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Ex-Leatherneck Jack Brennan Talks About Life with the Former President He Still Chooses to Serve

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A Marine combat veteran who won a Bronze Star and Purple Heart at Khe Sanh, Maj. John V. (Jack) Brennan was appointed a military aide to President Nixon in 1969.

When Nixon resigned two years ago this week, Colonel Brennan accompanied him to San Clemente. Eventually Brennan quit the Marine Corps and now serves as chief of Nixon’s small staff and as his golfing partner and confidant. In an exclusive interview, Brennan discussed their relationship with photographer Harry Benson of PEOPLE.

Do you blame Nixon for Watergate?

You have to define the crime. The break-in? He didn’t know about that, or I wouldn’t be here. What he did was trust people. The main thing that people say he did was cover up. Haven’t you done that? I’ve done it with my troops. But still, he’s responsible.

How do you feel about Nixon personally?

I believe in him. I know him, like him, respect him as a man. What other people say about him—what he did to this guy and that guy—well, that’s them, not me. He has never done anything to not make me trust him completely.

Does your faith in him lift his spirits?

More often than not, he keeps mine up. If I tell him a problem I have, he tries to help, and if he tells me something, I say it’s not so bad, forget about it. I think the fact that he’s taken up golf again has done a lot for him. He regularly shoots 85, and looks forward to our games.

Did you really want this San Clemente job?

He asked me to stay, and first I said no. But then he asked me again, and his friends urged me. They said we’ll set up a business and you can be president of it. I said no to them. They had taken the wrong approach. Money was not of particular interest to me.

Was it worth giving up a promising military career?

Some people say I was crazy to give up after 16 years, not counting reserve time. I could have retired and gotten the pension. But security was not the significant factor. I did it because in my mind it was the right thing to do. As long as I remain healthy, can work, and my kids can go to college, that’s what’s important to me.

What do you do as chief of staff?

The job encompasses all the aspects of his office and his life, from appointments to mail to budgets. It includes liaison with the General Services Administration and the people in Congress at budget time and on the frequent occasions when they want something for investigations. It’s like being a White House chief of staff on a much smaller level. There’s never a boring day.

Does Washington keep Nixon informed?

We do get occasional briefings. They are transmitted to a nearby military base. But courier planes used to go to former Presidents, with a man and briefs. Johnson got one at the ranch every Friday. And other Presidents were provided with communications equipment that we do not have. It had to be different with us because of the vindictiveness following the resignation. A double standard was in effect. They said they didn’t care what other Presidents got, you don’t get it.

What are your fondest memories of the President’s term in office?

It was exciting to be the first Marine in the People’s Republic of China. The Marines were the last ones out and I was the first one back in. And it was very exciting for me as a Catholic to be introduced to the Pope by the President.

Did you meet Brezhnev too?

Yes, and somehow he and I hit it off. He told Mrs. Nixon that there was one word to describe me. It was a Spanish word, and we finally came up with it—”machismo.”

Did you ever see the human side of President Nixon?

Yes. The evening of the Cambodian invasion [in April 1970] we were having dinner with the family in the dining room of the presidential yacht Sequoia. “You’re a Marine,” he asked me, “what do you think of this decision?” I said that it was the right thing to do. I wished I were there. He said, “I wish I were too.”

Then what happened?

He said, “Let’s go all the way to Mount Vernon.” Every boat that goes by Mount Vernon pays honor to Washington. We got there and he brought the whole family out on the bow, and the band played the national anthem. He was standing at attention, and obviously the Americans fighting were on his mind. There were tears in his eyes. I was touched. No one ever sees Nixon that way. He would never allow the people to see him that way.

What do you know about the fraudulent tax returns that got Nixon into so much trouble?

I was there when he signed his 1969 tax forms. There were his tax advisers, and he shook hands with them and said, “Well, you guys are all confident. I’ll sign the damn things.” As it turned out, that was stupid. He should have read them. It wasn’t that he was naive about it. He was just a busy man. He paid these guys a lot of money and thought he could trust their advice—like he trusted his assistants.

How will history judge Nixon?

History can’t possibly overlook his accomplishments. I think some of the perspectives are already being set. Look at some of the revelations of his predecessors’ activities: assassination plots, use of the FBI while running for President, newsmen wiretapped. Given the moral character of the Congress that was supposed to have judged Nixon, I know there will be vindication. The question is, how much time will it take?

What do you believe was Nixon’s greatest achievement as President?

When I was a young officer, I was stationed in Cuba [at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay] during the Bay of Pigs. I couldn’t wait to go over the fence and go all the way to Castro. But I’ve changed now. After seeing young boys under my command killed and mutilated in Vietnam, I don’t want to see more. I can thank Richard Nixon for this. My son has just turned 18, and instead of going to Vietnam in the fall, he’s going to college.

What is the overseas view of Nixon as you read it?

It’s 1,000 percent pro. The amount of mail we get from foreign countries is incredible. Everyone I know who travels to a foreign country comes back and says people are asking, where the hell is the crime?

Do foreign diplomats share this view?

I know a foreign ambassador, and one night at a Washington cocktail party this guy got up in front of a very liberal crowd and gave a very moving speech. After going through every recent President and his foreign policy, his conclusion was that “finally you Americans had a President who understood the world and you dumb bastards sent him to San Clemente.”

Do you agree with some Republicans that Nixon’s last China trip upstaged President Ford during the New Hampshire primary?

The Chinese made several overtures, beginning a long, long time ago. The first was through a very distinguished visitor to this country. It said something like: “Chairman Mao Tse-tung wants to invite the greatest statesman the United States has ever had to visit China.” At that time I had no idea when the goddamn New Hampshire primary was going to be.

What do you think of Woodward and Bernstein’s book The Final Days?

As a fictitious novel, it reads well. My theory is that Woodward and Bernstein didn’t write the book. I know they did the research. They tried to get to me. And I know they went to my friends. They had a beautiful line about how they wanted to set the record straight and be honest, and they conned some of my friends into talking to them. There were even threats made such as, “Talk to me or you’ll look bad.”

Are you saying there were factual mistakes in the book?

I read the excerpts. A friend sent me a copy of the book and said just look at the places where you are mentioned. There were 95 places like that—when I was standing there with the President—and in 93 of them the book has either an outright lie or a mistake of fact. I think this book really destroyed what Woodward and Bernstein did previously. I hope the money they make compensates their consciences.

Did the Nixon family read the book?

I’ve only argued with Mrs. Nixon twice, and once was when she asked me to get her a copy of the book and I said no. She said, “It’s about my family and I have a right to read it.” She finally got the book through one of the secretaries. In my opinion, here’s a woman that should be canonized right now. But in that book she is portrayed as a woman who drank and was cold to her husband.

Was there any warning before she suffered her stroke?

After Watergate she was in great health. She believed in her husband. But on the day of her stroke her blood pressure was incredibly high. I don’t know if this was the cause, but she had been reading the book.

How is she now?

She has a nurse and she is undergoing therapy at home. But she has no medical insurance. It lapsed when the President left office.

Were you at the hospital in 1974 when Nixon went into shock during treatment for phlebitis?

Yes. I was standing by the door in his room when suddenly I saw the nurse jump up. The President went white and his eyes started to roll back in his head. A flock of doctors and nurses came running into the room and Dr. Lungren, the President’s physician, started shouting, “Dick! Dick! Dick! Do you hear me?”

What did you do?

I asked the doctor what happened. He said, “It’s just like a car. You pull into a service station and you need oil and gas to keep it going. We just put it right.” I said, “Like hell. It’s more than that.” I was shaken.

How do you all relax at San Clemente?

Quite often the President has a cocktail party for the staff, and he plays the piano while we all sing. His piano playing isn’t very good. He only knows one note. I like to sing Danny Boy, but it’s too sad for me to sing with the President.