hilarious.
The Nixon White House spread the rumor that Dita Beard and Anderson’s female secretary were lesbian lovers. It was the ultimate ad hominem attack.
In fact, the secretary was busy entertaining quite a few of Anderson’s male sources, right?
She learned a lot in pillow talk. And Beard was not a lesbian either. She was divorced and had five kids.
What happened to Dita Beard?
ITT paid her off. She kept silent, and she never did write the kiss-and-tell book that she could have. They gave her a farm in West Virginia, and she died there without ever fully explaining what happened.
How did all this affect the San Diego convention plans?
The convention ended up moving to Miami Beach. The publicity was so embarrassing that the Republican National Committee and Nixon White House were afraid the press would talk about San Diego and the ITT scandal. They dumped San Diego just to avoid the stigma of scandal.
In your book’s most blockbuster finding, you write that the Nixon Administration was so incensed that its operatives seriously planned to assassinate Jack Anderson, possibly with the president’s approval. One operative even consulted a poison expert, but they embarked on the Watergate burglary instead.
It’s easy to laugh now about how crazy this White House plot sounds. But you’ve got to wonder if the burglary at the Watergate hadn’t been detected and Nixon was reelected in a landslide — as he was — would Anderson have died mysteriously?
What was the ultimate effect of the bribery scandal on Richard Nixon himself?
It increased his paranoia, his sense of siege and his determination to play offense by breaking into the Watergate. And it set the template on how to cover up these types of scandals when the burglars got caught at the Democratic Party headquarters.
The Journal of San Diego History explored the tangled history of the aborted plans for the 1972 national convention in an extensive 1992 article. It claims that “the GOP used San Diego as a whipping boy to cover up the indiscretions of the Nixon administration.”
San Diego would eventually play host to a Republican national convention in 1996. The GOP candidate, Bob Dole, went on to lose the election in November.