‘Three Presidents’

Volume 119, No. 1January, 2019

Andrew Schulman

“People are talking but I can tell you’re very good.” The man was in his 70s, wearing a gray suit, average height and build, well-coiffed hair turned gray. He was standing about ten feet from where I sat playing my guitar, arms folded against his chest, head tilted slightly forward and to the left accentuating his jowls. It would have been a perfect Richard Nixon impression, especially with the slight shake of the head on the word “tell,” except for one thing: he was Richard Nixon.

It was the evening of Dec. 20, 1989 and I was sitting in a corner of the living room in his daughter Tricia’s Manhattan apartment. Her Christmas party was about to begin and she and her husband were in the foyer greeting guests as they arrived. Her father was the only person in the room with me at that moment. He walked toward me, standing now just a couple of feet away. Automatically, without thinking, I said, “It’s an honor to meet you, sir.” As the words left my lips I felt a shock to my system and thought, “Did I just say that? Really? Really!?!” To put it mildly, I was not an admirer of Richard Nixon. I cheered his resignation as buoyantly as anyone else. It was later on that I figured out why I reacted that way. But in the moment, I grinned wide and said, knowing he played piano and liked Scott Joplin’s music, “Stick around and I’ll play some Scott Joplin for you.” Instantly, the smile froze on his face, in much the same way it had in a news conference I recalled watching on TV when journalist Dan Rather had challenged him. I remembered reading that he was a very formal man and my very informal comment was clearly a mistake. I figured he’d just walk away. Then I saw something I’ll never forget. The frozen expression held for about five seconds, then, with what seemed to be great effort, he did a quick headshake, tilted his head back, and with a renewed smile said, “Well…O.K.!”

For the next hour, the 37th president of the United States stood just to my right and held court. I recognized a number of the 40 or so guests: William Simon, his secretary of the treasury in 1974; William Colby, former director of the CIA, appointed in 1973; and some others. (I’d recently played a concert accompanying harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler at Colby’s house in D.C. but that’s a story for another time.)

Adding to the drama was that the party took place on the day we invaded Panama to overthrow military dictator Manuel Noriega. So, for one of only two times in my career as a musician, I went on automatic pilot and let my hands do all the work, listening to every word said during the next hour.

Later that night I reflected on why I responded to him at first as I did. It wasn’t because he was famous, or infamous as it were – far from it. A fringe benefit of being a professional musician in New York City is playing often for the famous/infamous crowd. I realized that what I felt was pity: somewhat for him, but much more so for us, for our nation. Nixon was a highly intelligent man. As much as he’d done really terrible things, he’d also done some good things. No less than Tom Wicker, the eminent New York Times journalist and columnist, who had a prime place on Nixon’s “enemies list,” later wrote a book pointing out some of those good things Nixon had done, primarily in domestic policy. Nixon was responsible for the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency and established the first Earth Day. He was also a strong advocate for education and other things that make America great. They don’t come close to outweighing the bad stuff, but they are there.

Eight years later, in December 1997, I played for another president. This time it was Bill Clinton and this time it was in the White House. I led my string quintet, the Abaca String Band with my wife Wendy Saivetz on vocals, in a performance in the East Room – part of the long history of holiday entertainment there. That performance happened because I wrote a letter to Clinton. In the letter I told him he “owed” me a gig at the White House because one morning in October 1992 I’d volunteered to hand out campaign flyers for him at the 86th Street subway station. I claimed that except for him I’d never gotten up at the “unmusicianly hour of 7 a.m.” to volunteer for anyone. I invoked “raw politics.” It was time for “payback.” My intention was to get him (or some assistant) to laugh so hard that they’d listen to the CD I’d sent. It worked. A few weeks later I received an invitation from the White House social secretary to perform at one of the holiday events.

At the end of that evening I felt proud about playing at the White House. And I felt very good about something else. I’d seen a number of very pretty interns that night, and was proud of my boy Bill for behaving himself given all the allegations surrounding him during the campaign about sexual misconduct. There hadn’t been a hint of sexual scandal since his inauguration in 1993.

A month later Bill held a special press conference and uttered a line that will live in infamy forever: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!” So much for my being proud of his self-control.

I was invited back to the White House in December 1999 as a soloist to play for the traditional Candlelight Tour, a full year after Clinton had been impeached. And by this time, Clinton being the “people person” he was, I’d had several letters back and forth with him. They were personal notes on the small White House stationery with the special ink that bleeds through the back of the paper to prove it wasn’t a stamp of his signature. The letters were about music and dogs (my dad played the saxophone, and we are both partial to Labrador retrievers). All good memories.

Both Nixon and Clinton were not only known for loving music, they were also amateur musicians. Nixon played the piano, Clinton the saxophone. Music making was a strong connection I felt to both of them, something that gave me an opening to seeing the person, not just the politician.

The third president in this story wasn’t in office yet at the time of the performance. And Donald Trump doesn’t play music as far as I know, nor does he connect with music in any noticeable way.

The N.Y. Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner took place at the New York Hilton, on Sept. 29, 2001, a few weeks after 9/11. I was hired – and yes, under a union contract – to play during the dinner. I was positioned a few feet away from Hefner’s table, where he was seated with eight voluptuous Playmates. (That was the second time in my career when I played on automatic pilot – I simply couldn’t take my eyes off Hugh Hefner.)

At one point I noticed Trump, who was seated at a nearby table, getting up from his table and starting to walk toward Hefner’s table. I knew right away who he was: who wouldn’t recognize that hair? What I noticed besides the hair was the cold, aloof expression on his face as he glanced at the people on both sides as he walked past them, many of them celebrities. I saw that not a single person acknowledged him; he was being ignored. Of course, I’ll never know what was going on in his mind during that brief walk, but it seemed that as he passed all those people ignoring him, his aloof expression hardened. I remember thinking that if he’d spoken aloud what he was thinking it would have been something to the effect of, “I’ll show you. You’ll all kiss my ass someday.” He didn’t look at Hefner or me as he passed the table – the object of his gaze was the Playmates, taken in with a long stare as he kept walking.

Donald Trump is, for now, the 45th president of the United States and very different in every respect from all his predecessors. Trump, unlike Nixon and Clinton, not only doesn’t play a musical instrument. He doesn’t read books. He exhibits no awareness of the history of the American presidency or of history in general. He is oblivious to so much that has made this country great. As already noted, Nixon and Clinton did a lot of damage to this country, but they also did good things, especially Bill Clinton. There is very little good if any that I see Trump has done so far, and he’s already done enormous damage in uncountable ways.

Nixon would have been impeached but resigned. Clinton was impeached but was acquitted by the Senate. The fate of Trump’s presidency is still to be decided. He hasn’t been impeached yet. But based on what is known already, it is possible that Donald J. Trump is going to be the first American president to serve hard time in a federal penitentiary.

I suppose it’s far too late for him to learn to play a musical instrument but music could be very valuable to him in the future. Music has the power to heal. So, if Trump does go up the river (and Sing Sing correctional facility is literally up the Hudson River) music could be very important for him. Assuming that prison regulations won’t allow tweeting from a prison cell, music could help calm his troubled mind. I’ve learned how important it is to choose the right music to soothe and heal. And there is one tune in particular I’d recommend to Trump. It was written in 1955 and because of its haunting melody it became a big hit all over the world.

It’s called “Moscow Nights.”

Andrew Schulman, a member of Local 802 since 1975, is the author of “Waking the Spirit: A Musician’s Journey Healing Body, Mind, and Soul” (Macmillan: Picador, 2016), and is executive director of the Medical Musician Initiative.

Allegro welcomes personal essays from members of Local 802 for possible publication. Send an e-mail to Allegro Editor Mikael Elsila. Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of Local 802 or its officers, members or staff.