Podcast: Michael Ebbing on the Role of the White House Communications Agency
President Nixon in the Oval Office on June 23, 1972. (Richard Nixon Presidential Library)
Michael Ebbing was the chief switch board operator at Camp David.
On this edition of the Nixon Now Podcast, we explore the history and mission of the White House Communications Agency or WHCA, the presidential support staff responsible for the facilitation of all communication throughout the White House, Camp David, presidential transportation, sites of major trips, and retreats like the Western White House in San Clemente. Our guest in studio is Michael Ebbing, who worked for WHCA as the head switchboard operator at Camp David.
Michael Ebbing: Yes, please.
President Nixon: Operator, I’d like to talk to Mr. Al Capp, C-A-P-P. I think Mr. Colson’s office or the Whit House operator may have the number. I don’t have it.
Michael Ebbing: Very fine. I believe we do have the number, sir, for you.
President Nixon: Hello.
Michael Ebbing: Mr. President, he is out of his house for about a half an hour. Would you like us to leave a word and have him return the call?
President Nixon: Yeah. Yeah, I will be over in Birch by that time.
Michael Ebbing: All right. Fine sir.
President Nixon: You can return it to me there.
Michael Ebbing: Very fine.
President Nixon: Could you try to Connally for me, please?
Michael Ebbing: Certainly, sir. Yes, please.
President Nixon: Colson please.
Michael Ebbing: Thank you, Mr. President.
President Nixon: Hello.
Michael Ebbing: Yes, Mr. Colson should be to a phone in about a half an hour if you’d like for him to return the call.
President Nixon: Fine. Okay. Hello.
Michael Ebbing: Yes. Mr. President, Secretary Connally is out riding at the present time and we’ve left a word to have him return to your call also.
President Nixon: Fine. I’ll be at Birch. Okay?
Michael Ebbing: Fine, sir. Yes, please.
President Nixon: Could you try Dr. Billy Graham, please?
Michael Ebbing: Thank you, Mr. President.
Jonathan Movroydis: That recording you just heard is our guest today talking with President Nixon. You are listening to “The Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoundation.org. Michael Ebbing was the head switchboard operator at Camp David and part of the agency of presidential support staff called the White House Communications Agency or WHCA. On this edition of “The Nixon Now Podcast,” Ebbing joins us in studio to discuss WHCA’s history, mission, and his own experience in the agency during the Nixon administration. Thank you so much for joining us, Mike.
Michael Ebbing: It’s a pleasure to be here, Jonathan and thank you.
Jonathan Movroydis: Just to start off, could you give us a little bit of a backstory on how you came to join the White House and the White House Communications Agency?
Michael Ebbing: Oh, sure. I’d love to. Actually, it’s very ironic because the summer of 1969 when I graduated from college, I took a job right away as a sportswriter in Davenport, Iowa. And then a year later in 1970, I’m working for the president of the United States. So, a guy from a small town in Illinois, you know, making it to the White House in 1970. I was 23 years old. Actually, the day I reported to Camp David, which was my main duty station, the presidential retreat, the day I reported was the day before my 23rd birthday. So, how I got involved, well, graduating…I graduated on time, a four-year degree. I was a radio-television major with a minor in news-editorial. And pretty much my senior year I took 12 hours of classes because that’s what you needed to take to still be…keep your status with the military. I was sports editor of “The Daily Iowan,” which was the newspaper on campus and sports director of the campus radio station.
So, I was basically working through my senior year. And then, of course, the draft, my particular time, Nixon came forth with the lottery, which didn’t begin until January of 1970. So, I was part of that group, one of the last ones to get drafted. So, I pretty much had a pretty good idea I was going to get drafted. I could not get a job at any of the radio-television stations just because they thought I was probably going to be leaving and going into the army relatively soon. So, I did take the job in Davenport, Iowa. Well, I like many of the other thousands and thousands of young troops tried to get into the Reserves, the National Guard, but the waiting list, there were waiting lists of 20,000 in each. So, sure enough, I was one of the last group to get drafted. I got my notice, I think about September, October of 1969.
As soon as I got my draft notice, I proposed to my girlfriend. She accepted. The next day, I told her, “By the way, honey, I just got drafted.” So, she was still in college at Iowa at the time. So, at any rate, they gave me an option. The Army gave me an option. Do you want to go into the army on December 30th, 31st, January 1st, or January 2nd? Well, I had decided I would want to spend the time with my fiancé for New Year’s Eve. So, I chose January 2nd. So, I went to Chicago, got to stay at the downtown YMCA before my induction. That was quite an experience. So, went through all of the induction. Well, I need to backtrack just a bit because back then when you were drafted, you had probably a two-year commitment. In fact, you did have a two-year commitment. And almost, I would say 90% of everybody was pretty much guaranteed you were going to be going to Vietnam in some type of a combat situation.
I had my college degree, so I had a recruiter that said, “Well, Mike, why don’t you consider enlisting for an extra year? You’ll add three years to your commitment, but with a college degree you might have a choice of maybe what you can do.” So, I’m thinking Vietnam or I’m thinking at the extra year. So, I thought, well, maybe I can land a position at the “Army Times,” which was located in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. With my journalism background, I can spend three years behind a typewriter, very non-combative, and just write. So, I agreed for the three-year commitment. So, they sent me down…actually, I passed in flying colors at the induction station. So, they put us all in lines to get on buses. Wouldn’t tell us where we were going, but we were going somewhere for basic training.
So, about 13 hours later, I ended up at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. And this is like early January. Ice, snow, horrible conditions at Fort Campbell. They were on cycle break. So, they hadn’t begun training yet. So, we had two assignments. You were either assigned to chip ice off of the shower floors because it had completely frozen over or you could have one of the little Bunsen burners and go under the barracks, starting at about midnight and just put that flame on the pipes, so the pipes don’t freeze up. So, welcome to the army, Mr. Ebbing, Private Ebbing.
And I believe the guy that was in charge before the drill sergeants came back after the cycle break was a guy that probably maybe had an eighth or ninth-grade education, but he outranked all of the new recruits coming in. And actually, if he found out you were a college graduate, you were really in trouble. So, we went…and of course, we got all of our hair cut off. We all had the long hair of the ’60s back then, so we got all of our hair cut off.
So, at any rate, getting to how the White House situation came about. About the third or fourth week of basic training, we received a notice from our drill sergeant, drill commander, that there were people coming in to do some interviews. They wouldn’t tell us a lot about it at all, but they said it’s going to be in a big assembly room. It’s going to be a couple of hours afternoon, like 2:00. So, of course, this was a chance to get out of that afternoon of training. Nobody really knew what was going on. So, I would guess there were probably about 500 of us in this big assembly room. Two or three guys up on stage with white shirts and ties. So, again, they wouldn’t tell us a whole lot, but they did say it’s involved in a Top Secret mission. They didn’t tell us anything about the White House, but they did say if you’ve been involved with drugs, marijuana, anything like that in your future or in your past, which we’re talking about the ’60s, Johnathan. So, you know, there’s very few that could say, “I wasn’t involved in anything like that.” So, anyway, they said, “You will be required to have a full FBI investigation. There will be a polygraph test, you will be getting a Top Secret clearance. So, if you have had anything in your past, don’t show up for the next meeting.”
So, a couple of days later they had the next meeting. That attendance, Jonathan, went from 500 to about 75. That many had eliminated themselves. So, those 75 that were left, they started to tell us a little more about what this involved. And as it turned out, out of all of those people, there were three people that were selected. And from what I’ve talked with other people that have gone through White House Communications, that’s pretty much the standard. It’s about a 3%. It’s amazing. All the stories are all the same, big assembly room, they do their pitch about the drugs. All of a sudden, there’s nobody hardly showing up the next time. So, what happens, there’s a lot of different levels of White House Communications. The need that they needed at that particular time were for switchboard operators. So, the three people that recruited were all gonna go to switchboard school, which was at Fort Gordon, Georgia. So, you take your standard training of switchboard school, Fort Gordon, Georgia. So, after basic training, that’s where I went, Fort Gordon, Georgia.
And they said, “Once you complete your switchboard training, you’re going to get orders. Don’t be alarmed because within an hour, those orders should get stamped, revoked, and it’ll be stamped that you’re on White House hold.” So, they’re pending your investigation, whatever they need to do, your background check before your clearance is approved. So, sure enough, I got my orders. I was going to be a switchboard operator at Long Bình Airport in Vietnam, which I was shaking when I got the orders. And sure enough, a couple of hours later, those orders were revoked and stamped right on it, White House hold. So, now I’m in the predicament of being on a hold status and it’s amazing talking with some of the other folks that were in White House Communications, these clearances could take anywhere from…I’d say the average time was three to four months. They go back into your hometown, they start talking to family of yours, friends, relatives. They do a really intensive check of your background in order to get a Top Secret clearance.
So, some have taken as long as a year. Well, I’m trying to think of what I may have done in my past because the months kept going along at Fort Gordon, Georgia. I ended up having a pretty good job. I was the secretary for a battalion commander, lieutenant. So, I moved out of the barracks and I moved into his office. I don’t think he knew I was living in his office, but he had a wonderful couch in his office. He had a TV set, nice stereo. My first job was to make coffee in the morning for him. So, I just made my bunk once and I would change…I didn’t have to stand any formations because I was on White House hold. So, my main job was to make sure all the enlisted career guys that were working at Fort Gordon had their physical training test. So, I had a card file, which I would run through. And I did have some responsibilities on Saturday morning, but I never had to stand formation.
In the meantime, my soon to be wife, we were planning our wedding as soon as I got my orders. So, it went on. It went on. It went on. We got to May of 1970. I’m still at Fort Gordon, and that’s when the Kent State shootings took place in May of 1970. And that’s when the campus unrest was going all over across the country. My wife was a junior at the University of Iowa. Her classes were canceled. Nobody took finals. They sent all the students home, which was pretty much what was going on back in 1970, right after Kent State. Well, sure enough, finally, around the first week in August, I think, I got my clearance approved, my Top Secret clearance. Told my wife, “Guess what, honey? We’re getting married. You’ve got two weeks to plan our wedding.” So, I flew back to Davenport, Iowa and they told me to report for White House. They thought… well, we were like probably 100% sure. I checked in at Georgetown in the DC area, that’s where we had our headquarters for White House Communications back in 1970. So, I checked in and talked to the…the main person in charge was not there at the time, but they said, “We’re like 95% sure we’re going to use you at White House Signal.” White House Signal is the switchboard that’s located in the basement of the White House.
And so, they said, “Go ahead.” And the two other people that I had known from Fort Gordon, they had already got their clearance and they were already working at the White House. So, that’s actually where I was staying. They had an apartment in Arlington, Virginia across the river, which where a majority of the WHCA people all lived there with their wives and families. And then they had like a carpool they would take to the White House every morning rather than having everybody drive across the bridge and go to the White House. So, at any rate, I told…they said, “Well, go ahead and find your apartment.” So, I went to this place where everybody…all the WHCA guys were staying. So, I think I signed a lease for…my one-month rent was like $252 a month, which sounds, how can that be so cheap? Well, the army was giving me $125 a month for housing allowance back in the day. So, I was going to be paying almost double that with my rent in Arlington.
So, they said, “Well, before you fly back, make sure you check-in, just to make sure, we’ll confirm that you’re going to be at the White House.” So, I called back in, “Well, we talked to the chief and we’re actually gonna use you at Camp David.” And I said, “Oh my gosh, I just signed my lease, you know, I got $242 out.” And they said, “Well, can you move your flight back a day? Because we have a real estate lady up in the Camp David area and she absolutely loves the WHCA guys. And she like, takes them as their grandsons and she can find you a place to live in the Camp David area within a couple of hours.” So, I called my wife and I said, “Well, guess what? I’m at Camp David. Now, I’m not at…” And I called…the apartment community was able to get out of my lease because they knew I was a White House guy, so they do kind of bend the rules a little bit.
So, I went up, talked to lovely Mrs. Warren Felts. She was the 80-year-old realtor who just absolutely loved the WHCA guys. So, she found me a place upstairs of a house, which was fully set up. You know, it had a kitchen. It had…you know $80 a month, Jonathan, $80 a month. So, I’m going to be making money on the army. So, at first, I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t where all the action was at the White House, that I was at Camp David. But as I reflected back after serving two years plus at Camp David, I wouldn’t have traded that time for anything else in the world. So, at any rate, I went back to Davenport. We got the wedding planned and a very small wedding. I think most people thought my wife was pregnant because, you know, we sent the announcements out in two weeks. And we actually did have…we got married on August 14th and we did have our daughter on August 15th, but it was four years later.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you tell us a little bit about the history of WHCA, the White House Communications Agency? When and why was it created? And what is its scope in the White House and the government at the large?
Michael Ebbing: Sure, sure. Actually, under FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, under his administration, in 1942 he established the White House Communications Agency, communication support for the president when he traveled, when he left the White House, needed some type of communication support, basically a traveling White House. So, ironically enough, that same year is the year that FDR opened the retreat in the Catoctin Mountain range in the Maryland Mountains, which at that time was known as Camp Shangri-La, later to be known as Camp David. So, Camp David came on the scene in 1942, the same time that WHCA. Now, WHCA’s mission is basically all types of communications. So, we had typically on a trip, a presidential trip, say, an airport rally to Chicago or something like that, our advance team of WHCA people would leave maybe five or six days before the president was going to arrive. And we would be involved in setting up the switchboard, usually at a hotel, could be at an airport, depending on where it made the most sense.
And part of that team also were electronics technicians with White House Communications. They were the ones that set up our little small mini switchboard at the hotel. We had audiovisual people. They were the people that did the microphones. The president was going to do the speech. WHCA is even, and still, today is part of hanging that presidential seal on the podium.
That is still a WHCA responsibility. That’s part of the audiovisual group. There’s a comm
center group back when I was there that handled like the teletype messages. And you gotta remember when I served in the Nixon administration, there were no cellphones, there were no computers. So, it was basically pagers, beepers. And, when I first started, it was the rotary-dial telephones. And the switchboards were pretty…And I’m sure many of your listeners will relate to the Ernestine on the Laugh-In and the switchboard operator. And actually, that switchboard that Ernestine operated, Lily Tomlin on Laugh-In, is not too much different from those switchboards that we were at setting up at the hotels.
So, for the time, it was the best technology we had. But it was very limited, very challenging. So, there were all types of WHCA support people. And typically, like the trip to China, the trip to Russia, we had probably 45 to 50 members of the WHCA team that were in China and in Russia for probably three and a half weeks before the president arrived. And it was part of the White House staff people. All the Secret Service advance. As soon as this whole party for advance trips arrived at the trip location, first thing, the most important thing, set up the switchboard. Now there were drops to all the key people at their hotel rooms directly from their hotel rooms to the little mini, we called it a mini switchboard, probably had 40 stations in it. And we had two long haul lines back to Washington DC. They called them trunk lines. So, in other words, if somebody is at…somebody picks up in their hotel room, they pick up the direct drop that goes directly to our…we have their name on a little thing, a plug in our switchboard plug. And if they want to call the White House, we just use the other plug, push the button down, and bam, within minutes they’re connected to the White House.
Jonathan Movroydis: Can you give me an example of how that might work? Henry Kissinger is on a trip somewhere, or the president is on a trip somewhere, they’re both on a trip somewhere, and they need to communicate between staff. How would all that work through the White House Communications Agency?
Michael Ebbing: You’re talking on a trip now, trip location?
Jonathan Movroydis: On a trip.
Michael Ebbing: Okay. Yeah. Let me kind of set that up because when we would arrive in town, we’d worked with the local, usually, it was a bell, all the telephone people, and we would coordinate. And it was amazing. Within the same day we arrived, our switchboard was working, our switchboard would be operating 24 hours a day. So, normally, we would have three switchboard operators. We would have the dayside guy, the afternoon guy, and then the midnight guy. Because you never know when there might be some type of an emergency that would take place. So, in the early on stages, it’s basically all staff, White House staff, Secret Service, all the planning, the trip, advance man, the Ron Walker who did most of the advanced planning for those types of trips. The lead Secret Service agent. Actually, Diane Sawyer was a member of the White House Press office at the time. She worked with Ron Ziegler in the press office.
So, pretty busy times before the president arrived. We would have printed cards that we would have a dial-in line, too. And so, we would pass those out to the key staff members. So, if they’re at a restaurant, or something, and they needed to talk to the White House switchboard, we would have a printed card that would, for instance, say we’re in Chicago, it would say Chicago signal, and it would have that direct line. So, they could call in from anywhere, get right into our little White House switchboard. And then when the president arrived, when Air Force One would arrive at that location, we no longer were Chicago signal. We would answer the telephone, Chicago signal, Chicago signal, all the way up until Air Force One arrived. The minute…And we would have radio communications with Air Force One on our switchboard. So, we knew exactly, Secret Service would let us know when Air Force One touched down.
And so, we had…But the minute Air Force One landed in whatever city in the world, we no longer were Chicago signal. We were no longer Paris signal. The telephone would then be answered, Chicago White House, Paris White House. So, wherever the president was, the switchboard now took on that identity as the White House, the traveling White House. So, typically I would say all of the trips…and I probably did 25 or 30 presidential trips worldwide from Paris to Ottawa, Canada, Anchorage, Alaska. I was a part of the China trip but did not go to China. But several trips to Key Biscayne, the Florida White House, several trips to the Western White House in San Clemente, and then my main station in Camp David.
So, depending upon where the president was, you asked me typically about how a call might be
handled. All the trips that I was on worldwide, I never…not once did the president ever pick up the phone and asked to call somebody. Now, many of these trips were maybe a two-hour airport rally, they weren’t involved in an overnight. And a lot of the times I was working the midnight to 8:00 shift. So, the president was in bed anyway. So, I’m not saying he didn’t use the lines during the day. I’m sure he made tons of calls, but I never handled one call of the trips. I’d handled many at San Clemente and Key Biscayne, but none at a trip site. But typically, what would happen…and I probably should mention, because it’s interesting, the presidential protocol on phone calls. And it was spelled out as soon as Air Force One arrived. I can guarantee you…And I’ve talked to Larry Higby, who’s a foundation member here and former staffer, worked under Bob Haldeman, and Haldeman was the chief assistant…chief aid to President Nixon. But I can guarantee you the first phone call you would get as soon as Air Force touched down and the presidential party arrived at the hotel would be Larry Higby.
And Larry Higby would emphasize their protocol for all incoming presidential phone calls and how they should be handled. And also the protocol for all phone calls incoming for Bob Haldeman and how they should be handled. So, quite simply enough…And a switchboard operator, you better remember this when Larry Higby would tell you this. But any incoming call for the president, unless it was from Bob Haldeman or it was from The First Family, like if Pat Nixon, or the two daughters happened to be on the trip, they went right through. But every caller for President Nixon, before that call was connected to president Nixon, had to go through Bob Haldeman first to be cleared. Now, there was also a protocol with Bob Haldeman’s calls. All of Bob Haldeman’s calls had to go through Larry Higby. So, that was the chain of command.
The other thing that Larry Higby would emphasize at a trip location, that if there’s an incoming call for Haldeman, it would go through Higby. But that caller whoever it might be, whether it’s Chuck Colson, Dr. Kissinger, John Ehrlichman, that person stays on the line, does not hang up. He stays on the line until Bob Haldeman is ready to take the call. So, you can imagine, Jonathan, that we had some rather tenuous situations. I remember one trip, I believe it was Chuck Colson, he picked up the phone that they just arrived. The presidential party had just arrived at the hotel. And you know when they arrive because the switchboard lights up. Nixon never makes a call, but all the staff are making calls right and left, right and left.
So, I think I had a call from Chuck Colson. He said, “Would you get me, Mr. Haldeman, please. Thank you, Mr. Colson.” And I made sure his light was still on because the staff knew also, Haldeman’s…you could call them idiosyncrasies, but you wait on the line to talk to Bob Haldeman. You don’t hang up and then…So, anyway, I’m constantly looking to make sure that that light is still on, that Colson is still on the line. So, the protocol, as I mentioned early, I can’t just call Haldeman. I’ve got to call Higby first and tell Higby who’s calling Haldeman. So, I got…”Mr. Higby, I have Mr. Colson calling Mr. Haldeman.” “Fine. Just a second, I’ll get Mr. Haldeman.” So, Bob Haldeman comes on the line. I said, “Yes, Mr. Haldeman, I have Mr. Colson for you now.” “Okay, fine.” So, I see the light go out on Colson’s thing. So, I see a little flash and Haldeman said to me on the switchboard, “I thought you said you had Colson.” I said, “Well, sir, he was just there.” He said, “I don’t know what happened.” And I said, “I’ll try to reach him.” And Haldeman hung up the phone. He said, “Well, just call me back when you get him.” He wasn’t very pleasant.
Well, I’ve almost got to believe and it might not be true, but I’ve got to almost believe that as soon as they arrived, they might’ve been kind of playing a little bit of games with Haldeman, and his position with Nixon, and all of the calls going through Haldeman. But at any rate, to this day, I still think that Chuck Colson made that call. Then he went to the next hotel room, just kind of an aggravation type of thing. Well, we finally located Haldeman…Colson, he was in another hotel room. So, we got back to the Haldeman. And no sooner did that call get completed then Larry Higby calls me. Because I’m sure that when they got done with the call, Haldeman went to Higby and said, “Larry, I thought you told the switchboard the protocol on the phone calls. Didn’t you make that clear?” And Larry said, “Well, let me call the switchboard. I did make it very clear.” So, I was the head switchboard guy. So, Larry called me back and said, “What didn’t you understand about those people needed to hold on the Haldeman calls?” And I’d said, sir, I said, “He was right there. And when I connected, his light was still on. I don’t know if he stepped out. I don’t know what happened.” But I said, “Yes, sir, I do know the protocol.”
I just talked with Larry last, we had our WHCA reunion here at the Nixon Library. And Larry and I, we went over that story and both had a pretty good laugh about that at the time. About what went on and the typical type of thing. Now, typically, a call from a trip site, say if President Nixon would want to talk to somebody, say, a John Mitchell, who’s back at the White House, what would traditionally happen is we would call back to the White House admin board, which is located across the street from the White House in the Old Executive Office Building. It’s also in the downstairs and that’s where the White House admin operators are located. These are gals that basically handle all of the presidential calls. The basement of the White House where the signal board was located at the time, we basically handled pretty much the military calls. We weren’t involved with the presidential calls. The presidential calls were all going through the White House admins board. So, they pretty much had a way to contact almost anybody on the planet. And through the paging, the beeper system, the old pagers that they would carry, plus they had phone numbers of vast amount of phone calls, phone numbers. So, typically, that call would go through the White House admin board.
If I was, if I was at Camp David and the president wanted to talk to somebody, unless I had a direct number, I would go to the ladies at the White House admin board. And then once they would get that party on the line…And it was amazing, Johnathan, how quickly they could locate people. And that was the thing that we as White House Communications also…And we were praised by the staff years and years after we served that it was amazing. We were able to reach people and contact people, you know, basically…And you gotta remember we’re talking about 45, 50 years ago when it was a very archaic type of a communication system. But I don’t know if that answers your question about how a call might…
Jonathan Movroydis: No, it answers it perfectly. I was going to ask you too, could you list some of the…tell us a little bit about some of the notable trips that you went on, presidential trips that you went on, especially the foreign trips? You had mentioned that before this interview going on the…going to the de Gaulle funeral. Could you tell us a little bit about some of your travels with the President?
Michael Ebbing: Yeah. Yeah. My first trip, and like I say, when I got involved with WHCA, it was the midterm elections in 1970. President Nixon was doing just an abhorrent amount of campaigning. He was just going right and left, very critical elections in the midterm in 1970, which a lot of those Republicans to get elected were probably going to be keys to his strategy and his winning the reelection in 1972. So, I was sent…I don’t think I mentioned that right after I arrived at Camp David, they needed to train switchboard operators and get them trip-ready right away because they knew Nixon was going to do all of this campaigning. So, they were really thin on the amount of staff, so they needed to get these people trained. So, I was sent down to the White House, basement of the White House for two weeks of training. This was shortly…this was a week after I arrived at Camp David. I was sent down for my training.
And it was a very sophisticated training session. You pretty much had to memorize all the key staff members’ names, what their titles were. And you had a pretty tough test you had to take and pass. Once you pass that test, then you were what they said, trip-ready. So, I completed my two weeks of training, got back home, and keep in mind, we’d only been married a month. So, I’m already gone, you know, two weeks down in Washington for my training. But at any rate, sure enough, about a week later, I was assigned on my first trip. First trip was to Savannah, Georgia, a rally in Savannah, Georgia. So, I was new, so I was on the midnight shift. So, I was there, but not really part of the…You know, I was in bed when Air Force One landed in Savannah, got home. And shortly thereafter, they said, “Okay, we’re gonna pack your bags.” And you always had to have your bags packed because you could in a minute’s notice.
So, typically, what would happen at Camp David, if they needed a couple of switchboard operators, they’d have a driver that would take us down to our headquarters at Georgetown and then there’d be a couple of station wagons that would take us out to Andrews Air Force Base and then we’d go to whatever trip site that was. My second set of trips, and I say trips because they would tell you, they said, “Be prepared that you’re probably gonna go…you’re gonna jump somewhere else. That you’re not going to come home after your first trip.” So, my second trip was one of those jump-type of trips. They said, “You know, pack enough clothes because you’re going to be gone for a while.”
So, I was down to St. Petersburg, Florida. Nixon was campaigning for Lawton Chiles, who I think was running for governor of Florida at the time. So, he was going to do an airport rally in St. Petersburg, Florida. So, again, I was pretty raw, I was working the midnight shift. So, just got back to my room at the hotel. We had the switchboard set up right at the hotel. They’d taken all the furniture out and set up our little mini switchboard at the hotel. So, Air Force One was landing, I think about nine 9:30, 10:00, at the Tampa Airport. And so, well, I take that back, I think he probably landed at Homestead Air Force Base down in Florida. And then more likely took…probably, he took the helicopter to that airport rally. But at any rate, Air Force One was touching down at about 9:30, 10:00. Well, I get a call at my hotel room about 9:00. And they said, “Ebbing, we need you at the switchboard room immediately.” And I’m thinking, “Well, I mean I just got off midnight to 8:00.” You know.
So, I went to the switchboard room. Well, as it turned out, the other switchboard operator, that was his very first trip. And then the lead switchboard operator, that was his very first trip being in charge. Well, when Air Force One was touching down, he basically lost control of his capacities and was having a nervous breakdown. And he had to be restrained by the Secret Service and escorted out of the room. This is probably half an hour before Air Force One was landing. So, here’s myself and the other guy, all of a sudden, we’re thrust into the whole activity of the actual landing. Fortunately, everything went smoothly. And he was sent back from Homestead back to Andrews Air Force Base and he went in for some testing. And I don’t think I ever knew what ever happened to him. But at any rate, that left only two switchboard operators.
And when the rally was done in St. Petersburg, they said, “Well, you’re going to be jumping from there to Burlington, Vermont.” Well, we’re talking about late September, early October. Weather is nice in Florida, but not so nice in Vermont. So, we get into Vermont, we’re at a very cold airport, where they set the switchboard up. And there’s only two operators. So, we are working 12-hour shifts now. Of course, now we both got colds with that climate change from Florida to Vermont. They said, they’re working on getting another operator to give us some type of relief, but we had to run that switchboard for 12 hours, 12-hour shifts. You know, you work 8:00 to 8:00 and then the other guy comes at 8:00 at night, works till 8:00 the next morning.
So, the rally went on, no problems. And then they said, “We’re still working on getting you another operator.” But they said, “Now, we’re gonna jump you to Phoenix, Arizona.” So, directly from Vermont, we went to Arizona. Same situation, set up the switchboard at the hotel. Still the two operators, we’re both sick. We’re working 12-hour shifts. The second day they did send a second operator. So, we did have three operators. But that trip, I think…that series of trips were like 15 days, we were on the road. And it was challenging.
No sooner did I get back and I’m back working at Camp David, working the midnight shift at Camp David, get off at 8:00, drive down from Camp David, top of the mountain, to my house, which was about 10 miles off of Camp David. And I just got to bed about 9:30. I get a call and they said, “The President is going to Paris for de Gaulle’s funeral, would you like to go? They need a couple of switchboard operators.” And I was still half asleep, but I thought, “Paris sounds interesting. I’ve never been there.” I said, “Yeah.” They said, “Well, pack your bags, we’ll pick you up in an hour and we’ll take you down to Washington, DC.” So, they took me down, myself and another operator from Camp David. We went down to DC. At that point, we had to have our shots and had to go pick up our passport, had to pick up our trip passes. We got out to Andrews Air Force Base at…I want to say it was 6:00 in the evening, Washington, DC time. And got on this big C-141 cargo plane, which is how we basically traveled. We didn’t travel On Air Force One, we traveled on the cargo plane.
So, on that plane was the presidential helicopter, that was in the front part of it. They just lifted down the back of the cargo plane and then just started whatever they needed for that trip. So, the helicopter was there. Then the presidential limousine was rolled up right behind that. And then the backup limousine was rolled in behind that. Now our seating was the little dropdown jump seats, which were on the sides of each corner of the aircraft. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the C-141, but I’m sure any of your listeners that were in the Air Force, are very familiar with that aircraft. It’s not set up for passenger travel. It’s set up for cargo. So, it’s either extremely hot, extremely cold. There’s no windows. It’s very noisy. Obviously, no stewardesses. We would get our lunch, which was a plastic bag with usually an apple and a peanut butter sandwich. That was our lunch.
So anyway, we left Andrews at about 6:00 and it was about a six-hour flight to Paris. So, we arrived in Paris, which would have been about midnight DC time. But with the time change, it was 6:00 the next morning. And keep in mind on most international trips, if we knew the President was leaving, our team would probably be…especially in an international country, we would be there at least six, seven days lead time to get everything set up. Well, with de Gaulle’s funeral, our lead time was about three and a half or four days. So, it was really shrunk. So, as soon as we touched down at…I think it was Orly Airport later to be known as de Gaulle Airport, we touched down there. It was set up right away. No time to sleep, no time to check into the hotel.
So, you can imagine how my body was feeling. Now, I had just got off the midnight shift at Camp David, hadn’t slept all night. Then I went through this whole thing, then flew on this thing. So, I’m basically in Paris and I’m kind of a walking zombie, but we got the switchboard set up and a lot of challenges. All the heads of state from all the nations were in Paris. Again, we did have the helicopter there. We did have the limousines there. Again, I was working the midnight shift, but the whole City of Paris for that whole two or three days before the funeral was pretty much just all shut down. There was just nothing going on. They did have the Eiffel Tower open. So, before I went to my midnight shift, I did get to go see the Eiffel Tower and I brought my wife a little plastic statue of the Eiffel Tower. I said, “Look what I got you, honey.”
So, at any rate, that trip went reasonably well. Got back. And very shortly after that, we found out that President Nixon was going to open…was going to be in attendance for the grand opening of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. So, that’s a pretty good trip. So, they wanted to know if I’m interested in going to Orlando. And I said, “I’m all in.” So, I still had my newspaper press credentials. So, I had my little card that says I was an employee of the newspaper in Davenport. So, we get into Orlando and go to the…and I don’t know if you’ve been to Disney World in Florida today, but back then when it grand opened, it wasn’t anything near what it is today. They basically had two hotels, the Polynesian Village and the Contemporary Resort. And we set up our switchboard at the Polynesian Village.
So, in the meantime, Disney, Walt, had passed away, but Roy Disney was basically running the whole launch of Disney World the Disneyland of the East, you know, compared to the Disneyland in Anaheim. So, he wanted worldwide press and at the Contemporary Resort, which was just kind of a trolley ride away from where we were staying, they were having these lavish press parties each night. So, we got the switchboard set up and we weren’t working until later that night. So, I told my roommate at the time, I said, “Let’s just go over. You know, I’ll show my press pass and we’ll see if we can get into this nice lavish party, you know.” And I told him, I said, “Don’t you say anything. You know, I’ll walk the walk and I’ll talk to the talk. Don’t say anything.” So, we walked up to the main thing. And at that point, like I say, Disney wanted to get all the media attention they could. And so, I showed them my press pass and I said, “I wasn’t able to get my credentials ahead of time.” They welcomed me and gave me a sticker and gave my roommate a sticker. So, we went two nights to those lavish Walt Disney World parties.
Now also, what they did, they gave us passes to the park, and the only people…the public grand opening was what Nixon going to come for, which was about four or five days later. So, the only people that had passes to the park were the White House Communications people and all the media that were there. It was like I say, tons of worldwide media and then the park employees. So, on our off time, we would go over to the park and we would go, no waiting, hardly at all in lines. And our favorite rides, we’d go two or three times, you know.
So, at any rate, something was happening back in DC. I don’t know exactly what it was, but our trip officer said that the President has canceled his plans to come down to Walt Disney World. They were going to send Bob Haldeman in his place. Well, we didn’t need the full switchboard capacities for Haldeman. So, our trip officer said, “I’ll tell you what, tear down all of our equipment, we’ll get it all boxed up. And I’ll call the people back in DC and tell them that we’re having difficulty getting a plane back from Homestead Air Force Base back to Andrews in DC and we’ll just stay an extra night here at Orlando.” So, we did. And we spent that whole extra day just going back to the park. But that was a trip that Nixon didn’t go to.
Some of the other memorable trips that I was on, gosh, there were a lot of them, I remember one to New York City. We were at a hotel downtown and part of the staff advance. So, this was when I first had an opportunity to talk with Diane Sawyer. Probably two or three days into the trip, she called the switchboard at about probably, I want to say 12:30 a.m.,12:40 a.m., and she was just checking to see if there was any messages. She was part of the White House staff advance. Ziglar would come on the press…on Air Force One with, with Nixon, but the White House Press advance, she was part of that staffing that went earlier. So, for whatever reason, Ms. Sawyer was in a very talkative mood that evening and normally we’re instructed, we don’t talk…you know, we just answer the request from the White House staff and we don’t make any…obviously, no small talk. But Diane wanted to talk. So, we got to talking and she found out I was a former newspaper reporter. And she said, “Well, I was also a former newspaper reporter before I went into the White House.”
So, we talked about which newspapers we were working for. And that conversation went on for like 10 or 15 minutes. And Diane said before she closed off, she said, “Well, Mike, are you going to be working the switchboard at the same time tomorrow night?” And I said, “Well, there’s nobody else on the midnight shift, so yeah, I’ll be here.” She said, “Well, I’ll call you tomorrow night.” So, she called me the next night and we chatted a little more. And of course, after the White House, Diane Sawyer as you know, went on to bigger and better things with ABC and just an illustrious career as a news commentator.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you tell us a little bit about your…you said earlier that you needed a security clearance for this position. Could you tell us a little bit about the reason why you need a security clearance for this position in the White House?
Michael Ebbing: Yeah. Every position in White House Communications was involved with, in some way, indirectly with the president of the United States. A lot of top classified information involved. And I think they wanted to maintain a very high caliber-type person that worked for White House Communications. And you were susceptible to Top Secret-type documents. If it was like a teletype thing, those that were working in the communication center that would be delivering those types of documents to somebody’s hotel room, Kissinger’s hotel room, Haldeman’s hotel room, it was just part of the…And I think even today, it’s still, that’s the prerequisite. You do need a Top Secret clearance to work for White House Communications.
Jonathan Movroydis: You had mentioned some of the interactions you’ve had with some of the staff, Haldeman, Diane Sawyer. Did you have any interactions with the president himself?
Michael Ebbing: Yeah, I had…I never personally met the President. Now, a lot of the people that were in WHCA in different capacities like audio-visual, like setting up press conferences from the Oval Office, part of the AV things, they were actually face to face, talking with the President. I would guess in my two-plus years at Camp David, I probably was involved with 100-125 presidential phone calls. Now, I mentioned earlier that I was a little bit taken back that I was assigned at Camp David and not where all the action was at White House. But then, I realized that those guys that worked at White House Signal, at the basement of the White House, they really never handled a presidential phone call unless they were at Western White House, or were at Key Biscayne, or happened to be on a trip site where the president would make a phone call.
And so, I would say, in the three years I probably was fortunate enough to handle more face to face presidential phone calls than those folks that did work down at Signal. So, yeah, as I say, Nixon was never a problem on the phone. He very, if I want to say, gentle on the phone. He was just the direct opposite of his senior staff members. Mr. Haldeman, Mr. Colson. Dr. Kissinger was a sweetheart. I remember my first phone call I got from Dr. Kissinger at Camp David. The presidential party had just arrived at Camp David. Dr. Kissinger picked up the phone in his cabin at Camp David. And you know, his heavy accent. I said, “Yes, sir.” And he said something of which the only thing I could really make out is he said, “Could you get me…?” And then I couldn’t understand what he said. And then I think he said something about shaving cream. So, I said, “I’m sorry, sir, I beg your pardon.” So, he repeated it and basically, I got the same thing. I didn’t really understand. I was too embarrassed to ask him again, “Would you go slower and say that again Dr. Kissinger?” I just said, “Thank you, sir.”
So, I pulled my switchboard plug out of Dr. Kissinger’s extension and I’m thinking, “Oh, okay, now what did he say?” Well, his girlfriend at the time, Nancy, who a couple of years later became his wife, she was at Camp David in another cabin. So, I called her cabin and I said, “You know, I hate to bother you, but Dr. Kissinger just asked for something and I just couldn’t understand what he said.” And I said, “I think he said something about shaving cream.” And so, Nancy told me, she said, “Well, I do know that Dr. Kissinger prefers the brushless shaving cream.” I have a notion in his bathroom and his cabin, they had the shaving brush, you know, with the cream, and where you brushed the shaving cream on. And Dr. Kissinger apparently wanted just the pushbutton shaving cream. But Nancy told me, she said, “I think that’s what…I’m pretty sure.” I said, well, “Now that you said that, I kind of think that’s what he said.”
So, I called one of the Navy stewards at Camp David and I said, “Could you get some brushless shaving cream to Dr. Kissinger’s cabin?” And I said, “Please tell me, call the switchboard when it’s been delivered.” So, 10 minutes later I get a call from the Navy, one of the Navy stewards, and they said, “We’ve just delivered the shaving cream to Dr. Kissinger’s cabin.” So, I’ve got my fingers crossed that I don’t get a call in the next half an hour from Dr. Kissinger. So, I actually, I told that story to Winston Lord, who was here at the Library this past month at a presentation for his book “Kissinger on Kissinger.” And he got a good chuckle about that story, about Dr. Kissinger.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you tell us a little bit about some of the other calls with celebrities you know, high-level government officials, anybody else who you’ve dealt with over your years at WHCA?
Michael Ebbing: Yeah. Yeah. Jonathan, one of the things that we actually…we took pride working at the switchboard was, again, like I said earlier, just being able to get a person that the president has requested and get him…get that person as fast as possible. You know, I remember a call at Camp David when the president was there, and I will mention, in 1971, President Nixon used Camp David, we figured it out, he used Camp David 26 weekends out of the year. And myself and my boss, we traded off on which weekends that we worked. So, I basically was working…you know, what was it? Thirteen of those weekends at Camp David, when the president was there, he would typically come to Camp David a lot during the football season. He loved the game of football.
So, I remember one call the president was in his living room at Aspen, the lodge at Camp David, and Ohio State and Michigan were playing each other. The winner of that game was gonna get to go to the Rose Bowl. And if you remember back in 1971 or ’72, there weren’t 150 bowl games to go to. The Big Ten had one bowl game to go to. And that was the Rose Bowl. So, the winner of the Ohio State, Michigan game was going to go to the Rose Bowl. So, we had a little small television in our switchboard room and we knew President Nixon was watching the football game in his headquarters, in his living room at Aspen. So, again, with the idea of being able to reach people, I was working the switchboard and I thought, well, there’s probably a really good chance that as soon as this game’s over, President Nixon is gonna talk to either Woody Hayes, the Ohio State coach, or Bo Schembechler, the Michigan coach.
So, I called down to…I think the game was in Columbus if I remember right, but I called down to…they had one payphone outside the Ohio State locker room. So, I was able to get that phone number. They had one payphone outside the Michigan locker room. So, I was able to get that phone number. Well, sure enough, Ohio State and Woody Hayes won the game. And it was within 15 seconds after the game had ended, the red light comes on the switchboard from the living room at Camp David. And Mr. Nixon says, “Would you get me, Coach Hayes, please? Thank you, Mr. President.” So, I called that number that I had, I’d gotten earlier. Jonathan, I think, a trainer answered and I said, “This is the White House calling. We have the President calling for Coach Hayes.” And I think that trainer, I think he had an accident in his pants. He was so excited. He said, “Yes, sir.” And I don’t know if he thought I was President Nixon calling, you know. He said, “Well, sir, he’s doing a TV interview now, but we’re going to get him to the phone shortly, sir.” And I said, “Okay, okay, fine.”
So, 30 seconds later he says, “Sir, we’re getting him to the phone.” So, I’m dropping my voice. And I said, “Okay, fine.” So, 45 seconds later, here comes a high-pitched excitable voice on the line. He says, “Hello.” And I drop my voice as low as I could to do my finest Nixon impression I could. I said, “Coach Hayes.” And what he said, “Yes, Mr. President.” And I said, “One moment for the President.” So, I got President Nixon on the other line. I said, “Sir, I have Coach Hayes for you now.” And typically, all the president would say would be, “Fine, fine.” So, they talked. And I have a clipping, I clipped that call, “The Washington Post” had the call about… Nixon called his former Navy. You know, both served in the Navy and both were kind of long time. He had called Woody Hayes frequently, you know. And so there was the call that said, “Woody had called.” So, I have it in part of my clip file.
Another interesting call. Nixon was at Camp David and this was during the Apollo 15 astronauts. That was another one of the lunar missions and they were down at Cape Kennedy. And it was the night before they were gonna launch for the moon. Now, this particular call, I had no idea was going to happen, but President Nixon called and he said…I answered. I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “Well, could you get me the three astronauts down at Cape Kennedy?” And he said, “I want to be able…” Now, this, I might say too, this was before the recording devices, secret White House tape recording devices. I wish those calls to Woody and I wish the call to the astronauts, but this was before the taping system was started up and also used at Camp David. But anyway, the president said, “I want to be able to talk to each one individually. Thank you, Mr. President.”
So, I called the ladies at the White House admin board and I said, “Yes, the president would like to speak with the astronauts down at Cape Kennedy.” So, they apparently were all in some type of training exercise in the training quarters for the astronauts. So, it was no more, Jonathon. I think two minutes at the most, I had all three astronauts on the phone. And I’m talking with each three individually and making sure, and I said, “The president’s going to be with you shortly.” So, I got back to the president, said, “Sir, I have the three astronauts for you now.” “Fine.” “So, go ahead, sir.” So, they talked.
And then again, I was telling you about how we were trying to be proactive as much as possible. So, I knew they were blasting off for their lunar mission the next morning. I knew President Nixon was going to be at Camp David for probably a couple of more days. So, I thought, well, while those…while they’re orbiting the earth, there’s a chance that the president may want to talk to their wives and just reassure them, you know, that the nation is thinking of your husbands up in space and everything. So, I called back down to the White House admin board and I said, “Yeah.” I said, “Just in the event that the president might want to talk to the wives, I said, could you put me back in touch with the astronauts?” So, they patched me back down to Cape Canaveral. So, I talked to the three astronauts with the idea, I said, “If the president should want to talk to your wives, could I get your numbers?”
Well, one of them…two were married and one had a girlfriend. I don’t think he was married and had a girlfriend, but he had a girlfriend. So, anyway, I got those three numbers. I had a little Post-it Note and I put it up on the switchboard. It turned out that Nixon went back to Washington, DC the next morning. And I think part of that conversation, I know he said, “I’ll be watching the launch.” It was going to be like 8:30 Florida time the next morning. And from what I’ve read, and I read a lot about that phone call…that particular launch. And apparently, Nixon slept through. He was still asleep at Camp David. He never saw the launch, but he said, “I’ll be watching the launch.” But the next day in “The Washington Post,” it was interesting because there was an article that talked about President Nixon’s call wishing the astronauts Godspeed. And they said, he was the last civilian-type person to talk to the astronauts before they, you know, went into quarters. And then they were, you know, blasted off for the moon.
And I show that clipping to people and I say, “No, President Nixon was not the last person because I called back down and I talked to get to the numbers for the wives of the astronauts.” So, just some of those memories are just…they’ll live with me forever. You know, things like that are just…I cherish those things so much.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is Michael Ebbing. Our topic was, the history and mission of the White House Communications Agency and Mr. Ebbing’s own experiences working as head switchboard operator at Camp David. Michael Ebbing, thank you so much for joining us.
Michael Ebbing: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you, Jonathan.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.