They’ll never give us credit for [what we accomplished]…We’re out now, so they try to stomp us…kick us when we’re down. They never let up, never, because we were the first real threat to them in years…
I knew what it was like. I’d been there before…What starts the process, really, are the laughs and snubs and slights you get when you are a kid. Sometimes, it’s because you’re 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, personal gut performance, while those who have everything are sitting on their fat butts.
You were a good athlete but I was not, and that was the very reason I tried and tried and tried. To get discipline for myself and to show others that here was a guy who could dish it and take it. Mostly, I took it. You’ve got to be tough. You can’t break, my boy, even when there is nothing left…Some people think I should go stand in the middle of the bullring and cry, ‘mea culpa, mea culpa,’ while the crowd is hissing and booing and spitting on you. But a man doesn’t cry. I don’t cry.
On November 8, 1960, millions of Americans went to the polls in what would become one of the closest Presidential elections in American History: John Fitzgerald Kennedy versus Richard Milhous Nixon.
That morning, Kennedy voted in Boston and Nixon voted in Whittier, California. The candidates had spent months canvassing the nation, working to get every last vote — and every last vote was needed. For the past several weeks, Kennedy and Nixon had criss-crossed the country, debated one another, and been working non-stop to be elected the 35th President of the United States.
After they voted that day, there were results to monitor, precincts to watch, election day problems to take care of, and many other things to worry about. Imagine being on the cusp of the Presidency — with a 50/50 chance of being elected the next President of a superpower in the grip of the Cold War, with the threat of Communism and nuclear weapons hanging over your head, and the hopes of hundreds of millions of people pinned on either your victory or defeat. Imagine being in the position of John F. Kennedy or Richard Nixon on November 8, 1960. What would you do?
John F. Kennedy put the control of his campaign in the hands of his younger brother, Bobby, and then took a nap.
And Richard Nixon took a road trip to Mexico.
Once Nixon voted that morning at a private home in a quiet Whittier neighborhood, he had been scheduled to head to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles (where Bobby Kennedy would be assassinated eight years later) for the Election Day vigil and the long wait for the returns which would indicate whether he would be moving into the White House or facing an early retirement.
Nixon was finished voting by 8:00 AM and hopped into his black Cadillac limousine to be driven to the Ambassador. Several blocks away from the polling place, Nixon ordered the limousine to stop. Along with a military aide and a Secret Service agent, Nixon jumped out of the limo and into a white convertible follow-up car driven by an officer from the Los Angeles Police Department. Nixon took the LAPD officer’s place, got behind the wheel and ditched the press which had been following him.
Driving to La Habra, California, Nixon made a quick visit with his mother, making sure she had voted for her son in the Presidential election. Nixon drove south along the Pacific Coast Highway, with no specific destination. He stopped for gasoline in Oceanside and told a gas station attendant — startled to see the Vice President of the United States on a joyride on the very day that he stood for election as President — “I’m just out for a little ride.” Nixon confided that it was his only source of relaxation.
As the group of four men, with Nixon in the driver’s seat, reached San Diego — over two hours away from Nixon’s campaign headquarters at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel — Nixon pointed out that he hadn’t been to Tijuana in at least 25 years.
As David Pietrusza wrote in his recap of Nixon’s road trip, “Richard Nixon — the ultimate control freak — was winging it on the most important day of his life.” Not only that, but the sitting Vice President of the United States and the man who many Americans were choosing to become the next President, impulsively decided to leave the entire country while those voters were still at the polls.
In Tijuana, Nixon and his party headed to a restaurant called Old Heidelberg. Despite the fact it was owned by a German, Border Patrol agents told Nixon that it was the best place in Tijuana for Mexican food. Joined at the last moment by Tijuana’s Mayor, Xicotencati Leyva Aleman, Nixon, his military aide, a Secret Service agent, and an average LAPD officer ate enchiladas in Mexico while John F. Kennedy took a nap in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.
When Nixon’s press secretary Herb Klein was asked about the missing candidate, he had to tell reporters that Nixon often took some private moments on hectic days such as Election Day. Really, though, Klein had no clue where Nixon was, eventually admitting that the Vice President was “driving around without any destination”.
After lunch in Tijuana, Nixon and his companions headed back north towards the United States border crossing. The LAPD officer took over driving duties as Nixon sat in the convertible’s passenger seat. A shocked Border Patrol guard shook hands with the Vice President and asked the man who was currently on the ballot for the Presidency, “Are you all citizens of the United States?”.
Nixon and company drove to the Mission of San Juan Capistrano, which Nixon called “one of my favorite Catholic places” on the day he faced the only successful Catholic candidate for the Presidency in American History. Nixon took his three companions on a quick, informal tour of the Mission. “For a few minutes, we sat in the empty pews for an interlude of complete escape,” Nixon later recalled.
The missing candidate and his three road trip buddies arrived back in Los Angeles before the election results started rolling in. Nixon had to explain his trip to reporters who had been searching for him all day. “It wasn’t planned. We just started driving and that’s where we wound up.”
In his Memoirs, Nixon didn’t go too far into explaining why he escaped on Election Day, but a paragraph about that day is pretty illuminating:
”After one last frenetic week, it was over. Since the convention in August I had traveled over 65,000 miles and visited all fifty states. I had made 180 scheduled speeches and delivered scores of impromptu talks and informal press conferences. There was nothing more I could have done.”
Except escape to Mexico while JFK slept.
I never liked (John F.) Kennedy. I hate his father. Kennedy wasn’t so great a Senator…However, that no good son-of-a-bitch Dick Nixon called me a Communist and I’ll do anything to beat him.
Harry Truman, on why he was supporting JFK in 1960 despite having some reservations about whether Kennedy was prepared for the job.
•For hundreds more fascinating quotes about every American President, get yourself a copy of my book, TRIBUTES AND TRASH TALK: WHAT OUR PRESIDENTS SAID ABOUT EACH OTHER, on sale now for just $4.95!
•Amazon/Kindle/Kindle app: http://tinyurl.com/TTTAzon
•Barnes & Noble/Nook: http://tinyurl.com//TTTNook
It’s really tough. They are the longest hours of your life. You are so tired. You just want the goddamned thing over. The most grueling campaign was 1960 because of the mistake I made with the 50-state strategy…In ‘68, I just drove around on Election Day. The day is the worst because there isn’t a goddamn thing you can do. I watched people drive by, and I thought, ‘How many of these people did I reach?’ You really wonder because inside you are paralyzed with worry. You want to think that all of the effort was worth something to somebody.
Richard Nixon, to Monica Crowley, on what goes through a Presidential candidate’s mind on Election Day, October 30, 1992
He has one of the most magnetic personalities that I have ever confronted. When you are close to Nixon he almost disarms you with his apparent sincerity. You never get the impression that he is the same man…who made a tear-jerking speech in the 1952 campaign…And so I would conclude by saying that if Richard Nixon is not sincere, he is the most dangerous man in America.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., after meeting then-Vice President Richard Nixon, 1957
In my essay, Waking Up In Dallas, I noted that John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, who faced off in the 1960 Presidential election, had once been close friends dating back to when they were freshmen in Congress in 1947. Although their relationship was changed by the 1960 Presidential campaign, Nixon was deeply troubled by Kennedy’s assassination and wrote Jacqueline Kennedy this letter hours after President Kennedy’s death:
In this tragic hour Pat and I want you to know that our thoughts and prayers are with you.
While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents I always cherished the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to the Congress together in 1947. That friendship evidenced itself in many ways including the invitation we received to attend your wedding.
Nothing I could say now could add to the splendid tributes which have come from throughout the world to him.
But I want you to know that the nation will also be forever grateful for your service as First Lady. You brought to the White House charm, beauty and elegance as the official hostess of America, and the mystique of the young in heart which was uniquely yours made an indelible impression on the American consciousness.
If in the days ahead we could be helpful in any way we shall be honored to be at your command.
Several weeks later, the widowed former First Lady responded to Nixon’s letter. Jackie’s response was handwritten, featuring the odd punctuation she often used in her handwritten notes, and remarkably prophetic. A year earlier, Nixon had announced that he was leaving politics after a disastrous loss in a bid to become Governor of California. Coming just two years after his narrow defeat to JFK, Nixon’s political career looked to be finished. He and his family moved to New York where Nixon joined a prestigious law firm and seemed to be removing himself from the political world.
Even in the midst of her mourning, Jackie recognized that JFK’s death might be the opening Nixon would need to make a political comeback and finally realize his goal of becoming President. Jackie might have recognized this before Nixon did himself. Her political instincts were sharp and her foresight was incredible, but her letter was also heartbreaking as she warned of the dangers that could come with the Presidential prize:
(Punctuation, phrasing, and spelling is as it was in Jackie’s original handwritten letter.)
Dear Mr. Vice President —
I do thank you for your most thoughtful letter —
You two young men — colleagues in Congress — adversaries in 1960 — and now look what has happened — Whoever thought such a hideous thing could happen in this country —
I know how you must feel — so long on the path — so closely missing the greatest prize — and now for you, all the question comes up again — and you must commit all you and your family’s hopes and efforts again — Just one thing I would say to you —if it does not work out as you have hoped for so long — please be consoled by what you already have — your life and your family —
We never value life enough when we have it — and I would not have had Jack live his life any other way — thought I know his death could have been prevented, and I will never cease to torture myself with that —
But if you do not win — please think of all that you have — With my appreciation — and my regards to your family. I hope your daughters love Chapin School as much as I did —
Jackie Kennedy’s predictions in her heart-wrenching letter were correct. In 1968, Nixon was elected President.
Nixon never completely redeemed himself with the American people, and really, in his case, redemption was going to be a hard sell because of the pardon. Now, I’ve said many times that Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon was the absolute right decision, a courageous move that cost Ford politically, and politicians and historians from both sides have largely said the same thing. But because Nixon was pardoned and Nixon’s aides ended up taking the fall for Watergate and doing time in prison, he was never going to get a real shot at redemption with the American people.
As an elder statesman and a brilliant mind of foreign policy, however, Nixon certainly regained a ton of respect, particularly in his last years. Nixon was radioactive during the Ford and Carter Administrations, and Reagan didn’t bother much with him, either. George H.W. Bush reached out to him at times, but it was really Bill Clinton’s decision to seek advice from Nixon and use him as the font of wisdom that Nixon could be when it came to Russia and China, that gave Nixon’s reputation a big boost. From what Monica Crowley, who worked for Nixon in his final years and had probably the best insight into Nixon before he died, has written, Clinton’s outreach to Nixon really made the former President feel useful and important again, and helped distract him from the deep sadness that Nixon felt upon the death of his wife in 1993.
As for Nixon’s autobiography, I really enjoy it. Nixon was always a very good writer. I’ve read most of his books and especially enjoy Six Crises and In the Arena. Nixon’s autobiography, RN, is overly defensive at times (he wrote it in 1978), so In the Arena is a little more open and candid about his failures, but RN is great because it’s a reminder about how involved Nixon was in so much of the 20th Century — served in World War II, served in the House and Senate in the late ‘40’s and early ‘50’s, was Vice President under Eisenhower, narrowly lost the 1960 election to JFK, and then, of course, his own Presidency. Nixon’s autobiography and a book he wrote later called Leaders gives some priceless insight on all of the important and influential world leaders that he worked closely with or came into contact with — from Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, and other American leaders to Charles De Gaulle, Khrushchev, Castro, Brezhnev, Sadat, Golda Meir, Mao, and other foreign leaders. I have a first-edition copy of RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon that is one of those books that I’ll never get rid of.
There are an awful lot of “What ifs?” in that question, but there is one much bigger problem with your question: Richard Nixon actually WAS President longer than LBJ was. It wasn’t that big of a difference, but the fact is that Nixon’s Presidency lasted about five months longer than Lyndon Johnson’s Administration.
One that I distinctly remember came from Monica Crowley who was Nixon’s assistant and researcher near the end of his life and wrote two fascinating, revealing books about Nixon’s views and candid observations in his last years — Nixon Off the Record: His Candid Commentary on People and Politics and Nixon In Winter: His Final Revelations About Diplomacy, Watergate, and Life Out of the Arena.
This is what Nixon said after watching Mary Fisher, an HIV-positive woman give a speech about tolerance at the 1992 Republican National Convention on August 19, 1992, as related by Crowley in Nixon Off the Record:
"She (Fisher) is a lovely girl. And it took guts to speak out like this, particularly on behalf of the party. She did it with dignity, and she really brought a lot to the convention tonight. Look here, the Republicans feel that if they had her talk, then they would cover the tolerance issue. But that is missing the point. We have too much bashing of everyone in this party. It’s an embarrassment. So many people are gay — or go both ways. I don’t care. I don’t want to hear about it. And I don’t want to hear about abortion. That’s people’s own business. Tolerance in this party is far too low. Fifty percent of all families are single parent; sixty-five percent of all women work. We can’t crap on them. We’ve got to reach out — and mean it.”
The 37th President of the United States was hysterical. Crumpled in a leather chair in the Lincoln Sitting Room, his favorite of the 132-rooms at his disposal in the White House, Richard Milhous Nixon called for his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Nixon was drinking, Nixon was exhausted, Nixon was physically and mentally unwell and, hours earlier, Nixon had finally realized that he had no other choice but to become the first President in United States history to resign his office.
A Presidential resignation was so unthinkable that nobody had ever agreed on how a President even resigns his office. Is his resignation effective the moment he makes his decision? Does he have to sign anything? If so, who does he hand his resignation into? What happens to his things? His belongings, his property, his papers? Is the Secret Service responsible for his protection? How does he even get home after leaving the White House? In fact, after making the decision to step down, Nixon questioned whether a President could resign at all. None of these questions had ever been contemplated until it became apparent that the Watergate scandal and subsequent cover-up was fatal to the Nixon Administration.
When Kissinger answered the President’s summons on the evening of August 7th, 1974, he found that Nixon was nearly drunk, sitting in a darkened room, and lost in thought. Throughout the nearly 200 years of America’s life only 35 other human beings had held the office that Nixon was holding and Nixon was in the unique position of being the only one to decide on resignation. Nixon was the only person in the history of human existence that had to do what he was forced into doing.
Nixon was a ferociously introspective person — a man who hated people but loved politics. Not only did he love politics, but he was extraordinarily skilled at it. Some would say that Richard Nixon was a terrible politician, but the results prove otherwise. When he was 33 years old Nixon was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. At 38 he was one of California’s United States Senators. Before he turned 40, he was elected Vice President of the United States alongside Dwight Eisenhower. A bad politician doesn’t accomplish that much that quickly. Nixon was narrowly defeated for the Presidency in 1960 by John F. Kennedy and lost a race for Governor of California in 1962 to incumbent Pat Brown, but a bad politician would not have won his party’s nomination for either of those offices.
The most overlooked barometer of Nixon’s political skill is the fact that he ran for President in three different elections (1960, 1968, and 1972), won two of them, and lost the popular vote in 1960 to John F. Kennedy by just .2% nationwide. During Richard Nixon’s career, more Americans cast votes in favor of sending him to the White House than Franklin Delano Roosevelt who won an unprecedented four terms. Over three elections, Nixon received 113,059,260 votes for President — nearly 10 million more than FDR (103,419,425 votes over four elections). A bad politician couldn’t trick people into casting 113 million votes to make him their leader and allow him to become the most powerful man in the world.
Yet, for all of Richard Nixon’s immense political skills, intelligence, ability, and achievements, he allowed his uncontrollable paranoia to destroy him. Nixon didn’t need help to win re-election in 1972, but he authorized dirty tricks against the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic nominee, George McGovern. Nixon and his top aides covered up the break-in at the DNC headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., and by the summer of 1974, it was revealed that a secret White House taping system held evidence of the cover-up. Still, Nixon continued to fight, believing that he could win back the American people and once again come back from disaster as he had done many times before. This time was different, however. There was no comeback from this scandal. If Nixon did not resign, he would be impeached and found guilty in a Senate trial. If Nixon did not resign, he would probably go to prison. When the impossibility of survival was finally understood by the President, the man who had told Americans “I am not a quitter” realized that he had to quit.
In the last days of July 1974, most of President Nixon’s aides came to the conclusion that Nixon’s position was untenable and that resignation was imminent. When Republican Congressional leaders indicated that they would no longer support Nixon and would vote for articles of impeachment, all hope was lost and Vice President Gerald Ford — in office for less than 8 months — began preparations to assume the Presidency. Nixon held out the longest, but he was so out of touch that he was losing the ability to exercise the powers of his position. For weeks, the day-to-day operations of the White House — and, really, the Presidency itself — were handled by General Alexander Haig, a four-star Army general and the White House Chief of Staff. Haig was a longtime holdout in the futile attempt to save Nixon’s Presidency, but the damning evidence that was revealed almost daily in the final weeks of Nixon’s administration left Haig no choice but to attempt to orchestrate a somewhat dignified exit for Nixon and smooth transition for Ford.
At times in those last few weeks, Nixon brooded in the Lincoln Sitting Room or his secret hideaway office in the Old Executive Office Building across the street from the White House. Even in the White House summer, Nixon would sit in one of the two rooms with a fire burning in the fireplace scribbling memos to himself on his familiar yellow legal pads. The President would drink scotch and get drunk quickly; he was famously unable to handle his low-tolerance for alcohol very well. Often, an aide or valet would find Nixon loudly blaring his favorite music — the score from the 1950’s documentary “Victory at Sea”. Other times, Nixon would listen to the tapes from his Oval Office recording system that were bringing his Presidency down around him, rewinding, fast-forwarding, listening again-and-again to his own voice saying the things now coming back to haunt him.
Aides throughout the White House and staff from other departmental agencies worried about the President’s ability to function and continue to lead the country while in his current mental state. Discussions were quietly held about whether it was necessary to attempt to invoke the 25th Amendment of the Constitution, which calls for the Vice President to assume the powers of the Presidency if the President is somehow incapacitated and unable to discharge the heavy everyday responsibilities of his office. Nixon was barely sleeping, drinking heavily, and making bizarre, rambling late-night phone calls to subordinates throughout the Executive Branch of the United States government. Nearly everyone who knew his condition questioned the President’s capacity to function.
There were also serious questions about whether or not Nixon, in a desperate attempt to hold on to power, might use the military to protect himself and the White House. Tensions were already high in the streets of Washington, D.C. with protesters loudly demonstrating and calling for Nixon’s resignation. High-ranking officials in the Department of Defense and the White House privately worried about the possibility that Nixon would ring the streets around the White House with tanks and armored personnel carriers, ostensibly to protect the Executive Mansion from acts of civil disobedience, but also to set up a fortress-like barrier that might allow him to remain in the White House in the case of a Congressional or Supreme Court-ordered removal from office.
Most startling of all is the fact that in the week before his resignation, Nixon’s inability to efficiently or appropriately wield executive power had dwindled so far that Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger urged General George S. Brown, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to not take military orders directly from the President. In an attempt to save the country from any extra-constitutional power grab by a desperate President, the military chain-of-command took the extra-constitutional step of removing the President from the loop. Schlesinger also investigated what his options would be if troops had to forcibly remove the President from office. The Defense Secretary’s plan was to bring the 82nd Airborne to Washington from Fort Bragg, North Carolina if that was necessary.
While Nixon’s aides and fellow government officials worried about his mental health and ability to lead, Nixon’s family worried about his physical well-being. The President was exhausted, erratic, and not sleeping well at all. He downed sleeping pills, drank scotch, and continued sitting alone in one of his two favorite offices. Nixon attempted to put on a brave face for his family, but they too were weary of the process and his wife Pat’s health was already precarious. Nixon sometimes found solace in the company of his daughters Tricia and Julie and their respective husbands, Edward Cox and David Eisenhower (grandson of the late President Dwight Eisenhower).
Yet the toll was terrible on the family and while Nixon’s daughters were supportive and urged him to continue fighting, both Cox and Eisenhower felt that their father-in-law needed to resign for the good of the country and the good of their family, and worried that the President might not leave the White House alive. On August 6, 1974, Edward Cox called Michigan Senator Robert Griffin, a friend of Nixon’s who was urging resignation. Notifying the Senator that Nixon seemed irrational, Griffin responded that the President had seemed fine during their last meeting. Cox went further and explained, “The President was up walking the halls last night, talking to pictures of former Presidents — giving speeches and talking to the pictures on the wall.” Senator Griffin was flabbergasted and even more taken aback when Cox followed that bombshell with a worried plea for help, “The President might take his own life.”
White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig also worried about suicide. A few days earlier, the despondent President and his Chief of Staff were alone when Nixon started talking about how disgraced military officers sometimes fall on their sword. To Haig, the Army General, Nixon said, “You fellows, in your business, you have a way of handling problems like this. Somebody leaves a pistol in the drawer.” Haig was stunned. Then sadly — bitterly — Nixon said, “I don’t have a pistol.”
Haig was trying to steer the President towards as dignified of an exit as possible in such a dire situation. Already dealing with the first Presidential resignation, what he definitely wanted to prevent as Chief of Staff was the first-ever Presidential suicide. Haig worked with the President’s Navy doctors to limit Nixon’s access to pills and tranquilizers. When Haig mentioned his worries about a Nixon suicide to White House counsel Fred Buzhardt, Buzhardt said he didn’t think Nixon was the type to commit suicide. Buzhardt believed Nixon was actually a deeply religious man privately, but the White House counsel also thought that Richard Nixon would continue fighting, as he always had, until the ship went down. Alexander Haig just wanted to keep the President alive.
In his office in the Old Executive Office Building on the evening of Tuesday, August 6th, Nixon met with Haig and Press Secretary Ron Ziegler to inform them that he was definitely resigning before the end of the week and that he would announce the decision in a speech to the nation on Thursday evening from the Oval Office. Nixon, Haig, and Ziegler discussed ideas for the resignation speech and during a moment of contemplative silence, Nixon looked up at his two loyalists and said, “Well, I screwed it up good, real good, didn’t I?”.
The morning of August 7th began with Haig notifying Vice President Ford that Nixon’s resignation was imminent and that Ford would be assuming the Presidency within 48 hours. Though Nixon had told Haig and Ziegler that his decision was irrevocable, the last obstacle to resignation was still Nixon’s indecisiveness, which was a result of the unwavering support from his daughters, Tricia and Julie. Throughout the day of August 7th, Nixon seemed calm, but said more than once that he had not made up his mind about resignation yet, which worried his exhausted Chief of Staff. Haig had barely slept over the last four days and he hoped that the President’s meeting with Senate leaders that afternoon would seal the resignation decision. It did. During the meeting, Nixon learned that he had virtually no support in either the House of Representatives or the Senate and that staying in office would damage him personally and be dangerous for the country. After the meeting, Nixon told his loyal secretary Rose Mary Woods that he had no other choice but to resign, and then he directed her to inform his family. Nixon’s family learned of his final decision from his secretary, and she also told them that the President didn’t wish to discuss the situation when they met for dinner later. Before Nixon sat down to eat with his family that night, he simply said, “We’re going back to California.”
It was after dinner that night when Nixon summoned Henry Kissinger to the Residence of the White House and sat with his Secretary of State in the Lincoln Sitting Room. Though the two leaders had worked tirelessly together on foreign policy during Nixon’s administration, they didn’t necessarily like each other. Nixon was often jealous of Kissinger’s popularity and dismissive of his personality. Kissinger thought the President was bitterly mean at times, and unnecessarily paranoid about Kissinger’s loyalty. They worked well together, but more often than not, they downplayed the other’s role in crafting the administration’s foreign policy when speaking to others. Nixon didn’t trust Kissinger and Kissinger was often angered by Nixon’s irrational behavior, especially in the past few days as the Secretary of State believed the President’s problems had paralyzed the country’s foreign affairs.
On this night, however, Nixon and Kissinger simply talked. They discussed their accomplishments, their failures, their philosophies and disagreements, and Nixon urged the diplomat to stay on as Secretary of State and provide Gerald Ford with the same service he had provided Nixon. Sitting there in the smallest room of the White House, Nixon asked Kissinger about how he would be remembered. Although he had made mistakes, he felt that he had accomplished great things for his country. Nixon was worried that his legacy would be Watergate and resignation, but he desperately wanted to be thought of as a President who achieved peace. Kissinger insisted that Nixon would get the credit he deserved.
President Nixon started crying. At first, it was a teary-eyed hope that his resignation wouldn’t overshadow his long career, but soon, it broke down into sobbing as the President lamented the failures and the disgrace he had brought to his country. Nixon — a man who never wore his Quaker religion on his sleeve — turned to Kissinger and asked him if he would pray with him. Despite being Jewish, Kissinger felt he had no choice but to kneel with the President as Nixon prayed for peace — both for his country and for himself.
After finishing his prayer, Nixon remained in a kneeling position while silently weeping, tears streaming down the large jowls often caricatured by political cartoonists. Kissinger looked over and saw the President lean down, burying his face in the Lincoln Sitting Room’s carpet and slamming his fist against the ground crying, “What have I done? What has happened?”. Nixon and Kissinger both disliked physical affection and Nixon in particular hated being touched, but Kissinger didn’t know any other way to console his weary, broken boss. Softly patting Nixon’s back at first, Kissinger embraced Nixon in a hug and held the President of the United States until he calmed down and the tears stopped flowing. Kissinger helped Nixon up to his feet and the men shared another drink, talking openly about what role Nixon could have in the future as a former President.
When Kissinger returned to his office a little later, he couldn’t even begin to explain what had happened to his top aides, Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger. Kissinger was saddened and shocked, and Eagleburger noted that he had never seen the Secretary of State so moved by something. A few minutes later, Nixon called Kissinger’s office and Eagleburger listened in on the call on another extension. The President was clearly drunk and again thanked Kissinger for visiting him, imploring him to help Ford in the same way he had helped Nixon.
Before hanging up, Nixon pleaded with Kissinger, “Henry, please don’t ever tell anyone that I cried and that I was not strong.”
It is telling that even while losing control and finding himself at the end of his rope, President Nixon was concerned about looking weak. Throughout his long career, Nixon saw himself as a fighter and tried to portray himself as such. But Nixon also proudly saw himself as a man who had to earn everything he achieved, without any help from anyone else, and despite obstacles constantly being thrown in his path. Nixon felt that the media was out to get him because he wasn’t charismatic or flashy like his old rival, John F. Kennedy. Nixon felt that there was something sinister behind every issue he faced, and he went too far in his attempt to destroy those that he felt were trying to destroy him.
Before leaving the White House on August 9th, 1974, Nixon made an impromptu speech to White House employees in the East Room of the mansion. It is one of the most revealing speeches of any President at any time in history, and it is Nixon without his guard up; Nixon with nothing left to lose. He talked about his family, his achievements, and his appreciation for the people who worked in his administration. He rambled at times, and he was clearly saddened by the situation. And, towards the end of his speech, Richard Nixon — with just minutes left in his Presidency — seemed to have finally learned his lesson:
“Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
With that, Richard Milhous Nixon and his family walked out on to the South Lawn of the White House, accompanied by the man who would soon assume the Presidency, Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty. As he boarded the Presidential helicopter, Marine One, Nixon turned around to face the cameras and the White House and the country, smiled wanly, defiantly thrust his trademark peace sign salute into the air over his head and waved goodbye to the Presidency and hello to history.
At 9:08 PM on April 22, 1994, Richard Milhous Nixon died at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center in New York City. Four days earlier, the 81-year-old former President had suffered a massive stroke at his home in Park Ridge, New Jersey, and swelling in his brain left him in a deep coma. Nixon, whose wife Pat had died less than a year earlier, had a living will instructing doctors not to use a ventilator or life-sustaining procedures in order to prolong his death, and he died with his daughters, Tricia and Julie, nearby.
Nixon’s death came just a few months before the 20th anniversary of his historic resignation due to the Watergate scandal and while he was forever tainted by the actions which led him to resign the Presidency, he had continued to lead an active life, writing books, traveling, and remaining one of the nation’s top experts on Russia and China. While most Presidents who succeeded Nixon in the White House kept their distance from the Republican who had been the 37th President, the Democrat who became the 42nd President a year before Nixon died had surprisingly sought Nixon’s advice on foreign relations, particularly when it came to dealing with Russia’s Boris Yeltsin. Nixon was flattered by Clinton’s outreach, happy to dispense advice, and impressed by Clinton’s intelligence and work ethic.
It was President Clinton who announced the death of President Nixon to the nation in a short speech from the White House Rose Garden nineteen years ago tonight. In his remarks that night, two hours after Nixon had died, Clinton said:
"It’s impossible to be in this job without feeling a special bond with the people who have gone before, and I was deeply grateful to President Nixon for his wise counsel on so many occasions on many issues over the last year. His service to me and to our country during this period was like the rest of his service to the Nation for nearly a half century: He gave of himself with intelligence and devotion to duty. And his country owes him a debt of gratitude for that service…
To be sure, he experienced his fair share of adversity and controversy. But his resilience and his diligent desire to give something back to his country and to the world provide a lesson for all of us about maintaining our faith in the future. In spite of everything, that faith led President Nixon to leave his mark on his times as few national figures have done in our history and led him to continue to serve right up to the end of his life. Indeed, no less than a month before his passing, he was still in touch with me about the great issues of this day.”
Richard Nixon was the first death of a former President of the United States in 22 years — the last President to die before Nixon was Lyndon Johnson in 1973, so it had been a generation since Americans had experienced the pageantry and traditions of a Presidential funeral. Nixon, however, declined the offer of a State funeral, meaning it would be another decade — until the State funeral of Ronald Reagan in 2004 — until the American public experienced a ceremony with all the trappings of most modern Presidential funerals. Nixon preferred a simple ceremony in which his body would lie in repose at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California before a relatively short outdoor service prior to his burial next to his wife, just steps away from the house that the former President was born in.
Despite Richard Nixon’s resignation and the stain of Watergate, between 60,000 and 75,000 people waited for hours in an uncharacteristically heavy rainfall in Southern California to pass by the former President’s closed casket and pay their respects inside the lobby of his Presidential Library. On April 27th, dignitaries from around the world, including all five living Presidents — Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton — as well as Nixon’s former Vice President Spiro Agnew and opponent in the bitter 1972 Presidential campaign, George McGovern, gathered for Nixon’s funeral in Yorba Linda. Officiated by the Reverend Billy Graham, Nixon was eulogized by California Governor Pete Wilson, an emotional Senator Bob Dole, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who noted that Nixon “achieved greatly; suffered deeply.”
President Clinton gave the main eulogy and attempted to recognize Nixon’s achievements while healing some of the wounds of Watergate and the worst of Richard Nixon by casting aside partisan differences:
"As a public man, he always seemed to believe the greatest sin was remaining passive in the face of challenges, and he never stopped living by that creed…
Oh, yes, he knew great controversy amid defeat as well as victory. He made mistakes, and they, like his accomplishments, are a part of his life and record. But the enduring lesson of Richard Nixon is that he never gave up being part of the action and passion of his times. He said many times that unless a person has a goal, a new mountain to climb, his spirit will die. Well, based on our last phone conversation and the letter he wrote me just a month ago, I can say that his spirit was very much alive to the very end.
That is a great tribute to him, to his wonderful wife, Pat, to his children and to his grandchildren, whose love he so depended on and whose love he returned in full measure. Today is a day for his family, his friends, and his nation to remember President Nixon’s life in totality. To them, let us say: may the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.
May we heed his call to maintain the will and the wisdom to build on America’s greatest gift, its freedom, and to lead a world full of difficulty to the just and lasting peace he dreamed of.
As it is written in the words of a hymn I heard in my church last Sunday, ‘Grant that I may realize that the trifling of life creates differences, but that in the higher things we are all one.’ In the twilight of his life, President Nixon knew that lesson well. It is, I feel, certainly a fate he would want us all to keep.
And so, on behalf of all four former Presidents who are here — President Ford, President Carter, President Reagan, President Bush — and on behalf of a grateful nation, we bid farewell to Richard Milhous Nixon.”
Later that night, President Nixon was buried — underneath a small headstone reading “The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker” — next to his wife Pat in a simple plot just steps away from the backdoor of the house that his father built and that the 37th President of the United States had been born in on a January day in 1913.