Bedfellows Not So Strange: Richard M. Nixon and Frank L. Rizzo

Mayor Frank L. Rizzo with President Richard M. Nixon at the White House, Washington, D.C., January 24, 1972. Photograph by Lou Zacharias. (PhillyHistory.org)

In 1952, as candidate for vice president during the Korean War, Senator Richard M. Nixon traveled the country stoking fears delivering his anti-communist message. “At a time when millions of young Americans are fighting and dying, fighting Communists overseas, we need a fair, a sane, but an absolutely effective program of dealing with the Communists right here in the United States of America.” In Philadelphia on February 5, Nixon sharpened his message before a live television audience (WFIL – Channel 6) moderated by the team that founded Meet The Press.

The subject: “How Can We Best Fight Communism within the USA?”

In order to wage his fight, Nixon needed like-minded allies in law enforcement. In Philadelphia, that’s where Frank Rizzo would come in. Rizzo was officer responsible for the police motorcade ushering Nixon’s limousine from the airport to Center City. And for a spell, the two men, “America’s foremost anti-Communist politician of the Cold War” and a cop known as “The Cisco Kid” sat talking, and agreeing about the Red Menace.

Sixteen years later, Nixon returned, this time campaigning for President. The Republican candidate asked to meet with the new Police Commissioner. The meeting between candidate and cop, also in a limousine, reportedly lasted five, or even as long as ten minutes. According to Tom Fox, “Frank Rizzo jumped into Richard Nixon’s limousine at the airport that day and he and Richard Nixon had this . . . conversation in whispers. When Frank Rizzo got out of the limousine, the newspaper people wanted to know what he said…”

“Aw,” said Frank Rizzo, “I was just giving him Carmella’s recipe for meatballs and spaghetti.”

Nixon had a more believable explanation: “Rizzo’s record has met with the approval of all law enforcement officers across the United States. He has an effective record. I wanted to get his views. As I see it, other cities could use Rizzo’s ideas.”

S. A. Paolantonio, Rizzo biographer, provides a third explanation: Nixon “approached Rizzo about running for mayor—as a Republican.”

Rizzo would run for mayor in 1971—as a Democrat—and took office in January 1972 facing a massive deficit—about $100 million. For help, Rizzo turned to his friend in the White House. “We did very well indeed,” Rizzo told reporters on the White House lawn, grinning broadly after the 45-minute meeting.

President Richard M. Nixon and Mayor Frank L. Rizzo on the occasion of the signing of the Revenue Sharing Bill – Independence Hall, October 20, 1972. (PhillyHistory.org)

“We want the Bicentennial City to be well taken care of,” assured Nixon. “Philadelphia will get its fair share” of federal aid. Nixon then “winked broadly” and said he’d be making a “nonpolitical visit” to Philadelphia later that year, a visit that happened to be in the midst of Nixon’s re-election campaign.

In return, Nixon would get Rizzo’s support. “I’m a Democrat but I’m very fond of President Nixon, Rizzo said. He is one of the greatest Presidents this country ever had.”

As the election approached, Nixon made another promise, that Philadelphia “would be the exclusive host for the Bicentennial celebration.” In mid-September, Rizzo traveled again to the White House “to find out what I can do to help re-elect the President.”

“Right now he is building a strange new political power base and he is doing it with a foot in both parties,” wrote Tom Fox of the mayor in the Daily News. “I cannot remember a politician making this kind of daring move and landing on his feet, but Frank Rizzo gets away with it because he is a singular man. Amazing.”

Less than three weeks before the election, Nixon did come to Philadelphia to sign the State and Local Fiscal Assistance Act of 1972 at Independence Hall. The bill, according to Daughen and Binzen, “pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into cities and towns in all fifty states. There were hardly any strings attached… Most of the local jurisdictions used it to pay operating costs, thus holding down taxes.  …Philadelphia got $70,000,000 of this manna from Washington in Rizzo’s first year as mayor. That was nearly 10 percent of the city’s operating budget.” The city actually ended up with a surplus.

As expected, George McGovern, the Democratic candidate for President, carried Philadelphia. According to Paolantonio, “Nixon lost the city by a mere 88,000 votes, despite the Democratic party’s 302,000-voter registration edge. [The president] carried South Philadelphia by a near two-to-one margin” and he won Pennsylvania. In all, it was “a landslide reelection victory.”

“Frank Rizzo had delivered.”

“I was more thrilled by the President’s reelection that I was by even my own victory,” Rizzo told reporters on November 8, “because yesterday’s election meant so much to the people of America. They have rejected the Democratic Party as the party of radicals… The liberals and radicals are out of business…”

Rizzo maintained an unflagging loyalty to Nixon. After the President’s second Watergate speech, August 15, 1973, Rizzo commended the president “for his courage in presenting his case before the American people” and urged Americans to “close ranks behind him and the great office he holds.” But Watergate led to Nixon’s resignation and the funds to make Philadelphia “the exclusive site of the Bicentennial celebration never materialized.”

Rizzo ran for re-election the year following Nixon’s resignation. His campaign slogan: “He held the line on taxes.” Soon after the election, Rizzo faced up to reality and convinced City Council there was no choice, the city’s wage tax needed to be increased as much as 4.31%. That would be among the highest in the nation. More than 250,000 angry citizens signed the recall petition.

In 1986, Rizzo would finally leave the Democratic party and formally declare himself a Republican—again. Actually, Rizzo’s original registration was  Republican. His years with the Democrats was a marriage of convenience.

[Sources: “Tonight, on TV, Keep Posted.” Inquirer, February 5, 1952; Tom Fox, “The Big Bambino Renews an Old Friendship” Inquirer, January 25, 1972; Dan Lynch “’Bicen City Will Be Well Taken Care of,’ Nixon Tells Rizzo in 45-Minute Visit.” Inquirer, January 25, 1972; Jon Katz, “Nixon Assures Rizzo: City Will Get Its Share,” Philadelphia Daily News, January 25, 1972; Tom Fox, “Big Money Talk in the White House” Philadelphia Daily News, September 15, 1972; Donald Janson, “Rizzo Bolstered by Nixon Victory: President Sends ‘Warmest Thanks’ to Democrat,” The New York Times, November 12, 1972; “Rizzo Hails Nixon’s Talk,” Inquirer, August 16, 1973; S. A. Paolantonio, Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America (Philadelphia: Camino Books, 1993, 2003); Joseph R Daughen and Peter Binzen,The Cop Who Would Be King: The Honorable Frank Rizzo (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977)]

More PhillyHistory posts on Frank Rizzo herehere and here.

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3 Comments

  1. Dennis Bedard
    Posted September 28, 2018 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    I commented on the previous post and would be repeating myself so to further drive the point home, those readers interested in this topic should read the following; http://nymag.com/news/features/46801/. Written in 1969 by Pete Hamill, it is as relevant today as it was then.

  2. Ken Finkel
    Posted September 28, 2018 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Good article, thanks: “The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class” is the title. Also of interest would be Peter Binzen’s book: Whitetown, USA (Random House, 1970).

    • Dennis Bedard
      Posted November 25, 2018 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      I just finished reading Whitetown USA. A fascinating sociological analysis of white working class culture in Philadelphia. as relevant now as it was in 1971. A good book for anyone seeking an understanding of the Trump phenomenon in ethnic enclaves such as Kensington, Port Richmond, South Philly, and the Jewish working class sections of the Northeast.

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