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The Nixon letter I can't forget

It happened 31 years ago, but I remember the conversation like it was yesterday.I sat on one side of ...

Posted: Jan 4, 2019 3:29 AM
Updated: Jan 4, 2019 3:30 AM

It happened 31 years ago, but I remember the conversation like it was yesterday.

I sat on one side of the oval kitchen table inside the back door of 8919 Crefeld Street, Philadelphia, home of Frank and Carmella Rizzo. We were just days removed from the bruising 1987 mayoral general election, a crushing defeat for Rizzo at the hands of W. Wilson Goode, and emotions were still raw. I was then visiting the house on a daily basis, akin to sitting shiva. Except to walk his dog, which we often did together, the burly former mayor did not leave his home.

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Instead, he would sit with his back to a bay window next to a sill. On it sat a yellow push button phone with several lines that often illuminated. Friends and supporters were still calling with election condolences. Mrs. Rizzo would dutifully fill our coffee cups and then leave the two of us alone. I was a 25-year-old recent law school graduate who had just served as political director of the ill-fated campaign and was about to learn that I'd passed the bar in the midst of the election. I was unmarried, unemployed and unsure of my future.

The only certainty was my continued devotion to Frank Rizzo, and even in defeat there was nowhere I would rather have been. Rizzo was then 47 years my senior, a political legend, albeit controversial, who had famously risen from patrolman to police commissioner, and then been twice elected mayor of what was the nation's fourth-largest city.

Rizzo had governed as a Democrat but after losing to Goode in a 1983 Democratic primary, had switched to the GOP so as to ensure their 1987 rematch would be waged in a general election. To working-class whites, he was a protector of their values. To urban blacks, he was perceived as insensitive, or worse.

One day, with just the two of us present, the mayor told me he had something special to share. A letter. Handwritten. Personal. From his friend, former President Richard Nixon. Rizzo retrieved the letter from a nearby room and brought it to the kitchen table and handed it to me in a deliberate way that let me know he regarded it as something of great value. I read the words to myself and was touched by them, so much so that I have remembered and quoted them often in the intervening years.

"When you win you hear from everyone; when you lose you hear from your friends. Count me in the latter category."

Months after Rizzo showed me the letter, we had a very public falling out over which of the two of us would be the chairman of the 1988 George H.W. Bush presidential campaign in Philadelphia. The split came just after Rizzo agreed to accompany me to a private dinner at the Union League of Philadelphia where -- ironically -- President Nixon would be speaking.

This would have been Rizzo's first public appearance since the election loss. But just days in advance of the dinner, after our seating at Nixon's table had been confirmed, Rizzo told me on the phone that he would not attend, saying "f--k you and your Nixon dinner" before hanging up. Not only didn't we go to the Nixon dinner, we didn't speak for three years, and only repaired our relationship just before his passing.

Frank Rizzo died on July 16, 1991. The morning that he passed, his office called with word that he wanted to see me. I'd been recently appointed to a position in the Bush administration (41 had been elected without either of us serving as his campaign chair).

Rizzo was himself running again for mayor and had recently won an improbable victory in a three-way Republican primary. He was now about to face Democrat Ed Rendell in the general election. Early in the afternoon, just moments before I arrived for my appointment at his office at 1528 Walnut Street, he collapsed.

I learned this news when entering the office suite and together with a friend and campaign aide, Bob Kutler, we greeted the paramedics at street level and then escorted them on the elevator. When we told them who they were about to treat, they were initially disbelieving.

The sale

Carmella Rizzo would live another 27 years before finally passing at age 101 in July 2018. Soon afterward, the Rizzo children, Frank Jr. and Joanna, decided to sell all the contents of 8919 Crefeld Street to prepare for a sale of the home itself.

Advance word of the three-day event was itself a big, local news story. The first day of the sale was Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. I could not attend because I was preparing for my Saturday morning CNN program. One friend, William F. McLaughlin, Jr., was among the first through the door and gave me several colorful accounts of the scene.

He himself acquired a special sign referencing the home Rizzo controversially built but never moved into on Summit Lane in Roxborough, four American flags and a cigar ashtray that McLaughlin wanted me to have. The sale attracted hundreds of buyers and curiosity-seekers. People paid between $1,250 and $1,500 for Rizzo police billy clubs. Someone spent $5,000 for one of his single-digit license plates. A Rolodex commanded $2,500.

With my middle son, Wilson, I visited on day two, mostly to take one last look at the interior of the house, the kitchen in particular. The décor was just as I remembered, unchanged from three decades prior. The table where we'd sat so many times was itself for sale for $750. (I'd have bought it out of a sense of nostalgia, only I knew the reaction I'd have gotten at my own home.)

I nevertheless enjoyed reminiscing with Frank Rizzo Jr., who was watching with astonishment as hordes of people continued to traipse through his family home. Another friend was present while I was there, veteran criminal defense attorney William J. Brennan, jealously guarding an SUV full of memorabilia he'd purchased, including a Rizzo fedora and walking stick, the former of which he told me he hoped Rizzo was wearing during the famous "crumb bum" exchange with television reporter Stan Bohrman. And when the sale ended, another 20 boxes of ephemera were reportedly found in the attic, including Rizzo's passports and more Rolodexes.

By the time I got to Crefeld Street that Saturday, the most prized items had already been sold. I learned that the first few people in the door on the first day of the sale acquired some special things, including signed photographs sent to Rizzo by J. Edgar Hoover and Nixon, and a handwritten letter from Nixon to Rizzo. The text of the letter was exactly as I recalled.

"Dear Frank:

I have learned that when you win you hear from everybody; when you lose you hear from your friends. Count me in the latter category.

You fought a great fight against heavy odds. The pollsters - with their landslide predictions -- hurt you badly.

You have many good years left. Keep the faith-

Sincerely,

RN"

The letter I remembered so well and had quoted so often had been sold to one of the first attendees of the estate sale for $2,000. I was disappointed and wanted to own it. Soon after the sale ended, I contacted John Romani from the auction firm, Sales by Helen, to ask if he would put me in contact with the purchaser. He graciously agreed.

Charles "Chuck" Bentham, a retired Philadelphia homicide detective-turned-private investigator (who also once investigated the famous murder of Carol Neulander on behalf of Camden County, New Jersey, which resulted in the conviction of her husband, Fred) was that lucky person. Bentham had a great personal affinity for Rizzo stemming from his own days as a cop.

He'd been present when the mayor famously broke his hip at the 1975 Atlantic-Richfield oil refinery fire and had helped load the mayor onto a stretcher that night. Bentham had acquired a number of items at the sale besides the Nixon letter, including a spectacular coffee table specially made for Rizzo by inmates serving life terms at Graterford Prison. Bentham readily took my call and after a few days of deliberation, said he was willing to sell the Nixon letter to me for what he'd paid, due to my personal connection with the artifact.

Just one problem

There was just one problem: The letter was dated May 18, 1983. That was one day after Rizzo lost a Democratic primary to W. Wilson Goode -- four years before the 1987 race on which I worked. The corresponding 20- cent stamped envelope bore the date May 19, 1983, which confirmed that Nixon sent this letter to Rizzo immediately after Rizzo lost the primary in 1983, not after the general election loss in 1987. That didn't jibe with my memory.

In 1983, I was an undergraduate at Lehigh University. And although that spring I did drive to Philadelphia to attend Rizzo's final, election eve rally outside his childhood home at Rosewood and Ritner Streets in South Philadelphia, I had nothing formal to do with that campaign and was certainly not in his house in the days immediately after.

The date discrepancy hit me hard and made me seriously question my memory. If asked, I'd have given sworn testimony as to the events as I've described. I've always told the same version of the story and consistently quoted the letter verbatim.

As one who himself lost an election, Nixon's words resonated with me. I did not embellish that in a poignant moment with just the two of us present in his kitchen in 1987, Frank Rizzo showed me a handwritten letter he'd recently received from Richard Nixon. But the date on the letter was at odds with my recollection. If this event didn't occur as I recalled, what else in my memory and repertoire of well -worn stories was inaccurate?

There is no chance that Rizzo misrepresented the date of the letter when showing it to me in 1987. That's not who he was and besides, the date is plainly evident in the upper right-hand corner of the letter, which I would have seen. So I am left with two possibilities: 1) that I misremembered critical facts -- namely that in 1987, Rizzo showed me an "old" letter from Nixon dated 1983; or 2) there was a second, similar, 1987 version of the 1983 letter. Could it be that Nixon's standard patter in consoling friends who lost elections was to tell them "when you win you hear from everybody; when you lose you hear from your friends."

I decided to investigate that possibility.

'A fun question'

Two heads of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California (where I have visited) have been guests on my SiriusXM radio program. The most recent was historian Tim Naftali, who is now teaching at NYU. By email, I shared with him the short version of this story and asked whether he knew if Nixon used standard verbiage to friends who lost elections. His reply:

"What a fun question...

As you know he was a big fan of Rizzo's, so it is also plausible that he wrote him twice. Moreover Nixon had his favorite cliches--"keep the faith"--so I would not doubt he wrote Rizzo duplicative handwritten messages."

Now knowing that Nixon was prone to using favorite clichés, I next wrote to Michael Ellzey, the current director of the Nixon library and museum. He immediately promised to have his "crack research team to weigh in."

Soon thereafter, I heard from Jason Schultz, the supervisory archivist:

Michael,

Through an internet search I was able to find a number of articles which not only mentioned such language from Richard Nixon, but one which also quotes him as saying, "I have often said that when you win, you hear from everyone -- when you lose, you hear from your friends." The examples below show that contacting the loser in political races was often on his mind.

"Let me tell you," Nixon continues, "I've lost a few and you don't get many calls when you lose."

"In politics, you find that when you win, you hear from everyone; when you lose, you hear from your friends."

"And that brings me to a personal note referring to everybody here. I have had, as you know, some political ups and downs during my 27 years in politics, and I have known times when I wondered if I had very many friends. And every man or woman who has been in politics knows that when you win, they are all your friends, and when you lose, it is pretty had to find them, except when you lose and they are still there, they are the real friends."

So it was Nixon's custom to say to others what he said to Rizzo in the 1983 handwritten letter. Did he write it again, in 1987? Was there a second letter also handwritten by Nixon, similarly saying, "When you win you hear from everyone...."? Both John Romani and Frank Rizzo Jr. assured me they had no knowledge of a handwritten, 1987 letter from Nixon to Rizzo. But nor do they have a typewritten letter after the 1987 election and you'd think it likely that there was some kind of communication from Nixon after Rizzo's general-election loss.

After all, Nixon was still alive (he didn't pass until 1994) and when Rizzo died in 1991, Nixon sent Mrs. Rizzo a typed condolence letter. I know. I bought it from Romani. It was among the items discovered after the estate sale. And I also acquired condolence letters sent to Mrs. Rizzo from President George H. W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle.

As for the 1983 letter, I bought that, too, from Chuck Bentham, who graciously sold it to me for what he paid, asking only that I give him first option to buy it back should I ever decide to sell. (I readily agreed, but asked for a similar pledge concerning his Graterford coffee table.) No matter how fallible my memory might be, nor the possibility that another letter was sent, I can't imagine anyone else will have my affinity for the document.

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