Diane Sawyer will undoubtedly have plenty of tales to tell now that she has departed the anchor’s chair at ABC’s World News. But I doubt few will be as …odd…as the night she spent at Camp David in the company of her boss, Richard M. Nixon.
It must have been the weirdest place in America to be that day – Pearl Harbor Day, 1972 — in the screening room at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the snowy mountains of western Maryland. The President was there to watch a movie. Accompanying him were four young women, none of them his wife Pat. One of the four was Sawyer, a member of his public relations staff.
It was Nixon’s first breather since winning re-election a month earlier in a landslide over George McGovern. But it was going to be a working vacation. Henry Kissinger was in Paris finalizing a deal that in a few days would restart the peace talks that would eventually lead to the end of the war in Vietnam. Kissinger would even win the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, so there was that.
And then there was Watergate. Six months earlier, a bunch of bungling ex-CIA operatives had been caught breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex, and a couple of young reporters from the Washington Post were all over the scandal. Orchestrating the cover-up was taking up more and more of Nixon’s time, and it was taking up his time on this holiday, as well.
John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman, his trusted aides and co-conspirators, were there; according to his daily diary, Nixon met with them for half-an-hour.
Finally it was time for a movie. Nixon cordially greeted each of the four young women who would be his guests as they entered the screening room, a wood paneled minitheater with a big screen, comfortable chairs and Secret Service agents stationed outside the doors. Inside, Nixon would be alone with his movie dates.
The film he selected was a new release; it’d only just come out in theaters. It starred 13-year-old Mark Lester — famous for having played the title role in Oliver! — and Swedish bombshell Brit Ekland as the mother of a psychotic little boy. It was called What The Peeper Saw.
Plenty of good movies had come out that year for the President to choose from: The Godfather, Cabaret, Lady Sings the Blues, Deliverance, Sounder, The Poseidon Adventure, What’s Up, Doc? among them. But Nixon wanted to see What the Peeper Saw, about a little boy who becomes erotically obsessed with his hot Swedish stepmother. This was the poster art for it:
According to the President’s daily diary, his guests were Haldeman’s secretary Patricia McKee; Ehrlichman’s secretary Jana Hruska; press-office secretary Constance Gerrard; and Sawyer, who was assistant to Nixon spokesman Ron Ziegler.
Sawyer joined the White House staff straight from TV station WLKY-TV, where she’d been the weather lady. “I did the weather for awhile in Louisville, Kentucky,” she once recalled. “Most memorably, the days of the cone bras…You go back and you look at my old weathercasts, and that’s all you can see is like these blinking headlights.”
What The Peeper Saw flopped at the box office and today, hardly anyone’s ever even heard of it. But it’s a movie Diane Sawyer and the three other young women there that morning will doubtless always remember. After all, who could forget popcorn, soda pop and What The Peeper Saw with the President of the United States?
Two years later, when Nixon resigned in disgrace, Sawyer joined him in exile in San Clemente and helped him write his memoir, which makes no mention of What the Peeper Saw. But there was plenty of dancing.