Art Linkletter was the last of the genial personas who populated TV in the 50s and 60s, the affable figures whose hosting abilities were so effortless that they made it seem as if their signature talent was friendliness.
And while he carried that reputation well into his 90s, when he still appeared at public events and on TV as a spokesman for everything from aging to a group promoting social security privatization, most obituaries today devoted substantial space to the death of his daughter and his subsequent, controversial role in the war on drugs.
Diane Linkletter jumped from the kitchen window of her West Hollywood apartment on Oct. 4, 1969, a personal tragedy that instantly became what the New York Times called a “national event.” Two weeks later, Linkletter was in the Cabinet Room of the White House, where his friend President Nixon invited him to recount the tragedy to a group of congressional leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and Speaker of the House John McCormick.
According to Times press accounts, the group listened silently as Linkletter told them how his daughter leapt to her death “while in a depressed, suicidal frame of mind, in a panic believing she was losing her mind from recurring bad trips as a result of LSD experiments six months before.”
Speaking without emotion, Linkletter added that he would not stray from talking about his daughter’s death, as he would try to “shock the nation” into an awareness that this could happen even to “a well educated and intelligent girl” who had “everything to live for.” An autopsy showed no trace of drugs in her body, but Linkletter from then on blamed the role of the counterculture in influencing his daughter’s experimentation.
As such, at least when it came to the silent majority, he became a prominent and effective advocate in what was to be an administration’s first significant “war on drugs.” It was clear that Nixon saw the tragedy as a “teachable moment,” in today’s parlance, to call for stricter drug laws. Within days, the White House let it be known that he was so moved by Linkletter’s visit that Nixon immediately called for doubling the appropriations for education programs on drug abuse. He also named Linkletter, along with Sammy Davis Jr. and Gale Sayers, to an advisory council on drug prevention.
Debate continued as to exactly what triggered Diane Linkletter, but the circumstances of her death quickly became the stuff of urban legend.
Nixon continued to call on Linkletter as he pursued the war on drugs, including a lengthy conversation they had in 1971, captured on tape, of course, in which the president talks of war demonstrators being “all on drugs” and having Attorney General John Mitchell arrest “the whole damn lot.” The conversation is bizarre and kitschy, particularly when Linkletter rationalizes the differences between getting stoned via alcohol vs. marijuana, and where he tries to teach Nixon about the different terminology for the different grades of weed.
According to the Times, Linkletter came to accept that marijuana was relatively harmless, and that law enforcement efforts should concentrate on the harder stuff.
But he never stopped believing that the counterculture had a role in his daughter’s death, pointing his finger at the permissiveness of entertainment figures like Jefferson Airplane as well as Timothy Leary. In 1978, as Leary was appearing on “The Stanley Siegel Show,” Linkletter called into the program. As Leary called Linkletter’s public campaign “ghoulish,” Linkletter just calmly called him an “idiot” and a “gruesome spectacle.” According to press accounts, around the time that Leary was dying of prostate cancer, in 1996, Linkletter remarked, “You could only call it, ‘what goes around comes around.'” As biting as the statement was, you can just be certain that Linkletter was, as always, unflappable.