Monday, December 19, 2011

The Refiner's Fire

Fifteen years ago this Christmas, during my toughest professional crisis, the soundtrack was Handel's "Messiah," inevitably. I've been listening to the king of oratorios through and through over and over in the car during Advent and Christmas for years. (Trevor Pinnock's recording this year. Wow!) But its triumphal choruses and sweet arias will always resonate with the lessons I learned that life-changing Christmas about the preciousness of true friendship and the abundance of grace.

To start with, it was President Nixon's doing. After his death in April 1994, I was surprised to learn that he'd named me co-executor of his estate, along with his personal attorney, Bill Griffin. His daughters were also surprised. That spring, Julie Eisenhower invited me to her late parents' Bergen County townhouse. As we sat in the sun room, she said how angry she and Tricia Cox were that their father hadn't picked them.

Over time, and naturally enough, it proved easier for them to get angrier at me than stay angry at him. For the next two and a half years, I kept running Nixon's private library while trying to settle two presidential records-related lawsuits the estate had inherited. In our periodic conversations, Nixon's attorney son-in-law, Ed Cox, did everything possible to inflame the wound Nixon had inflicted on his family by putting Griffin and me in charge of his estate. I can only speculate (and speculate I do) about why Nixon made the choices he did. Whatever his motives, as the reality of the situation settled in, Eisenhower (who had been friendly for years) was painstakingly and methodically brought around to the view that I wasn't "responsive enough to the family."

In the fall of 1996, Ed Cox blocked a deal I'd worked out with the Justice Department and National Archives that would have federalized and endowed the Nixon library. At issue were the tens of millions that would flow through the estate as compensation for the value of Nixon's White House documents, tapes, and other materials, which Congress had seized after his resignation. As executor, I had to protect both the family's interests and the library's, which Nixon had made his largest beneficiary. David Eisenhower told me that Cox, whose firm was representing him and Julie, had promised a substantial sum over the amounts specified in Nixon's will.

Why do the natio
ns so furiously rage together? For a while it looked like it would be paid over my dead body. Cox cut off direct negotiations in early October 1996 after I insisted on including a Nixon foundation attorney. Before long, I began to hear that I had "problems with the family." Tricia called some of my colleagues at the library and promised that, once I was gone, they would be "protected."

Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel. Cox had already tried to get me to resign as executor. Now the family called in a resentful consultant and ex-speechwriter, Ken Khachigian, to fire me at the library. I got the impression that he told everybody else in Orange County first. Herb Kalmbach, Nixon's White House-era attorney, drove to Yorba Linda to warn me. "The long knives are out," he said. Khachigian had a chance to plunge them in at Wheelspinners, a holiday party for politicians and journalists at the Biltmore in LA. Instead, after eying me sullenly from a redoubt hard by the appetizer bar, he asked about a pending Watergate-era project of his. He had been wondering how often his name came up in a new batch of tapes and asked if I could get a report to him by Friday. "I want to know why my political enemies might use against me," he said.

On Friday, I got a call from a friend on the library board, who said that Khachigian had asked him to tell me the Nixon family wanted my resignation. I wondered later what they had needed Khachigian for, since he hadn't even been up to the job of lowering the boom. Instead, I had to place the call to my own evidently timorous executioner, waiting by the phone at his San Clemente office. "I'll be overseeing the transition," he said optimistically. He told me that Nixon had let him go from his ex-president's staff in the late 1970s. Now it was my turn. I replied that Nixon had given me both my jobs and that if he had wanted a Cox, an Eisenhower, or Khachigian to handle his affairs, they would have been. In a lengthy fax over the weekend, I said I wouldn't resign. I also suggested that he make an appointment with the library's archivist to listen to the Watergate tapes himself.

That same weekend, Julie Eisenhower decided that I could stay. By then the Nixon foundation was awkwardly overseen by a super-board composed of Nixon's daughters, former Treasury secretary Bill Simon, and ALLERGAN chairman Gavin Herbert. Simon and Herbert had complained to me about Cox's pressure for more money. Based on a conversation I'd had with Simon in 1993, I assumed Khachigian wouldn't make much progress if he tried to get Simon to team with Tricia to fire me. Finally the Coxes maneuvered Herbert into quitting, which gave the family a 2-1 governing majority.

Nixon had never said he wanted his family to run his library. They didn't for long. For months Ed Cox had faxed me instructions purportedly issued by both women. He told people I'd been fired but refused to leave the premises. Meanwhile the Eisenhowers kept in touch with Kathy O'Connor, Nixon's last chief of staff, and me, urging us to stay the course. After Nixon's first postmortem crisis hit the newspapers in April 1997 (see here and here), Kathy and I put Simon and Eisenhower together and reorganized the foundation under its first independent fiduciary board. O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion!

No one familiar with families' struggles over money, power, and hurt feelings would be surprised by this story. If there's one thing more awkward than siblings who disagree, it's the third party whom a beloved parent has interposed. I couldn't tell which Cox spouse took it more personally that Nixon had overlooked them as custodians of his estate. Even though I served his father-in-law and family for nearly 30 years, Ed called me a johnny come lately in an e-mail he sent Nixon's brother Edward. Anyone in Yorba Linda who'd dealt much with Cox (currently the New York State Republican chairman) had no difficulty thinking that he was taking the lead oar. But I urged people not to underestimate Tricia. What John Moorman, scholar of the Church of England, wrote about the 16th century’s Mary Tudor applied to Nixon’s elder princess as well – “a tight-lipped, severe woman who had passed through the fire of suffering and is now in the grip of a firm determination."

She shares Henry VIII's pragmatism. Until his death in 2009, Nixon aide-turned-columnist Bill Safire was one of the Nixon family's few media friends. During the awkward months before we reorganized her father's foundation, Tricia pressured me to consult Safire, an anti-Beijing hawk, on the speaker list for a conference we were planning on Sino-U.S. relations. When I said that Safire’s views on China were opposed to her father’s, she didn't even bother to argue that they needed to be taken into account for balance's sake. She just said, “My father’s dead."

The struggle with her and her husband continued for years. I was called out of a final exam at seminary to take phone calls about the suit we filed, with the Eisenhowers' encouragement, to secure the $19 million Bebe Rebozo had left the library upon his death in 1998. He had given Nixon's daughters and another friend, aerosol valve inventor Bob Abplanalp, a voice in its disbursement. Tricia Cox made clear that she wanted to use her leverage to overturn our 1997 governance reforms. We settled the suit, got the money, and kept our independent board, but it wasn't pleasant. She and her legal team, which the dutiful Khachigian helped organize, spread the story that Rebozo, famous for stowing $100,000 from Howard Hughes in his safe, had said he didn't trust me with his money. Abplanalp, who repudiated the Cox tactics in a letter, said that Rebozo had admired me and just wondered during my early years at the library how much experience I had managing large investment accounts. I'd had a similar conversation with Rebozo myself. The Cox spin on Rebozo's question turned it into character assassination.

With all that behind us, when I left the library in 2009 after 19 years to begin full-time ministry, the women joined in a gracious statement:
We will always be grateful to John Taylor for his loyal and creative service to our father. He worked closely with him on his eight post-Presidential books and then provided dynamic leadership at the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda since its opening in 1990. He will be missed and we wish him well in his ministry.
As Ron Ziegler might've said, their statement is now inoperative. I was surprised to find recently that a sinister force had erased it from the Nixon foundation web site, although the press release it which it once appeared remains.

Recent reports make clear that the Coxes now have considerable influence at what former Nixon library director Tim Naftali calls the Haldeman foundation. Its current attorney, CREEP administrator and Cox buddy Rob Odle, helped stop the Nixon Center from using Nixon's name. Tricia disliked the center's president, Dimitri Simes. So did Khachigian, who called me once to say he'd been surfing the web to see how many (or how few) media hits Simes was getting. He was despised, rejected! As the Nixon foundation conducts its programs while promoting the agendas of family members and John Dean-hating aides of disgraced White House chief of staff Bob Haldeman, at least the Nixon library is now safely under federal government control. When Ed Cox blocked our 1997 National Archives deal, it cost the foundation millions and the public a ten-year delay in taking control of the Nixon library. In 2007, thanks to our independent board and $1 million in lobbyist fees, Kathy and I, having expanded the library, finally handed it over to the National Archives. Hallelujah!

Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory. Being on the Nixon family's enemies list wasn't as bad as health and other setbacks experienced just last week by members of the church I serve. But after working hard for Nixon from 1979 until his death and investing so much of my heart in the process, being the object of Borgia-like secret maneuvers and ice-hard ruthlessness might have crushed me. At least it felt like it would at the time, as all one's own emergencies usually do. Instead, the experience sparked a call to ordained ministry and taught me some important lessons besides -- and not just how to survive in the Church, which these last 20 centuries has perfected the art of institutional bloodletting. In a gut fight, if you're in someone's way you don't get credit for past service or having your heart in the right place. I also discerned the decisive difference between a friendship and an alliance and came to believe that truth-telling can stimulate understanding, growth, and forgiveness. One may even discover, as did the Jews returning from Babylon with Isaiah's redemptive prophecy ringing in their ears, that all things really do work together ineffably. Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplish'd, that her Iniquity is pardoned.


Jim said...

Quite a perfect piece for Advent coming into Christmas, John+. I am struck by the human sameness of sinfulness no matter the sufferer's station in this life. Thank you for your continued work and companionship.
Merry Christmas to you Kathy and your family.


Fr. John said...

Thanks, Jim. And to you and yours the same.