For the lunch to be a successful fund-raiser, there had to be additional prominent co-chairmen who were the leaders of various subgroups that we were trying to tap. But in casting our net for contributions, we later learned, we made an embarrassing mistake because someone in attendance sent all of the names of the co-chairmen, including mine, to the White House, which later included all the co-chairmen of the event on Nixon’s “enemies list.”
That list consisted of people against whom the president and his associates planned to take action during his expected second term. Our names made the list solely because we had been willing to listen to Frank Church and Bennett Cerf talk against America’s continued involvement in the war! Made public during the Watergate hearings in the summer of 1973, the list became notorious. It also caused ancillary problems, since one of the things that Nixon did was give the list to the IRS, along with an instruction to be especially tough on anyone presumed to be advocating against the president’s handling of the war in Vietnam.
As with many of the other people on the Nixon enemies list, I considered my presence on it as a badge of honor. But I was a bit chagrined when the name of my cousin Alan, who had agreed to be a chairman of a real estate industry committee against the war only to assist me and who was definitely not openly antiwar was on it as well. But I was relieved when Alan framed the list as it was printed in The New York Times, and hung the framed list prominently on his livingroom wall.
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By then, Vinny McGee had lost his case in the Supreme Court, and had been sent to Allenwood prison in Pennsylvania for a year. Occasionally I would fly myself and my wife down in my private plane to have lunch with him. He asked me to vouch for him so he could be released on parole, and thereafter, as our private joke, I referred to myself as his parole officer. He would retort that this was not quite accurate, that I was actually his “parole advisor.” During Vinny’s prison term, as he tells it, he rubbed shoulders with former LBJ aide Bobby Baker, as well as with disgraced politicians like Carmine DeSapio, the Tammany Hall boss convicted for bribery, and with Mafia dons and a former two-star general. In later years, Vinny McGee became the executive director of several foundations that gave tens of millions of dollars for AIDS research and other worthy causes. Vinny always talks openly of his days in opposition to the war in Vietnam, and is quite proud of not having used any means other than legal ones to avoid participating in what he and I believed to have been an obscene war that caused death and destruction for too many people.
New York’s welter of great cultural, charitable, and civic organizations offers many opportunities to serve on boards. Many institutions have boards consisting of people who are asked to join principally because they are willing and able to contribute large sums to the institutions. Some boards are very prestigious, and people seek to serve on them to partake of that prestige, to rub shoulders with the stars of culture or with the fabulously wealthy, to belong to a particularly elite inner circle.
That was never of interest to me. I have always tried to serve only on boards where my ideas and active participation can be helpful to the cause or the institution. To be on a board for the prestige associated with it never turned me on; I am also embarrassed and annoyed when I am asked to go on a board simply because of my capacity to donate. If I do join a board for which financial participation is expected, and I then discover that my ideas and experience are not being tapped, I leave the board. There are plenty of other good causes to support.
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