Grandpa Dick was the greatest, and everybody loved him. Except for when they didn’t. The whole Watergate thing. I guess his approval ratings were pretty low for a while. But after all that — after he left the White House and played some golf in California — everything was better. He was probably the best grandpa a kid could ever have.
At family reunions, Grandpa Dick was always the one cracking jokes and making everyone feel right at home. Most of the reunions involved parents bragging about how smart their kids were, blah, blah, blah. But then, one of us “smart kids” would do something really dumb that would make our parents blush. Once, my four-year old cousin Matt accidentally flashed all the grown-ups his private parts. Another time my cousin Amelia fed the dog a piece of chocolate cake, even though chocolate’s poison for dogs. I screwed up once, running through the screen door during a game of tag.
Every time one of these minor tragedies occurred, we’d look to Grandpa Dick for guidance. After assessing the situation he’d fold his hands and say “Mistakes were made.” Everyone would laugh and cheer until the Secret Service whispered that it was time for him to go.
* * * * *
We were a big family, so it was hard to get face time with Grandpa. Sometimes we’d have to schedule appointments through his secretary.
“Oh, I’m sorry Danny, your grandpa has a meeting with a United Nations delegation that day. How’s your Friday?”
I told her my Friday looked good, but I’d have to check with Mom.
Everyone always said I was Grandpa Dick’s spitting image. “Got that politician’s nose and everything,” one of my uncles joked. I could never figure out why it was funny.
Grandpa Dick liked me about as much as I liked him. One time, while we were wandering around the backyard looking at bugs, he asked, “Danny, you got any interest in politics?”
“Maybe.” I shrugged. “Should I?”
“Well, I really can’t say. Politics would be a darn good business if it weren’t for the goddamned people.”
“The goddamned people,” I repeated.
“Watch that mouth of yours,” he warned. “Words have never been kind to the Nixons.”
* * * * *
I decided to run for fourth grade class president. Not because presidential elections ran in our family, but because I didn’t want Missy Hargrove to win. Missy had cheated on her spelling test — she wrote the words on her forearms. I didn’t want a cheater telling me what to bring in for the bake sale.
I announced my candidacy one day in the middle of science class. Mrs. Burgland was teaching us about tornadoes, and how if you put some salt in a glass of water and stir it really fast, you can create a miniature tornado right there in the glass. “Any questions?”
I raised my hand.
I stood on my chair, facing my classmates. Just like Grandpa Dick and I had practiced, I said, “I would like to take this opportunity to formally announce my candidacy for fourth grade class president.” I flashed two peace signs in the air, and waited for the class to cheer.
“Thank you, Danny,” Mrs. Burgland said. “Does anyone have any questions related to tornadoes?”
I returned to my seat.
Nobody had any questions.
I turned to Missy Hargrove, who stuck out her tongue at me. I flipped her the bird. Later, when I told my grandfather, he smiled proudly. “Hell, I invented the bird. Go ask Hubert Humphrey.”
* * * * *
The first and only time I made the mistake of asking Grandpa about Watergate? He chuckled. “Well, I’ll tell you one thing, it’s a subpar hotel and the security’s far too lax.”
I’d picked up the rest of the story in bits and pieces. Something about burglars, something about Grandpa knowing what the burglars were up to, and not calling the police. I don’t know exactly. All I knew for sure was that I wasn’t to use the words “water” and “gate” in the same sentence if it could be avoided.
I was always careful about what I did say around him. When I told him this, he patted my shoulder. “Good boy, Danny. You never know when you’re being recorded.”
* * * * *
One afternoon, Grandpa and I sat in his office and plotted a strategy to defeat Missy Hargrove in the election. “She a liberal?”
I didn’t know for sure.
“Where’s she stand on nuclear proliferation?”
“What’s her take on foreign policy?”
“Okay, Danny.” Grandpa Dick leaned forward. “Here’s the real question. What kind of dirt you got on her? Any affairs? Drug use? She pay her taxes on time?”
He was asking a lot of things I didn’t know the answers to.
“Don’t worry, kid. I know some guys. I’ll have them look into it. See what they can scrounge up.”
“You’re the best, Grandpa!” I cried, hugging him.
“I don’t know about all that,” he chuckled and shook his head. “Some might beg to differ.”
* * * * *
A few days later, Grandpa’s secretary called, asking me to pencil him in for the afternoon. “Are you free, Danny?” she asked. I said except for setting the table, yes, I was pretty much free.
The class election was two weeks off, and I spent the afternoon painting signs and pressing buttons until Grandpa Dick wandered into my room and left his Secret Service men in the hallway.
“There’s the next president of the fourth grade,” he smiled, and I jumped up to hug him. He sat me down on the bed beside him and whispered, “This place isn’t bugged, is it?”
“No, I don’t think so.” And then, as an afterthought: “What do you mean ‘bugged?'”
He leaned forward, whispering: “Now look, I got some information on this Missy Hargrove character. Turns out her mother’s pretty much running the whole show. One of those types. Sounds like a puppet government if I ever saw one. And I’ve seen ’em. Hell, Castro couldn’t even go to the bathroom unless the Soviet Union put the nickel in the toilet. You understand what I’m saying?”
I nodded yes because it seemed to be what he wanted. “So what do we do?”
“Don’t worry about it. I have some guys. You just leave it up to me.”
I beamed. “You’re the best, Grandpa.”
He shrugged. “All I ask is that when you take office, you just remember where we stand on tax cuts, okay?”
I nodded solemnly, though I’d already forgotten where we stood on that particular issue.
* * * * *
The news reported it as an “attempted kidnapping.” Grandpa brushed it off, saying that the liberal media was always trying to sensationalize everything.
“Did we take her anywhere? Of course not. Hell, she wouldn’t even get into the back of the damn car for crying out loud. She was a real fighter, I’ll give her that.”
Still, the police began searching for the black Lincoln Continental with tinted windows that had tried to abduct Missy Hargrove. Grandpa had to lay low for a while.
“Better safe than sorry,” he told me during a phone conversation. “Hey, is this a safe line, kid?”
“Safe?” I asked.
“Now listen, it’s time to activate Plan B.”
“What’s Plan B?” I asked.
“Drag her name through the mud a couple of times. Tell your class she had an abortion or something. Something pretty standard. Something that’ll make it nearly impossible for them to vote for her.”
So I did that.
I painted a banner that stretched from one side of the classroom to the other, and on it, in green block letters, I wrote: Missy Hargrove Had A Bortion.
No one knew quite what to make of it, except for Mrs. Burgland who told me that if I said anything else “not nice” about Missy then I’d be disqualified from the election.
I stewed for most of the morning. When I reported the threat to Grandpa Dick, he said, “Who died and made her the election board? We can appeal that, no problem. I know some guys…”
“What’s the point?” I grumbled and crossed my arms. “Everyone likes Missy more, anyway. They’re all going to vote for her.”
“Hey, what’s gotten into you?” Grandpa gripped me by the shoulders. “You call yourself a Nixon? I want you to think back to why you got into this race to begin with.”
I mumbled something about her cheating on the spelling test.
“Damn right,” Grandpa Dick nodded. “You’re damn right. And did you cheat on that test, Danny?”
I shook my head.
“So you’ve got the moral high ground here, kid. You got to exploit that.”
“Even though you tried to kidnap her?” I asked.
“Attempted kidnapping?” He rolled his eyes. “Let’s see them try to prove that in a court of law.”
“And even though I said she had a bortion?”
“Abortion,” Grandpa corrected, “and maybe she did. We can’t say for sure one way or the other. We’re not doctors.”
Sighing, Grandpa said, “I want you to repeat after me: I am not a crook.”
“I am not a crook.”
“Louder this time. I am not a crook.”
“I am not a crook!”
“Good. Again: I am not a crook!”
“I am not a crook!”
“See? Don’t you feel a whole lot better?”
I did feel sort of better.
* * * * *
Missy Hargrove won the election by a landslide. I received two votes, and I’d traded my pudding cup and fruit snacks just to squeak by with those.
After Mrs. Burgland announced the results tears welled in my eyes, and even after she said, “Let’s give a big hand for both our candidates,” I still flipped my desk and tossed books across the classroom.
“You won’t have Danny to kick around any more!” I wailed, stomping to the door and running into the hallway.
Grandpa was waiting for me there, collecting me in his arms as I tried to stomp past him. “Hey there, kid. Relax. This is small potatoes anyway. Save the win for your congressional bid, huh?”
I nodded, still weeping. I didn’t like feeling so young.
“Hey,” Grandpa continued, “at least you know you lost it fair and square. It was a good, clean campaign from start to finish.” He handed me a tissue. “Here. Wipe that Nixon nose. It doesn’t play well on television.”
I didn’t mean to cry in front of him like that, but I couldn’t help it. He looked so old kneeling there before me, his hands shaking and tiny brown spots splotched on his forehead. His lips appeared chapped and sweat gathered in the place between his nose and his upper lip.
“Who knows, maybe Missy did you a favor today,” he announced. “Because I’m telling you, kid, once you get into the great stream of history, you can’t get out again. Understand that?”
I didn’t, but I said I did.
“Trust me, that Missy Hargrove doesn’t have the guts for it, I can smell it. She’ll be a one-termer, a lame duck by the spring. And what the hell was her platform anyway? Longer recess, wasn’t it? Hell, it’s a poor issue and the voters will forget. They always forget, Danny.”
“I know, Grandpa.”
“Oh, you know that, huh?” he laughed. I nodded.
He put his hands on his knees and steadied himself as he stood. “So here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to march back into that room and you’re going to shake Missy Hargrove’s hand, and you’re going to give a short but sweet concession speech, you got that? And then you’re going to thank the voters.”
“Is that when I wave the peace signs in the air?” I asked. “Like you?”
“Those weren’t peace signs, Danny. Those were v’s. V’s for victory.”
“But…I didn’t win.”
He laughed. “Sometimes you win just by getting out.”
He pointed me toward the doorway to the classroom, and I did what he told me to do. I shook Missy’s hand, and I thanked the voters. And after picking up all the books I’d thrown, I thrust both hands in the air victoriously, tears streaming, trying hard to remember to smile.