Sunday, April 21, 2013

Notes On A President's Notes

By Kathy O'Connor

Tomorrow is the 19th anniversary of the death of Richard Nixon, whom I served for 14 years as his personal secretary and last chief of staff. I can hardly believe it has been almost two decades since I held his hand and kissed him on the forehead while saying goodbye in a small, dark room in the ICU at New York Hospital. Those private moments remain fresh in my mind because of the sacred separation of his spirit from his body that I felt as his heart monitor went flat.

Because of the passions of the Cold War, Vietnam, and Watergate, and especially the secret White House tapes, history’s assessment of him will always be complicated. Some of his worst moments and those of felonious assistants such as Bob Haldeman are on display in tonight’s documentary on the Discovery Channel. But there was another side of our former president that I was privileged to see as he traveled the world, wrote many books and articles, and advised all of his successor presidents.

The days before his devastating stroke were full and joyful. He worked on his final book, Beyond Peace. Two days before he was stricken, he was among friends and family at the wedding of a family friend in Westchester County. The day before, his younger daughter Julie Eisenhower spent the day at his home in Park Ridge, New Jersey, which had felt empty indeed since Mrs. Nixon’s death in June 1993.

On Monday, April 18, he decided to work at home weighing book promotion options and answering correspondence. We were on the phone all day. He had his stroke just before dinnertime, about an hour after our last conversation. He was rushed to the hospital, where he died on April 22.

I’ve thought of him each day since. To focus his own thoughts, President Nixon wrote notes to himself constantly, including daily Kathy-dos. Here are the two from April 18. When we’d covered a matter, he crossed it off the list. On the shorter list are a couple of items he never had a chance to ask me about. Maybe later, Mr. President!