Saturday, August 9, 2014

Nixon Leaves Washington

"Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself."

Richard Nixon
Aug. 9, 1974

Five years ago today, on the 35th anniversary of Richard Nixon's resignation, my focus was on Gerald Ford, the man who succeeded him.

And that was as it should be, I guess. My memory is that the general attitude among Americans was a desire to look to the future after years of being deceived, first by the Johnson administration on the war in Vietnam, then by the Nixon administration on Watergate.

That has always been one of the remarkable things about Americans in general. No matter how tragic the circumstances, nearly all Americans are determined to persevere and to look ahead, not back.

But before Ford took the oath of office and power passed quietly from Nixon to his vice president, Nixon gave one final address to the members of the White House staff, and it was carried live on all three networks. That was to be expected, I suppose. Nixon's actions on that day were historic. He was the first president to resign.

Like the Lincoln funeral after the first presidential assassination, it may serve as the role model for future presidential resignations.

Ford, of course, already had his place in the history books as the first unelected vice president, appointed to replace Spiro Agnew in the first implementation of the 25th Amendment. After Nixon's resignation, Ford — now the first unelected president — was responsible for the second implementation of the amendment when he nominated New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to be his vice president.

If someday in the future another American president decides to resign, the protocols for his/her departure may be guided to a great extent by the record of what Nixon and Ford did 40 years ago today.

On the 40th anniversary of Nixon's resignation, it is appropriate, it seems to me, to recall what Nixon did in his final moments as president.

Nixon gave his speech to the staff, then the Fords escorted the Nixons to the helicopter on the White House grounds that would take them to Air Force One, which would take them to California. During that cross–country flight, Ford took the oath of office; somewhere over the midwestern United States, Richard Nixon ceased to be president and the jet from the presidential fleet that was carrying him to California stopped being designated as Air Force One — until the next time it was assigned to carry a president somewhere.

The speech reportedly was made without notes, but it was not entirely spontaneous. It was, to an extent, choreographed. Viewers didn't realize it, but, as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote, "The family placed themselves on the small platform behind the president. Small pieces of tape designated where each was to stand. Mrs. Nixon was on the president's left, slightly closer to him than Julie, who was on his right. David and Ed stood by their wives. Ed was carrying a book. The applause did not stop for four minutes."

At times during Nixon's speech, the cameras scanned the East Room of the White House, and viewers could catch fleeting glimpses of some familiar faces. By and large, though, the faces were unfamiliar; many were staffers who had served several administrations, not just Nixon's, but there were those there who had been exclusively part of Nixon's staff. Many probably did not predate the Watergate break–in. Few, if any, of the people in that room probably testified before Senate and/or House committees.

In such a group of people, most had only a professional relationship with the president, not a personal one. Yet many of the people in the room were crying.

Nixon started his speech relatively composed, but, near the end, he seemed to be losing his grip. At least, it appeared that way to me. He began rambling, speaking of his father and his mother, their sacrifices and setbacks.

"[Nixon attorney Leonard] Garment thought, Oh, my God, he's beginning to break down," Woodward and Bernstein wrote. "A binge of free association. Money, father, mother, brothers, death. The man is unraveling right before us. He will be the first person to go over the edge on live television."

That didn't happen, of course. Nixon got a grip on himself and concluded his remarks with advice that seemed, to me, to be very insightful. I always wondered if Nixon, in his off–the–cuff speech, understood at last in its final minutes what had been the undoing of his presidency.
"Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself."

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