There are worse things than jail. There is no telephone there. There is, instead, peace. A hard table to write on. The best political writing in this century has been done from jail . . . Lenin and Gandhi.
--Richard Nixon musing with a friend several hours after resigning as president
It was a defining moment. Drama doesn't get any higher than a government changing hands. The situation was so intense that there was almost no need to take notes. I knew I would never forget an instant of those two days in Washington, D.C., when Richard M. Nixon resigned and then hurriedly skipped town.
I remember racing to O'Hare airport in Chicago to catch a flight so I could be there early enough to catch Nixon's speech, scheduled to air on national television. It was too late to get White House press credentials. I would roam the streets for crowd reaction.
For an hour or so, I walked about in the mob that filled the streets in front of the White House. The police were everywhere. Many of the demonstrators wore Nixon masks and danced around with their hands in the air, mocking Nixon's victory salute. It was all pretty vicious and cruel.
I stood in a crowded bar not far from the White House and watched Nixon give his resignation speech. The place became totally silent. No one spoke or ordered a drink. The bartender halted service, crossing his arms and watching television with the rest of us.
"Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow," Nixon said. "To have served in this office is to have felt a very personal kinship with each and every American. In leaving it, I do so with this prayer: 'May God's grace be with you in all the days ahead.'"
I have read since that Nixon's aides were afraid he wouldn't get through the speech without breaking down. He had been under great stress and had been drinking heavily. Most of those who spoke with him at that time recall his rambling conversations and his inability to stay on one topic. Once, he was seen at 4 in the morning making speeches at the portraits of the former presidents in the White House. Nixon was literally coming apart under the intense pressure of Watergate.
When Nixon finished his brief speech, a man at the end of the bar stood up and held his glass high. "Gentlemen," he said, "the republic lives."
The following day was Nixon's last in the White House. His farewell speech to his staff in the East Room was heartbreaking. This time, Nixon did break down. But so did nearly everyone else in the room with him.
Nixon spoke without notes. Strangely--and inappropriately--he talked about his father and his mother.
"I remember my old man. You know what he was? He was a streetcar motorman first, and then he was a farmer, and then he had a lemon ranch. It was the poorest lemon ranch in California, I can assure you. "Nobody will write a book about my mother," he went on, with no attempt at transition. "Well, I guess all of you would say that about your mother. My mother was a saint. . . . She will have no books written about her, but she was a saint."
Pat Nixon was irate about the presence of the cameras. This probably should have been a private moment between Nixon and his staff, but for some inexplicable reason, Nixon had given permission for network cameras. As he closed, Nixon gave this advice:
"Always remember, others may hate you--but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself."
Moments later, Nixon engaged in that macabre, eerie scene on the south lawn of the White House, where the helicopter was waiting for him. Who can ever forget? There was that final, herky-jerky salute to his assembled staff, and then he turned and entered the plane.
I wrote what I thought was a pretty strong column emphasizing Nixon's shaking hands, his nervousness and sweating. The column never ran. The night managing editor thought it was too harsh on Nixon.
It wasn't the first column I wrote that was killed, and it wasn't the last. And now that Nixon is dead at 81, we really won't have him to kick around anymore. He played his final cards on his recent visit to Moscow. Instead of waiting for a meeting with Boris Yeltsin, the former president met with Yeltsin's rival, thus earning a snub from Yeltsin. But it didn't faze Nixon. "I'm too old to be embarrassed," he said.
But then again, he never could be embarrassed. Watergate finally rolled off his back. He forgot or ignored his own culpability. So did everyone else, and he leaves regarded as an elder statesman. Let me remind you how bad things were. Here is Barbara W. Tuchman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, writing in the New York Times in 1973:
"The present crisis in government will not be resolved on the basis of whether or not Mr. Nixon can be legally proved to have personally shared in obstructing justice in the Watergate case. His administration has been shown to be pervaded by so much other malfeasance that the Watergate break-in is no more than an incident. To confine the issue to that narrow ground seems a serious error. Forget the tapes. What we are dealing with here is fundamental immorality."
Our memories are too short. Tuchman reminds us:
"The Dirty Tricks Department, with its forgeries and frame-ups, burglaries and proposed fire-bombings, operated right out of the White House under the supervision of the President's personal appointees. Is he separable from them?
"Key members of the Committee to Reelect the President, who have already pleaded guilty to perjury and conspiracy to obstruct justice, were lent by or transferred from the White House. Is Mr. Nixon separable from them?
"Two of his former Cabinet officers are now awaiting judicial trial. Is he separable from them?
"His two closest advisers, his director of the FBI, his second nominee as Attorney General, have all resigned under the pressure of mounting disclosures. Is he separable from them?
"Corrupt practices in the form of selling government favors to big business, as in the case of ITT and the milk lobby, have been his administration's normal habit. Is he separable from that--or from the use of taxpayers' money to repair his private homes?
"Finally, under his authority, the Pentagon carried on a secret and falsified bombing of Cambodia and lied about it to Congress while the President himself lied to the country about respecting Cambodia's neutrality. There will be no end to the revelations of misconduct, because misconduct was standard operating procedure."
Tuchman also wrote:
"The cause for impeachment remains, because President Nixon cannot change--and the American people cannot afford--the habit of illegality and abuse of executive power which has been normal to him."
But there is something about Nixon that will not allow us to ignore him. He is endlessly fascinating. In Rebellions, Perversities and Main Events, the collected columns of the wonderful New York columnist Murray Kempton, Nixon is discussed:
"His smile across the room is almost and unexpectedly beseeching. The first thought is that he is faintly crying mercy; but he must long ago have ceased to expect mercy anywhere; a man who has so doggedly followed his star without ever asking quarter from history is certainly above asking mercy from journalists . . . this is a man who, say what you choose of him, came to run the course. He will, with time, be a landmark in the history of quiet, determined desperation. . . . We will end surprised to discover that we love him. . . ."
What we are too ready to forget is that all the top posts in the Nixon administration were manned by hard men. Nixon's vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, was forced to resign because of crooked dealings while he was governor of Maryland.
Tom Wicker, the retired Washington, D.C., bureau chief of the New York Times, wrote a piece for last Sunday's Times "Week in Review" section that ran more than 1,000 words but still was barely able to hit the highlights of Nixon's triumphs and peccadilloes in a public political life that began in 1946 when he was first elected to Congress from California.
Wicker recalled something that Bryce Harlow, a Republican supporter, once said of Nixon. Harlow believed that Nixon must have been very deeply hurt by someone he trusted:
"He never got over it and never trusted anybody again. But in life, we get back what we put into it." Wicker added: "Indeed, if Richard Nixon trusted no one, millions of Americans never trusted him."
The Wicker piece pointed out that Nixon made two famous television appearances which, at the time, were the most-watched ever by a political figure. The first was Nixon's "Checkers Speech" that saved his place on the Eisenhower ticket. The second was his debate in 1960 with John F. Kennedy.
I saw them both. During the first, I was still in college. During the second, I was working for a daily newspaper in Lima, Ohio. I was rooting against Nixon both times. In fact, I had made a $100 bet on the outcome of his presidential campaign against John Kennedy with my then-managing editor. I won the bet. But Kennedy's victory so alienated my politically conservative boss that it became necessary to move on to the Chicago Tribune to find work.
I was a cityside reporter for the Tribune in 1962 when Nixon was defeated in his race for governor of California. He then held that fascinating, so-called farewell press conference in which he promised never again to run for public office. "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore," he said bitterly to the reporters.
Several days after this, I was sitting at my typewriter in the city room when I was summoned to the center of the newsroom, where the Tribune editor, W.D. Maxwell, sat with his top assistants every evening to pick out the stories that would run on the front page.
Maxwell was then one of the most powerful men in American journalism. He loved hobnobbing with figures like Nixon and Billy Graham and marching them through the city room on his arm. Maxwell smoked big cigars and was always expensively dressed and frequently played the drums in Rush Street pubs after closing hours.
Nixon, he told me, was spending the night in Chicago. He dispatched me to Nixon's hotel room with the message: "Don't worry, Mr. Nixon, the Chicago Tribune will always be in your corner." You may wonder today at the effrontery of such a message. At that time, however, the Trib ran a line on the top of the front page every day that proclaimed it "The World's Greatest Newspaper." There was never any lack of self-confidence at the Tribune Tower.
Nixon was pleased to hear Maxwell's message of good will. He invited me into his suite and one of his aides brought me a Scotch and water. I remember how amazed I was at all of this. I was seeing a side of the newspaper business I never knew existed. For what seemed an interminable time, Nixon intensely pursued the topic of the Chicago Cubs and the tragedy of Ernie Banks trapped on a losing team. He always prided himself on his expertise in sports. Later, when he went to Washington, D.C., he often suggested plays for George Allen, the coach of the Washington Redskins.
As I was leaving, Nixon walked me to the door. Now he spoke what was really on his mind.
"I suppose that bastard Dick Daley still controls the vote in this town, eh?" Nixon managed a mirthless smile. He always believed his 1960 presidential race against JFK had been "stolen" from him in Chicago by Mayor Daley's army of Democratic precinct captains. In this instance, I believe Nixon was right.
One of the most fascinating books ever written about him was Gary Wills' Nixon Agonistes.
Wills also wrote a piece on Nixon for the Sunday New York Times, attempting to explain what he called "the small thuggeries" with which Nixon was so often associated as president and campaigner.
"He wanted tough guys around him to even the odds," Wills wrote. "He stiffened his own efforts at malice by gazing on the natural vindictiveness of John Mitchell or Charles Colson. . . . The division between his natural sweetness and this diligently acquired meanness is what made Mr. Nixon so fascinating. It was symbolized in his famously uncoordinated gestures. No sooner had he made some large free motion with his right hand than his left hand twitched in some furtive swipe at a foe."
Frank Rich, former drama critic of the Times, wrote that Nixon "was a giant, right up there with Billy the Kid, Citizen Kane and Moby Dick. . . . No wonder he drove major writers like Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and Robert Coover to imaginative feats. Reading Gore Vidal on Nixon is like reading Shaw on Shakespeare."
Rich quoted Vidal's well-known passage:
"In Nixon we are able to observe our faults larger than life. He turned being a Big Loser into a perfect triumph by managing to lose the presidency in a way bigger and more original than anyone else had ever lost it before."
No one ever succeeded in fully explaining Nixon, although many tried.
Perhaps Nixon did it best himself. Shortly after Watergate, he summoned Ken Clawson, one of his publicists, to come out to San Clemente to work for him. As Clawson tells the tale, there was a day when Nixon was slowed by a bout with phlebitis and sat with his legs propped up on his desk and talked. Here is how Clawson recounted it for the Washington Post in 1979:
"They'll never give us credit," Nixon said. "They try to stomp us, you know, kick us when we're down. They'll never let up, never, because we would have changed it all, changed it so they couldn't put it back in a hundred years.
"What starts the process, really, are the laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid. Sometimes it's because you are poor or Irish or Jewish or Catholic or ugly or simply that you are skinny. But if you are reasonably intelligent and if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence and personal gut performance, while those who have everything are sitting on their butts.
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"Once you learn that you've got to work harder than anybody else, it becomes a way of life as you move out of the alley and on your way. In your own mind, you have nothing to lose, so you take plenty of chances, and if you do your homework, many of them pay off. It is then you understand, for the first time, that you really have an advantage, because your competitors can't risk what they have already. It's a piece of cake until you get to the top. You find that you can't stop playing the game the way you've always played it, because it is part of you and you need it as much as an arm or a leg. So you are lean and mean and resourceful and you continue to walk on the edge of the precipice, because over the years, you have become fascinated by how close to the edge you can walk without losing your balance. This time it was different. This time we had something to lose."
Nixon had taken great risks in his first political campaigns. In his first race for Congress, in 1946, he boasted about being "a clean, forthright young American who had fought for his country in the stinking mud and jungles of the Solomons while his opponent had an easy job in Washington." He had never been under such duress. But Nixon won the congressional seat.
When he ran for the Senate against Helen Gahagan Douglas, Nixon played the Communist card. He referred to Douglas as the "Pink Lady" and a Communist. He distributed more than half a million pink fliers denouncing her. Douglas was not a Communist and was herself attacked by the Communist party. But Nixon got by with it and was elected to the Senate. It was for this campaign that he earned the nickname "Tricky Dick."
Bob Greene interviewed Nixon recently. He asked him if he had ever heard the insults that were hurled at him over the years. Nixon said that he had heard them. Greene asked if any of the attacks hurt his feelings.
Nixon replied: "If I had feelings, I probably wouldn't have survived.