Captured Conversation

In his bestselling book, The Selling of the President, Joe McGinniss captured many conversations that seemed to reveal President Richard M. Nixon. In the following excerpt, Mr. Nixon has come to the Green Room of the White House to make a political (commercial) videotape.

He took his position on the front of the heavy brown desk. He liked to lean against a desk, or sit on the edge of one, while he taped commercials, because he felt this made him seem informal. There were about twenty people, technicians and advisors, gathered in a semi-circle around the cameras. Richard Nixon looked at them and frowned.

"Now when we start," he said, "don't have anybody who is not directly involved in this in my range of vision. So I don't go shifting my eyes."

"Yes, sir. All right, clear the stage. Everybody who's not actually doing something get off the stage, please. Get off the stage."

There was one man in the corner, taking pictures. His flash blinked several times in succession. Richard Nixon looked his direction. The man had been hired by the Nixon staff to take informal pictures throughout the campaign for historical purposes.

"Are they stills?" Richard Nixon said. "Are they our own stills? Well then, knock them off." He motioned with his arm. "Can them. We've already got so goddamned many stills already." Richard Nixon turned back toward the cameras.

"Now, when you give me the fifteen-second cue, give it to me right under the camera so I don't shift my eyes."

The entire chapter about the taping or filming of commercials showed the president trying to look his best, but McGinniss has included this captured conversation to illustrate Nixon's concern about his famously shifting eyeballs. Many advisers told him he must control those inadvertent shiftings because close-up camera shots magnify their shiftiness—and people tend to associate shifty eyeballs with "shifty" character. Note that McGinniss didn't write all this that I just wrote about shiftiness; he simply quoted Nixon. McGinniss did, however, select this particular conversation to report on, so apparently he did hope that his readers would pick up on that concern of the president.

"Nixon's Neighborhood," one of Paul Theroux's articles collected in Sunrise with Seamonsters, tells of Theroux's interviews with men and women in the streets of San Clemente, where Nixon resided when not at the White House. He asked them, among other things, about the book Mr. Nixon was writing.

The book was mentioned by many people I met in San Clemente. In southern California, a book is considered a mysterious thing, even by college students who gather on Nixon's beach to turn on. One of these, Martin Nelson ("I think Nixon's a real neat guy. If you could see his house you'd know it was a prime place"), majors in Ornamental Horticulture at Pasadena. He hopes to get an M.A. and possibly a Ph.D. in Ornamental Horticulture and become America's answer to Capability Brown. He spoke with awe about Nixon's book, so did Mr. Phillips, the security guard, and Brian Sardoz, the scuba diver, and Mrs. Dorothy Symms of San Clemente Secretarial Services, publisher of Fishcarts to Fiestas, the Story of San Clemente.

"I met the man who's writing Mr. Nixon's book," said Mrs. Symms.

I said, "Isn't Mr. Nixon writing the book?"

"No. There's a man doing it for him. He writes all the movie stars' books. He's a very famous writer. You say you're from England? Oh, this man wrote Winston Churchill's memoirs, too."

I imagine that Churchill's heirs would be surprised to learn from the author of Fishcarts to Fiestas that Winston had to rely on a ghost writer for his memoirs.

Gay Talese wrote "The Silent Season of a Hero" about the great baseball player, Joe DiMaggio. This excerpt comes from Fame and Obscurity, the book that presents many of Talese's excellent pieces about people who've come and gone. DiMaggio and several old pals are leaving a golf course to go to a banquet when Talese captures the following conversation:

Later, showered and dressed, DiMaggio and the others drove to a banquet about ten miles from the golf course. Somebody had said it was going to be an elegant dinner, but when they arrived they could see it was more like a country fair; farmers were gathered outside a big barn-like building, a candidate for sheriff was distributing leaflets at the front door, and a chorus of homely ladies were inside singing "You Are My Sunshine."

"How did we get sucked into this?" DiMaggio asked, talking out of the side of his mouth, as they approached the building.

"O'Doul," one of the men said. "It's his fault. Damned O'Doul can't turn anything down."

Soon DiMaggio and O'Doul and Ernie Nevers were surrounded by the crowd, and the woman who had been leading the chorus came rushing over and said, "Oh, Mr. DiMaggio, it certainly is a pleasure having you."

"It's a pleasure being here, ma'am," he said, forcing a smile.

"It's too bad you didn't arrive a moment sooner, or you'd have heard our singing."

"Oh, I heard it," he said, "and I enjoyed it very much."

"Good, good," she said. "And how are your brothers Dom and Vic?"

"Fine. Dom lives near Boston. Vince is in Pittsburgh."

"Why, hello there, Joe," interrupted a man with wine on his breath, patting DiMaggio on the back, feeling his arm.

"Who's gonna take it this year, Joe?"

Talese does a fine job setting the scene for us and then simply records what he heard of several conversations, all of which add up to banality, but he does not tell us that this is all banal. His simple, straightforward description put me right in step with this small group approaching the barn. Until he told me that Joe had said something out of the side of his mouth, I was up in a tree watching the scene of the men approaching, but as soon as he told me how it was said, I was right down there close—involved. Although Talese slipped out of the objective gear and into the subjective when he told me that Joe smiled and claimed he'd enjoyed the ladies' rendition of "You Are My Sunshine," I loved it. When he added that Joe was forcing a smile, of course, he stopped objective reporting and began subjective reporting. A subtle example of the fine line that sometimes divides the two.

Michael Herr's "Khesanh," as collected in Tom Wolfe's The New Journalism, gives us some of the most involving writing ever done about the Vietnam War. He's writing this excerpt about a U.S. Marine nicknamed Day Tripper (because of his hatred for the night hours and his desire to get everything done during the safer daylight hours) who keeps excellent mental records of the days, hours, minutes, and seconds he has left to serve.

[Day Tripper] had assumed that correspondents in Vietnam had to be there. When he learned that I had asked to come here he almost let the peaches drop on the ground. "Lemmee... lemmee jus' hang on that a minute," he said. "You mean you doan' have to be here? An' you're here?" I nodded.

"Well, they gotta be paying you some tough bread."

"You'd be depressed if I told you."

He shook his head.

"I mean, they ain' got the bread that'd get me here if I didn't have t'be here."

"Horse crap," Mayhew said. "Day Tripper loves it. He's short now, but he's comin' back, ain't you Day Tripper?"

"Shit, my momma'll come over here and pull a tour before I fuckin' come back."

Four more marines dropped into the pit.

"Where's Evans?" Mayhew demanded.

"Any of you guys know Evans?"

One of the mortarmen came over.

"Evans is over in Danang," he said. "He caught a little shit the other night."

"That right?" Mayhew said. "Evans get wounded?"

"He hurt bad?" Day Tripper said.

"Took some stuff in the legs. Nothing busted. He'll be back in ten days."

"That ain't bad enough, then," Day Tripper said.

"No," Mayhew said. "But ten days, sheeit, that's better'n nothin'."

As a writer, try to imagine getting across through straight explanatory reporting all the attitudes and feelings that come across so vividly in that conversation among men at the front. Try writing, for example, a summary explanatory paragraph that gets across what's expressed in the final three lines of that captured conversation. It could be done, but it would lack the vividness, the believability that those three lines possess. This is captured conversation. These are not abstract thoughts; these ring of the real.

Back across the Pacific, we read of the horrors of fighting the battles of Hollywood filmmaking. Gay Talese wrote a chapter called "The Soft Psyche of Joshua Logan" in his book The Overreachers. It's a scene that couldn't be more different from the scene in Vietnam, yet the same technique of letting straight captured conversation tell the story works just as well here.

Now he was back in the dark theatre, the lights of the stage beaming on the actors going through a scene in the garden of their Louisiana shack; Claudia McNeil's voice was now softer because she had had a touch of laryngitis a few days before. But at the end of the scene, she raised her voice to its full power, and Logan, in a pleasant tone, said, "Don't strain your voice, Claudia."

She did not respond, only whispered to another actor on stage.

"Don't raise your voice, Claudia," Logan repeated.

She again ignored him.

"Claudia!" Logan yelled, "don't you give me that actor's revenge, Claudia."

"Yes, Mr. Logan," she said with a soft sarcastic edge.

"I've had enough of this today, Claudia."

"And stop Yes-Mr. Logan-ing me."

"You're a shocking, rude woman!"

"You're being a beast."

"Yes, Miss Beast."

"Yes, Miss Beast!"

Suddenly, Claudia McNeil stopped. It dawned on her that he was calling her a beast; now her face was grey and her eyes were cold, and her voice almost solemn as she said, "You.. .called... me.. .out.. .of.. .my.. .name!"

"Oh, God!" Logan smacked his forehead with his hand.

It would be difficult to invent for a fictional story such a petulant conversation. We enjoy it particularly here because we know that it was not "created" by this creative writer of nonfiction but was simply captured at the moment it occurred.

One of the best ways to show the inefficiency, the stupidity, or the absurdity of an institution is to accurately quote its staff as it deals with its public. James Michener does this extremely effectively in the following excerpt from Iberia, his study of Portugal and Spain. Merely describing in narrative form the situation shown here could not begin to achieve the reality we feel as we listen to this captured conversation. We have all faced such Catch-22 situations in our lives. Michener jogs our memories and we bring them to bear on our reading of this passage.

In Badajoz I also learned something about the government of Spain. At the post office I purchased ten air-letter forms and paid six pesetas (ten cents) each for them. I went back to the cathedral plaza and spent most of one morning writing ten letters, a job I find difficult, for words do not come easily to me. The next day I took the ten letters to the post office to mail but a clerk refused them, saying, "The price of air-letters went up this morning from six pesetas to ten."

"All right. Give me ten four-peseta stamps and I'll stick them on the letters."

"We can't do that, sir, because it states very clearly on the form that if anything whatever is enclosed in the form or added to it, it will be sent by regular post."

"Then let me give you the difference, and you can stamp them as having ten pesetas."

"There is no provision for that, sir."

"Then what can I do? Mail them as they are and let them go regular mail?"

"No, because they're no longer legal. They've been declassified."

"It took me a long time to write these letters. How can I mail them?"

"Take each one. Place it inside an airmail envelope. Readdress the envelope and place twelve pesetas' worth of stamp in the corner and mail it as a regular air-mail letter."

This I did, and the letters were delivered in various countries, but I was so astounded by the procedure that I called upon a high government official to ask how such a thing could happen. His answer was revealing. "The clerk did right. The forms you bought were valid yesterday. Today they're not. Each form states clearly that nothing may be added, so there was no way to mail the old forms."

Note that Michener simply reported the conversation. He did not tell us in between the pieces of dialog just how the clerk said the words, nor how Michener could feel his blood pressure rising. He left all that to the reader's memory of similar, frustrating experiences to fill in the physical and other feelings probably going on at the time. The only direct clues we get about his feelings on the matter are that he did then to go a higher-up government official—and he uses the simple word "astounded"—which gives us a clue to the tenor of that second conversation.

C. D. B. Bryan's book Friendly Fire, about the Vietnam War and the effect of a son's death upon a family, quotes many people, sometimes to great dramatic effect. Chapter 6 of that book ends with a captured conversation that leaves an impression on the reader more lasting than any summary statement about the awful nature of war and the loss of sons. Peg and Gene Mullen have recently lost their son, Michael, in Vietnam and are shown here visiting a woman who has lost a son in Vietnam on the same day that Michael was killed. They hope to comfort her by sharing their thoughts with her, as they have with other distraught mothers and fathers who have suffered the loss of sons in Vietnam.

The Mullens followed the man along the dirt section roads, zigged and zagged until they finally reached a dilapidated and paint-peeled farmhouse and a broken-down farm. When Peg and Gene came up to the door, the woman invited them in right away. The Mullens explained why they had come, that Michael had died on the same day as their son, and Peg noticed that here, too, no one had visited or brought food. The mother thanked and thanked them for coming, explained that she was on welfare, and it had been very hard on them lately, but she hoped things would be better. "You know, Mrs. Mullen"—the woman sighed—"this was the third of my sons to go to Vietnam."

"Your third?" Peg asked.

"I have seven sons," she explained, "and I prayed the first two out of the war, but when they drafted my third son, I was so discouraged____He was my best son, mentally, physically, in every way, and when they drafted him, too, well I kind of lost faith in God. I guess I couldn't pray hard enough to pray him back home. But," she said, smiling bravely," the draft board is so kind. When I went to visit with them, they told me they would only draft five of my sons for Vietnam."

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