Youtube is a marvel. Each week preparing for my Jazz History Class, I discover another treasure. The most recent was a celebration of Duke Ellington’s 70thbirthday at the White House. The year was 1969, Richard Nixon was President and this was one of the first times that notable jazz musicians performed here. From the Whorehouse to the White House was the path of racial progress precisely in Duke Ellington’s lifetime.
Joining Duke were other luminaries like trumpeters Clark Terry and Dizzy Gillespie, pianists like Billy Taylor, Earl Hines and Dave Brubeck, Milt Hinton on bass, Louis Bellson on drums, Joe Williams singing and yet more. None of the black musicians had to come in through the back door, in fact where announced like royalty as they stepped from their cars. In various combinations of musicians, they played many of Duke’s signature tunes, took a break and had a snack—all together, blacks and whites eating food in the same room. When they came back, the floor had been cleared for dancing and the played some more, and some, like Duke, also danced.
Finally the moment came to award Edward Kennedy Ellington with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of all he did to bring happiness to people in the United States and the world at large. Nixon himself presented the award, with some elevated speech about the importance of what the award represents, Duke met the occasion with his own eloquent statement about the four freedoms—and then kissed Richard Nixon on the cheek. Four times! Nixon then went to the piano and played Happy Birthday while all sang along.
Now let me be clear. I have no love—and never had any love—for Richard Nixon. When he finally left the White House in disgrace, I was in a bar in San Francisco cheering. He was the President I protested against in my first anti-war demonstration in 1969. His involvement in Watergate felt like an outrage. He initiated the War on Drugs legislation that helped create the school to prison pipeline for young black men. His association with the McCarthy anti-Communist hearings back in the early 50’s did little to earn my respect.
But here he was honoring and kissing Duke Ellington! And talking about freedom and overcoming prejudice and honoring this American art form called jazz by bringing it into the White House and giving Duke the award. This was a different sort of human being altogether from the present incarnation of the Republican Party.
And then going to my trusty source (ie. Wikipedia) to re-gather some information, I found some other surprising sentences. (If this were a term paper or a public speech, yes, I would research more. But meanwhile it’s just interesting to read the following):
• In early 1957, Nixon undertook another major foreign trip, this time to Africa. On his return, he helped shepherd the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through Congress.
• In 1960, Nixon narrowly lost the election; Kennedy won the popular vote by only 112,827 votes (0.2 percent). There were charges of voter fraud in Texas and Illinois, both states won by Kennedy. Nixon refused to consider contesting the election, feeling a lengthy controversy would diminish the United States in the eyes of the world and the uncertainty would hurt U.S. interests. (Is our current Toddler-in-Chief reading this?)
• In his victory speech in 1968, Nixon pledged that his administration would try to bring the divided nation together. Nixon said: "I have received a very gracious message from the Vice President, congratulating me for winning the election. I congratulated him for his gallant and courageous fight against great odds. I also told him that I know exactly how he felt. I know how it feels to lose a close one."
• In his inaugural address, which received almost uniformly positive reviews, Nixon remarked that "the greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker"— a phrase that would later be placed on his gravestone. He spoke about turning partisan politics into a new age of unity:
“In these difficult years, America has suffered from a fever of words; from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver; from angry rhetoric that fans discontents into hatreds; from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading. We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another, until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.”
None of this casually excuses the bad decisions Nixon made, but it does paint a portrait of a more complex human being than Mr. T, gives a picture of a flawed man who did some honorable things, admitted mistakes (see the David Frost interview) and genuinely cared for his country beyond his own personal power. On his worst day, he was light years ahead of the narcissistic psychopath so many chose to define and represent our country on his best day. (And was there a best day?)
But despite Trump's predictable inability to concede, to congratulate the winner, to encourage unity, to consider how his actions diminish our national character, he’s heading out and there’s hope we can return to the worst amongst us at least having some of the qualities of the man who kissed Duke Ellington in the White House.
Now go watch for yourself and enjoy!: https://youtu.be/jW9PdAY8_D0