The last days of Richard Nixon are popping up in the media nowadays, this week being the 40th anniversary of his resignation.
Nixon’s presidential diary from August 1974 makes interesting reading, especially the late-night and early-morning phone calls in the final few days. How incoherent must some of those calls have been?
My favorite part of the diary comes at the very end, on Aug. 9, when it presents the following order of events. (My summation is not word-for-word, but you can click the link above if you’d like that.)
9:32-9:57 a.m.: The President makes a farewell address to Congress and the nation.
10 a.m.: The President and his family go to the South Lawn of the White House.
10-10:09 a.m.: The President and his family travel by helicopter to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
10:17 a.m.-11:57 p.m.: The President (now former President, I suppose) and his family fly from Andrews Air Force Base to California.
10:20 a.m.: The President was telephoned long-distance by his former Assistant, H.R. Haldeman. The call was not completed.
That seems like an arbitrary place to cut off the Nixon Presidency, doesn’t it?
I like to imagine the last Nixon staffers hanging around the White House when the phone rang, saying to each other: “It’s that freaking Haldeman again. Do we have to put this in the record? Can we just pretend he didn’t call? Really? Oh, all right. Then we’ll take the boxes out to the car.”
The idea of the Nixon Presidency ending with an unsuccessful phone call from a disgraced former aide — after the former President had been shown on national television leaving town — is somewhere between touching and pathetic.
Was Haldeman not watching? Was he unaware that his old boss had left the White House? Was he desperate or hoping against hope that Tricky Dick had gone back to his old office one last time after making his farewell speech?
The diary shows Haldeman making several other phone calls in the prior day or two, none of which were put through to Nixon.
Haldeman, who was facing conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges, had asked Nixon to pardon him at one point, which Nixon refused to do. Presumably the President’s handlers cut Haldeman off after that.
But by 10:20 a.m. on Aug. 9, there was no one left to be cut off from.
Interestingly, Gerald Ford’s presidential diary has him taking the oath of office at noon on Aug. 9.
I assume that means Nixon remained President during those first two hours that he was airborne; I wonder what would have happened if something had occurred that required a Presidential response.
Maybe Haldeman really did think Nixon would still be at the White House, if Nixon were still serving as commander-in-chief.
(On a related note, I imagine the White House continued to get letters urging Nixon not to resign for days after he left. I bet a few Americans — maybe even Lazlo Toth — put letters to Nixon in the mail on the morning of Aug. 8, urging him to stay the course. Whaddya suppose the Ford White House did with them?)
Ford’s presidential diary, by comparison, ends in a much more dignified and stirring (and appropriate) fashion: His last recorded act as President was to take part in the inaguration of his successor.