Friday, August 7, 2009

Twisting Slowly in the Wind

Among other things, Watergate had a profound influence on American vocabulary.

A good example was John Ehrlichman's suggestion to allow acting FBI director L. Patrick Gray to "twist slowly, slowly in the wind."

It was one of those phrases that seemed appropriate for many people on many occasions during the Watergate scandal.

Perhaps no date was a better illustration of that than Aug. 7, 1974. If Richard Nixon had already decided, on that date, to resign the presidency, he appears to be the only one who knew his intentions — until he revealed his decision to his family at dinner.

But, until that time, no one really seemed to know what would happen, and speculation was rampant.
  • Maybe the most notorious speculation on that day was Alexander Haig's suspicion that Nixon might kill himself.

    The morose Nixon contributed heavily to that suspicion, as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein recalled in The Final Days.

"Over the past months, there had been certain references to death and suicide. At first, they were oblique and often expressed in Nixon's impatient manner; the President was thinking out loud, probably. This week, Nixon had finally approached the subject head on.

'You fellows, in your business,' the President began, meaning the Army, which he always seemed to consider Haig's real business, 'you have a way of handling problems like this. Somebody leaves a pistol in the drawer.' Haig waited.

'I don't have a pistol,' the President said sadly, as if it were one more deprivation in a long history of underprivilege. As if he were half asking to be given one. It was the same tone he used when he talked about his parents not having had any money."

The Final Days

    Haig did take the precaution of ordering Nixon's doctors to decline to authorize any prescriptions for the president and insisted that all pills already in his possession be taken away.

    But Nixon's attorney, Fred Buzhardt, assured Haig that Nixon was not the sort of man who would commit suicide. At Nixon's insistence, Buzhardt had listened to recordings of daily reflections Nixon had made, sort of an oral diary. "The tapes provided a dark, almost Dostoevskian journey into Nixon's fears, obsessions, hostilities, passions and inadequacies," Woodward and Bernstein wrote.

    And, from those recordings, Buzhardt had concluded that Nixon would not kill himself.

  • Haig was dealing with a delicate balancing act. He felt confident that Nixon would reach the conclusion on his own that resignation was the wisest course he could take — sooner rather than later if handled correctly.

    And he was Nixon's buffer against a couple of interest groups that day.

    One was the GOP's Congressional leadership, Rep. John Rhodes and Sens. Hugh Scott and Barry Goldwater. They were lobbying for resignation, and a meeting with Nixon was arranged for that afternoon. Nixon, the men were told, wanted a frank assessment of how he stood in the House and Senate. And the outlook was grim.

    Haig tried to reassure them that Nixon was likely to resign. But he felt Nixon could respond defensively and decide to fight it out. "[H]e has almost been persuaded several times," Woodward and Bernstein recalled Haig telling Scott. "If you demand his resignation, he'll probably harden up again. Would you just tell him the situation? He knows it. But he needs to hear it from you. He needs to know there are no alternatives. Nothing else."

    Also that day, Haig was trying to fend off H.R. Haldeman, who was lobbying for an "overall pardon" for the men who had done Nixon's bidding during Watergate.

    Haig saw it as blackmail to which Nixon would be vulnerable, and he did what he could to keep the issue from the president.

  • The greatest obstacle was probably Nixon's family. Nixon's sons–in–law had reached a level of acceptance, but Nixon's wife and daughters seemed to be more inclined to fighting it out.

"[White House public relations aide] Bruce Herschensohn ... was talking to Julie, reinforcing her opinion that her father should never resign. Herschensohn wanted the President to go down in history as a fighter, and he was telling her that winning or losing in the Senate was not the important thing — that standing up for the office would assure the President his proper role in history."

The Final Days

    But when Nixon joined his family for dinner, he made it clear that he had made his decision. His daughters began to cry. His wife did not cry. Then the White House photographer was asked in to take some pictures.

    It required numerous attempts before the photographer managed to snap a picture of the family that appears to show everyone smiling. But the photographer caught a poignant moment when Nixon and his youngest daughter, Julie, embraced, apparently unaware of the camera.

    The two were weeping, Woodward and Bernstein reported in The Final Days, and standing next to them, Nixon's oldest daughter, Tricia, "broke down, her face contorted, arms dangling."

  • After dinner, Nixon returned to the Oval Office, then retreated to the Lincoln Sitting Room, where he summoned Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

    It was during this meeting, about 24 hours before Nixon would speak to the nation and announce that he would resign the presidency, that Nixon broke down and cried and asked Kissinger to get on his knees and pray with him.

    "[Y]ou are not a very orthodox Jew," Woodward and Bernstein quoted Nixon as telling Kissinger, "and I am not an orthodox Quaker, but we need to pray."

    After the prayer, Nixon "struck his fist on the carpet, crying, 'What have I done? What has happened?' " And Kissinger did his best to console his president.

    Before the night was over, Nixon had one final request of Kissinger. "[P]lease don't ever tell anyone that I cried and that I was not strong."

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