Shortly before the mid-term election of 1970, President Richard Nixon pulled off a con so crafty it fooled even the Secret Service. He purposely incited a near-riot among young anti-war protestors by delaying his motorcade as he left a big indoor by-invitation-only Republican rally in San Jose, California. In contrast to the cheers inside, a large and rowdy crowd shouted vulgarities (that could be heard inside during Nixon’s speech, distracting him several times). The perturbed President exited the city’s convention center with the secret intent of stirring up trouble, or at least fake trouble.
On leaving the auditorium with the rest of the White House press corps, I spotted a buddy—Secret Service agent Joe Novak. In similar instances, Joe and I usually greeted each other, if only with a wave or a wink. This encounter was totally different. Joe wore a worried look and was preoccupied—talking non-stop into his walkie-talkie on the secure Secret Service communication channel called “Charlie.” I later learned that, on the San Jose trip, Joe was in charge of motorcade advances—no wonder he was so obviously concerned.
At about this same time, not far away, President Nixon climbed onto the trunk of his limousine and gave the demonstrators the “V” sign with both arms. “That’s what they hate to see,” he muttered, before hastily scrambling into his bulletproof car. Nixon’s gesture did, indeed, set off the “peaceniks,” as he had hoped and planned. The subsequent rock throwing and general turmoil that engulfed the motorcade and had truly frightened the Secret Service, had granted Nixon the political payoff he had plotted all along.
Like the beleaguered Novak, all other agents on the scene believed this was not a staged event—but a real danger to the leader of the free world. Their job, of course, was to take any potential threat seriously. Besides, the agents did not have access to Nixon’s secret San Jose exit strategy, nor to Bob Haldeman’s diary entry that confirmed that day’s violence was indeed contrived.
Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, was ecstatic: “San Jose turned into a real blockbuster. We wanted some confrontation… so we stalled departure a little so (the protestors) could zero in outside, and they sure did. Before getting in car, President Nixon stood up and gave the ‘V’ sign, which made them mad. They threw rocks, flags, candles, etc. as we drove out, after a terrifying wedge of cops opened up the road… Made a huge incident and we worked hard to crank it up…”
Nixon himself “cranked it up” in Phoenix at the next campaign stop. “The time has come,” he righteously intoned, “for the great Silent Majority of Americans, of all ages and of every political persuasion, to stand up and be counted against appeasement of the rock-throwers and the obscenity-shouters.”
In a carefully choreographed echo, Vice President Spiro Agnew chimed in from Bellville, Illinois: “When the President of the United States… is subject to rock and missile throwing, it is time to sweep that kind of garbage out of society.
Neither man mentioned that the President had put his Secret Service detail, and others, in harm’s way—just to gain sympathy for himself, and political profit for his party. In his testimony, Nixon mentioned the San Jose violence that was directed at him–but he failed to note that it was also ignited by him.