Monday, August 8, 2016

8/8/74: When Nixon Didn't Resign

I shall not resign the presidency.
Gordon Partington III, Richard Nixon’s speechwriter, entered the impossibly tense room and recoiled first from the cold and then the smell of someone’s gaudy perfume laced with the television technicians’ sweat. He threaded his way among colleagues and sloppily dressed, indifferent-looking strangers. Finding an empty spot between the fireplace and a sconce, he settled in to watch the annihilation of all that he loved.

Like a pastor before services, Gordie had washed his face and hands and combed his thick blond hair before coming in. Though he’d been awake for two days, his pinstriped gray suit was rumpled but serviceable, the jacket neatly buttoned.

His wash-and-wear, blue and white-striped button-down shirts and paisley ties had once set him apart from Bob Haldeman’s fraternity boys, over-groomed southern Californians in starched white dress shirts and rep stripes. What do you get if you drive a red convertible slowly through the University of Los Angeles campus? A diploma, or so went the old gag. If the car had a Nixon bumper sticker, you also got an office in the West Wing. Gordie went to Andover and Princeton and could sometimes see both sides of a question, so the frat boys never trusted him. But they were all gone now, dressing for meetings with their criminal defense attorneys instead of staff meetings at the White House.

Much as Gordie loved this room, tonight it was the last place in the world he wanted to be. He considered it to be sacred space, consecrated to the New England-bred principles of good government he cherished -- the imperfectability of man, taking care of those who really needed it, and otherwise leaving him alone. For most of the last five and a half years, they’d been high priests of enlightened pragmatism and great-power drama. Gordie and Nixon’s other writers had stood there proudly when their announcements about great issues of war and peace, all the administration’s coveted “historic firsts,” had been broadcast to tens of millions.

But Oval Office speeches required turning half the Oval Office into backstage. Gordie had always
Backstage in the Oval Office
been put off when he saw the black rubber cables snaking along the blue and gold carpet, lighting fixtures that looked like silver umbrellas mounted on music stands, and interlopers laughing at their inside jokes. His bushy eyebrows gathered into an expression of puritanical revulsion. The situation stank, and so did they.

Peering around the cameras, he saw the woman who went with the perfume in a halo of light around the president’s desk. She had curly blonde hair held back by a ponytail and wore cowboy boots and jeans stretched across what seemed to Gordie to be a comically inflated bottom.

He glared at her from the shadows. She was dabbing around the old man’s widow’s peak. He held his big head still. His lips twitched in acknowledgement of the reassurances that Gordie thought she must have been whispering to him. As the makeup was applied, he was trying to keep his small, darting eyes closed, but sometimes, when his eyelids fluttered, Gordie could see him fix curiously on the woman. He wasn’t around people such as her very often. Even tonight, he was probably trying to see down her blouse. One of the few secrets the Nixon White House had managed to keep was that he had a wandering eye, especially when the woman was smart and pretty.

Gordie was only interested in her work. Stroke by stroke, she erased some of the outward signs of weariness and worry. She stepped back and nodded encouragingly. Before she turned away, she reached across his chest and patted his hands, which he had set on the desk in front of him, his delicate fingers entwined on top of a manila folder, which contained history’s first presidential resignation address, his and Gordie’s last collaboration.

Nixon’s face looked calm and, thanks to the woman’s efforts, a lot healthier than the last time Gordie had seen him. He smiled grimly in the dark. At least he’d leave a decent corpse. If it were really going to come to that, he could have been laid out in the Oval Office for a day or two, since either Nixon or Al Haig, his chief of staff, had ordered the air conditioning as low as it would go in August.

Still standing against the wall opposite Nixon’s desk, Partington sniffed the air again. The cold stench of failure. But still the frisson of power. Gordie could think of no earthy reason why it should feel different around powerful people. But while Nixon was disgraced and broken, it was still there, like a force field, as though the effect of everything he’d done, every life enhanced or destroyed, would stick to him forever.

And what about what Nixon could still do, even in these last few hours? What if Vietnam flared up, or the Russians started something? Gordie imagined an aide rushing in and whispering in Nixon’s ear, telling him of yet another crisis demanding his attention. Nixon had always made a fetish out of crisis. He could turn ordering breakfast into an existential struggle, a clash of civilizations. I know they like eating bagels and crepes at Princeton, Gordie, but it’s just not for me. His greatest crisis was giving up power before his time. It had never been done before, not once. So while by all accounts the Nixon presidency was in its dying moments, the night was young.

“May we have a level, please, Mr. President?” someone said.

“A what?” Nixon barked the question. He knew what an audio level test was but wanted them to think he didn’t, since no serious person would, and certainly no person occupied with ending wars and undertaking great initiatives. Before the technician could answer, he continued wearily, “Oh, yes, of course. One two three four five six seven. Is that good enough? Do you need more?”

“That’s fine, sir. Thank you.”

Nixon, who usually regretted being rude, tried to compensate. “I could do it again,” he said. “I understand it’s important. We all have to do our jobs. I could’ve done mine better.”

“Thank you, sir,” the man said. “We have it.” Gordie thought the man had spoken gently enough. Still, the speechwriter was always imagining dialog for other people. The technician might have added a little something. I’m sure this is hard for you, sir; I’m sorry. But what does he care? Maybe he hates him, like everyone else in the media. Maybe he had someone die in Vietnam.

Nixon also could have said something gracious to the stranger. I never know what to do or say when I’m anxious and self-conscious, which is the case pretty much all the time, so I take it out on people such as you, my political enemies, and peasants in small Southeast Asian countries.

Gordie shifted his weight from one foot to the other and steeled his weary, wandering mind. That wasn’t fair, and he knew it. If there was one thing Nixon had agonized about for his whole first term, trying desperately to do the right thing, it was that bastard of a war. Anyway they’d spent far too much time trying to repackage America’s misanthropic geopolitical genius. As Nixon was fond of saying when shredding Partington’s more Whitmanesque exercises, sappy wasn’t his style. Tonight of all nights, let Nixon be Nixon.

Gen. Alexander M. Haig, Jr.
Haig had told Gordie to start writing over a week ago, after the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon would have to give investigators more of the tapes he’d secretly made of conversations with his aides. Gordie hated the idea. He thought they should keep fighting. But the public’s furious reaction to the tape transcripts the White House released last Monday afternoon convinced even him that Nixon would have to go.

All week he sent drafts over to the West Wing, and Nixon would send them back, crisscrossed in blue fountain pen ink. On Wednesday, Barry Goldwater led a solemn delegation of Senate and House leaders, all Republicans, to tell Nixon he was going to be impeached by the House and that he had 15 votes at most in the Senate. He’d need 34 senators to avoid being convicted. Nixon knew it already. The visit of erstwhile congressional allies was a set piece in his ritualized emasculation, like King Arthur being stabbed in the crotch with his own sword.

They’d still been working last night, Gordie in his office taking notes on his IBM Selectric, Nixon calling from his bedroom on the second floor or his hideaway office in the Old Executive Office Building. He’d been reflective, self-pitying, maudlin. Resigned. He had Gordie add a paragraph on his initiatives with China and Russia. He raged half-heartedly against his tormentors. He apologized for letting everyone down. Once Gordie thought he was crying. Nixon would mutter “thank you” or “fine” and hang up without waiting for a response, and Gordie and his secretary would get to work on another draft. She typed it ten times in five days.

Rose Mary Woods
On Thursday, Nixon gave it to his secretary, Rose Woods, who typed it once more in capital letters using a large-font ball so he wouldn’t have to wear his reading glasses. Nixon had always refused to use a TelePrompTer. He thought it looked more authentic to read from a written text, glancing up and down and turning the pages.

Woods’s typescript was the one in the folder on his desk. Before a broadcast, he would underline words for stress, maybe add a sentence or two. Sometimes he’d warn the speechwriters about a drop-in, but it usually caught them by surprise. They were his reminders that it was not theirs but his.

“Twenty seconds, sir,” said the technician. Gordie heard the door open and close and saw that Haig had slipped in. They nodded to one another. It was just as Gordie looked back at the desk that Nixon turned to his left, opened the top drawer, and removed another folder.

“I don’t suppose you have any idea what that’s all about,” Partington said to Haig in a hissing whisper.

“My purview of operational responsibility did not include preparation of tonight’s address,” Haig said. “So you tell me.”

Silent monitors facing the back of the room showed the live feed for the three networks -- an exterior shot of the White House, then the presidential seal.

“Maybe he decided to use an earlier draft,” Gordie said. “Or maybe Rose’s copy was mysteriously erased by a sinister force.” Haig watched Nixon as he put the first folder in the drawer and opened the second. When Haig had said last December that “some sinister force” may have erased eighteen and a half minutes of one of the tapes that Congress had subpoenaed, Partington and everyone else knew he meant Nixon. “Up yours, Gordon,” Haig whispered.

“Five seconds,” said the technician, who counted four with his fingers and then pointed to the president of the United States.

When Nixon began to speak, Gordie’s eyes grew wide. He’d memorized the text. This wasn’t it. Nixon was doing a drop-in? Now? Was he actually winging his goddamned resignation speech? Haig grasped at his arm. He brushed Haig’s hand away and strained to hear.

Nixon’s voice wasn’t amplified, and the sound on the monitors was turned off. Then he raised his voice and stared into the camera. The two men got every word. “As president, my principal responsibility is to ensure that our carefully balanced system of constitutional government is not shortchanged,” he said, his eyes steely and narrow, “for the sake of what is convenient for any one individual, even if he is the president.”

Four or five more aides came in, including Emily, the new girl in the counsel’s office, the one just down from Harvard at the beginning of the summer. Partington didn’t think she’d ever even met Nixon or been in the Oval Office before. She was holding yet another manila folder. Scared as he was, his rectitude was offended again. She was too new, too junior to be here.

Most of the staffers knew something was going terribly wrong and looked suspiciously at Partington and Haig, who were just standing there staring at the president, who was now nearly two minutes along without having read a single word he was supposed to have read.

Emily, a small, pretty woman with shoulder-length red hair, was fixed on the president. “Therefore,” he said, looking calmly at the camera, though it appeared his hands were shaking a little, “regardless of demands to the contrary by my critics and many well-intentioned people around the country who are understandably weary of Watergate, I shall not resign the office of president of the United States. Effective immediately, Vice President Ford will assume the duties of acting president under the provisions of Section 3 of the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which govern a president’s temporary incapacity to fulfill his office.”

Haig swore to himself and stormed out. Gordie watched the thick molded door ooze shut and thought he might throw up. Was he witnessing a coup? Would tanks be circling the White House? And where the hell had Haig gone?

The president continued. “This will enable my advisors and me,” he said, “to mount the defense before the United States Senate to which, in the event of my impeachment by the House of Representatives, the president is entitled and which our Constitution wisely provides. All the work of the presidency and oversight of the executive branch will be carried out by our able and experienced acting president.”

Leonard Garment
Three or four people arrived and inched along the wall shoulder to shoulder, including Jim St. Clair, Nixon’s lawyer, and Len Garment, the White House counsel. They were glaring at Gordie, too. He shrugged and shook his head. Garment nodded with a limp smile. He and Gordie had been friends for years and recently partners in formulating the administration’s Indian affairs policy. They knew that Nixon had gone off the reservation before, although never like this.

St. Clair didn’t know his client as well as the other two men did. He spoke, and they answered, in whispers, since Nixon was still talking. “You must’ve known, Gordon. Len. For Christ’s sake.”

“I didn’t,” Partington said. “I’ve just spent three days locked in my office writing another speech. Where the hell’s Haig?”

St. Clair said, “He just came to get Len and me.”

“Where’s he now?” Gordie said. He wasn’t the only one in the White House who worried about Haig’s four-star authoritarian streak. His Pentagon buddies had been busted a few months before for spying on the White House because they thought Nixon was soft on Moscow and Beijing. He’d been for resignation before the rest of the staff. Gordie wondered if Haig was on the phone with Jim Schlesinger or maybe the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon, telling them not to worry, he had our lunatic president under control.

“Haig said he was calling Ford,” Garment said.

“Did he know?” Gordie said.

“Haig?” St. Clair said.

“He meant did Ford know,” Garment said.

Nixon and Ford
Partington said, “I definitely meant Haig, but now that you mention it, what’s the story on Jerry? I can’t imagine that he acquiesced in this. Section 3 is for sick presidents, not scandals.” He almost never raised his voice, but panic and exhaustion had gotten the better of him. Almost yelling, he said, “Does anybody have the slightest idea what ‘acting president’ actually means in this hellish nightmare of a situation?”

“I do,” a woman said in a girlishly high voice. “It’s not especially complicated.”

The three men turned toward Nixon, whom they’d momentarily forgotten. The speech was over. Emily, the new girl, was standing at his right side, fixing them with a determined if somewhat petulant expression. In the bright TV lights, they saw that she had green eyes and freckles. The president was also watching them thoughtfully. Looking down, she opened the manila folder she’d been holding and laid it in front of Nixon. They could see it contained two sheets of paper, each bearing a few lines of typescript. Nixon took a pen out of his suit coat pocket, scanned the top page briefly, signed his name to both, and slammed the folder shut.

"Jackson Place"/Robin Rogers Cloud
He pushed his chair back. Everyone in the room – technicians, aides, and attorneys – stood stunned and silent. No one had thought to turn the room lights back on, so he still looked like an actor on a stage. In his growly baritone, he said to them all and to none, “Someone please tell Mrs. Nixon that we’re moving to Jackson Place tonight.” Then he and Emily followed his Secret Service agents out of the room.

Garment looked at Partington and St. Clair. His usually bemused face was twisted in astonishment and shame. Emily Weissman was a 25-year-old kid with skinny legs, about six minutes out of law school, who worked on his own staff. He hadn’t talked to her for a total of more than 15 minutes. He was pretty sure she was supposed to be working on the 1974 presidential pardon list.

St. Clair was seething. He said to Garment, “What the hell’s going on in your shop? Is she sleeping with him?”

“I didn’t think she was quite his type,” Gordie said with a desperate smile. “She sure [expletive deleted] us.”

The real 37th president announced his resignation 42 years ago tonight. This post originally appeared as chapter 3, "Another Historic First," in my 2014 novel, Jackson Place. Find out more here

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