There were awkward moments in Richard Nixon’s return to Washington. When he walked into Sen. Howard Baker’s office, where top-level VIPs (Carter, Ford, Kissinger, Rockefeller) were gathering to attend memorial services for Hubert Humphrey, Nixon “looked tired and apprehensive,” Baker said later, “and terribly unsure how he would be received.” The senator credits President Carter with sparing Nixon any embarrassment.
Later, in the Capitol Rotunda, reaction to the former President was interestingly mixed. Many mourners greeted him warmly. Sen. Barry Gold-water did not speak to him at all. “I’ve had my last words with him,” Goldwater explained. “I feel it would have been better for the country if Humphrey had been elected President.” Did the senator think Nixon was using the occasion to break out of his self-imposed exile? “He came because he is a living ex-President,” Goldwater said. “I don’t think it was an effort to ingratiate himself. He’s through. He’s absolutely through.”
That Nixon would show up to honor his old foe had itself been a surprise. The former President explained: “He called me at Christmas, then again on my birthday [Jan. 9] a few days before he died. We spoke for 15 minutes—he liked to talk. But his voice began to slur near the end of our conversation. He was under terrible pain.” When Nixon sent word that he wanted to attend the service, Humphrey’s widow, Muriel, graciously answered, “We would be highly honored.”
He saw little of Washington, which he had not visited since his resignation in August 1974. Former Presidents often stay in Blair House across the street from the White House, but no invitation was extended. Instead, Nixon and his party took over the Middleburg, Va. estate of Mrs. Thurmond Clarke, the wealthy widow of a California federal judge. He watched the Super Bowl (“terrible and unprofessional”), walked around the grounds in the snow, did not telephone old cronies like former aide Bryce Harlow (who said, “I wish he had hung around for a few days”), and contemplated one historical fact about the place where he was staying. George Washington is said to have slept there.