AUGUST 9, 1974
"Not surprisingly, there wasn’t much work to do that morning, and the lack of it gave the early-bird gossipers a chance to run amuck.
The first story I heard had President Nixon remaining in office using military force. Nothing even remotely close to that happened, of course, but the lie scared the dickens out of more than a few people before it could be refuted. It also created two interesting spin-off rumors, both of which were made for the eternally naïve or perpetually stupid depending on your point of view.
The first was a report that the President was on the phone with the White House Carpenter’s Shop arranging to have barricades built in front of every entrance to the Oval Office, each large enough to accommodate giant machine guns. Simultaneously, the full fury of the U.S. Armed Forces would be turned on Canada to divert public attention.
The second rumor also involved the military. This one concerned me a little because, although unlikely, it was not inconceivable.
That tale had the Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting in secret to agree that they would delay any order from President Nixon to use military force for any reason. I remember thinking that if it was true, there couldn’t possibly be worse news for the country. The Constitution would have been torn to shreds. On the other hand, I was concerned that it might not be true. Was there a plan to stop a distressed President from using the Armed Forces to keep himself in power? Obviously, nothing came of that rumor either. Still interested about it later on, I researched the issue. The answer to my question was “no”. Short of the military refusing to cooperate or the Vice President and the Cabinet unanimously agreeing to remove the President under the 25th Amendment, there was no plan. Zero. Nothing.
The President was supposed to make a farewell address to the White House staff at 9:30 in the East Room. When I got there at a little after nine, there was only standing room left and little of it. Being skinny, I delicately squeezed my way to the back of the room where the television cameras were set up. I was lucky. The crowd grew so large that it spilled out of the East Room and stretched down the red-carpeted Great Hall in lines that were three or four people deep. On top of that, it was hot and the air was heavy with emotion. I heard that a few people fainted. It was understandable.
The Marine Band played Ruffles and Flourishes. An announcer said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States of America and Mrs. Nixon, Mr. and Mrs. David Eisenhower, and Mr. and Mrs. Edward Cox.”
The East Room erupted in a thunderous standing ovation that lasted three and a half minutes. That’s a long time for applause. It might well have gone on for an hour if the President hadn’t started to speak. Speaking without notes with his family by his side, he began by saying, “You’re here to say goodbye to us. We don’t have a good word for it in English. The best is au revoir. We’ll see you again.”
The President left me with a lot to think about that day. He spoke about American leadership. Without it, he said, the world would “know nothing but war, possibly starvation, or worse in the years ahead.” With it, he said, mankind “will know peace, it will know plenty.” I had never thought about the world in quite such ominous terms before.
He talked about loss. “We think that…when we suffer a defeat that all is ended,” the President said. “Not true. It is only a beginning, always. The young must know it; the old must know it. It must always sustain us.”
He spoke about perspective. “Greatness comes not when things go well for you, but…when you are really tested…when sadness comes. Because only when you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.” And, most important to me, he spoke about resilience with a story from the life of Teddy Roosevelt whose wife died when the couple was very young. “‘When my heart’s dearest died,’ Nixon read from Roosevelt’s diary, ‘the light went out of life forever.’ That was T.R. in his twenties,” the President continued. “He thought the light had gone from his life, but he went on. And he not only became President but, as an ex-President, he served his country, always in the arena, tempestuous, strong, sometimes wrong, sometimes right…[and] that is an example I think all of us should remember.”
t was pretty clear that the President was talking about himself and what he hoped to do post-Presidency, but the lesson was not a bit less sound.
At the end, the Nixon family walked out of the East Room to another booming standing ovation that lasted even longer than the first one. Way in the back of the East Room it was so crowded that it took a few minutes for me to even start wriggling my way through the crowd. Just like everyone else there, I wanted to get to the South Lawn to see the Nixons’ helicopter off in Army One, the helicopter’s call sign that day. The crowd was bottlenecked at the door, in part because people were letting members of the Cabinet and senior White House aides cut in line to get out first. Somehow, I managed to slip behind Treasury Secretary William Simon, and I stayed as close to him as I could without getting a restraining order. Once we made it out the door, I went down the stairs to the Center Hall, turned left, and went outside through the south door of the Visitors Foyer.
There were hundreds of people on the lawn that humid, foggy morning from the high-and-mighty down to people like me. I got as close to the Diplomatic Reception Room entrance as I could to see President and Mrs. Nixon and Vice President and Mrs. Ford walk to the presidential helicopter. I applauded with the rest of the crowd when President Nixon enthusiastically waved goodbye and delivered his iconic two-handed “V for Victory” sign from the helicopter’s doorway.
From the beginning of the President’s speech the night before to his departure from the White House, the end of the Nixon Presidency was tasteful and dignified. As far as I was concerned, the United States had every right to be very proud of itself.
At exactly 10:00 a.m., the rotors started to turn and Army One rose majestically from the lawn into the misty air. It was as stunning and unforgettable a scene as anything Hollywood ever created. I was standing with a couple of friends and a lady in her mid-to-late thirties whom I didn’t know. She seemed very nice but wasn’t very talkative. As the helicopter passed Constitution Avenue, however, she dove headfirst into a very unexpected soliloquy. President Nixon had been through tough times before, she said, and this was just one more crisis to endure. The President would prove everyone wrong in the end; he always did. The helicopter was going to turn around and come back to the White House. In fact, it could happen almost any minute. After the helicopter turned east towards Andrews Air Force Base and disappeared behind the Washington Monument, she sighed “Oh, well” and abruptly walked away. Clearly, she had a leak in her canoe. As strange as that interlude was, it weirded up a couple of notches when I learned that my friends had no idea who she was. What’s more, none of us ever saw her again.
President Nixon and his family were on their way home to California aboard Air Force One when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger received the President’s letter of resignation at 11:35 a.m. eastern daylight time. That was all that was required to close the book on the Nixon Administration. Although he would not take the oath of office until noon, Gerald Ford was already President under the terms of the 25th Amendment. I heard that the “Football,” the black briefcase containing the necessary equipment for the President to initiate a nuclear attack, remained behind with Ford.
Incorrigible with curiosity, I went back into the White House through the Visitors Foyer and decided to walk to the West Wing to see what was going on. At about the time I reached the marble stairs to the State Floor, I saw that I was about to literally run into a huge problem. Leading a large contingent of people into the Center Hall from the Diplomatic Reception Room was Vice President Ford. In front of him were two Secret Service agents. As I reached ramming speed, I spun around and walked as fast as I could in the opposite direction. It must have looked like my pants were on fire. As stupid as I must have appeared, I thought my reasoning was pretty good. One sort-of collision with the Vice President on Thursday was an accident. Two sort-of collisions in 24 hours, unintended or not, started to look like a habit. When you tossed my “I have to deliver this to the President” moment on Wednesday into the mix, it would be easy for the Secret Service to assume that I was more like a volcanic-ash-spouting Mount Vesuvius type of problem than an annoying blackhead. Because that conclusion could permanently screw up my White House lifestyle, I wanted to avoid it at all costs. I knew that I was an accident waiting to happen. I couldn’t help myself. In fact, with the help of a reckless lunch, a broken faucet, and really bad timing, it wouldn’t be too long until I proved it to everyone’s satisfaction.
Thanks to a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, I was back in the far reaches of the East Room at 11:45 to see our new President take the oath of office. Getting into the swearing-in ceremony had required much more maneuvering than I expected. First, rumor had it that there was an actual guest list, which I clearly would not have been on. Second, the crowd had very few people like me, which made blending in a problem. The Cabinet was there, of course, along with General Haig, other senior White House staff members, and their spouses.
There were also a multitude of important Members of the House and Senate both past and present. Among them was the legendary John McCormack (D-Massachusetts), a Member of Congress since 1928 and Speaker of the House from 1962 to 1971. A highly respected champion of the New Deal, the Great Society, and other groundbreaking legislation, he came oddly close to becoming President twice in two consecutive days. When President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, Vice President Johnson was in an open convertible only three car lengths behind the presidential limousine. Johnson, in fact, was closer to the Texas School Book Depository when the shots were fired than JFK was. Had Johnson also been murdered, McCormack, as Speaker, would have been next in the line of presidential succession. Then, in the very early hours of November 23, 1963, a Secret Service agent guarding President Johnson’s home in Northwest Washington heard mysterious footsteps on the grounds. Suddenly, a tall, shadowy figure came around a corner of the house. Just as the agent pulled his submachine gun to his shoulder, he came face to face with Lyndon Johnson, who hadn’t notified his protective detail that he was going out for a walk. In the blink of an eye, the United States could have lost another President. If it had, the name on the White House mailbox would have been McCormack.
I saw the 82-year-old former Speaker walking towards the East Room and, just as I had done a few hours earlier with Secretary Simon, I simply fell in behind him. Nobody stopped me or asked a single question. As soon as Speaker McCormack had been comfortably seated by a naval aide, I hightailed it back to the area where the cameras were.
Something went haywire with my body in between Nixon’s departure and Ford’s impending arrival, and I started to sweat up a storm, so much, in fact, that I had a slow drip off the end of my nose. Because I didn’t have a handkerchief, I indelicately blotted it with the front of my tie. I had no choice. Standing next to me was a woman I didn’t know who looked about as pleasant as toe fungus. She shot me a nasty, judgmental look and said, “Don’t do that again. This is the White House, for God’s sake!” in the sharpest, most condescending way possible. Even though she was right, I didn’t appreciate it. “Oh, I understand!” I said as if I had just had a revelation. Then I wiped my nose with the back of my tie. That made her shudder a little. Clearly, she was not used to teenage boys.
The nonsense stopped when a man’s voice came over the public-address system. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said “the Chief Justice of the United States.” Everyone stood up. There was absolute silence."
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