--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: