On the morning of August 10, 1974, the 38th President of the United States, Gerald R. Ford, woke up and prepared for his first full day as the most powerful person in the world. Thanks to two major scandals reaching into the highest levels of the Executive branch of government, the 60-year-old Ford, who had spent nearly a quarter-century in the U.S. House of Representatives rocketed into power. In a span of just over 250 days, Ford went from House Minority Leader to Vice President of the United States and, as of the previous day, President. For the first time in history, the occupant of the White House had never been on a ballot in a national election.
Actually, Ford didn’t quite occupy the White House yet. In December 1973, when Ford was nominated to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew who resigned in disgrace after an investigation into charges of bribery, extortion, and tax evasion, a mansion at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. was being remodeled to serve as the official residence of the Vice President. The work was not yet finished when Congress confirmed Ford as the 40th Vice President. Fortunately, Ford’s long Congressional career had led him and his wife, Betty, to purchase a modest home in Alexandria, Virginia. With the Naval Observatory still being fixed up, the Fords remained in Alexandria. Security was beefed up in the neighborhood by the Secret Service and gaggles of reporters seemed to always be close by, but Ford saw no reason to change his familiar habits — the new Vice President was frequently photographed stepping outside in his bathrobe each morning to retrieve his newspaper.
During Ford’s brief Vice Presidency, the Watergate scandal raged out of control and engulfed President Richard Nixon. As the summer of 1974 approached, it was clear that President Nixon’s days were numbered, but no one knew for sure if he would stand and fight until impeached and removed from office, or if he would recognize the futility of such a battle and resign. When Nixon finally made the decision to resign and hand the Presidency over to Ford, it happened suddenly. It was the White House Chief of Staff, Alexander Haig, who called Ford at home in Alexandria and told him that he should be prepared to assume the Presidency at a moment’s notice. After speaking to Haig, Ford turned to his wife and told her, “Betty, I don’t think we’re ever going to live at the Vice President’s house.”
On August 8, 1974, Nixon officially announced that he was resigning and that Ford would become President at noon the following day. Before Ford took the oath of office in the East Room of the White House, he and Betty accompanied President and Mrs. Nixon to a helicopter which transported the Nixons into exile in Southern California. But the resignation and departure had happened so quickly there was not enough time for movers to clear the Nixon family’s possessions from the White House Residence. So, after one of the most dramatic and historically significant days in the life of the United States, the new President and First Lady headed back to their familiar home in Alexandria. For a short time, President Ford, like millions of other Americans, commuted each morning from the suburbs to his office. Ford’s office just happened to be the Oval Office.
After a few weeks, the Fords finally made the move to the White House. In preparation for the move, the President and First Lady helped with the packing at their Alexandria home. Going through one box, President Ford found some old clothing of his and nonchalantly suggested to Betty, “Well, I guess we should send these to the Goodwill.”
Betty looked in the box, shook her head with a smile on her face, and told her husband, “Jerry, I think some of this stuff may be a little important now. We’d better keep them.”
The President of the United States had almost donated the Navy uniforms that he wore while serving on the USS Monterey in the South Pacific during World War II.
Those uniforms eventually found a good home. Instead of ending up on a discount rack at a Goodwill store, those uniforms are now on display at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Yes, I did see the story, "Richard Nixon, Hopeless Romantic", and I agree that it is awesome. Even better is the book that Will Swift (the author of the story) released last month — Pat and Dick: The Nixons, an Intimate Portrait of a Marriage. If you liked the article in Politico Magazine, you’ll love the book.
Nixon’s pursuit of Pat and the love letters that he wrote to her really show a different side of Richard Nixon. And anyone who doubts Nixon’s feelings about his wife should watch the video (if you can handle it) of Nixon at Pat’s funeral in 1993. It’s heartbreaking. Nixon always tried to show a tough exterior for the cameras — an example is when he resigned the Presidency and walked out to the helicopter with a smile frozen on his face as he gave his trademark, awkward victory sign. But at Pat’s funeral, it didn’t matter how many cameras were on him and how many people were at the service. Nixon was devastated, inconsolable, and literally sobbing. You can’t fake that kind of pain, and the only thing that makes you hurt like that is love.
"[Spiro Agnew has] tremendous brain power, great courage, and [an] unparalleled legal mind. He has vigor and imagination and, above all, he acts." — Richard Nixon, explaining why Agnew was qualified to be his Vice President, 1969
"By any criteria he falls short. Energy? He doesn’t work hard. He likes to play golf [instead]. Leadership? [Nixon simply laughs at the idea]. Consistency? He’s all over the place. He’s not [even] really a conservative, you know?" — Richard Nixon, explaining to aide John Ehrlichman why Agnew was not qualified to be President
The pardon was a costly move politically for Ford because the scandals of Nixon’s Administration had caused such a deep breach of trust in the government. Because of that distrust and the fact that the pardon came so quickly after Ford took office (just one month later), it immediately raised questions amongst a suspicious American public about whether there was some sort of quid pro quo. So, the pardon handicapped Ford from early in his Presidency and he had to battle against it and prove himself by legitimizing his integrity in order to re-establish trust in the nation’s political leaders.
The fact of the matter, however, is that the pardon was absolutely necessary in order for President Ford to do anything. The pardon didn’t come quickly because of any sort of quid pro quo; it came because every question Ford and his aides were being asked was about Nixon and Nixon’s next step. The country was still in the midst of a war, facing economic problems, and had just passed through the most series Constitutional crisis in American history besides the Civil War. Ford assumed the Vice Presidency (after Spiro Agnew’s resignation) and now the Presidency in less than a year’s time, and he hadn’t been elected to either position.
So, after a serious Constitutional crisis, the country now had a leader who had never faced the nation’s voters. There was no guarantee that a pissed-off country was going to peacefully accept that. More than anything, President Ford needed to govern, and he couldn’t possibly do that if the focus remained on his disgraced predecessor who was cloistered in exile in San Clemente.
Ford saw the need to shift the conversation from Nixon. He also couldn’t imagine anything positive coming from a former President facing a criminal trial and possible prison time. Again, it would be a continued distraction, and Ford recognized how much more difficult it would be to rebuild trust in the Executive Branch with the eyes of the nation focused on a former President of the United States on trial.
Had I been alive at the time, I probably would have railed against the pardon like most Democrats in 1974. President Ford wasn’t immune to criticism from Republicans either — Ford’s own White House Press Secretary quit in protest of the pardon. But hindsight shows that it was the right decision and even Ford’s best-known political opponents eventually agreed with the pardon. Many historians consider it to be one of the most politically courageous acts in Presidential history because Ford risked so much in order to make a decision that he felt was right. A clear example of the evolution of opinions on Ford’s pardon of Nixon took place in 2001 when the JFK Library awarded the 88-year-old former President Ford with the “Profile in Courage” award in recognition of his decision.
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
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.”
You might have watched too many episodes of The Borgias.
No, I am pretty certain that it wasn’t an arranged marriage. After all, look at this photo of young David and Julie from President Eisenhower’s second Inauguration in 1957:
You can’t fake that kind of love! Plus, David and Julie Nixon Eisenhower are still together and happily married after all these years.
I guess it’s a coincidence that they ended up together, but it’s not that odd. After all, Nixon was Ike’s Vice President for eight years, so it makes sense that Nixon’s daughters would spend time with Eisenhower’s grandchildren since they were about the same age. They started dating after Eisenhower left office and before Nixon was elected because they just happened to be going to school close to each other and decided to hang out. Their relationship blossomed from there.
In David Eisenhower’s book about his relationship with his grandfather during General Eisenhower’s final years, Going Home To Glory, he tells an interesting story about how he approached Ike to tell him that he was in love with Julie and that he was planning on marrying her. Ike was wary about the union because David and Julie were so young at the time — both of them were only 20 years old. Eisenhower also had some concerns about David marrying a Nixon — not so much because of any issue that Ike had with Nixon, but because David and Julie were married a month after Nixon was elected President and Ike worried about how the spotlight might affect their relationship.
General Eisenhower was dying at Walter Reed when David and Julie were married and couldn’t attend the wedding in person. If I remember correctly, one of the television networks (maybe NBC), attempted to set up a closed-circuit television in Ike’s hospital room so that he could watch the wedding ceremony live from his hospital bed. I don’t have the book nearby so my details might be off, but I believe the video feed didn’t work and Eisenhower couldn’t see the ceremony, but the audio was working and allowed him to listen to the wedding live. Ike died just three months later.
(FYI: Just on a personal note, young Julie Nixon Eisenhower was by far the hottest Presidential daughter in American history. There is no system of rankings by historians to determine that, but my intensive research and impressive personal knowledge on the issue led me to a definitive conclusion on the subject.)
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.