Nixon to Clawson, after the fall: "What we had in common was that we knew very young what the dream was all about and how to win it...it's a piece of cake until you get to the top. You find you can't stop playing the game the way you've always played it because it is a part of you and you need it...and you continue to walk on the edge of the precipice because over the years you have become fascinated by how close to the edge you can walk without losing your balance..."
The White House limousines which normally came for me at 7 arrived at my McLean home at 9 a.m. on August 9, 1974, to take my wife and me to witness the final act that would make the Nixon presidency a thing of history. Neither of us spoke during the drive into the city. It was hot and muggy and we were drained from the long months of struggle and events of the previous day.
We went through the tunnel that connects the West Wing with the White House proper and walked to the East Room where there were chairs reserved for us. I stood in the open doorway, the grand room harshly lighted by the television lights. I could go no further. The press was on one side of the room and the Cabinet officers and White House staff on the other. I knew that among them were too many that I felt were traitors to the Old Man. People such as William Simon, William Baroody, Dean Burch, James Schlesinger, Alexander Haig, who had done everything in their power to push the Old Man into doing what he was about to do.
I turned suddenly from the doorway, taking my wife with me. We walked back down the corridor in the direction of the State Dining Room and found a place to stand along the wall near the grand staircase.
"I can't be in that room when he comes in," I said. "What will the president think when he sees me with those people who have done him no good?"
And then the Marine Band standing off to the side of the main entrance began playing "Hail To the Chief" and I looked up the staircase to see the Old Man and his wife coming down, hearing that familiar music played for him as president for the last time.
He looked wan, his hair grayer than I remembered it. Mrs. Nixon, who had always seemed cold to me - a woman I have never gotten to know - looked like she just wanted to go home and stay there. Julie, who had become a good friend, Tricia, and their husbands and Jack Brennan, his military aide, followed the Old Man down the stairs.
They turned and headed for the East Room when the Ol Man spotted me. Probably it was the look on my face, but he paused and gave me the thumbs up gesture, a smile frozen on his face. I stood there with tears welling in my eyes, watching as he disappeared into the East Room. My wife and I moved as far as the doorway to watch, still unable to enter the room.
I saw the Old Man's secretary, Rosemary Woods, standing partially hidden by a curtain in the doorway. She wasn't crying, but she seemed about to. Apparently she felt she couldn't go into that room either. There were so few of us left who were still loyal to the Old Man. I knew that just the previous day Julie had talked with the president assuring him that Rosemary and I were with him all the way, wanting him to stay in office, to fight the impeachment battle. But he turned Julie down.
I couldn't help wishing that Colson, Ehrlichman and Haldeman were still around. They were strong and presented a special leadership. They could have talked him into staying and fighting.
I had spent the last several months drinking too heavily along with much of the White House staff, as we watched it all coming down around us with apparently no way to stop it. It was even rumored that the Old Man was drinking heavily those last months, but I never saw it and could never perceive it, even those times when he called me at home as late as 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning.
Toward the end the president had so isolated himself that only Gen. Haig saw him. The rest of us didn't know what was going on most of the time. It was Gen. Haig who had told me the previous day that the Old Man was going to speak to the nation that evening to announce his resignation. I protested as I had all along. Haig's only response was, "your protest is duly noted." After my talk with Haig, I called the communications staff together. We had a final drink from the whiskey that remained from 89 sessions of Cocktails With Clawson, the informal meetings I arranged between administration officials and reporters in an attempt to get the administration's point of view across to the public. The Ziegler press operation was devoting itself almost exclusively to Watergate.I raised my glass and said, "To the president." We drank in silence while some cried and I told them of the president's impending speech. The end had come.
"Before I leave," I said, "you have all done a good job for me and for President Nixon. Now you should cut yourselves loose from us and try to find the best job you can from the Ford administration. I will not be able to make the transition because I have been too closely connected with President Nixon."
I called my wife and told her to meet me for dinner at Sans Souci before the television speech. The maitre d", Paul deLisle, rushed to us, grabbed my hand and said, "Monsieur, I am so sorry, but you will always be welcome here."
We ate in silence. My wife was concerned about our future, but I was unable to think beyond the speech. When we returned to the White House, 100 staffers were in my conference room watching television, waiting for the speech. I couldn't face all those people, so my wife and I went into a room across the hall called the Impeachment Room.
It was a room with three television sets with three desks facing them that had been manned by Larry Speakes from my office, a lawyer from Jim St. Clair's staff and Ken Khachigian, a speechwriter who later helped Nixon write his memoirs.
It was in this room that we had fought the impeachment and carefully monitored the televised Rodino impeachment hearings. We had immediate responses to the president's enemies down to a science. The responses were immediately dictated to Bill Timmon's congressional liaison staff in a room near the Judiciary Committee hearing room, and those responses would be delivered to friends on the Rodino committee to be used in defense of the president. Sometimes they were used, sometimes they weren't.
All that efficiency was wasted effort. We watched his resignation to the American people on those same television sets we had used in trying to save his presidency. I thought of that again the following morning as we watched him say goodbye to his staff in the East Room.
He was wearing his glasses for the first time and I remembered he had never done that before - not even at White House staff meetings. When he made a reference to his mother, I couldn't help feeling some embarrassment for him. He was the first president in U.S. history to resign from office and I couldn't help thinking, there probably wasn't any gracious way to do it.
After he spoke, he left immediately for the helicopter waiting on the South Lawn. I went to the South Portico to watch. The Old Man mounted the steps to the helicopter and turned, his arms raised in the V-for-victory salute that had been so characteristic of him, and of better times.
Tears were streaming down my face as I watched the helicopter take off.
I went to my office and drank three quarters of a bottle of scotch. It didn't work. No buzz, no feeling good. I went to my couch and lay down. I don't remember much of the next week. I went into the White House every day and attended senior staff meetings until the following week when I got a call from San Clemente that the Old Man wanted to see me.
I stayed for nearly two months at San Clemente. It was like some West Coast Valhalla after the Gotterdamerung. One day from the window I glimpsed the Old Man rounding the hedge, walking slowly, supported by a bleach-blond young man wearing the typical blue knit suit. The Old Man was having a phlebitis attack. The agent steadied his limping burden with the right hand at the elbow. In his left hand was the ever-present attache case containing one black and deadly Uzi submachine gun and a clip with 25 rounds of nine millimeter ammunition, snug and tight in a preformed leather casing like a new electric shaver with attachments.
The slow procession moved along the flagstones that separated the two single-story office wings. The Old Man looked drawn and somehow different, but it wasn't the clothing. Light blue trousers, dark blue shirt buttoned at the neck, maroon sportcoat. His black shoes looked as if they hadn't been worn, like they were just out of the showcase.
Then I noticed the shirt collar of the man who always dressed impeccably. There was a space between the collar and the neck. The shirt was too big or its occupant had lost considerable weight.
It wasn't until they turned through the door and I saw them in profile that I realized that the massive inverted sppon face was tilted downward, its chin resting on the chest as if in prayer. Or could it be defeat?
No, that could not be so. Even in those final, awful days the Old Man had tossed that massive head, cursing long and profanely against those who would hurl him onto the scrap heap. But it was always with strength, like the aged but still powerful heavyweight champ, brutally hurt, bleeding, but still dangerous, still capable of turning the fight around.
But he had refused to throw those last two or three punches. The Old Man stopped the fight himself. It was his prerogative as champion.
Even then he did not lower his eyes or his head. He hung tough to the end. I thought of the great hall at the White House when I was not a visitor but a member of the family. The Old Man had stood on the red carpet in those gleaming black shoes and his black eyes met and held mine for what seemed a lifetime.
The telephone rang, and the familiar female voice said simply, "He is ready for you." Without responding I put the phone back into its cradle and left my office and walked across the terrace.
The Old Man was seated behind the great desk, the game leg on top. "Excuse me, the damn sawbones say I've got to keep it elevated, keeps down the pressure."
I walked around the desk and shook hands. The Old Man clasped it with his left one, too. "I'm glad you came. Not that it's been all that bad, except for the leg. I just wanted to see you and hear the news, all bad I suppose."
"It's no worse than usual, and it's been so bad for so long maybe things will ease off soon, after the first of the year. You look great," I lied. "The rest and sun were good for you, that's certain."
He glanced at the leg on the desk beside him. It filled the trouser leg, like a thuringer sausage in a frankfurter casing.
"You know," the Old Man said kindly, "You were one of the few who would always tell it like it was. Don't bull[*] me now, not now of all times. Now. what's going on? What's happening to you, the others? How are the new people [at the White House]?"
"Some of our people are gone, others scrambling to leave. But I have kind of lost track..." I didn't finish. "As far as I'm concerned, they said they will be reasonable, whatever that means, although they've made it clear they want me out. I want out too, but I'm a little uncertain about what I should do."
Filling his pipe, the Old Man's hands shook and he spilled tobacco on the desk. Both of us ignored the small pile of grains.
"We're all a little uncertain," he said. "You were harsher about the new people in your letter than you seem now. You said they were mediocre at best and probably worse."
"Well, they just learned the game at the other place (on Capitol Hill), and you know better than I it's different. They do the same things now they did then, everything is compromise, compromise.And God, they seem to make it a virtue, being average I mean. It's like two guys standing before a rally shouting, "I'm more average than you," and "You can't possibly be as humble as I." You know, sir, I grew up with that *$ . It is the ultimate American arrogance."
The Old Man laughed. "Don't start quoting Sinclair Lewis to me again. After us, "Main Street" may be just what the doctor ordered."
He ran his fingers through his graying hair. The lines etched deeper in his face as he set his jaw.
"I know you're feeling bitter, so am I. But we can't let it show, not now, possibly not ever. And don't draw conclusions now, wait. I'm a lot older than you and I know that five years from now, then maybe, who knows?"
He coughed. "You must stay out here awhile. We'll talk. I've been having a little trouble sleeping, probably the leg. But But as I said, you've got to keep control, you know, discipline your mind to keep from taking on this whole thing now. How long has it been? It seems like years ago already. We [*] We...I've got to let time go by, put some distance between then and now, break it up into manageable pieces. You agree?"
"Yes sir. But we did an awful lot of good things."
"They'll never give us credit," the Old Man said, looking hard. "Even now they try to stomp us, you know, kick us when we're down. They'll never let up, never, because we were the first threat to them in years. And by God we would have changed it all, changed it so they couldn't have changed it back for a hundred years, if only..."
He scraped his heel on the desk, breaking the silence and leaving a mark. He seemed lost in thought. He turned his head toward the window, the lawn and the ocean beyond. Shaking his head slowly, he turned back toward me.
"I knew what it was like. I'd been there before. That's one of the reasons I picked you and most of the others, my colleagues, your colleagues.
"What we had in common was that we knew very young what the dream was all about and how to win it. Being hungry helps, but it isn't nearly enough and in some cases, it isn't even necessary.
"What starts the process, really are laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid.Sometimes it's because you're poor or Irish or Jewish or Catholic or ugly or simply that you are skinny.
"But if you are reasonably intelligent and if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence, personal gut performance while those who have everything are sitting on their fat butts.
"You were a good athlete," he said to me, "But I was not and that was the very reason that I tried and tried and tried. To get the discipline for myself and to show the others that here was a guy who could dish it out and take it. Mostly, I took it.
"But once you learn that you've got to work harder than everybody else it becomes a way of life as you move out of the alley and on your way. In your own mind you have nothing to lose so you take plenty of chances and if you do your homework many of them pay off. Ii is then you understand, for the first time, that you have the advantage because your competitors can't risk what they have already.
It's a piece of cake until you get to the top. You find you can't stop playing the game the way you've always played it because it is part of you and you need it as much as an arm or a leg."
He patted the swollen leg gently.
"So you are lean and mean and resourceful and you continue to walk on the edge of the precipice because over the years you have become fascinated by how close to the edge you can walk without losing your balance."
I interrupted, "Only this time there is a difference."
"Yes, this time there was a difference," said the Old Man softly. "This time, we had something to lose."
"How is your leg, really?" I said, changing the subject quickly.
"They say it's very bad. You know most of the details. But I've already told them to go to hell. I've told them I wasn't setting foot outside the wall around my property no matter what. They can cut off the damn leg, let it rot off or just wait for the clot to reach the end zone. I don't care."
I dropped my lighted cigarette on the floor and retrieved it quickly.
"You see, don't you?" the Old Man said.
"You've go to be tough. You can't break, my boy, even when you know there is nothing left.
"You can't admit, even to yourself, that it is gone. Now, some people we both know think that you go stand in the middle of the bullring and cry, "mea culpa, mea culpa," while the crowd is hissing and booing and spitting on you.
"But a man doesn't cry," he said, clenching the stem of his pipe between his teeth.
"I don't cry. You don't cry."
I wept softly. Dark liquid spots started appearing regularly on the Old Man's maroon sport coat.
After a while, I silently got up and walked out of the office.
I walked along the tarmac road that ran beside the high white wall all the way to the entrance to the compound. Once through the wooden gate, I could see the freeway and the town beyond and I felt naked. CAPTION: Picture 1, no caption, UPI; Picture 2, Richard Nixon looking out into the White House Rose Garden in 1971, by UPI; Picture 3, Ken Clawson, by Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post