On January 28, 1972, the White House gave a dinner in honor of the founders
of Reader's Digest. The rest is -- or isn't -- history, depending on your point
The Washington Post Magazine, Sunday, July 27, 1997, p. W16
BYLINE: Bob Thompson
BODY: "And if the music is square," the president is saying, "it's because I like it square."
He leans into that line a bit, puts a little growl into it, looks -- for just a split second -- not so much like the freely elected leader of the Free World, three years into his first term and three weeks away from his breakthrough trip to China, but like some classic film noir tough guy: glowering, short-fused, vindictive. But this is the East Room of the White House, not some Hollywood B-movie set, and the film crew recording Richard Nixon's one-liner for posterity is from the Naval Photographic Center, not MGM or Columbia Pictures. And now the president's distinguished guests are laughing heartily, and the president himself is grinning happily, and, as he settles himself in his front row seat, the Ray Conniff Singers are beginning to file onstage.
Eight women in pale blue gowns appear, then eight men in light blue blazers, single file. Half a dozen musicians from the U.S Marine Corps Band are setting up behind them. The house lights are still up. A few singers are still coming in. The guests, invited this evening to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of Reader's Digest, are still murmuring. The seventh female singer swipes reflexively at her hair -- long and straight and black in a sea of blond -- and steps forward to a microphone.
She holds up a banner that reads, "Stop the Killing." It is hand-lettered on a fringed blue cloth that matches her dress.
"President Nixon," she says, "stop bombing human beings, animals and vegetation." She is looking straight at him. Her voice is cool and controlled. He looks back, still smiling.
In the wings, Ray Conniff hears a voice but can't make out the words. He climbs onstage, moves toward it.
"You go to church on Sundays and pray to Jesus Christ," the singer says. "If Jesus Christ were here tonight, you would not dare to drop another bomb." Conniff reaches out to take her banner away. Her grip tightens and she pulls it back.
"Bless the Berrigans and bless Daniel Ellsberg," she says as Conniff retreats. The banner is folded now, as are the singer's hands. She takes a deep breath.
The bassist hits two nervous notes.
Conniff raises his arms.
"One, two, three, four," he counts, and the band begins to play.
Ma, sing the eight women. They are staring straight ahead.
Doo, doo, sing the eight men. They are bobbing up and down.
He's making eyes at me! Ma --
Doo, doo --
He's awfully nice to me! Ma, he's almost breakin' my heart. I'm beside him. Mercy! Let his conscience guide him . . .
Richard Nixon does not move.
'Need a Layman for the Eulogy, No Ideas'
The singer's name was Carole Feraci, and Washington has forgotten it.
She got a day of newspaper headlines here ("Look What She Did to His Song!" exclaimed the Evening Star) and a day on the network news. She got a "Newsmakers" item in Newsweek and a glancing mention by a columnist or two. But her protest was a classic one-day story, an amateur effort, not timed or exploited for maximum impact. If we remember anything vaguely like it, assuming we were of news-consuming age a quarter-century ago, we're more likely to recall an earlier incident in which a more famous singer, Eartha Kitt, gave Lady Bird Johnson an earful on Vietnam.
We don't remember the occasion of Feraci's protest, either. It was a White House dinner, so the guest list got printed in the Style section -- and in Washington, where proximity to power is the ultimate yardstick of value, such lists are always well read. But we never seem to care, while we squint voyeuristically at the well-connected names in agate type, for whom a particular White House dinner is given. Certainly we don't care when it's given for anyone so declasse as the founders of Reader's Digest, a publication that's been scorned by sophisticates ever since its inception in 1922. One can hear the names of DeWitt and Lila Acheson Wallace on National Public Radio these days, attached to various good causes being funded by their legacies. But the Wallaces themselves remain obscure, their entrepreneurial triumph fading with the passage of time and their magazine -- once the preeminent voice of Middle America -- all but drowned out by televised talk.
All this forgetting, oddly, is what makes the Digest dinner so illuminating. It shows how time reworks the landscapes of our lives.
Look at this morning's headlines and then ask yourself: What will be remembered? What won't? Why? What does the universe look like from the Washington of July 27, 1997? Now think back to that White House dining room on the evening of January 28, 1972. Imagine the lost worlds it contains.
Charles A. Lindbergh was there, 45 years after he piloted the Spirit of St. Louis, alone, from New York to Paris and was ferried back to Washington, against his will, on a U.S. Navy cruiser dispatched by President Calvin Coolidge. If he played his cards right, he was told, he could have anything he wanted, including the presidency itself. Instead, he fired the only public relations firm he ever employed and rejected a ghostwritten version of his story, believing that people should write such things themselves.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh was there, 44 years after she fell in love with the most recognizable man on the planet and radically revised her previously sheltered existence. "Fame is a kind of death," she once wrote, because "it arrests life around the person in the public eye."
Frank Borman was there, three years after he piloted the Apollo 8 spacecraft, with two other astronauts, on man's first flight around the moon. At some point, one of them had grabbed a camera and snapped a stunning photograph of Earth rising, lush and blue, above the lifeless lunar plain.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth was there; she'd been married in the East Room when her father, Theodore Roosevelt, was president, and an acquaintance once noted that if the communists ever took over the White House, "Mrs. L. would be one of the first people invited to dinner."
Secretary of State William Rogers was there, a year and a half before he ceded his Cabinet post to Henry Kissinger. Secretary of Commerce Maurice Stans was there, a couple of weeks before he left to hustle campaign funds. Attorney General John Mitchell was there, just a day after G. Gordon Liddy had stood in Mitchell's Justice Department office and outlined a plan to, among other things, bug the Democrats' Washington headquarters and ply Democratic National Convention delegates with high-priced call girls.
Lionel Hampton was there, a lone black face in a lily-white crowd. Bob Hope was there, just back from his Christmas tour of Vietnam. Irving Kristol was there, having made a White House list of "Intellectuals and Academics for Cultivation."
The Rev. Billy Graham was there, along with the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale. One April day in 1970, Nixon's chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, had asked the president what kind of funeral he'd like. "He wants simplicity, only one DC service, at Rotunda, no horse," Haldeman wrote in his diary that night. "Need a layman for the eulogy, no ideas. Graham and Peale for prayers."
'We Will Have Them Stay in the Queen's Room'
The dinner was nearly two years in the making.
"Not in the immediate future, and there is no pressure on this," the president instructed his personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, in a March 1970 memo, "I want to have Mr. and Mrs. DeWitt Wallace overnight in the White House. We will have them stay in the Queen's Room."
"Dear Rose," wrote Digest editor-in-chief Hobart Lewis to Woods in January 1971. "We will be most grateful if you would consider the possibility of the President's holding a White House dinner . . . The guest list would be comprised of mutual friends of both the President's and the Wallaces, and I am sure the room could be filled with those distinguished people with no difficulty."
Eleven months later, Haldeman received a formal schedule proposal. The dinner was to be held in the State Dining Room, to last 21/2 hours, to involve 110 participants and to feature round tables and after-dinner entertainment in the East Room. "White tie and invite great friends," Haldeman noted in the margin. "NR RR -- all major political powers. Kalmbach's top 15-20." (Herbert Kalmbach was the president's personal attorney and a key campaign fund-raiser.)
"This is our best effort in two hours," Gordon Strachan, a senior aide, wrote Haldeman on January 3, 1972. "At Tab A is a list we had been working on to consolidate requests and suggestions pending here at the White House." Among the dozens of names were Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford II, Mr. and Mrs. J. Paul Getty and the Rev. and Mrs. Rex E. Humbard. "Who are these people?" Haldeman scrawled as he axed the Humbards from the list.
"The Bart Porter/Taft Schreiber list of 'top celebrities' is attached at Tab B," Strachan continued. "Jeb Magruder prepared a list of the top supporters of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (Tab C). Kalmbach will not have his list of top 15-20 until January 4." The fund-raiser's picks, Strachan noted in another memo, would be listed "in his order of priority, which is close to but not exclusively by the amount contributed."
In due course the invitations went out and the responses came in. Gov. and Mrs. Nelson Rockefeller, Gov. and Mrs. Ronald Reagan and Mr. and Mrs. John Wayne sent their regrets. Top executives from the Coca-Cola Co., the Olin Mathieson Chemical Corp., the J. Walter Thompson Co., the Weyerhaeuser Co., the Marriott Corp., Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc. and the Chase Manhattan Bank said yes.
'I Won't Go Sing for a Man Who's Killing People'
Ray Conniff had worked hard for his White House invitation. The Massachusetts-born trombonist and music arranger had set out quite consciously, a couple of decades before, to discover the commercial secrets of the popular song.
Listening carefully, Conniff had observed a parallel between the recurring musical patterns of a hit like Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" and the repetitive phrases advertisers used in cigarette and soap commercials. After this, as he told music historian Joseph Lanza, "instead of playing trombone solos that other musicians liked, I made an about-face and wrote my arrangements with a view to making the masses understand and buy records. From that point on, I became very successful."
Now he needed 16 singers, on less than two weeks' notice, who didn't mind working for free.
Background singing for acts like the Ray Conniff Singers was a specialized profession with a small number of L.A.-based regulars. If you were in with the right people, you got called for jobs, usually by another singer serving as a "music contractor." So when Conniff got the word from the White House, he called Jay Meyer, the contractor he was working with at the time.
"Jeeminy, Jay, who shall we get?" he said. The White House never paid its performers, a fact that might keep some Conniff regulars away.
Meyer called, among others, a Canadian-born alto named Carole Feraci.
Feraci's family had moved to Southern California from Toronto 12 years earlier, when she was 18, because of her father's severe bronchitis. She had studied piano and acted in high school musicals, and one day an L.A. friend got her an audition with a squeaky-clean amateur vocal group called the Young Americans. Pretty soon she was on the road with Johnny Mathis, doing one-nighters.
She married a fellow Young American, but it didn't last. She sang as a Doodletown Piper and with Percy Faith. She caught the eye of a well-known contractor, and from then on she worked steadily: in television, on stage, in the studio. She sang with Connie Stevens, with Nancy Sinatra and -- her favorite job -- on the Smothers Brothers' show. Not everyone in the business got along with her. Those who did liked her flair, her fearlessness. She was a person who tried things.
She had worked with Jay Meyer before. Would she like to play the White House? he asked.
Absolutely not, she said. "I won't go sing for a man who's killing people and perpetuating this war."
Running for the presidency in 1968, Richard Nixon had promised vaguely to "end the war and win the peace" in Vietnam. It was "Johnson's war" back then but it was "Nixon's war" now, and as he entered the 1972 campaign, he was doing his best to keep it out of the public mind. He still had no intention, despite three years of futile bloodshed, of being "the first president of the United States to lose a war." But he did need to calm things down at home -- and "Vietnamization" was the key. There'd been some 540,000 American troops in Vietnam when Nixon took office, but now, thanks to this policy of training and equipping the South Vietnamese to do the bulk of the ground fighting, that number was down to 140,000 and dropping fast.
True, Vietnamization wasn't succeeding militarily. And true, the air war was being quietly heated up again. But antiwar protests had peaked in the spring of 1970, when the president had sent American troops into Cambodia and National Guardsmen had killed four students at Kent State University. Since then, Nixon's domestic opposition had lost a lot of steam.
None of this had changed Carole Feraci's opinion of the man.
He'd promised to end the war and he hadn't. He was a liar and a hypocrite. People were still dying because of him. She'd never been involved in a protest before, but as soon as she hung up the phone, she thought: Wait -- I've got a chance to say something here.
She called Pat Shannon, the man she was living with, and told him what she was thinking. He said, "Go for it!"
Then she called Jay Meyer back and told him she had changed her mind.
She and Pat told Pat's best friend at the time, and his girlfriend, but nobody else. They spent a week or so planning what she would say. It was a group effort. It was her idea to mention Jesus. Pat made the "Stop the Killing" banner out of material that matched the singers' gowns.
They hung out together at "the compound," a semi-communal Van Nuys complex where Carole and Pat were renting a small apartment. They looked at Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People." They went to see "Nicholas and Alexandra." They listened to Beethoven's Ninth. Then Feraci packed up her banner and got on a plane.
She didn't know whose dinner she'd be crashing. Reader's Digest, to her, was something that she'd read when she was a kid, "for the little short stories and humor and stuff."
'Each Article of Enduring Value and Interest'
If you had paged through five or six issues of Reader's Digest during the months leading up to the White House dinner, here are a few of the little short stories you'd have found: "Too Much Sex, Too Little Joy?" . . . "What Young America Wants: Change, Not Revolution" . . . "Some Second Thoughts on Women's Lib" . . . "Latest Word on Bibles" . . . "What Makes a Homosexual?" . . . "Bill Buckley: Blithe Spirit of the Right" . . . "What Happens After Busing Starts" . . . "Red Tape on the Potomac" . . . "The Quiet Heroes of South Vietnam" . . . "Why I Don't Smoke Pot" . . . "Let's Get Off Our Soldiers' Backs" . . . "First Lady, First Volunteer" . . . "Toward a Generation of Peace: An Interview With President Richard Nixon."
This unprepossessing editorial package had become a political and cultural touchstone for millions of Americans.
Five decades earlier, first in a Greenwich Village apartment and then above a garage in Pleasantville, N.Y., DeWitt Wallace had launched his low-budget brainchild. "THIRTY-ONE ARTICLES EACH MONTH FROM LEADING MAGAZINES," the cover of the first issue proclaimed. "EACH ARTICLE OF ENDURING VALUE AND INTEREST, IN CONDENSED AND COMPACT FORM."
Wallace was targeting Middle Americans, the kind of people who were "still deeply attached to God, country, and family and greatly disturbed by all the religious, economic, and racial turmoil in the country," as John Heidenry described them in his Reader's Digest history, Theirs Was the Kingdom. The Digest was aimed at Middle American women in particular, so the founder stuck his wife and her cousin Hazel on the masthead, too.
The editorial formula worked from the start. And the undercapitalized entrepreneur, who had borrowed $ 5,000 from his wife's brother to help get the Digest off the ground, made another shrewd decision: He didn't pay for the articles he condensed. For years, he wouldn't solicit subscribers within 500 miles of New York City. He was afraid some New York publisher might notice what was going on.
By 1929, Digest circulation was well over 200,000, and Wallace had started paying handsomely for reprints. Then came another strange twist: When the editors couldn't find enough articles that met their needs, they began to pay authors to write for other magazines, with the understanding that the Digest would have reprint rights. In the early '60s, well over half the Digest's stories were generated in this bizarre fashion.
By then the company included many overseas editions and the hugely successful Reader's Digest Condensed Books, and was grossing more than $ 150 million a year. At the time of the White House dinner, the magazine had 29 million subscribers and perhaps 100 million readers worldwide, and DeWitt and Lila Wallace, who had never taken their company public and had no plans to do so, had become the proprietors of a multibillion-dollar enterprise.
Digest writers and editors were among the best-paid anywhere. Dinner guest James Michener recalls being taken aside by DeWitt Wallace and told, "Jim, you are our kind of guy. I will pay you a yearly expense account, you can go anywhere you want, and write anything you want, and all we want is the right of first refusal." The best-selling Michener didn't need this carte blanche, but he has been grateful to Wallace ever since.
Richard Nixon, too, was grateful. The Digest meant much more than money to him: Its people were his people -- "the great silent majority," as he labeled them in 1969 -- and the magazine had promoted his career at every opportunity. In 1952, as he ran for vice president, it had weighed in with Pat Nixon's "I Say He's a Wonderful Guy." In the 1960s, mainly under the editorship of Nixon's good friend and golf partner Hobart Lewis, it boosted him even more; it ran 11 stories under Nixon's byline. In 1968, it condensed the speech he gave accepting the Republican nomination ("Let a New Day Dawn for the U.S.A.!"). And after Nixon's victory, the Digest offered itself as a ready platform for administration flackery, featuring pieces like "Wait a Minute -- Let's Not Go Overboard on Ecology" by dinner guest Maurice Stans.
A number of Digest people helped Nixon with money as well. DeWitt and Lila Wallace -- who, it should be noted, wound up sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom, not the Queen's -- gave at least $ 105,000 to his 1972 campaign. But even that substantial sum, which would be nearly $ 400,000 in 1997 dollars, was small change compared with the cash supplied by other Digest dinner guests.
Early 1972 was a time of particular urgency in the Nixon fund-raising effort. The old law governing political contributions was expiring, with the last reports due March 10; the new law wouldn't take effect until April 7. In between was an attractive window during which, the president's money men believed, large cash donations could be made with no reporting requirements at all.
W. Clement Stone, a Chicago insurance mogul, gave more than $ 2 million to the 1972 campaign. He had topped Herb Kalmbach's wish list for the dinner. Number two was New York businessman Jack Mulcahy, who had hosted the president at his Irish estate in 1970 ("a spectacular home and setting, in opulent luxury," as H.R. Haldeman described it), and who would contribute nearly $ 600,000. Number four was Rollins International chairman John Rollins of Delaware, who chipped in a quarter-million or so.
Number nine on Kalmbach's list was Thomas Pappas, a Greek American businessman who served on Nixon's finance committee. Pappas is a story in himself: He is reported -- by historian Stanley Kutler, among others -- to have been the conduit for a secret contribution of more than half a million dollars by the Greek junta to the 1968 Nixon campaign.
And then there was Hobart Lewis and the hundred grand in the White House safe.
First reported by Bob Woodward in a Washington Post story headlined "4 Years After Watergate, Money Questions Linger," this has proven to be one of the enduring mysteries of the Nixon era.
According to a Watergate Special Prosecution Force memo, written after an interview with Rose Mary Woods, the president's secretary said she'd had "one or more conversations with the President and/or Hobart Lewis" in which she was told that Archer Daniels Midland Co. Chairman Dwayne Andreas would soon be bringing her a package. Sure enough, Andreas did: It was "an expansion folder approximately 8 x 14 inches with a fold-over top held in place by an elastic band." Woods asked her assistant to put it in a basement safe. This occurred in early 1972, Woods thought, though Woodward later established the date as November 1971.
At some point after the 1972 election, as the Watergate investigation was heating up, Nixon asked Woods how much money was in his safe. She counted the Andreas money, wrote "$ 100,000" on a slip of paper and handed it to the president, who read the number and silently handed the slip back. Not long afterward, Nixon told her to return the money. So Woods called Hobart Lewis -- not Dwayne Andreas -- and Lewis came down to pick it up.
Lewis confirmed his part in the story, telling Woodward that he'd been asked by Andreas, another golfing friend, to broker a contribution to Nixon. A year and a half later, he'd retrieved the money -- still in its original packaging -- at Woods's request. Then, being a little strapped for cash, he'd phoned Andreas and asked him for a $ 100,000 loan.
His role was "perfectly innocent," Lewis said.
'If an Oobie-Doobie Girl Like Me Has Courage'
"This is a very select group," the president told his guests. "You should have seen the people that were not invited."
It was a little after 9 p.m. in the State Dining Room. The Supreme of Royal Squab Smitane had followed the Coquille of Seafood Neptune and the Louis Martini cabernet had followed the Schloss Johannisberg, and now it was time for toasts and Dom Perignon.
"The Reader's Digest," Billy Graham said, "has led the way in keeping America the land of the free and the home of the brave."
"I appreciate this free meal," Bob Hope said. "It's the best tax rebate I've ever had."
"We will go into the other rooms for a little coffee," Richard Nixon said, "and then we have the Ray Conniff Singers, who will remind us in song of some of the great days of the past . . . "
All this time, Carole Feraci was having second thoughts.
Not about giving her speech, which she'd rehearsed over and over until she had it by heart, but about her little blue banner. The plan had been to hide it in her bodice, and that's where it was as she waited with the other singers in the White House library, one floor down, which the group was using as a staging area. But as they began lining up outside the East Room for the concert -- as the president was hanging Medals of Freedom around the necks of DeWitt and Lila Wallace and praising them as "an example for all Americans" and remarking on the squareness of the entertainment -- she suddenly wondered: What if the Secret Service thinks it's a grenade? So she took it out and held it, tightly folded, in her hand.
After she had said her piece, after Ray Conniff had tried to yank the banner away and she had pulled it back and folded it again, after she'd reached out and turned the page on the sheet music as the male singers took over the "Ma, He's Makin' Eyes at Me" narration -- Now that's not the true story . . . Now here's my version of this whole affair -- she put the hand that held the banner behind her back and kept it there until the end of the song.
She was proud that she'd pulled it off, and relieved that she hadn't been shot. But she was also feeling a little shaky, because she didn't have a clue what would happen next.
There was scattered applause. Conniff bowed. The lights went down as he began to speak. "Thank you very much and good evening," he said. "I assure you, Mr. President, the first part of the program was as much a shock to me as it was to you."
More applause, much louder now. Above it, John Mulcahy's brogue rang out. "Throw her outta here!" he yelled.
"Yeah!" "Throw her out!" "Throw her out!" came the echoing shouts.
Conniff coughed nervously. "All right," he said. He turned and asked Feraci to leave.
"Certainly," she said. She strode past the other singers and headed for the stairs.
Still more shouting, more applause. Secret Service agents moving toward her, the press -- invited for the medal presentations and the concert -- close behind. There was some shoving on the stairway. The Conniff Singers struck up "Talk of the Town."
I can't show my face
Can't go any place
People stop and stare
It's so hard to bear . . .
Dinner guest Herb Klein, the White House director of communications, hustled down to oversee the damage control. He didn't want anyone to do anything rash -- forcibly detaining the singer, or mistreating her in any way -- that would make her a bigger story than she already was.
Feraci took a few questions from the reporters. She said she was a Canadian citizen, living in L.A. as a registered alien. She said she wasn't a member of any antiwar group, but thought more people should speak out against the war. "If an oobie-doobie girl like me has courage," she said, perhaps "the rest of the people will, too."
She'd headed back to the library, because she didn't know what else to do. It seemed as if she were there forever. Someone asked her to come to another room to answer questions; she refused. Someone else said please, we only want to ask you a few questions, so she went with him to the other room and on the way, in the hallway, she walked past a guard stationed at a little desk who had sketched a picture of a long-haired singer with vampire's teeth and blood dripping from them. Someone asked if insanity ran in her family. Someone asked if she'd ever thought of killing the president or his wife. She said, "You didn't hear what I said, obviously."
After a while, when she'd answered all the questions, somebody called her a cab.
'He Never Intended to See Saigon Fall'
One warm Friday afternoon in 1972, DeWitt Wallace gave a Digest editor named Peter Canning an unusual assignment. He was to put together a "compilation" of views on the Vietnam War, drawn from both the left and the right. This would have been a first at the magazine, which so far had faithfully followed the Nixon line. But when Canning showed up in the office on Monday, he found a note from Hobart Lewis. "The compilation on Vietnam has been canceled," the president's pal informed him. "Mr. Wallace has changed his mind."
Another Digest editor, Ed Thompson, has a similar Hobart Lewis story, but with a different ending. "When Watergate hit the fan," he recalls, "I called Teddy White." The author of the "Making of the President" series nosed around Washington for a couple of weeks and produced an enthusiastic story proposal. "I couldn't assign this without talking to Hobe," Thompson says. "He kind of sighed and said you're right, do what you have to do." The result was White's book Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon, which the Digest co-published.
Vietnam and Watergate. Watergate and Vietnam. The two are permanently linked, for many who lived through them, as the great disillusioning experiences of the age: twin traumas that fractured faith in government, revealing how shamelessly leaders can lie.
And yet, a quarter-century down the road, the frames on these twinned stories have changed.
Watergate -- which, despite his determined efforts to rise above it, will forever blacken Richard Nixon's name -- has evolved into the heroic Washington narrative. The administration's flagrant abuse of the public trust is still troubling, of course, and this abuse has been echoed, repeatedly and disconcertingly, by a series of lesser scandals. But in essence, we see Watergate as the Hollywood movie it became. Its happy ending reassures us that the system works and the good guys will triumph in the end.
Not so with Vietnam. With the war, there's no agreement on the story line. There are flashbacks of unresolved anger whenever the subject comes up in the public debate, as when former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara breaks his long silence with a belated apologia and is denounced by doves and hawks alike. There's a kind of national psychosis called the "Vietnam Syndrome," which is widely believed to have reshaped American foreign policy. There's defensiveness all around. But for average Americans -- and this is even more true of the political class -- Vietnam is a trauma we would just as soon not deal with.
And because we've chosen to repress the war, it's almost impossible to evoke the intensity of emotion that it once inspired.
Inside the Nixon White House, the antiwar movement was simultaneously loathed and feared. In anticipation of the massive protests in the fall of 1969, for example, the president had summoned hundreds of Army troops to Washington. Armed with rifles and light machine guns, they had settled in to defend the White House and the Executive Office Building.
Earlier that year, dinner guest Frank Borman -- by then retired as an active astronaut but not yet hired as an Eastern Airlines executive -- had toured a number of universities on NASA's behalf. Borman came back furious about the hostile reception he got, especially at Cornell, where a group of students under the tutelage of that "jerk" Carl Sagan harassed him about atrocities in Vietnam.
On January 27, 1972, 24 hours before the Digest dinner, Nixon wrote an angry memo to Haldeman and special counsel Charles Colson. The president demanded a coordinated attack on opponents of his Southeast Asia policy, who were to be portrayed as traitors. The next morning, Haldeman dutifully told Barbara Walters that his boss's critics were "consciously aiding and abetting the enemy of the United States."
A traitor, in this White House usage, was someone who opposed the official narrative of the war.
In the Nixon version, the president could not be blamed for Vietnam: It was a quagmire he'd inherited.
And yet, as he was gearing up to run in '68, he had tried to out-hawk Lyndon Johnson. In the August 1964 Reader's Digest, Nixon had blasted LBJ for lacking the "will to win." In the December 1965 Digest, he'd lashed out against the very idea of peace talks. "Just as the military situation has begun to turn in our favor," he wrote, "there is increasing pressure for an immediate negotiated settlement in Vietnam. Such a settlement would be a disaster for the United States and for the free nations of Asia."
In the Nixon version, he was the man who had ended the war, the foreign policy visionary who had been -- from his first day in the White House -- constantly working toward peace.
For Nixon, however, "working toward peace" was an elastic term that included dramatic escalation. "I call it the Madman Theory," he'd told Haldeman during the campaign. "I want the North Vietnamese to believe I've reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war." Once in office, he signaled his toughness by secretly bombing Cambodia and planning a ground invasion of the North. (The decision not to implement this plan, he would say two decades later, was his worst as president.) At the time of the Digest dinner -- a period when most Americans believed that the war was drawing to a close -- the U.S. Air Force was bombing North Vietnam and falsely reporting the raids as "protective reaction."
But no matter how you read the Vietnam story, one thing is clear: Richard Nixon's zeal to protect his version helped bring his presidency crashing down.
On June 13, 1971, the New York Times began to publish portions of a classified Defense Department history of the war, which the newspaper had obtained from former Pentagon "whiz kid" Daniel Ellsberg.
The publication of the Pentagon Papers infuriated Nixon and his aides, and it terrified them as well. They knew that Ellsberg had other secrets in his possession. And they knew he had a dangerous line on the war. Nixon's true aim in Vietnam, Ellsberg believed, "was not to get out, but to win a victory." American troops would leave, but American air support would continue indefinitely. "He never intended to see Saigon fall."
Who could tell what further damage an effective spokesman for such views might do? Within weeks, the notorious White House "plumbers" unit had been formed. A couple of months later, the plumbers broke into the office of Ellsberg's former psychiatrist, looking for ways to discredit him. Nine months after that, the same crew would be arrested inside the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
Without Vietnam, H.R. Haldeman concluded, "there would have been no Watergate." Without Watergate, Daniel Ellsberg believes, the war would have dragged on for years.
'Does Citizen Have Right to Embarrass President?'
"They were all very upset," Carole Feraci Addesso is saying. "Very upset. Because I was raised to follow the authority figure and not make waves, and how could I, and he's the president, and oh, Carole, look what you've done and now you've embarrassed us."
She is sitting in the living room of a small stucco house in Encino, Calif., talking about her family's reaction when they saw her on the 11 o'clock news. She's got her "Stop the Killing" banner laid out on the coffee table. She's pulled out boxes stuffed with yellowed clippings, with headlines like "SINGER STUNS NIXON, GUESTS" and quotes like " 'She should be torn limb from limb,' Mrs. Mitchell yelled."
" 'Does Citizen Have Right to Embarrass President?' " she reads. "Absolutely! How can you compare embarrassing the president to some baby running along being burned with napalm? Excuse me! Where are our priorities?"
Her mother is gone now, her father remarried. She's been remarried twice herself. Her husband has been ill, and she's been taking care of him. She's got two nieces and a nephew up in Idaho. She's got five cats and a dog. She would look young, certainly younger than 55, if it weren't for the photographic record of her actual youth.
In her head, the White House protest is a freeze frame. "There's been nothing that surpasses that," she says.
That night, Bernard Shaw tracked her down at a Virginia motel. He got an exclusive for CBS. The next day, she flew home to a hero's welcome from her friends. TV crews swarmed the Van Nuys compound. In protest-weary Washington, her speech may have been a one-day story, but in California, it reverberated through her life for months. Peace groups called for fund-raising help. Radical lawyers called to offer their services. Daniel Ellsberg called to thank her: He knew she had risked her career.
She and Pat got married, in part so she couldn't be deported. For a while, they thought their phone was tapped. They threw a September party at the compound. "John Voight, Dennis Weaver, David Harris, Carole Feraci present a festive fundraiser for Senator George McGovern," the flier read. "Donation: $ 5.00."
Pat sold his business, and they bought a boat. For a year or so they cruised the Caribbean and through the Panama Canal. "Quite a risk for two people who'd never been in a boat before," her brother says. "We'd drop an anchor," Carole says, "and spend 45 minutes arguing about where the other one should go."
Back home, they lost their moorings. Pat was depressed and doing drugs. They separated; she moved on. "He was going down, he wasn't strong enough," she says. "I wasn't strong enough to help him." He later overdosed and died. She doesn't want him remembered that way.
By then she'd started to work again: as an office manager, in purchasing, as a travel agent. She'd been hoping she could sing, once all the fuss died down, but she never got the chance again. The music contractors didn't call. Not that she was surprised.
"They were all wimps," she says. "Excuse me!"
"Oh my god, she was famous for a couple of months," Ray Conniff says. "Then no one on the West Coast hired her anymore."
'From the Vantage Point of Distance'
"Life is like a landscape," dinner guest Charles Lindbergh once wrote. "You live in the midst of it, but can describe it only from the vantage point of distance." It's an aviator's simile -- one imagines Lindbergh touring the country in the Spirit of St. Louis 70 years ago, after his triumphant transatlantic flight, exhilarated at seeing America whole -- and it's true enough up to a point. Yet it is in the nature of time and history and human memory that the clarifying distance is always changing, and the description changing with it, and nothing is ever quite what it once seemed.
Take, for example, the American political landscape nine months after the Digest dinner. Richard Nixon -- fresh from his headline-grabbing summits in Peking and Moscow and closing in, or so the voters were told, on "peace with honor" in Vietnam -- had just won reelection by a landslide. Then, more suddenly than usual, the vantage points began to change.
Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace on August 9, 1974, 13 months after dinner guest Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of the White House taping system. Dinner guests John Mitchell and Herb Kalmbach went to jail.
Charles Lindbergh died on August 26, 1974. On his nightstand he left a note that read, "I know there is infinity beyond ourselves. I wonder if there is infinity within."
Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. Cambodia sank into genocidal chaos.
Hobart Lewis paid off his loan from Dwayne Andreas, "in installments of $ 10,000 or $ 20,000 each, over several years."
As for the dinner's honorees: DeWitt and Lila Wallace would likely find the Pleasantville terrain disorienting, were they still alive today.
The Wallaces had no children, and as they grew too frail to oversee their empire, a bitter struggle for control began. The winner was dinner guest Laurance Rockefeller, who'd become one of the Digest's first outside directors. Rockefeller took effective charge of the company's fate, and, indirectly, of billions of dollars that the Wallaces had designated for charitable purposes.
Peter Canning, the former Digest editor who once tried to compile a balanced piece on Vietnam, is not happy -- to put it mildly -- with what the vantage point of a couple of decades has revealed. While writing the opening chapter of his 1996 book, American Dreamers, he tried to describe the Digest dinner as a kind of fatal omen, an intimation of the Wallaces' -- and the president's -- coming fall. "For just as that brave girl had tossed a dose of inconvenient reality into the face of an otherwise unreal evening," he wrote, "so did the war in Vietnam sit inconveniently and unavoidably in Richard Nixon's future. He had promised to end it. Instead -- afraid of appearing weak -- he had stepped up the bombing and invaded Cambodia. And his cynical approach to those who opposed these moves -- featuring 'enemies lists,' 'plumbers units,' illegal wiretaps and political dirty tricks -- had already put him on a slippery path."
Canning's editors cut this passage from the published book. The opening chapter, which is built around the dinner scene, fails to mention Feraci or the war. The protest theme was too distracting, he was told.
That's right: It is distracting.
Out it goes.
For surely if it's true that life is like a landscape, then that landscape is a painted one, and "history" decides -- just like an artist, or a writer or an editor -- which features to include.
Two landscapes, then, to end with.
On a blue-sky afternoon in Southern California, some friends are talking at the tree-lined compound Carole Feraci once called home. Outside, beyond the fence, are miles of dense-packed San Fernando Valley suburbs.
They talk about the artist sisters who'd presided there, in the ranch house acquired in the '30s, when the Valley was all citrus trees and walnut groves. The pair would rent out small apartments on the 21/2-acre lot. "We'd all sit out on the lanai and drink wine and have a great time eating. Then we'd go back to our separate places."
They talk about the day the earthquake hit in '71. "My husband was going, 'Cigarettes! Matches! Hang on to the speakers! I'm running outside!' " Feraci says.
They talk about the White House day.
"There were just streams and streams of vans and camera crews."
"There was a big old NBC camera crew there saying, 'Where's Carole Feraci?' "
"Now what's she done . . ."
A question arises.
"What was the name of the orchestra?"
"That I sang -- Ray Conniff?"
Another landscape: On a cold gray afternoon in Yorba Linda, close by the clapboard farmhouse of a presidential childhood, the distinguished friends of Richard Nixon are gathered once again. The most distinguished are marked by special tokens -- purple buttons, fixed to their lapels -- that serve to admit them to the foremost rows. They have come to bury a statesman. Five presidents are among them. The Rev. Norman Vincent Peale is dead, so the Rev. Billy Graham presides alone.
"Richard Nixon ended a war and he advanced the vision of peace of his Quaker youth," Henry Kissinger says. None of the other eulogists will mention war directly.
"President Nixon's journey across the American landscape mirrored that of his entire nation," President Clinton says. He will not use the word "Vietnam."
Bob Thompson is the articles editor of the Magazine.
GRAPHIC: Illustration, Nola Lopez; Photo, nixon presidential materials staff; Photo, upi/corbis-bettmann; Photo, courtesy sterling library/yale university; Photo, bob burchette; Photo, nasa; Photo, ap; Photo, ellsworth davis; Photo, ken feil, Martha and John Mitchell Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Alice Roosevelt Longworth Frank Borman
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