Stephen Hess is author of “Bit Player: My Life with Presidents and Ideas”


Jonathan Movroydis: Welcome to the Nixon Now podcast. I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation or at

Today, we’re here to talk with a man who played no small role in American politics in the last half century. His name is Stephen Hess. He’s a Senior Fellow emeritus in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He served as a Professor of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University and as an advisor to Presidents Carter and Ford and on the White House staff during the presidencies of Eisenhower and Nixon. He’s the author of a dozen books, including a biography of President Nixon and his latest book, which he’ll talk about today “Bit Player: My Life with Presidents and Ideas.” Mr. Hess, thank you so much for joining us today.

Stephen Hess: It’s a great pleasure, Jonathan.

Jonathan Movroydis: Let me start off with the title, Bit Player, what does it mean to be a bit player?

Stephen Hess: I guess it’s a movie term, is any…where you hear it most often and that is, somebody who plays minor roles usually in large scenes or events. I actually got it for the title of my book from John McCain, who had mentioned it in a very important speech he’d given a couple of years ago at the convention center in Philadelphia. I thought, gee, if it’s good enough for John McCain certainly it is good enough for me. I liked it, it sort of fit what I had been doing over 40 or even over 50 years, which… I always seem to be around very often within important events. It started even when I was 19 years old, and I was at the convention in Chicago in which Dwight Eisenhower was versus Bob Taft. The most exciting and important convention of my lifetime, and there I was as a young man on the floor of the convention. So I always seem to be around very important events. And so I was comfortable calling myself a bit player. It was certainly criticized by those whose job was to sell a book because it didn’t sound very important. But I stuck with it.

Jonathan Movroydis: You begin the book by discussing your first words about the first time you wrote a speech for President Eisenhower, sort of as an intro to your life in politics and policy. It was in September of 1958 during a ceremony at…forgive me for mispronouncing this but Ligonier in Pennsylvania, a frontier post where George Washington fought in 1758, 200 years earlier. You write humorously that all that survived your draft was one sentence. But actually, this wasn’t the first time you’d written for a public figure. Can you describe your entry into politics while in college?

Stephen Hess: What happened, Jonathan, was I was a student at Johns Hopkins University which is in Baltimore so it’s only 40 miles away from the Capitol. And I was writing a paper on something called the Bricker Amendment which was an effort by the Congress to try to limit the treaty making powers of the president. So I thought I would go over there and see if I could search her out and get some interesting comments around the Senate for my study, little study. And it was so different then, I mean you couldn’t…can’t imagine what… doing now what I did then was just knock on some congressmen’s door or senators’ door say, “Excuse me, I’m a student and I’m interested in that.” And in that case, the door I knocked on was Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and immediately he put me in with his top legislative aide. And he explained to me all of the ins and outs that were going on in the passage or the fight over the Bricker Amendment. It was fascinating. And in the course of the conversation, he also asked me what I thought.

So there I was, the kid telling the expert what I thought. And he thought that was great and he said, “Okay, would you write Humphrey’s speech?” Well, of course I was actually thrilled to write Humphrey’s speech, which I did. And nobody of my friends of course were going to believe that I wrote Senator Humphrey’s speech so I managed to put my own name into the speech so that I’d say, “See, there it is. I wrote the speech.” So that was the first time I was ever involved in speech writing and for an important person. And then years later, when I became Eisenhower’s speech writer again, it was a sheer accident. It was in August of 1958, I had been drafted…I had been served two years in the Army and I was coming back on a troop ship from Germany and I was 25 and I was unemployed. I got there, to the United States, quite unexpectedly, my mentor, the professor that I had worked most closely with, when I was a student, had just been made…he was Malcolm Moos and he had just been made Eisenhower’s speech writer, and he asked me to join him. Well, it became a complicated story but yes, there I was on the staff. And as you pointed out, first writing that little speech in Fort Ligonier in Pennsylvania.

Jonathan Movroydis: Now, did you…you know, you’re writing for…you knocked on…you got a speech writing gig for Hubert Humphrey, a Democrat, did you… And then you worked for…and then you went to the convention in 1952, did you consider yourself a Republican or a Democrat or just someone who was interested in politics?

Stephen Hess: Oh, absolutely Republican. I’ll make it clear, the position of Hubert Humphrey and the other Liberal senators, Democratic senators was in support of Eisenhower and the President, so there was no inconsistency in that. When I went to the convention in 1952 I was just a kid. I was working for the New York County Republican committee, Tom Dewey’s organization, and through Eisenhower’s White House, I was the aide or the number two speech writer. [inaudible 00:07:07] who was a Minnesota Republican and also happened to be Republican chairman of Baltimore where Johns Hopkins was. So there was no doubt what party I was with.

Jonathan Movroydis: You attended the… You were talking a little bit about the convention in 1952, and you considered yourself to be an Eisenhower guy versus Senator Taft who was dubbed Mr. Republican. What was the differences between the two men, and why did Eisenhower appeal to you more?

Stephen Hess: Oh no, Eisenhower would be pretty [inaudible 00:07:50] candidate for a young man. He was the most popular [inaudible 00:07:52] in which Bob Taft is the true Republican, Mr. Republican, might have appealed to me. So this hero, Dwight Eisenhower, coming in was terribly appealing. We were on the floor singing a song that Irving Berlin had written called “I like Ike” because Ike is a good, I don’t know, than Mike. It was just very exciting. There was no doubt my mind which candidate I wanted to see as the next president or the next Republican president.

Jonathan Movroydis: In 1952, you were talking a little bit about how being…you enrolled in Johns Hopkins University. And you talked a little bit too about Professor Malcolm Moos who was one of the most influential people in your young life. Who was he?

Stephen Hess: Oh, he was absolutely in my life. How could I ever have been at the White House as a speech writer, the career that I followed, had not this professor tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Come with me.” I mean, most students certainly by the time they get to the graduate level have somebody who’s a mentor, some professor who really cares about them. Moos was the man for me. And I was a very good writer and I did a lot of things to help him in the books that he was writing at that time. So it was not surprising that he might want me to be with him. But, of course, totally a coincidence that just at the moment that I had come back to the United States, was available, and he got this job. I could have had no way of knowing that. So in the book, I really call it, my Moos Miracle. And it did send me on a path that I can’t imagine I otherwise would have been on because I went from Eisenhower to Nixon to Ford, so forth and so on. I was on track.

Jonathan Movroydis: And what was your role under Dr. Moos at the White House?

Stephen Hess: Well, it was, you know… Today, when a president of the United States has eight speech writers and it’s very specialized, we, in a funny way, we had two and a half. There was Mac Moos, there was me and there was the third, strangely, was the assistant naval aide whose name was Ralph Williams. It happened that Mac’s office was located, not in the West Wing but in the East Wing, where the offices of the military aides as well as the first lady were located. And this assistant naval aide wandered in one day and asked if he could be helpful. And it turned out he was a major intellectual and he was obviously unemployed. Mac, who had not been in the military at all, was thrilled to have somebody who would be a national security expert. So we were…so three people. And, in fact, it turns out that it was Ralph Williams, the naval aide, who invented the famous remark of the president of the industrial military complex. So that’s what we were.

The three of us worked together and Mac would then present it to the president. So it was always initialed, as it went to the president, MM, for Malcolm Moos. And strangely, if you go to the White House, Eisenhower library, you don’t find that many references to SH, to me. And it went through Mac, but as I have an opportunity to tell in my memoirs, I could pick out the particular speeches that I wrote, that I like, that I was proud of, that somehow filled something. One, for example, in which I invent a word. Well, not many people have an opportunity to invent a word. I thought that was pretty great and I wanted it noted, if you will, through my memoir, that I had invented a word and some other things that were a bit historical.

Jonathan Movroydis: You know, working here at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, I have come across, you know, President Nixon’s speeches, some of the research and some of the background behind his development of his speech. What was it like to craft a speech for President Eisenhower and how long was he…how much was he involved in the process?

Stephen Hess: Oh, he was very much involved in the process. We did not have as many speeches as presidents have now. So in a funny way, the three of us, the speech writers, were not overly employed or that busy. We might have one major speech a week and a minor speech, but nothing like the constant or the daily speeches that presidents now give. We would give a draft to the president, a full draft, and it was being numbered, number one. And if a president worked on it, did anything on it, the number became two. And many of these speeches could go on for 10 drafts and each time the number changed. The President Eisenhower became truly more involved in the speech. But the funny part about Eisenhower because many people didn’t think highly of him as a speaker, partly because he was not very effective in press conferences, was that he had actually been a speech writer himself. He had been Douglas MacArthur’s speech writer at one time. He was a very…I thought he was a very good writer. And many of it… I have in the book one little draft that I did and he made all of these corrections, and as far as I’m concerned the corrections were better than the speech themselves. I thought he was very good at that.

Jonathan Movroydis: What was it like to work…in terms of size, what was it like to work in the Eisenhower administration versus the Nixon administration? And even people that you’ve talked to who’ve worked in more recent administrations?

Stephen Hess: Oh, yeah, we were a modest crew, it was very small. When you see what the White House looks like today, it’s hard to believe that there are that many people. I’ll give you a very simple example of that. There is a staff mess called [inaudible 00:15:15] run by the Navy where the staff can have meals. And it’s about the size of a large dining room maybe which could sit 30 people. And we could all have lunch there at the same time if we wanted to. Excuse me. And I was just like anybody else although I was by far the youngest person on the staff.

There were only two of us at that time who were even in their 20s. When I came back to the White House and the President was now Richard Nixon. It was eight years later. And at first there were two seating, we couldn’t all sit down together. So that a young person like me would not have had the same opportunity of sitting at the staff table with all of the important people, the press secretary and the economics advisor and so forth, they would have sat in a second sitting. By the time I left the Nixon administration, they now had…not only had two seatings but two dining rooms so that the most important people were even farther removed from the young workers like me. That was just an example to show how it was.

I cite in the book the fact that I had in the… In the Nixon White House, I had a marvelous office, a rather large office in the West Wing. In the Eisenhower White House, I had a very large office in the executive office building now the Eisenhower office building which had been built to house the State Department, the War Department and the Navy department. And those offices were huge. I had…man, I had a conference table in my office that 10 people could have sat down there. In fact, when I’d have a meeting I’d make sure that I had a White House pad in front of each place because I wanted each person to have the opportunity to steal it if they wanted to. But then you read subsequent books…there’s a book out by somebody who was a Clinton aide, I think he was the seventh speech writer, and he talks about his office almost like a clothes closet. So it was a very different setup.

As I say, my office under Eisenhower was in the Executive Office Building right next to the White House, across from the White House, and my boss’s office was in the East Wing. So every day I would literally walk right through the White House. And if it was raining, I would go through the residence. If it was not raining I’d walk along an arch way on the other side. And, you know, in all those years, I was there more than two years, I don’t remember that anybody asked for my identification.

Jonathan Movroydis: In 1960, the Chief of Staff, Jerry Parsons appointed you to guide the work of the RNC platform. During the campaign of that year between Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Nixon, what did your work entail?

Stephen Hess: In 1960, at the White House, I was assigned the responsibility to be the liaison to the Republican platform. The platform was not an Eisenhower platform, it would be a Nixon platform, but there was always a concern that maybe something that we cared about would be overlooked. So one of the things I did was write a very long document on the achievements of the Eisenhower administration, which subsequently became important in the Eisenhower story, because it became the basic document of his last state of the union message. But beyond that, at the convention platform committee, we had finished our job and were waiting for it to be typed up and to be presented the next morning to the full platform committee for approval. When the phone rang, Chuck Percy, who was the chairman of the platform committee picked up the phone, it was clear that something important was happening and it was. Richard Nixon, Vice President of the United States had flown to New York to meet with Nelson Rockefeller, the Governor of New York.

And on that phone conversation, they were outlining what they wanted to be in the platform while we took notes at the other end. I should say something funny happened, when it got to be 12:00, the switchboard operator pulled the plug and went home and we had to get reconnected to continue this conversation that went on for several hours. Okay, the point was that the committee was very upset by the intercession particularly of Rockefeller who was more liberal than the committee was and there was a real revolution going on there. Nixon had to go out to Chicago to quell the unhappy delegates 36 hours later. For my little story, as part of the bit player, was that it was another example where I was there overlooked…not overseen because I wasn’t seated, but there while important moments of history were played out.

Jonathan Movroydis: And what was the difference between… In 1960 was there any difference between the Eisenhower platform and the Nixon 1960 platform?

Stephen Hess: The strange part is that there wasn’t. But it was the…it had to do with the way it was presented that made all the difference. It looked as if Nixon was going begging to Eisenhower…I mean, going begging to Rockefeller, the document was presented in that way. And stylistically, there were some real problems for Nixon in the presentation of that document. In fact, there actually were not very many significant changes.

Jonathan Movroydis: You hadn’t met Richard Nixon throughout the administration, the Eisenhower administration. When was the first time you met him?

Stephen Hess: Yeah, this is very peculiar, because, after all, I was on the White House staff of the Eisenhower-Nixon administration. And yet, the vice president did not have an office at the White House. That did not happen until Jimmy Carter’s vice president Walter Mondale had an office there. Not only that, but Eisenhower had a view of the vice presidency that now seems very old fashioned, but he makes it very clear in his own memoir that he considered the vice president, who led the senate, was president of the senate, as a member of the legislative branch. He was actually, his office was on Capitol Hill, he was paid by the Senate budget as was his staff. And he really only came over to the White House for events like the cabinet meetings, the National Security Council meeting, so that I didn’t see him. I didn’t really know him until after the administration.

And what happened at that point was that I went to visit him probably in April of 1961, and he had now gone to California. He worked for a large firm, law firm. He was, in a sense, a rainmaker. And in those days these large firms outside of Washington didn’t even have a Washington office. So he came in and used Bill Rogers’s friend, who was the Attorney General, used an office in his offices and invited me to meet him. So that really was the first… I was going to… He wanted me to do some work for him, to help him on articles he was writing for the “Saturday Evening Post”…for a newspaper series he was doing for the “Los Angeles Times.” And he was inviting me to assist him on those jobs. So that’s the first time I met him.

Jonathan Movroydis: And what were your impressions of him at the time?

Stephen Hess: Well, Nixon, from then and very often after that was very different than the sort of Nixon who I would have known through the media, particularly through the cartoons of Herblock. For example, this would be right in the beginning, what happened when I left the White House, the Eisenhower White House, I now was…in a sense, unemployed again. Bryce Harlow, who was on the Eisenhower’s staff, who was now the…represented the Procter & Gamble company in Washington and was really the go to man for all things Republican in Washington at that time. He came to me and Eisenhower had gone back to Gettysburg, to his home. At that time, this is totally different from today. The former president did not have security staff, did not have office space, did not have cars and all of the other perks that today’s former presidents have. He got in his old Chrysler Imperial, he drove the 80 miles back to Gettysburg. There was one secret service car trailing him. When they got to Gettysburg, the Secret Service car turned around and went back to Washington. And there was Eisenhower, in a sense, all alone. Gettysburg College gave him some space so they could write his memoirs. But anyway, Bryce Harlow called me in and said if the Republican Party can…the Republican party should keep Eisenhower alive politically for our purposes. If we didn’t do that, somebody has to answer his mail. “Would you be willing to answer his mail?” I said, “Sure.”

None of us had any idea how much mail there would be so we worked out a simple deal, piece work. I would get $3 for every letter and so forth. I hired one of Mamie Eisenhower’s secretaries, Ann Parson. I got some office space in a Republican PR firm in Washington. I wrote a little book of Q&A, here are the questions that we were likely to be asked. What does Eisenhower think about volunteer draft? And so forth…the answers and so forth, gave it to Ann, and she basically did all the work. And we got $3 for every letter we sent out. And what we didn’t realize was that Eisenhower was probably the most loved man in the world. There was a torrent of letters, and I was making a lot of money. And I thought maybe I should do some other things. I took the Eisenhower job, if you will. Bryce Harlow said, well, be helpful to Nixon as well. He’s going back to California, he has nobody in Washington to help him out, and I said, “Sure.” I didn’t know what that meant but I said sure.

So over time, I did two things, in a sense, for my clients, Eisenhower and Nixon. One, wherever I would see a newspaper article or something about a person who knew Eisenhower or Nixon, somebody who was getting married, somebody who had won an award, somebody who’s daughter was honored in some way, I would draft a little letter and send it to Eisenhower in Gettysburg, to Nixon in Los Angeles. And I should say that after a while, in Washington, I got all sorts of people saying, “Oh, I got the nicest little note from The General…” Eisenhower wanted to be called The General after he left the presidency, but I didn’t know how this was appealing to Nixon. The other thing I did was I would send them sort of notes of what things were going on in Washington that they might not know. In that way it was sort of a newsletter with an audience of two.

Well, when I got to Bill Rogers’ office to meet Nixon for the first time, it was clear that he liked this newsletter a lot because he had been in Washington since the end of World War II and he was elected to the House of Representatives. And that was the gossip of Washington. Now the gossip of Los Angeles was totally different. And in fact, he once said to me…later he said, you know, “If I have to play golf one more time with Randy Scott…” remember the old cowboy movie star, Randolph Scott, “…I think I’ll go out of my mind.” So he loved the little notes about what was going on in Washington. But he also said to me at that same meeting, “Don’t bother to send me those congratulatory notes. I don’t want to be remembered as someone who remembers people’s birthday.” Well, I was sort of shocked by this because the original ticket, I952 ticket, was Eisenhower, the non-politician and Nixon, the Senator from California as the politician. And here was Eisenhower who did all the things that a politician should be doing, loved these little notes, and Nixon the politician, who asked me not to send them. So that was also the way it was with Nixon, things I thought I knew about him weren’t those facts at all.

But I will say that I loved writing for Nixon. It was a one on one arrangement with Eisenhower. As I described it, everything I did at the White House really went through Malcom Moos so that I was fortunate enough to have a lot of my words used but I wasn’t in the process in the same way as when Dick Nixon and I wrote an article for the “Saturday Evening Post.” It was something else as I was learning things about Richard Nixon. “Saturday Evening Post” they might pay a Richard Nixon $10,000 for an article, which might be the equivalent of $50,000 today. And if I had done the same article on my own maybe I would have earned $1,000. Well, Nixon was incredibly generous, he would often split the fee with me. And I remember once saying to him, “Dick, you’re paying me too much.” And he was embarrassed and said, oh no, I just have to give it to the IRS. We never had a contract. We just dealt with each other. So again, Nixon had a reputation, in some circles as being cheap, but boy, he wasn’t cheap with the way he dealt with me. So again, that was the sort of thing. And then of course, what ultimately happened pretty quickly was he decided to run for Governor of California. And at that point, I went to California and was pretty involved with the campaign.

Jonathan Movroydis: For the California campaign, how did he… How did he ask you to join him and what…did you think he could win?

Stephen Hess: Well, I had no reason to think otherwise. What had happened was he… My first experience is that he had a meeting at the Waldorf in New York, where he had some of the people who were his big contributors and political supporters from the ‘60 campaign, this would be in 1961. And he was exploring with them whether he should run for Governor of California in 1962. They were all very anxious for him to run. And of course it was also quite clear that they knew very little about California politics. They simply had sort of two data points. One was that he had won California when he ran for president so clearly if he ran once running for president, he should be able to run running for governor. And the second is the polls at the time showed that he was ahead of Pat Brown, who was the incumbent governor. And their desire for him to win was that he would have to be somehow connected politically in 1962 in order to be a candidate for president in 1964. That’s really all these people were interested in. There was no place or show. There was just win and he had to get line to win in 1964.

He needed them. There were already people lined up to run like George Romney and Nelson Rockefeller, maybe Bill Scranton. And Nixon was the only one who wasn’t a multi millionaire, so he needed financial support even for the modest little operation he had then going in California, little research and secretarial operation. He couldn’t do it out of his own pocket, his pockets weren’t very deep. So he needed these people. He listened to these people, but he knew something that he couldn’t share with them. And that was, if he ran for president in 1964 against John F. Kennedy, he was going to lose.

He couldn’t tell them that. But that was the fact that incumbent presidents usually got a second term. It was very rare that they didn’t. And if he could not beat Kennedy when he had all the advantage as Vice President in 1960, he wasn’t going to beat him when Kennedy was now president in 1964. At any rate, based on this advice and where he was coming from, he held a press conference in Los Angeles and announced that he was going to run for governor of California in 1962, but would not run for President of the United States in 1964. Obviously, the hidden message was, as governor of California, he had a commitment to serve the people of California and while all those national people would come to him and say we want you, he could say, “Oh, I’m very sorry but I made a commitment.” So that’s roughly where he was.

Now, of much more importance than that and, of course, it’s even in his memoirs, RN, was he didn’t want to be governor of California. His whole time in public service, at that time, had been largely devoted to international affairs, and he was fascinated always by international affairs. And he didn’t really take the same excitement from the issues of education and taxes and environment that were the issues that a governor runs. So it really was a serious mistake for him to do that and he never really caught on to it and showed it. His big issue when he ran for governor had to do with communists and higher education which was not a major issue in California. But that’s something he knew about otherwise, and that’s something he used when he ran for governor.

Jonathan Movroydis: What was the campaign like to work on, specifically your role? You had mentioned going on a dramatic whistle stop with the president or the future president and future first lady, could you describe your experience on the campaign?

Stephen Hess: Well, first of all, like California it was…running for governor was a lot more hectic, frankly, than running for president. I compare it to the difference from being in a first class in your plane from Los Angeles to Washington or back in coach. You didn’t have a big staff around you. You didn’t have…you didn’t control your schedule in the same way when you were governor. When you were governor…running for governor. When you were running for governor you woke up in Los Angeles, maybe you had a breakfast meeting raising money or something. You went off to San Francisco for a luncheon speech. You then went on to San Diego for a dinner rally. You then returned to Los Angeles to go to sleep. Now that was a hell of a schedule. And with Richard Nixon, that’s how it was. Nixon was going to be in every county, he was going to shake hundreds of hands. And he got huge crowds doing this, and he thought he was doing fine, but he wasn’t doing fine. I mean, the people who would come out were coming out for half of the…to see half of the sort of Kennedy-Nixon tag team. They were out looking for a celebrity not for a California politician. And so we were always fooled by the size of his crowds during this period. For me, of course, were some very exciting moments, learning experiences and otherwise.

There was a whistle stop train campaign that went down the state, from San Francisco to San Diego, which was stopping every few minutes in another town making another speech and so forth which was, you know, great fun. There was also a telethon sort of experience, that way we had seven different nights in which you were in San Francisco or Los Angeles or wherever and you were taking calls from the audience and you had celebrities who would then get the calls and read them off and the president…and the candidate would answer them. And that was quite an evening’s entertainment. So these were two terribly entertaining parts of being on his staff. My part was sometimes a little odd. The questions that would come in from the audience didn’t go right to the movie stars, who were reading them, they went to me. And my job was to make them tougher. A typical question from a person sitting by the telephone is…some might be, what do you think about communism? And I would turn it into something like, why do the communists hate you?

And then the movie star would say, “Hey, here’s a tough one, Dick, why do the communists hate you?” Oh, it’s the same question, basically, but it was easier to do. And the funny part about it is, it was that same role, was Pat Buchanan’s role when Nixon then ran for president in 1968.

Jonathan Movroydis: You had mentioned…in your book you talk a little bit about a gentleman named Paul Keyes. You talk about how Roger Ailes often gets credit for his influence, specifically on television communications in the 1968 campaign. But President Nixon knew a often overlooked writer, comedian, producer of the show “Laugh-In” named Paul Keyes. And it was interesting because I was looking here at the Nixon Presidential Library, through the archives of…through the collection on President Nixon’s inaugural speech and I found that Mr. Keyes was actually…contributed to some of the thought and research behind the inaugural as well. Who was this man? And how did he influence President Nixon?

Stephen Hess: Yeah, he was very close…he ultimately became very close to President Nixon. What happened was Nixon had gone on the Jack Paar Tonight Show at one point and Paul Keyes was the writer for the show. Essentially, he was a gag writer. And for some reason, the two of them just hit it off which was very unusual for Nixon. Most of his friends were of…vintage. He had known them for many years and so forth. But there was an immediate spark between the two of them and it was very good for Dick Nixon because Keyes was an engaging guy and he was fascinated by politics. And he did often contribute things for Nixon. We talked about the telethon. He would listen to the telethons, he’d take notes of the telethons, he’d tell Nixon what he should have been saying, how he could have said it and that sort of thing. So he turned out to be… he was not… He did not play sort of a Shakespearean fool, looking odd and whispering in the President’s ear, he was just a good…even though he was a gag writer.

But occasionally he did write jokes for Nixon and for other people on the Nixon entourage but he was a joy to have around. And he certainly taught me a lot about gag writing. But I didn’t write…tended not to write jokes for Nixon but I did write some for Gerald Ford definitely based on what I had learned from Paul Keyes.

Jonathan Movroydis: Why do you think Richard Nixon lost in 1962?

Stephen Hess: You know, Nixon underestimated Pat Brown. Pat Brown could be a little bumbling, not very attractive as a speaker and so forth. But what became clear was he was a very good governor. He did the things that people wanted and Nixon was often off on other cloud. Funny thing happened in that, there was only one debate between the two of them. It was sponsored by United Press International. It was in San Francisco and Nixon sent me ahead to San Francisco to draft what I thought Pat Brown would say. Each one had an opening statement, seven minutes. And I was to go to San Francisco ahead of the Nixon party and draft Pat Brown’s seven minutes so that when Nixon got there he would…I would give it to him and he would not be surprised. The thing I did was I immediately called to our chief researcher in Los Angeles, her name was Agnes Waldron and I said, “Bundle up all of Pat Brown’s speeches and get them to me.” And what I was going to do is go through them and write a speech based on what he had already said. That’s what I would have done if I had been writing Nixon’s speech. So I would do it that way.

So I wrote this speech, Nixon read it. The next day they went on the air and, of course, Pat Brown said exactly what I had written that he would say. Nixon thought this was marvelous, thought I was a real genius. I never told him how I got there but at any rate, that speech showed all of the things, in terms of school districts, water supply and so forth, taxes, that Pat Brown had done. It was a good record. And that combined with the fact that Nixon already had a divided Republican Party… What had happened was in the primary, in June, I guess, he ran against a man named Schell who was the Minority Leader of the assembly. He was…he had a lot of money, he had oil money, he had been a big football star at Southern California. And the issue was the John Birch Society. The John Birch Society was a very right wing society which the head of it, Robert Welch, had said that Eisenhower was some sort of communist.

And Nixon was terribly upset by this and said that, of course, he was against the John Birch Society but also he was against any Republican candidate who accepted the support of the John Birch Society, which included some friends of his, good friends of his, who were members of the House of Representatives who came from very republican districts, who Nixon turned against in that way and he lost some votes. It was clear that he was going to get the nomination for the Republican nominee…to be the Republican candidate, but Schell would get a third of the vote. Now, to lose a third of your own vote is a big deal. So he started with that behind him. And I can remember once that he was in his office downtown Los Angeles, during that primary period, we were going out to dinner. He was shaving in a private bathroom that was connected to his office. The door was open and he was looking at the mirror and he said to me, “I could not look in my face if I didn’t oppose them.”

And at first I thought, gee, is he just saying something for my purposes? And then I said, no, that can’t be, there’s no reason to win me over. He’s saying something to himself. And I think he felt so deeply about the attack on Eisenhower that he took this position. In fact, Ronald Reagan when he ran for governor in 1966 also opposed the John Birch Society. But he was a much better politician than Richard Nixon and he let every Republican candidate do what they wanted to do and didn’t lose anybody else in that regard. So that was all part of why Richard Nixon lost the governorship.

Jonathan Movroydis: After he’d lose the governorship… You devote a subsection of the Nixon chapter on book making, book writing. At a very young age, you were already a prolific author. Throughout your career, you’ve written a dozen or so books. How did you become an author at such a young age? And specifically, can you talk a little bit about your biography, “Nixon, A Political Portrait?”

Stephen Hess: Yeah, well, writing books is what I wanted to do, not being a speechwriter, not even being an aide to a President, I wanted to write books. And as soon as I had enough money to put aside, that I could test myself, that I could spend a few years feeding my family and so forth, but not having to worry about the rent, I would do that. And in part, with the money I made doing the Eisenhower letters, as I’ve described, as well as the Nixon speeches, I decided I would go out and write some books and see my success. And some of the books did pretty well. I wrote a big book called “America’s Political Dynasties” which had an unusual history. When I was in the army stationed in Germany, I went over to the USIA library one night, in Frankfurt to find a book about the Civil War. And I found a great big fat book called a “Biographical Directory of the American Congress.” Everybody who had been in Congress in 1774 had a little biography and it was…it weighed about seven pounds. And I went through, skimming through the book, I found all these names that went on and on and on, [inaudible 00:50:00] generation after generation.

Typically, I didn’t know anything about them. I had been a political science major, I had gone to a good university and all of that. I knew about the Roosevelts. I knew about the Harris’ and the Adams’ but all these names, who were generation after generation in the House of Representatives and the Senate governors, I didn’t know. So I was bored, it was a peace time Army. When I wasn’t on guard duty, I would go and write those geographical, geological…geographical charts. And when I left the Army I had about 300 of these. And I said, okay, someday, maybe I could write a book about this. And by the time I started a book, another family came along that really captured people’s imagination, the Kennedys. So there was a market for this book, and I wrote this huge book, 700 pages called “America’s Political Dynasties: From Adams to Kennedy.” So yeah, I was now in the book business. My son said that I was a book maker.

And in one of the books… Earl Mazo, who was the chief political correspondent of the “New York Herald Tribune,” a Republican leading paper in New York City, had written in 1959, a very good and successful biography of Richard Nixon. In 1967, there were reasons that he was not in a position to revise it. So he was a friend of mine, we had the same publisher, and I agreed to revise that book. So it became Richard Nixon by Mazo and Hess. And it had some unusual things in it that were not necessarily in history otherwise. One of the questions of Eisenhower was why he didn’t campaign more vigorously for Nixon in 1960. We as the speech writers, Moos and Hess, thought he would. We were very busy writing speeches for him to give and the call never came. What happened unknownst to us, and to the rest of the world, was that Mamie Eisenhower and the President’s doctor had asked Richard Nixon secretly if he would not accept Eisenhower’s offer to do all these speeches because they feared for Eisenhower’s health.

Eisenhower was very hurt by this, by the way. He did not like Kennedy, and he was very anxious for Nixon to be elected. But he was told no, Nixon didn’t want him. And actually he gave a few speeches at the end of the campaign, which were very powerful. But at any rate, Earl Mazo, then went in the campaign of ’96, after the campaign, to two places, to Chicago, Illinois and to Texas to investigate what had happened during that election. And he found huge fraud, democratic fraud in both places. I was quite convinced and felt he had the evidence that Nixon should have been the president and it was stolen from him. And he was to do…and he decided to do a 12 part series on this and he started the series and he got a call from Nixon. And Nixon came over and he said to him, that’s a very interesting series you’re doing, but I’d like you to stop, that no one steals the presidency. There must be a powerful president as he negotiates the American position around the world. And Mazo was stunned by this, actually stunned by… But of course, Nixon had asked for it and he stopped it.

This subsequently was in the book that we wrote, that was published in 1968 and was a news story. The “Chicago Tribune” had a 1200-word editorial on what Nixon had done. The “London Times” had a big story that said, “Didn’t Kennedy steal the election?” So our book was a little more than the standard political biography. Oh, another interesting thing about it, funny thing, we had nothing to do with the cover, you never do with a book. It had a very strong drawing, sort of a graven drawing of Nixon. And what we didn’t know until, for other reasons, after the campaign, was that Bob Haldeman and Rose Mary Woods hated that drawing. They didn’t want people to get off an airplane and see shelves of the horrible mean drawing of Richard Nixon, and they had a lot of the books destroyed, which we found out later.

Jonathan Movroydis: Now, you talked about how you always wanted to become an author and this is a period of time that gave you the opportunity to do that. In 1969, you were called back into the Nixon administration, how did you switch from being a writer, speech writer, to a policy person under Daniel Patrick Moynihan?

Stephen Hess: Well, what happened I was in the campaign, ‘68 campaign because Spiro Agnew said a lot of very odd things, gas if you will. And I was at Harvard and I got a call from Bob Haldeman, he said, you know, the boss wants you on a plane with Agnew, the vice presidential candidate. And so I did go, we travelled 60,000 miles. It was not a good relationship between us. But nevertheless, I had done…I had paid my dues and then felt that I was entitled to a job in the administration if I wanted one. I did want actually want to go back to the White House. I had a wonderful experience there and I thought it’d be fun to have another type of experience. At any rate, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who I knew at Harvard, was a dear, dear friend of mine.

We didn’t agree, he was a big democrat, I was not. But at any rate, in November, in the transition period, he called me from Cambridge saying that the President Elect, Richard Nixon, had called him. He was going to be offering him a job at the… Nixon was headquartered at the hotel Pierre in New York. Moynihan was going down there to find out what this was all about and asked me if I would go up from Washington and meet him there after he had seen Nixon. So I did. He came out of the meeting. He was absolutely thrilled, he would be… He was being offered what was the equivalent of a job in national security that Henry Kissinger would get, that would be the job he would have in domestic affairs. And this is was, of course, exactly the job he dreamed of although not for this particular president. And he asked me if I would join him at the White House in what became my title, the Deputy Assistant to the President for Urban Affairs.

Well, there were two reasons that I knew I was going to accept. One, to work with Pat Moynihan would be and was a joy. He was fun, he was ebullient, he was always interesting. So there was that. And secondly, I thought he needed me, after all, I was the only republican he knew. So I joined him. And he served two years, which was the time that he had a leave from Harvard and then would go back to Harvard. Henry Kissinger decided to stay on and so he left Harvard after two years. And I stayed with Pat for that first year and then went on to other assignments that I was given by the president until finally in January 1972 I went to the Brookings Institution. So I was involved in the Nixon administration for its first term.

Jonathan Movroydis: You had mentioned that this was Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dream job to be a part of…you know, be the Urban Affairs Director, the equivalent to Dr. Kissinger on domestic affairs. And you talk about being his deputy. What were the two of you wanting to accomplish during that time at the Urban Affairs Council?

Stephen Hess: It was very interesting. There was one major piece of legislation… There were lots of things that he did that were useful, but the thing that he really cared about was something that became known as the Family Assistance plan, which was designed to give money to poor people who…families that had had children. And I wrote about this in another little book called “The Professor and the President: Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Nixon White House.” And in some ways it may be my best book. What happened was that Pat being given this dream job, got there and a day after the administration started, another person of higher rank was given the same dream job. And his name was Arthur Burns, who was an old friend of the president and he was a professor at Columbia. So in a funny way, this fierce fight, this fair fight over the Urban Affairs Council…over the Family Assistance plan was fought out between two Ivy League professors, the sociologist, Moynihan of Harvard and the economist, Burns of Columbia.

And this is the story I tell in this little book, which plays within the West Wing of the White House. The thing that made this book work was that on the one hand, I certainly knew everything that Moynihan was thinking and doing because I was his assistant, I was in the office sitting next to him. But Arthur Burns, it turned out, I found when I started to write the book, kept diaries. They looked almost like the little books you can buy at the pharmacy for your kids as they go off the first grade, with the little line things. And he…and these…and I found these, I think, in the Michigan State Library. And these were not for publication. They had not been cleaned up. Burns said awful things about everybody. So here I was writing this book where I now knew what both sides were thinking.

And on top of that, the winner turned out to be not the conservative Burns, but the liberal Moynihan. And that is an interesting story in itself, because the relationship between Nixon and Moynihan became very dear and very close. And right from the beginning, right before….even before Nixon was inaugurated, during the transition, Pat started to write him memos, long memos about things that they should be doing. And these were not the memos that presidents usually receive, these were deeply intellectual memos. And Nixon was thrilled. He had never been treated like an intellectual before, and he certainly felt himself that he was one. So they got off to this quite wonderful start where Pat even recommended books as he was asked to and Dick Nixon, who was a great reader, would be reading the books that Moynihan represented. So it was a very special relationship.

And beside the Family Assistance plan which ultimately was defeated by one vote in the Senate after passing in the House, there were a lot of other things including most of Nixon’s quite remarkable record in creating environmental protection, had at least some history from Pat Moynihan.

Jonathan Movroydis: Could you talk a little bit about your subsequent assignment as Director of the White House Conference on Children and Youth? What mission were you charged with then?

Stephen Hess: Yeah, yeah, yeah this is… Okay, it was now… Nixon had given the big speech which was the Family Assistance plan and what else he planned to do in August of 1969. And he would reorganize the White House staff. Clearly, neither Burns nor Moynihan were the sort of people who were needed, most needed, at that time to put legislation through Congress and so forth. So there’s gonna be a reorganization and in the reorganization both of their jobs, in a sense, were given to John Ehrlichman. So Pat Moynihan became a cabinet minister without portfolio which fitted his needs very well, he was happy about it. And Arthur Burns was made the chairman of the Federal Reserve which is exactly why he wanted to be in government in the first place. But what to do with Hess? This was a real problem for them. I was not going to stay at the White House, I knew that. So the President called me into the Oval Office to tell me what he wanted me to do.

And what he said, in effect, was that Bob Finch who was the secretary of HEW, Health, Education, and Welfare was not doing the job appropriately or well. And he said this in a most sad state. Bob Finch was really probably the only one in the cabinet that Richard Nixon loved. He had been his campaign manager in 1960. He would like to have had him as his vice presidential associate in 1968, for other reasons he couldn’t have him. And he told me would I go over there and see if I could straighten things out. And it was one of those historic moments that you still see as sort of movies or something, where you say, “Yes, Mr. President” you walk outside the door, and you say, “How the hell am I going to do that? I can’t just go over and tell Bob Finch, who is a good friend of mine, by the way, that he’s failed as the President sees it.”

So we sort of circled around each other for a little while. And then he said to me, would I, it would just be a year’s assignment, but would I be the national chairman of the White House Conference on Children and Youth, which was something that had been created by Theodore Roosevelt and was convened every 10 years and it was a year behind and they hadn’t even chosen a chairman, would I do it? When you think about it, it was a terrible job. What was I doing in the midst of a Vietnam War being the sort of the liaison to America’s youth?

But I said, yes, I would. And then when I got there, and I started to figure out what was involved I went back to the President and I said, “Mr. President, it’s not possible to have a successful conference at this time for both children and youth. Clearly, the youth part is going to dominate it and yet the children’s part is so important to us, we can’t let that go.” I proposed that we have two conferences, 1970 we would have one on children, 1971 we’d have one on youth. He said okay. So this simple job for one year was now two jobs…two years, two jobs. And a fair amount of my book Bit Player is about my maneuvering and my efforts to have two successful conferences.

Jonathan Movroydis: The third chapter of your book you devote to your time at the Brookings Institution. It’s interesting, how did you settle into life there? You know, you’re a person from the Nixon White House in a place that’s probably full of people from the opposite part of the Democratic Party, many of them who have PhDs. Also, this is in the thick of Watergate. Could you give us…?

Stephen Hess: That was before Watergate. Watergate happened, became a very serious question for me. But my going to Brookings, of course had nothing to do with Watergate, Watergate hadn’t happened yet. But you’re absolutely right. What was I doing at the Brookings Institution? And the irony of it, it’s the place I always wanted to be. It was the think tank that had this sort of interesting serious people that I wanted as colleagues. The fact that they were all PhDs and I had nothing, I’d just gotten out of the Army with a bachelor’s degree and suddenly been swept up in presidential politics, was a great liability.

And in some ways, I tried to make up for that by writing these books, these big serious books which I hoped were the equivalent somehow of a PhD, at least in the minds of people who would have to make that decision. The other thing, several things that happened at Brookings itself. The head of Brookings had become a man who had come out of the Kennedy-Johnson administration. And he brought with him a lot of his people for when Nixon became president he, in a sense, gave them a spot. So at this point, Brookings was becoming left of center where actually in the Roosevelt new deal, the fair deal period was…it was right of center, people that perhaps realized that. But at any rate, Kermit Gordon was his name and suddenly the sorts of books that I writing which…some of them are not theoretical but they tended to be books on how to make government better, were really the sorts of things that Brookings wanted to be doing under Kermit Gordon.

And the second thing, the fact that I was republican…he didn’t say this but it was really sort of attractive to him, it was a way of sort of balancing the ledger. Oh yeah, we’re on the left but we’re big enough that we could take somebody like Hess from the right. So I suddenly fitted there, having spent my life for over 40 years [inaudible 01:11:05].

Jonathan Movroydis: Outside the administration, what was your perspective on the last days of the second administration of the Nixon presidency and the sort of the last days of Watergate?

Stephen Hess: Now we can say it, Watergate. Okay. Nixon was a friend of mine, a troubled friend but that was often the way it was. In fact, when I wrote “The Professor and the President,” the first words in the book, if I remember were, “I am the only person, perhaps in the world, who was a friend of both Richard Nixon and Daniel Patrick Moynihan before they knew each other.” So along comes Watergate and I knew where I wanted to be, I mean, I was on Nixon’s side. And the big question was, did he know? Remember, we didn’t know that… Now it’s obvious, of course we know all these things. But at that time, it wasn’t until they suddenly discovered that there were tapes and the tapes were exposed that we knew what happened.

And I remember, I even gave a speech at the Harvard Business School in which I outlined all the ways that I believed that Nixon as president could not have known of Watergate and the horrors that became known as Watergate. Now, when the tapes came out, of course I was dead wrong on all of it, Nixon did know that…had happened when the hearings, the Irving committee hearings in the senate were televised and the nation was deeply engaged in them. And beside the three broadcast networks, PBS, the public network, put together a team of Robin McNeil and Jim Lehrer to play…to sit through the live hearings. And then there were two sort of sidemen, there was a lawyer on one side of them who talked about the legal things and kept chase, you know, what voice was saying what. And on the other side of them was me and I handled the political part of what was going on.

So I was sitting in a studio listening intently to all of these people who I knew, some of them were my friends. And they were saying horrible things, I thought, and of course they ultimately went to prison. And I was getting…hey, I had nightmares. And finally, I said on the air, “I’m not coming back tomorrow. This is it. I can’t stand this.” And that’s all in the book, what I said at that… What worried me, over time, was that it was sort of a Nixonian web. And how did it encase all of these people who, by the way, came from middle and upper middle class homes, who went to elite universities like the University of Southern California, and Brown and Williams and so forth.

And I read all of their memoirs at this point, what they wrote. I knew them and I try…and there were different reasons. I mean, it was clear that Bob Haldeman was a true believer. He had been with him forever and whatever he did was going to be the right thing to do. In fact, there’s a very moving book by Bob Haldeman’s widow that shows the degree that she worried that Haldeman would separate from their lives because Nixon had taken over. There were others. Colson, Charles Colson, who eventually got religion and quite an important life. But he was ruthless, he was a mean, ruthless man and his getting…moving into the inner…Nixon’s inner circle was very dangerous for all concerned.

There were others who were young people who did things because the President of the United States, the head of…commander-in-chief told them to do it them. And maybe they did some because they were just stupid people. I mean, the saddest part was the young man, Egil “Bud” Krogh who ultimately headed what was known as “the plumbers” who broke into Ed’s…Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist office and went to prison, and thought he was doing what the commander-in-chief wanted him to do.

And came out of prison and went to visit in San Clemente, and said to the president…wrote a little book about it…very moving little book and said, in effect, to the President, “I supported you. I did what I was told to do and should have done.”

And Nixon said, “I didn’t do anything wrong.” And Bud Krogh turned around and walked away. He was destroyed by this. So all of this was going on and I had a difficult time dealing with it. It’s certainly the most difficult, maybe unresolved part of my own memoir.

Nixon sent me one of his books, he wrote many books in retirement. And we were at the Arena Stage one night, and in intermission, there was Bill Safire and Helene Safire. And I go, I said, “Hey, this is interesting, RN sent me a book today. What does that mean?” And Helene Safire said, it means he’s forgiven you. That was the end of that conversation. Pat Moynihan said I must have closure with Richard Nixon. He said I will call, we will go up to New Jersey and have lunch with him. I said, well, I guess you’re right. But before we could go Nixon’s own memoir, RN, was published and he admitted nothing. He said, I’m sorry. That’s what he said. I’m sorry and I tell the American people. That was good enough for David Frost who made a lot of money on claiming that Nixon admitted what he had done, which he hadn’t. But it wasn’t good enough for me, and so I never saw Nixon again. I didn’t even go to his funeral. Instead, I did the analysis for C-SPAN. I don’t know if I did the right thing, I don’t know, but that’s what I did.

Jonathan Movroydis: And just to sum everything up, just sort of the final question. You have been in Washington at the center of politics, as you say, a bit player for over 60 years. How would you… In today’s political environment, how would you encourage people to be influential in our policy process, as even a bit player?

Stephen Hess: Well, I certainly would not want to discourage anybody, certainly any young person from getting involved and employed in public service. I mean, our government is important to us, it does important things and needs good people. At the moment it is a very unpleasant, very mean place. I don’t believe it’ll always be like this as we’ve had moments previously in our history. I think we’re at a particular moment right down like… I can’t predict but a president is starting his third year which is the toughest year for a president. It’s the year where his staff start to play favorites among themselves. There’s all sorts of cracks in the cabinet. And when you put on top of that losing one house of Congress, the possibilities of a serious report, the Mueller Report coming out which I think is apt to show some obstruction of justice at least given that they’ve already put several people in prison.

And given that the democratic congress, particularly the House Ways and Means Committee can seek the President’s tax records which he has viciously protected. Vicious may not be the right word but it certainly [inaudible 01:20:45] protected. When these things start to come out we’re going to see how the president responds. So I think we have a very rough time ahead of ourselves. There’s no sense talking about what I think will happen the year after or the year after that. I mean, ultimately I think our country has always been on upward spiral but it keeps having little shock waves and then has to regroup.

Sometimes it can be terrible like the Civil War. So I’m an optimist for America but I’m not necessarily an optimist for the next 12 months or 24 months but… I’m 85 so I don’t know how much I’ll see of it. But I have children, I have grandchildren, one of my grandsons, a college student, who was with me this week because he came down with college students from around the world to be marching for the environment. And I wish, of course, not only love but great opportunities for people like that.

Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is former Nixon and Eisenhower White House official Stephen Hess who…and the book is “Bit Player: My Life with Presidents and Ideas.” You can purchase it at or Mr. Hess, thank you so much for joining us.

Stephen Hess: A pleasure, Jonathan, I enjoyed talking with you.

Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at or on iTunes, Stitcher and SoundCloud. This is Jonathan Movroydis signing off.