The Endless Summer’s Bruce Brown Talks Story About the Day He Shot President Nixon. A Scuttlefish Feature.
by Chris Dixon
Endless Summer director Bruce Brown (center). To Brown’s right, fellow film crew. To his left, President Richard M. Nixon and ski film documentary legend Dick Barrymore. Photo 1969 or so, courtesy of Matt Warshaw.
On Monday, I published a story about how president Richard M. Nixon once purportedly spied on his next door neighbor – Surfer Magazine’s founder, John Severson. In the wake of the piece, Matt Warshaw, the creator of the Encyclopedia of Surfing and arguably a greater font of surf knowledge than anyone alive, sent me a photo. It appeared to show Endless Summer director Bruce Brown, wearing a suit and standing next to a man with an enormous head who looked an awful lot like Richard Milhous Nixon. Warshaw also posted a note: “Still left unexplained. An unholy alliance between Nixon and Endless Summer’s Bruce Brown? Dixon, I want answers!”
Poster for Bruce Brown’s seminal film The Endless Summer. Art by John Van Hamersveld
After making sure Warshaw was not either A: yanking my chain or B: had not, in fact already asked Mr. Brown about the photo, I accepted the challenge. I first rang up Bruce’s son Dana, who directed another ground-breaking surf film called Step Into Liquid. Dana chuckled. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Dad still has that picture hanging on the wall of his office. Nixon’s head looks twice as big as anyone else’s. That’s a funny story. You should call dad.”
And so I did. At 78, Bruce lives in Gaviota, California. His hearing isn’t what it used to be, but he’s still razor sharp and very funny. — CD
Chris Dixon: Matt Warshaw sent me a picture that sure looks like you standing right next to Richard Nixon. At first I thought it was a photoshop.
Bruce Brown: Yep, that’s me.
So how did it come to be?
Well, I got a phone call one day, it must have been around 1969, from Dick Barrymore. He also lived in Dana Point and made ski films (Note: many skiers would argue that the late Dick Barrymore is to ski documentaries what Bruce Brown is to surf documentaries). Dick says, “Hey, these guys just called and they want me to do a shoot, blah, blah, blah in San Clemente. They didn’t tell Dick who they wanted him to film, but it appeared to be at the Western White House. I didn’t figure it out at first, being stupid. But eventually, I said, ‘Oh man, you gotta hire me for that!’ So we went out there. I had been there once or twice when it was the Henry Cotton estate. He had a gazebo right out there on the cliff that looked out over the ocean.
The opening scene from Dick Barrymore’s ground-breaking film “Heli-Skiing.”
The first thing we said to one of the Secret Service guys was, “Can we take a few pictures with the President? It’s for the wall in Mac’s Coffee Break in Dana Point.” That’s where we always ate breakfast. The Secret Service guy was like, ‘no way.’
Then the President came out and Dick Barrymore introduces everyone to him and we shake hands. He certainly was nice to us. He says to me, “Hey, you’re the guy who made that surf movie and from what I hear hasn’t worked since.”
What exactly, did he want you to shoot?
It was some election time for congressmen and senators and so he was putting out all these films – we shot on 16mm, these little two minute pieces to send to various candidates he was backing. I don’t know where they actually played because I never saw one. But it was pretty amazing. They’d say, ‘This one’s for Senator Fong.” They’d say his wife’s name and his kids, and then he’d just totally remember it – rattled off five or six of ’em in twenty minutes. ‘Sorry I couldn’t be there today with the Senator and his wife Julie and daughter Mary.’ Just bam, bam, bam. I was thinking Jesus, we interview athletes. They could never do something like that. Usually for us, it was like, ‘What was that again? Start over. You mumbled. I did? Oh shit.’ Nixon Never stumbled once. I couldn’t believe it. I wish I could do that.
Who are the other guys in the photo?
Let me go get it. (After a brief pause) That’s Dick Barrymore over Nixon’s left shoulder and me and the two sound and light guys. I can’t remember their names. I think they were from City Sound in Hollywood. They weren’t local guys.
It was funny too. I said to Nixon, ‘Do you mind if we get a picture with you?’ He says, ‘Oh sure. And the same Secret Service guy who told us no we can’t take any pictures – he hands him the camera, like ‘Here Charlie, you take the picture.’ The guy was fuming.
That year, Dick Barrymore took the picture and cut everyone else out so it was just him and Nixon. Then he sent it out as a Christmas card that said “Merry Christmas from Dick.”
What did you make of Nixon’s personality?
Well, he was always really gracious to us. We used to play golf at Shorecliffs – this chickenshit little course in Capo Beach and we’d actually see Nixon there quite often. We’d be playing, he’d rumble up in his cart, and we’d say, ‘Go on ahead and play through Mr. President.’ He’d say, ‘Thank you boys.’ It was weird, I never even saw that much security around him. The guys I was with, we’d always look over in the bushes to see if we could see any snipers or anything, but we never did.
The press always just hammered the guy – even before Watergate. I mean, during the debate with Kennedy, they’re all pointing out how sweaty he is. I mean come on. And Kennedy – he was a joke compared to what he appeared to be too. He’s balling chicks in the swimming pool with the Secret Service guys looking out to make sure Jackie wasn’t coming. And his dad was a full-on gangster.
Nixon did a lot of good things – and some bad things. I think that if you went back to get all the politicians who did a bunch of dirty tricks, you’d find every one of ’em had done something. Nixon got caught. And in the end, I think all he had to do was tell the truth – whatever that truth was– ‘I did it.’ And he probably wouldn’t have been forced to quit or gotten impeached. But he didn’t. So many politicians still haven’t learned that lesson. Just tell the truth. When you don’t, that just makes everything so much worse.
An interview with Bruce Brown, courtesy of Matt Warshaw and The Encyclopedia of Surfing.
Here’s the article that spawned this interview: Buy the San Clemente Estate Where Richard Nixon Orchestrated War and Spied on Surfer Magazine’s Founding Father.
Watch Dana’s Film Step Into Liquid.
Watch the granddaddy surf film The Endless Summer.