Wilt “The Stilt” and Nixon- From Chapter 11—Nixon’s Secrets by Roger Stone
On a typically warm spring morning in Atlanta, Richard Nixon would be sweating through his suit. April 9, 1968 would be no exception. The world was watching Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral and the former vice president was in town with dozens of others of dignitaries to pay his respects.
The King funeral caused great debate within Nixon’s campaign. Nixon’s Campaign Manager John Mitchell opposed his attendance. Law partner Len Garment insisted Nixon attend. Nixon, who had enjoyed a good relationship with King, decided to split the difference-he would go to the service but not join the King Family on their three-and-a-half mile march from Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the reverend had preached, to Morehouse College, where King had received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology.
The conservative South was key to his presidential campaign yet Nixon knew he must attend. Still, he had to keep a low profile to appease his white southern supporters. His advisors feared some far right southerners might bolt to George Wallace, who was running on an Independent line.
To cover his bases Nixon flew in early to pay his respect to the newly widowed Coretta Scott King in the privacy of the family home in Atlanta, far from the lenses of news photographers.
In his new book The Greatest Comeback, former Nixon aide Pat Buchanan says Nixon and Senator Eugene McCarthy agreed in advance to march to the cemetery. Nixon, travel aide Nick Ruwe told me, was adamant about not marching.
Ruwe had accompanied Nixon to King’s funeral. Ruwe told me the former vice president decided he would arrive late and take a back row seat in the church’s VIP section. To keep it short and sweet, Nixon would avoid the march with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Senator Eugene McCarthy, Bobby, Ethel and Jackie Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Hosea Williams, Dr. Ralph Abernathy, Daddy King, and the others. Instead, Nixon told Ruwe to pick him up at a side door of the church as the dignitaries queued up to march.
As Rev. Abernathy finished his sermon, calling King’s assassination “one of the darkest hours of mankind,” Nixon turned to slip out. He was stopped short with a huge black hand on his shoulder. “Mr. Nixon, you ready to march?” It was Los Angeles Laker Wilt Chamberlain, whom Nixon had met at a previous event.
All eyes were surely on the 7′ 1″ Los Angeles Lakers center as he towered over the 5’11″ Republican candidate for president. Nixon wisely obliged.
“Why, yes of course” said Nixon. Ruwe was confused when he saw his boss lining up behind the funeral procession, led by two local mules pulling a simple wooden wagon bearing the murdered Martin Luther King Jr.’s coffin.
Ruwe waved frantically to Nixon as he maneuvered the car down an adjacent street at the same slow speed of the procession. “Nixon seemed to look right through me,” he later told me. “He was continually looking at his watch.”
Three blocks into the march, Nixon told Chamberlain he had to get to the airport. The NBA star, who had impeded Nixon’s exit earlier, stepped out of the procession and paused for a moment, staring down upon the presidential hopeful. “Can I get a lift?” asked Chamberlain.
The former Vice President and the LA Laker both bolted the funeral march for Nixon’s waiting car. Wilt “The Stilt” would soon thereafter go to work as a paid Nixon surrogate, and the 1968 presidential campaign unfolded.
When he was out of public office and lived in New York, Nixon belonged to the prestigious Baltustrol Golf Club in New Jersey. When Nixon first began his comeback campaign he came under fire because the club had no black or Jewish members. Some demanded that Nixon resign. Instead, Nixon wrote the board of directors that membership should be open to all and punctuated his letter by playing the golf course with “The Stilt” the next day.
A memo sent to Chamberlain from sports editor Brad Pye in August 1968 offered the basketball star advice on how he might help Nixon win the black vote. In addition to “planting” stories in popular black publications such as Sepia or Ebony, Pye was sure that Nixon Press Secretary Herb Klein could “sell some white publications on the angle of his [Nixon's] black supporters.”
“As I have indicated before, I think we should saturate the black press with pictures of you and RMN,” Pye wrote.
Chamberlain’s sexual appetites were legendary. The NBA star boasted of bedding over 20,000 women. The Nixon campaign was no exception. “Wilt made his way through girls the campaign staff and volunteers,” said Ruwe. “At the end the advance men were hiring call girls just to keep Wilt happy and on the road for RN.”