|Co-author on the beach near Provincetown|
We have a lot to figure out when it comes to process and timing, focus and theme, what to include and leave out. What would even tempt us post-presidential Nixonites to combine our nearly 60 years of Nixonalia in one Nixo-narrative? We're married, for one thing, though that doesn't means it's wise to write a book together. I'll undoubtedly gain insights about gracious collaboration that will be useful in upcoming counseling sessions with couples being married at St. John's Episcopal Church.
All kidding aside, since we've been working together since the day after Labor Day in 1980, when she first buzzed me into Nixon's Foley Square offices under the eye of his Secret Services agents, I anticipate a joyful process of research and writing. We also look forward to reconnecting with the Nixon we knew and respected for his achievements and in spite of his massive failings. We spent tens of thousands of hours with him during the last 15 years of his life, when he had mellowed considerably without losing his keen interest in moderate GOP politics (which are now inoperative) and his desire to influence U.S. foreign policy, especially in China and Russia. There's no denying Watergate, the vulgar White House tapes, and his penchant for dirty tricks. But from the man who traveled the world without portfolio -- and after 1985, without Secret Service agents -- serving as an honest broker between his successors and their counterparts abroad, we gained a deep appreciation for the statesman who had left the world safer than he found it when he resigned in August 1974.
|Nixon and Kissinger|
But as for the joke, I''ll have to tell you later. Just to tantalize you, telling it properly required Nixon to speak in falsetto. It was naughty in the relatively innocent way of Depression-era elites. Men of his and Bebe Rebozo's generation called it bathroom humor, meaning that it was scatological but also that gentlemen did their best to keep it among themselves in their manly enclaves, whether the locker room or the Bohemian Grove. One of Kathy's stories is about waiting for Nixon outside the men's room at a hotel where he and Henry Kissinger were attending an event together. She could hear them joking in their growly baritones and teasing each other like little leaguers.
A little boy or girl resides in most of us, whether presidents or priests. Nixon was a wide-eyed naif when it came to sexuality, matters of the heart, and their mysterious nexus. History has yet to appreciate how much he enjoyed and craved the attention of intelligent, capable women, chiefly, of course, his beloved Patricia Ryan. Yet women flummoxed him. As for Pat, while he always loved and respected her, his profound introversion and selfish decision-making kept their relationship out of balance. Too many instructions to several generations of aides began with the words, "Call Mrs. Nixon and tell her that...." If his temperament and deepest desires were barriers to the fearful intimacy of mutual vulnerability, so too with millions of his overachieving mid-century cohort, for whom dirty jokes were a way of whistling past the bedroom door.
There was even some bathroom humor in our day at the Nixon library. Pace Rick Perlstein and Jeb Magruder, 37 probably never gave direct orders to the White House Plumbers, authors of Watergate and co-destroyers of his presidency. But he was embroiled with library plumbers not once but twice -- and I'm not even talking about the acolytes of disgraced chief of staff Bob Haldeman who now control Nixon's private foundation in Yorba Linda. After 2009's Haldeman renaissance, triggered by his fellow operatives' hatred of John Dean, Kathy's 29 years of dedicated service to Nixon and his family were repaid with acts of such savagery and sadism that she lost interest in her mentor for a while. I give thanks that her ambivalence has dissipated to the point where she can separate her feelings about Nixon from all his Woodward and Bernstein-celebrated men and their enablers.
|Nixon and Kathy in China, 1993|
Nixon dutifully reviewed the exhibit text and made some changes. He didn't care as much about the library as we did. He reminded me repeatedly that, for better or worse, his legacy belonged to historians, not factotums writing paeans in exhibits paid for by his rich friends. The artifact that really mattered to him was his birthplace, where a school caretaker and his family were living as we got started on the library. We returned it to its 1913 appearance with the help of some restoration specialists I knew in National City, California, where I’d been a reporter ten years before. Thanks to their good work and Nixon’s late sister-in-law Clara Jane Nixon, who for years had preserved a houseful of his parents Frank and Hannah’s own furnishings, house wares, and knickknacks, library visitors can enjoy an authentic glimpse of a turn-of-the-century southern California farmhouse, a three-dimensional snapshot of the working class, goat milk-drinking upbringing of which Nixon was so proud.
Over our many Mimi's lunches during the next 19 years, Clara Jane told me absorbing stories about the Nixon family and gently defended her husband, Donald, whose financial imbroglios had embarrassed his brother (and had continued into the 1980s, when I'd fielded Don's calls in Nixon's New York City office). As if to remind me that her husband wasn't the only Nixon brother who was subject to judgment, she missed few opportunities to say how offended she'd been by the bathroom language Nixon and his aides had used on the White House tapes.
|2 BR, 1/2 bath|
He finally approved the john but not another of my and the architects’ schemes. Since the front of his family house faced away from the main library building, they wanted to pick it up and turn it around. The idea made sense to me but not the man whose father had built the sturdy bungalow 75 years before. It had survived multiple owners, suburban sprawl, brush fires, heavy metal teenagers, and the existential burden of being the spawning ground of the most controversial American politician of the 20th century. During Vietnam, vandals had torched Pat Nixon’s girlhood home in nearby Artesia. When I pitched the architects’ idea, he didn’t say a word; he just stared at me. “On the other hand, Mr. President,” I said, “we can leave it right where it is. I just wanted to let you to know what these guys were up to.”
There was a second latter-day Nixon plumber caper. Years before, when we showed him drawings the National Archives had prepared for a federal Nixon library in San Clemente, he was outraged to find that the employee restrooms were bigger than the public’s. He wrote to the Nixon foundation’s volunteer executive director, John Whitaker, a former advance man and White House domestic affairs adviser, and ordered a massive escalation in toilets and urinals in the public restrooms and a corresponding reduction in bowls for bureaucrats.
Even after the San Clemente plans fell through, over the years Nixon’s memo took on the authority of sacred canon. Our architects plumbed all its nuances. As a result, visitors to the Nixon museum never had to wait in line for its ample facilities, with their recessed lighting, marble counter tops, and terrazzo floors. In the basement, the tiny staff restrooms were done up in battleship grey tile and linoleum, with one stall each plus a urinal for the men that was set about eight inches from the floor for accessibility's sake. The appointments included lockers for the security guards.
On the library's opening day in July 1990, I was especially nervous about whether Nixon would feel we got his birthplace right. He said we had, although he suggested we rearrange some of the furniture, including the old piano he'd first learned to play by ear. We were flush with pride until he made a pit stop in the downstairs men's room in the brand-new library building. He emerged looking preoccupied and started slowly down the hall, stopped and looked over his shoulder, started walking again, and then put a hand on my arm so I’d turn to face him.
President George H. W. Bush, former Presidents Reagan and Ford, and their first ladies, along with a crowd later optimistically estimated by library marketers at 50,000, waited above in the burning sun for the dedication ceremony, but first Nixon had a burning question. “As I recall, at one point I may have made something of an issue about the restrooms,” he said. “But for God’s sake please tell me that’s not the only urinal in the goddamn place.”