A Lunch With Art Linkletter

During the 30th Annual Conservative Political Action Conference, HUMAN EVENTS Editor Terence P. Jeffrey sat down for a chat with United Seniors Association (USA) National Spokesman Art Linkletter and USA Chairman and CEO Charles Jarvis. Most Americans know Linkletter for his spectacular career as one of the nation’s best-loved broadcasters. His “People Are Funny” program ran on NBC television and radio for 19 years, while “House Party” ran on CBS TV and radio for 25 years. The latter won two Emmy Awards. Linkletter’s book, Kids Say the Darndest Things, was America’s top seller two years running and remains one of the 14 best-selling books in publishing history. But in addition to his career as an entertainer, Linkletter has also been active in public service and public policy. His most recent work with USA has focused on seniors’ issues from a free market perspective. In his conversation with HUMAN EVENTS he recalled his friendships with Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, talked about a recent visit with President Bush, and made a strong pitch for the Bush tax-cut proposal now before Congress. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation. HUMAN EVENTS: Most Americans know you for your tremendous career in broadcasting, but perhaps fewer are aware of your time in public service. Linkletter: My first real service was under President Nixon. He was a very dear friend of mine. I had never really dabbled in politics much, but Dick and I had met on many occasions at Disneyland. I remember once we were having dinner with Walt and Pat and Dick and Lois and myself. We were up in the Firehouse watching the fireworks and talking and Walt was standing there, with a little memo pad making notes. When it was over I said, “Gee what a great firework display you had there.” And Walt said, “Yeah, we had 23 stars, 14 fountains, 6-—We got everything we ordered.” HE: So Walt Disney kept very careful track of his business? Linkletter: Yes. But, anyway, Dick Nixon and I were very good friends. One time we were flying back in a private plane just before he started his [1968] campaign. He had just made a speech at the Bohemian Grove. He had stood at the lakeside there and had gone around the world, practically, with no notes, just going from country to country to country talking about the history and politics and religion and economics of the place. After it was over everyone said, “You’ve got to run for President!” So on the private plane flying back, I said to him, “You aren’t really going to run again? You never made any money, now you are making money. You’re a corporate lawyer. You’re having a ball. Remember what you told them: You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore!” “Well,” he says, “you make enough money so that you don’t have to go on doing television and talking to those kids and looking in ladies purses and things like that. You could live quite easier.” I said, “I love to do it.” He said, “Look, I know about being President. I’ve been there, I’ve been Vice President. And I want to do it.” I said, “Well, if you’re going run, you’re going to campaign. Let me give you some advice.” I said, “Dick, you know that at heart you’re an introvert. You’re a reclusive person and you’re not an extroverted speaker as I am, born to talk. So, when you speak, you are putting on a face that is not really yours and you’re not a natural born reader either. What you are naturally born to do is what you just did at the Grove: Just stand amongst some friends and talk about the world.” I said, “Now on television, you have to make speeches—because you’re going to be in big places. But for campaigning, as far as you can go, just have two or three friends sit at a table, no notes nothing and have the cameras pick you up talking, because then you’re funny, you’re witty, self-deprecating at times. There are a lot of things people never see about you, which is why we get along. So do that,” I said. When I came to the White House later, he introduced me at a big banquet as his secret speech reviser, not writer. He could be very frank and he could be charming, but only with a small group. The minute you got him out on a big pulpit, he was going to freeze down. HE: Well the advice must have had some impact because I believe Teddy White, in one of his books, marveled at the transformation of Nixon as a campaigner. Linkletter: Well, I was at least one of the people who helped him out there. When he was President, of course, I went and visited the White House. I especially remember the time after I lost my daughter, who committed suicide, that he invited me back to the White House. I slept in the Lincoln Bedroom. He showed me all over the White House personally. He even showed me the secret passages. HE: Really? Linkletter: Yes. HE: There are secret passages in the White House? Linkletter: You bet there are. You bet there are. HE: And Nixon knew them well? Linkletter: Yup. I think they had been built by the Kennedys. HE: Ah! Now what purpose would the Kennedys have for— Linkletter: I wonder. One of them I know was out of the Oval Office. As I recall it, if there was a Russian diplomat waiting there to see him if he went out the regular way, he could go out— HE: To evade the person? Linkletter: —and evade him. Then there was one that went upstairs to a bedroom and so forth. HE: These are all from the Oval Office? Linkletter: I don’t remember where they are now but around the place. Nixon knew I was madder than hell about drug abuse because I was starting a campaign that Norman Vincent Peale lured me into. He said, “You could make a memorial to your daughter. It’d be better than anything you could do. You could have an impact in the families, in the homes. People love you and believe in you. You’re part of the American family.” He said, “We have an epidemic of drug abuse that never has happened before in the history of the world. We’ve had drug epidemics before as the result of tragedies like civil wars where grownups turn to drugs to turn off the world. But here we have young people in America, who have more in life than any people who have ever lived before, but they want more. They want more excitement. They get into drugs.” And he said, “You need to help.” So I did that 10 or 12 years. I spoke at the United Nations. George Bush was the ambassador then and he let me speak before the secretary general on drug abuse. But then one morning I picked up the paper and some official of the Nixon Administration, who will remain nameless, had said that drug abuse was being overdrawn, that marijuana really wasn’t at all that bad, that it was like cigarette smoking. I was kind of fuming. So I went to see Nixon and I said, “Look what this guy says. Geez, look at that.” He read it, put the paper down, picked up the phone and he said to his secretary, “I want so and so out of the office. I want his papers out of the office. I want his name off the list, I want him gone.” And I said, “You know this might be a skewed report by a reporter, I mean I’ve seen a lot of bad stories.” So about a week later I was talking to, who were those two guys who— Charlie Jarvis: Ehrlichman and Haldeman? Linkletter: Both of them liked me because, unlike most people who came to the White House, I didn’t come for anything. I was not a threat. I didn’t want to be appointed anything. I was just a friend. I told them this story and they said, “Well he does that. He gets into those moods. We will just move that guy around a little while and he’ll be back someplace else where he’s not seen. We just kind of clean up the debris.” HE: But he probably didn’t talk to the press about marijuana anymore. Linkletter: No. That was my kind of introduction to politics. Then Nixon appointed me as a member of the first-ever anti-drug abuse commission. Sammy Davis was on it. Later, he appointed me also to the United States commission on reading, and I went to a lot of meetings. Further on I was appointed to George Allen’s commission on physical fitness and recreation. After I’ve been on three commissions, I would never be on another commission in my life. Cause nothing happens! All your meetings are put down and then put in a file someplace. HE: That’s why they have them. Linkletter: So you see, that was my introduction to the White House and politics here. It made me more determined than ever never to be in politics. HE: Never to be in politics? But not necessarily to divorce yourself from public policy? Linkletter: Reagan was different. Reagan and I were old friends. When Walt Disney asked me to open Disneyland and pick a couple of my chums so the four of us would do it, I picked Bob Cummings and Ronald Reagan because they were good friends of mine. They were both funny, and they were both good talkers, and so forth. So we did it. Jarvis: Which, by the way, has just been released as a DVD HE: Oh, I have to see that. Art Linkletter and Ronald Reagan opening Disneyland, live on national TV? Linkletter: Yeah, live on ABC. There is one part in it I would like to see because I say, “Ronnie come here.” And as he’s running over I say, “Davy Crockett should be over there.” And he says, “Okay,” and off he goes. I love that part. HE: So, you’re ordering the future President around? He’s taking your commands? Linkletter: Before he was really sick, I used to say, “You know, you remember that part?” And he says, “I’ve seen it.” Whenever I came to the White House, first thing he would always say to me was, “Art, got any stories for me, got any jokes for me?” We had a good time. HE: So you were friends with the two most prominent Republican politicians of the late 20th Century, both of whom came out of Southern California. Linkletter: Yeah. I remember after Nixon was elected I flew back from Sun Valley to do a big welcome-home dinner for him in Orange County, in Whittier. He says, “How would you like to be ambassador to Australia?” He knew I had a big sheep station down there. But I said, “Oh, no, I don’t want to be ambassador. I got too many things to do.” Strange to say, after Reagan was in, he nominated me to do double duty as ambassador to Australia and Commissioner General to the worlds fair in Brisbane representing the United States. So I took, belatedly, an ambassador’s job. HE: I think you have an interesting story about your confirmation process. Linkletter: They sent three guys over from the State Department to shepherd me through and to give me advice on how show business was likely to be crucified. But the senator running the committee said, “When I was a little boy at my mother’s knee, I used to watch your show. As far as I’m concerned you can be ambassador anywhere.” And that was it. But then one guy put his hand up down the row and he said, “I would like to ask one question. I’m looking at this file here. What is this thing about you working for KGB?” And I said, “It was KGB, the radio station in San Diego.” HE: Considering that confirmation process, you wouldn’t be interested in serving on the Supreme Court now, would you? Linkletter: No, I would not like to be on the Supreme Court. HE: So how did you get involved in seniors’ issues? Linkletter: I used to have a regular guest on one of my shows who was the head of the old age program at USC. He said, “Art, I wish you’d go with me on one of my trips to the retirement center and say hello to the old folks down there.” I said, “Yes, I’d like to do that.” So we flew down to Arizona, I was so charmed by these people that I began doing lectures and things. Later, I became president of the center on aging at UCLA. Finally, somebody called me from the United Seniors Association and said, “Would you be interested in doing some things for the United Seniors?” I said, “Yes, sounds interesting.” When Charlie Jarvis came along at USA the whole place exploded in activity. I recognized a fellow Alpha. HE: We now have a Republican Congress and a Republican President. What’s on USA’s agenda. Linkletter: Well, first, I know what Charlie’s doing. He’s building USA. We’ve got to keep building our fort—our base, our money, our influence. The more influence you have the more things you can get done. HE: You need to recruit grassroots members. So you would like HUMAN EVENTS subscribers to sign on with USA? Linkletter: If we had 5 million members we’d have just that more wack. The other side of it, of course, is we are developing financial support. HE: You really need the grassroots’ financial support? Jarvis: We do. Our focus is tax freedom, economic freedom, retirement investment freedom, and national freedom. HE: Under tax freedom, Charlie, I assume you are talking about, for example, getting rid of the death tax? Jarvis: Getting rid of the death tax, and lowering income tax rates. No tax on corporate dividends. I’d like to see the tax rates even lower than what the President is proposing now. But I think his plan is the place to start. HE: And you’re going to help President Bush fight for his tax-cut plan? Linkletter: Oh yes. We were both with the President yesterday afternoon for 15 minutes. They squeezed us in between the prime minister of Italy and the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia. HE: I bet he enjoyed his meeting with you more. Linkletter: Oh yeah, we had a lot of fun. In fact, I gave him a little examination. He said to me, “At 90 how do you do it?” I said, “Well a lot of ways. You can do it. Do you smoke?” He said, “No.” Then I went down a whole list of things. “How’s your diet? How’s your sleeping habits? I know you’re exercising, you’re walking and you’re running. How about you’re mental thing? The thing between your ears? How’s your sense of humor?” He says, “I get a few laughs out of life.” Your faith? And so forth. Finally I said, “Okay, I pronounce you an honorary old man.” HE: You ran him through the Linkletter longevity checklist. Linkletter: Yes, and I do that in my talks. HE: And the President passed it? Linkletter: He passed it very well. HE: Is United Seniors going to put a little leverage on Republican senators who look like they are going wobbly on the Bush tax cut? Jarvis: Yes. The last time, Art and I did ads together focusing specifically on senators who were waffling: Republican Senators Olympia Snowe [Maine], Susan Collins [Maine], Lincoln Chafee [R.I.] and the Democrat, Tim Johnson from South Dakota. In our ads, we had Art saying that tax cuts are not a partisan issue but an American issue, as he introduced quotes from President Kennedy talking about the benefits of cutting tax rates. HE: The Democrats’ argument against virtually every tax cut, but especially against the one the President is proposing to eliminate the double taxation of dividends and cut back the marginal income tax rates, is that these are tax cuts for the rich. You are a living example of the American dream that so many people aspire to. It is what you represent. How should Republicans rebut the Democrats’ argument? Linkletter: Well, to begin with I don’t think there is ever any excuse for taxing somebody on his dividends that he has already paid taxes on. That’s double taxation in its worst form. And now we have 1% of the people in the United States paying 36% of the taxes. So if 1% happens to get a bigger cut it’s just a matter of proportion. Most people need the money. A family of four that makes $40,000 now pays about $1,200 in income taxes, after Bush’s plan goes through it will be about $65 or so. Well, there are a lot of people in that $40,000 bracket. I happen to be a guy who has a reputation for two things, kids and old people. And we at USA say we are for four generations. We are for everybody’s great grandfather, grandfather, and father, and we are for the kids!