Mad Men At Play At The Peace Corps

It was not all ‘work’ and no ‘play’ at the Peace Corps. Here’s a famous Peace Corps story from the early years that has been told and retold a couple thousand times, and is retold in the late Coates Redmon’s book Come As Your Are: The Peace Corps Story.[Coates was a a writer for the Peace Corps in the early days, later a speech writer for Rosalynn Carter, and later still, director of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.]

It is a story [as all good Washington, D.C. do] that begins in Georgetown. It was a Sunday evening in the fall of 1961 and Dick Nelson, who was Bill Moyers’s assistant, and Blair Butterworth, whose father was ambassador to Canada, and who worked as a file clerk at PC/W, were living together at Two Pomander Walk in Georgetown.

That Sunday, Moyers’ wife and kids were in Texas and he came over to see the two guys, who had been roommates at Princeton. Nelson and Butterworth were both twenty-two or three at the time. Moyers was maybe twenty-six.

Moyers was a Baptist and didn’t drink, so Blair and Dick decided to teach Moyers how to drink. And they did. After a few drinks, Nelson does his imitation of JFK and Blair does his imitation of Bobby. Moyers thinks they are uproariously funny. [It could have been the booze to a Baptist.]

Moyers says, “Dick, why don’t you call Warren Wiggins [Warren was, as you know, the co-author with Bill Josephson of ‘The Towering Task” and a key figure in the new Peace Corps] and say you’re the president?” [People who knew Moyers in those days know he would rather play jokes on people than do anything like real work.]

Nelson is not sure it will work. He thinks Warren might smell a rat and hang up, or as Dick recalls, “What if he believes me?” and Moyers replies with glee, “Then we’ll really have some fun.”

They dial Wiggins at his suburban Virginia home. Edna Wiggins, Warren’s wife, answers the phone and Nelson says in the purest possible Kennedy tonalities, “Uh, this is the president. Is Sahge theah by any chahnce?”

Edna goes berserk, as who wouldn’t. She puts her hand over the mouthpiece and shouts, “Warren, get out of the shower! It’s the president!”

Dripping wet, Warren rushes to the phone to say hello. Nelson continues, “Mistah Wiggins, I am looking for Sahge. Do you know wheah he is?”

Warren crisply says, “No, sir. But I’ll find him, sir.”

Warren hangs up and calls the White House because the White House is famous for finding anyone. They connect him to Sarge and Warren says, “Sarge, this is Warren. The president’s looking for you.” And Sarge replies, “Warren, someone is pulling your leg. The president is right next to me. I’m in his car.”

Meanwhile, back at Two Pomander Walk in Georgetown, Moyers, Nelson and Butterworth are thinking how hilarious it all is. Then Nelson thinks, “Say, can the Secret Service trace that call? What about the FBI?” They begin to panic.

They pull the shades. They begin to tremble. But not Moyers. He rallies. He rushes from the house. He races down to the Peace Corps office, then located in the Maiatico Building at 806 Connecticut Avenue, signs himself in–back-dates the time by two hours so it looks as if he was at the Peace Corps at the time of the call.

And the next day, when Sarge calls a senior staff meeting he complains that somebody had been imitating the president on the telephone–and that it must be somebody on the staff–Moyers immediately speaks up and volunteers to have the FBI find out who did it.

I’m told no one was ever caught.

In 1963, Nelson went into the Marine Corps and later to become an investment banker on Wall Street. Butterworth became a Peace Corps Volunteer with Ghana II, then went to Seattle and headed up a political consulting firm FDR Services.

We all know what happened to Bill Moyers.


Leave a comment
  • Everybody was doing imitations of JFK in those days.

    “Vim and vigah!” were Kennedy staples.
    Mort Sahl, the comedian, made a national reputation with his Kennedy family jokes. At least until November, 1963, when nothing was funny anymore.

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