Ten years ago this week, on August 9, 1974, a teary-eyed Richard Nixon boarded a helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House and was carried away to exile in San Clemente, Calif., the first American President ever to resign his office. Yet Nixon did not surrender to humiliation or a subsequent near-fatal bout of phlebitis. He set about the arduous task of rebuilding his reputation. In the years since, the former President, now 71, has written four books and has emerged as a political elder whose advice, especially on foreign policy, is sought and carefully weighed. Assistant Editor Jim Calio and correspondents across the U.S. have collected these telling reminiscences by those who have known Nixon in office and out.
Attorney General (1974)
“I’m convinced now that Nixon didn’t have it all together in those last six months. He was so obsessed with this ‘plot’ to make a case against him that he wanted to blame everybody but himself. And, repeatedly, he thought the CIA was involved in some plot against him, and he wanted me to have the FBI investigate the CIA. I said no way.
“I thought he was a great guy early oh. He had warmth, showed interest in people, he certainly had knowledge. He also had a sense of humor. I used to tell him stories, and it was fun. Later the whole deal of meeting with him was pretty grim—you’d start out on some topic or another and he’d wind up doing a 45-minute monologue.
“The day he resigned, all of us in the Cabinet were sitting in the East Room of the White House. And just as Nixon approached the microphone for the solemn moment, my chair suddenly exploded from under me. It just flew apart and I landed flat on my ass. My wife suggested it was probably a CIA plot.”
Attorney General (1969-72)
“My feeling was that the rabble-rousers’ Pyrrhic victory was a sad loss to the country.”
Aide to Spiro Agnew
“Quite honestly, I was very pleased when he resigned. I thought it was a break for the country. And I said, ‘Hooray, they finally got him.’ I was bitter because he threw Agnew to the wolves in an effort to divert the country’s attention from Watergate.”
Michigan Governor (1963-69) and 1968 GOP Presidential candidate
“Richard Nixon’s resignation was a tragedy for him and the nation. He was an ambitious and able President. Unfortunately, he was also a split personality—thoughtful, generous and kind, then crafty, conniving and corrupt.
“Martha Mitchell supplied a clue as to why he did what he did. About a year before she died, I asked her if she had demanded that her husband resign as chairman of the Committee to Reelect (CREEP) because she knew of the burglary. She said, ‘No, it was because I learned CREEP was pouring huge sums of money into the McGovern primary campaign.’ Watergate dirty tricks were directed at destroying the candidacies of the strongest potential opponents and making sure the weakest, McGovern, would be the nominee.”
Speechwriter for Nixon, Gerald Ford and later Ronald Reagan
“The night Nixon was on television giving the resignation speech, I was in my office. There were one or two other people there, and we all realized it was ending. About 11, I got a call from the Chief of Staff’s office. The request was for a letter of resignation, which he needed the next morning. I said, ‘I don’t think there’s any precedent for a letter of resignation by a President.’
“They said, ‘You figure it out.’ So I sat down with a couple of people and said, ‘The one thing that’s very clear is we can’t write a long letter. He’s said what he had to say. It ought to be very brief. But how does one formally resign the Presidency? Who do you send the letter to?’
“So I called Fred Fielding, then the Acting Counsel and said, ‘Fred, what do we do?’
“Fielding said, ‘Jeeze, I’ve no idea.’ So we figured out it had to go to the Secretary of State. We wrote out three different drafts and had them all delivered late that night. And the next morning the lawyers chose one as coming closest to the legal requirements, and that went to Nixon and he signed it first thing in the morning.”
James St. Clair
Counselor to President Nixon during the Watergate hearings
“The letter of resignation turned out to be just one or two very simple sentences. I remember finding it amazing that such a simple note should have such momentous impact.”
Col. Ralph Albertazzie, Ret.
Pilot of Air Force One
“I remember August 9. It was a nice day at Andrews Air Force Base, a sunshiny day. We got Air Force One ready early, and things began to come out from the White House, like baggage. There were only a few people going to San Clemente. There was no press pool—only the people who were going to be in residence with the President. We’d gotten the manifest. I knew that Ron Ziegler, Steve Bull, Jack Brennan, Diane Sawyer, Tricia and Eddie Cox were going, and the usual contingent of Secret Service.
“We had the plane’s television on while we were waiting, watching the President’s final remarks. None of the men shed any tears, although I’m sure many of them felt like it. The trip from the South Lawn of the White House to the plane only takes eight minutes by helicopter, and you could see it all the way from the horizon until it circled around the airplane and landed.
“President and Mrs. Nixon got out. Mrs. Nixon kind of looked around, but the President had his head down. It was the first time he didn’t wave to me as he got off. It was a kind of a habit of his, an attention-getter, a sign to let me know he knew I was there in the cockpit.
“But he didn’t do it. He just walked, head down, up the stairs and right into his compartment, where he remained until after Ford’s swearing-in back at the White House. The steward was the only one who went into the compartment, except for Ron Ziegler.
“We took off at 10:17 a.m. and had the noon swearing-in ceremony piped in through the radio so those who wanted to could listen. I don’t believe the President listened to the swearing-in. Up until that time we were Air Force One, but as soon as Ford said, ‘I do,’ we relinquished the right to use that call sign. We became SAM (Special Air Missions) 27000. That took place at 13 miles southwest of Jefferson City, Mo. at 39,000 feet.
“Anyway, about 20 minutes later I was back in the staff compartment when the President came out. He looked at us and said, ‘Well, is everybody enjoying the flight?’ It was a beautiful day, and the man had just lost the most important office in the whole world, and he was asking us if we were enjoying the flight. You’re at a loss for words. Nobody said anything.
“…Then he looked at me again and said, ‘You know, Ralph, before we went to China, I remember promising you I’d make you a general. Like so many things, I’ve got to leave that undone.’ I said, ‘I understand, Mr. President.’ ”
Press Secretary to Pat Nixon (1973-74)
“Pat Nixon really loved her husband. And she resented criticism of him. She’d say, ‘I love my husband’ or ‘I trust my husband.’ She was so convinced and so thoroughly loyal. There was fire in her eyes.
“This might happen when we were going over press clippings or even in front of the press. If there were questions insinuating there was something going on, she’d say, ‘No, there’s no such thing. Dick would not do a thing like that.’
“The picture of them as not being loving is really not true. They were not a demonstrative couple, but she spoke in a loving way so many times. I’m sure there were ups and downs, as there are in every marriage. And I’m not trying to gloss over anything. But the devotion was there. I’ve seen them holding hands many times.”
Nixon spokesman (1969-74)
“He handled himself with a great deal of courage in the San Clemente period. I’ve often thought that most men during that period of disgrace and exile would have walked into the sea. It’s a good lesson to a lot of people that defeat, tragedy and disgrace do not necessarily have to destroy a person.”
“I saw him in 1981 when I was working for Reagan. I was in New York with Reagan and I called his office and said I’d like to go over and see him. He had sent me his books. I went over and spent an hour with him. And I was astonished at how much he knew about and had thought about Reagan’s Presidency, the people around him, the dynamics of the office. It was one of the most helpful conversations I had with anyone that first year. Because he knew so much. He knew more about what was going on in some parts of the Administration than I did. He clearly has major contacts.”
White House aide (1969-74)
“My memory of the phlebitis? It was a very serious situation. It was necessary for him to have the operation, I think, in case a blood clot came loose and got to the heart. He was on all these machines and there was a point when he had some sort of arrest during which all the horns, whistles and bells went off. Apparently he was very close to death. A nurse told me that for those few seconds, he was clinically dead.”
Director of Communications (1969-73)
“He’s finding a lot of pleasure in home life now and getting to know his family a little better. He told me he was astounded to discover that wallpaper could be cleaned.”
Director of Alumni Affairs, Whittier College
“I have to say that I have not always been a fan of Richard Nixon’s, but I was very impressed with him when I met him at the recent 50th reunion of his graduating class at Whittier College. He’s really a thoughtful man. I remember him talking to one of his old friends who was rather feeble and had some dandruff on his shoulders. While Mr. Nixon was talking, he was brushing the white stuff off his friend’s shoulders so he would look better.”
Comedian and friend to Presidents
“Sure I’m still close to him, oh, sure! The last time I saw him was at the Football Hall of Fame dinner in New York last year. And I receive letters from him. Every time I do something he likes, he sends me a nice congratulatory note. He shows concern for his friends, I think he’s compassionate all the way. The average American says ‘Nixon, God how he let us down!’ But that’s not my version of it.
“No, I don’t think I did make jokes at the time of the resignation. It became sad, you know, when he resigned. And you don’t do that, you know, pick on the big guy. Although at the Football Hall of Fame I did say, ‘Relax, Mr. President, we’re not taping it.’ Everybody loved it, and he laughed like hell.
“I also said at that dinner that they loved him in China because they think Watergate is a rice paddy.”