• Andrew Pettit

A Presidential Pardon Me

One of Al Oerter’s toughest moments was just saying “No” to the President-elect of the United States

Inauguration of President Nixon, January 1969

1968 was a tumultuous year. After the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, America could not get its breath back after such devastating punches to its gut. Subsequent riots across the nation and widespread opposition to the Viet Nam war on college campuses left a country reeling and rudderless. The race for U.S. President was no exception as the democrats offered up, in essence, their third string candidate, while the Republican Party saw an opportunity to win back the electorate by leaving no stone unturned.

Al Oerter returned home in October from the Mexico City Olympics after achieving his fourth consecutive Gold Medal and announcing his retirement from competition. Within days of his return, Al was invited by the Republican National Committee to support Richard Nixon, the party’s nominee for President in the November election. He thought that he must have gotten on some "Olympian" list that the RNC had put together. After all, Bobby Kennedy had been his hero, and he was officially apolitical.

In Oerter’s words, ”I didn't understand politicians, had never run for political office and that included high school and grade school. So, I didn't know anything about politics or want to help Nixon in 1968 and I told them no, there was no need for me to do that kind of thing. They insisted and must have put my name down as an honorary person on some "athletic committee" letterhead that showed that I was supporting the man. I never did anything. I never gave a speech, attended a rally or talked to anyone beyond that first conversation.”

“I started receiving things on a regular basis like T-shirt's with Nixon's name on them, RMN golf balls and all kinds of stuff. Every time I received one of those little packages of things there would be a letter thanking me for my active support of the man. But I didn't do anything. It was a nonsense environment since, in their minds, I was a great supporter after having done nothing.”

Nixon, with only 43.4% of the popular vote, was narrowly elected over Hubert Humphrey (.7% differential), but held a large margin in the Electoral College. Immediately after, plans started to come together for the inauguration. Al received an invitation in the mail thanking him for his support of the President-elect’s campaign and, to show his appreciation, the new President wanted to visit with Al and have him attend the inauguration festivities.

Al was back working at his regular job at Grumman Corp. and trying to make a few dollars so his family could survive. He told the newly elected President’s staff, “Thanks, but no thanks.” A few days later, they called back and said they realized that he had just finished the Olympic Games and that since he was back working for Grumman, maybe things were a little tight for him financially. The inauguration team said that they would be pleased to provide air transportation from New York to Washington D.C. Al replied, “Again, thanks, but no thanks.”

They called back again and said they realized that he would have to pay for a room in Washington D.C. and since they were hard to come by during the inauguration, they were prepared not only to arrange the airline tickets to come down, but they would also provide hotel accommodations. For the third time, Al’s response was, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

A couple of days after, again, the phone rang with another sweetened proposal. They apologized for not including Al’s wife in the invitation and now wanted to make amends. Not only would she be included in the inauguration events, they wanted to make sure she would enjoy her time there that they would provide seven tickets to the “Distinguished Ladies Ball.” Of course, this would be in addition to the hotel accommodations, round trip air transportation, and a partridge in a pear tree. Once more, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

They called back and told Oerter that there were several inaugural balls that were going to be held and they had secured tickets for he and his wife to attend the most prestigious of the balls, where President Nixon and The First Lady were going to be and would do the first dance. Once more, this was additive to the seven tickets to the Distinguished Ladies Ball, the airline reservations and hotel accommodations. Al grumbled, “My wife isn’t a distinguished lady, I don’t want to go down to the hotel, I am not getting on a plane, and I am not going to dance with the President, you understand?”

They called again and Al recollected,"They said the President-elect really wanted me there so they had secured a seat for me behind Nixon as he takes the oath of office. There are only five hundred of those seats and I had one of them plus the tickets to the Inaugural Ball, The Distinguished Ladies thing, the room accommodations and the airline tickets. I told them ‘You people don't understand English. It's not that I dislike the President. I think he's a good man, but I just don't want to go. Why don't you understand that?’ We argued for a little bit. Actually, it was more of a discussion. They were trying to force me and my four gold medals to go and provide a photo op for the President-elect. I wasn't going to do that.”

Al told them he appreciated everything that was being offered to him, but in reality he just wanted to get away from all of the meaningless hoopla after enduring the years of preparation for his fourth Olympic Games. His heart wasn't in it. It was true that his sense of independence was coming out again. He never went down to the Inauguration. He would later say, “Maybe it's something I missed in my life, but at that moment it was the last thing on Earth that I wanted to do; to be used as some sort of window dressing for the big guy's benefit.” He had no agenda or platform to foster, or political statement to make. And maybe the new administration should have been focused on solving the more pressing issues of the day.

Al still got a Christmas card from President Nixon for each year he was in office.

© 2020 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved

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