I’m not rushing to judgment. I don’t know the facts. I hope the President proves the allegations untrue. But the invocation of the specter of impeachment by even such a loyal retainer as George Stephanopoulos (who said it could happen if the obstruction-of-justice or suborning-of-perjury charges are true) brought back a rush of memories.
I was there in the East Room of the White House some 10 yards away from Richard Nixon on Aug. 9, 1974, when he made his amazing sob-choked farewell speech and exited out the back door to the copter and exile.
I was there that entire feverish spring and summer of 1974 as events built to that moment. I was there when Alexander Haig conjured up the specter of a “sinister outside force” somehow penetrating the White House and effecting the erasure of the 18-minute gap on the tapes. I was there in the room on the night the House Judiciary Committee voted to recommend impeachment of the President. I was there in the Supreme Court chamber when the Justices heard the final arguments on the release of the White House tapes (rather than the heavily edited transcripts). I was there when the Supreme Court issued the ruling and suspense built over whether the President would give up the tapes. I was there when he did comply, when he released what turned out to be the “smoking gun” tape, and suspense began to build about the endgame. When the staunchest Nixon defenders began to crumble and people began to wonder not if the President would be impeached, but whether he would go quietly. Or whether, as some whispered nervously, he’d precipitate a constitutional crisis, some kind of Seven Days in May coup scenario. The whisperers weren’t alone in worrying. It was a time when Defense Secretary James Schlesinger issued sub rosa warnings to the generals and admirals in the nuclear weapons chain of command to double-check with him if they received any late-night phone calls from the President that threatened an apocalypse. It was a time, in short, without any precedent . When it suddenly seemed that all of American history, and constitutional tradition, might be up for grabs, when it seemed like you might have to throw out the textbooks on “orderly succession,” when just about anything could happen.
And I was there inside the White House for a little noted, almost forgotten moment when it seemed like it would happen-when all the worst fears, the paranoid suspicions, the darkest rumors of constitutional crisis might have come true. As I recall, this was a couple of days after the “smoking gun” tape had been released, the day before the decision to resign was announced, a day when the morning headlines showed the head count in the Senate-which required a two-thirds majority to convict a President in the event of an impeachment trial-made a Nixon conviction a foregone conclusion even if he fought it out to the bitter end.
It was a day, then, of absolute maximum uncertainty and insecurity about the future of the Republic, a day when to breathe the air on the White House lawn was to inhale liquid adrenaline. Outside the gates eerie keening and chanting came from the supporters of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon who, along with the maverick Rabbi Baruch Korff, were providing the Nixon White House with additional spiritual support to that which he was getting by dropping to his knees and praying with Henry Kissinger.
Then suddenly, that afternoon: the Lockdown. The entire White House press corps (of which I was an accredited if not entirely welcome member as the official White House correspondent for The Village Voice ) was milling around in the cramped basement quarters of the West Wing of the White House, awaiting the next announcement from embattled press secretary Ron Ziegler. Suddenly, Secret Service men arrived at the doors that led from the press room to the White House lawn-and locked those doors from the outside, locked us all in. And stood outside to make sure we didn’t break out. Stood silently, deaf to shouted queries, to rattled doors, to demands from rattled reporters for the right to leave.
It’s hard to recapture now the way, in that supercharged atmosphere-as two years of ugly warfare between the Presidency and the press came to a head, as three decades of ugly warfare between Richard Nixon and the press came to a head-that having Richard Nixon suddenly lock in the hated press corps hit that room like a bolt of lightning. Being locked in as who-knew-what was going on in the White House felt like being locked up . There was no practical difference. Were generals arriving to administer a state of emergency? Had the President done something, well, bizarre, dangerous or self-destructive? No one could find anything out, none of the White House press room staff members knew-or would say-anything.
It’s easy to laugh now at the inflamed paranoia of the moment, but there was very little to prepare anyone for what we were going through. Creaky two-century-old constitutional procedures for removing the Chief of State had been tested only once before, a century before3 when Andrew Johnson had survived a Civil War-era impeachment trial in the Senate. We were facing a situation with a President in power who was unlikely to survive. The handwriting was on the wall in the vote count, the smoking gun was pointed at his head, but he was still in power , still the most powerful person in the world, still a person with the power to incinerate the planet if he chose to. And we were-what?-scribblers, with the power to-what?-write about what happened afterward. Well, more than that: A few intrepid journalists had demonstrated the power of the press, a power that would mushroom in a sometimes unhealthy way afterward. But for the moment it had made the press people huddled in that White House West Wing basement probably more hated by the President than any of the people on his nuclear targeting hierarchy. And now we’d all been locked up.
Before I go further and reveal what the lockdown was really about, I want to speak a bit about the aftermath. About the day of the Resignation, Aug. 9, when we crowded into the East Room to hear the farewell speech before the copter departure. I was close enough to see the rivulets of sweat make paths through the President’s makeup powder, and the whole speech was one of the most disturbing, embarrassing experiences of human vulnerability I’d ever witnessed. I’ll never forget the strange, haunting remarks he made about those willing to risk being “bloodied in the arena.” I’ll never forget the way he then shifted gears, and in a softer, trembling voice spoke of his mother, how “she was a saint” but “no one will ever write a book about my mother.”
I’m not sure why, but in the feverish emotion of the moment, I was struck, as if by lightning, with the feeling that Nixon was speaking directly to me . Struck with the revelation, the mission that I should drop everything and devote the next year of my life to writing a book about Richard Nixon’s mother . Somehow everything, the solution to all mysteries, to Nixon, to America, must be there in holographic form in the story of Hannah, Richard Nixon’s Quaker mother, the dream and the nightmare she gave birth to. And in fact, a few months later, I actually went out to Whittier, Calif., to seek out the childhood home of Richard Nixon and his long-dead mom. I have a memory of trudging across the sun-cracked pavement of an unprosperous shopping center parking lot that one of Nixon’s loyal local partisans wanted to dig up, to restore as a shrine the site where Hannah once lived.
But that was later. In the immediate aftermath of that East Room speech (after which I followed the procession out to the lawn to watch the chopper take off) I felt an overwhelming need to clear out of Washington, to escape the whole sordid scene. I packed everything in the cheap Southeast district apartment I’d leased in the back of a rented station wagon and headed south with a woman from New York.
We got as far as a hot springs in West Virginia, White Sulphur Springs, I think. We soaked for a long time and then both fell sick with a raging fever. We could barely walk, but we made it across the border to a doctor’s office in Virginia. He gave us some antibiotics and then, unbeknownst to us, called the cops. As we were getting back into the station wagon, a squad car screeched up SWAT team-style, a team of cops searched and frisked us. It turned out the doctor thought she was Patty Hearst and I was one of her Symbionese Liberation Army fugitive escorts. We didn’t live up to the cops’ fantasies, and we were rousted out of town like Nixon.
The whole episode had a dreamlike, feverish feeling to it, as if we were experiencing in our bodies the shock to the system the body politic had undergone in beheading itself. Because that’s what it was: Yes, it was done in an exquisitely legalistic, constitutionally prescribed way, but the removal of a head of state is a beheading , traumatic and bloody to the body left behind, however legitimately it’s done. The first cut is the deepest.
Back now to the lockdown in the last hours before the beheading. It lasted not much more than a half-hour, but I recall it as the most tense half-hour of my life up to that point, maybe ever. And in a way-as a journalist-the most exhilarating: Something unimaginably awful seemed to be happening, and I was there at ground zero as it unfolded.
Then it was over, the door was unlocked. And we got the explanation: The President wanted to take a walk. The President wanted to take one last private walk. From the Rose Garden to the Executive Office Building and back, as I recall. But he wanted to take a private walk, he wanted to take an unobserved walk, he wanted to take a walk without the eyes of the media, both human and electronic, upon him. Without what he imagined, not without some justification, as the sneering, triumphant eyes of the press corps watching him. Without the equivalent of the death row cry going up: Dead man walking .
Looking back on it now, I don’t blame him. He didn’t do what we feared in our dark fantasies he’d do. He didn’t bring in the generals, call up the troops, start a war, launch a missile or a coup. He didn’t defy the Supreme Court and Congress, or rip up the Constitution (well, not after he got caught trying). He didn’t live up to the paranoid vision of Richard Nixon we, some of us, were guilty of holding, or hoping he’d fulfill. He went quietly. We owe him thanks for that. We owed him that last private walk.