Raymond K. Price Jr., a speechwriter and confidant of Richard M. Nixon who crafted some of the most consequential addresses of Nixon’s presidency, including his final, anguished public remarks as commander in chief when he announced his resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal, died Feb. 13 at a hospital in New York City. He was 88.
His sister, Beth Brown, confirmed the death. The cause was a stroke, said his lawyer, Zenon Masnyj.
As a campaign aide, chief White House speechwriter, friend and literary collaborator, Mr. Price was a fixture of Nixon’s inner circle from the 1968 election that propelled him to the Oval Office to Nixon’s death in 1994 at 81.
Before joining Nixon, he had been editorial page editor of the New York Herald Tribune, whose opinion section reflected a moderate Republican political outlook. A literary stylist known for his ever-present pipe, he was appreciated within the White House for what Nixon called the “grace notes” adorning the speeches he penned.
They included Nixon’s first speech during the 1968 primary, invoking “the lift of a driving dream”; his first inaugural address, in which he spoke of a nation “rich in goods, but ragged in spirit; reaching with magnificent precision for the moon, but failing into raucous discord on earth. ... caught in war, wanting peace”; and the solemn remarks he delivered on national television on Aug. 8, 1974, announcing that he “shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow.”
Mr. Price — who described the speechwriting process as highly collaborative, with Nixon making meticulous revisions and adding flourishes to render the speeches his own — was among the president’s most steadfast defenders during and after the scandal precipitated by the burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in 1972. The ensuing coverup ensnared high-level members of Nixon’s campaign and White House staffs and ultimately Nixon himself.
In a memoir, “With Nixon” (1977), Mr. Price conceded that there had been “abuses of power, obstruction of justice, lies and deceits.” But whatever criminality had marred the Nixon administration, he insisted, was no worse than transgressions committed by previous Democratic presidents, and on balance Nixon’s achievements, particularly in the realm of foreign policy, were far greater than his sins.
Mr. Price evinced bitterness toward his former colleagues in the news media, whom he denounced for what he regarded as their overzealous, ideologically driven pursuit of a president whom it had become “fashionable to hate.”
He “sought with considerable courage and literary skill to paint Richard Nixon as a figure of Shakespeare tragedy,” prominent British journalist and author Godfrey Hodgson wrote in a New York Times review of Mr. Price’s memoir. “But the tragedy that moves me is that of Raymond Price. He was deluded, it seems to me, by his affection for and loyalty to Richard Nixon; by his contempt for what he saw as fashionable cant; by his passionate belief in the Nixon/Kissinger crusade for peace.”
The depth of the friendship between Mr. Price and Nixon came perhaps as a surprise to both. Mr. Price had been “the only speechwriter who did not call Nixon,” the Times reported in 1969; “Nixon called him.”
By early 1967, Nixon, a former vice president who had lost a White House race to Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1960, was preparing for a second presidential run. He dispatched Patrick J. Buchanan, the future presidential candidate and conservative political commentator then serving Nixon as an aide, on a search for speechwriters who might bring “balance” to what Buchanan described as his own “conservative views.”
The “number one recommended writer,” Buchanan said in an interview, was Mr. Price, who was then out of a day job following the shuttering of the Herald Tribune in 1966 and was at work on a novel.
The rub, Buchanan warned Nixon, was that Mr. Price was a moderate Republican “not known as an enthusiast of Nixon.” Mr. Price had penned the Herald Tribune editorial in 1964 endorsing President Lyndon B. Johnson over his conservative Republican rival, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona.
“Don’t worry about it, Pat,” Buchanan recalled Nixon saying. “After the first fight, he will be a loyalist.”
In the White House, Mr. Price, Buchanan and future New York Times columnist William Safire formed a triumvirate of Nixon’s principal speechwriters.
When Nixon “wanted to be tough,” to “send a message to the country or North Vietnam,” Buchanan said, “he would call me to write the speech.” He relied on Mr. Price for “high occasions,” Buchanan said, such as inaugurals and State of the Unions addresses, as well as speeches intended to reach across political, cultural and social lines.
“What Ray Price would say,” Buchanan reflected, “was very often what Nixon wanted to say.”
As evidence of the Watergate affair mounted, Nixon relied increasingly on Mr. Price for his counsel. In April 1973, as two top aides, H.R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, prepared to step down, Mr. Price found himself ensconced with Nixon at Camp David.
In his memoir, Mr. Price recalled that “the president set me back on my heels by saying, ‘You have always been my conscience — do you think I should resign, too? If you think I should resign, just write it into the next draft, and I’ll do it.’ ”
Mr. Price said that he argued for Nixon not to leave office at that time, and Nixon did not.
The following year, as congressional support for Nixon dwindled and his resignation began to seem inevitable, Mr. Price prepared two speeches.
The nation never heard the remarks known within the White House as Option A, declaring Nixon’s intent to remain in office. Mr. Price said years later he wrote that version simply so the president “could have something on paper that he could look at.”
“We must not let this office be destroyed — or let it fall such easy prey to those who would exult in the breaking of the president that the game becomes a national habit,” read the undelivered remarks. “Therefore, I shall see the constitutional process through — whatever its outcome.”
Option B — the resignation speech that Nixon ultimately gave — was the product of agonized toil by both the president and his aide. Mr. Price said that Nixon added the memorable line, “I have never been a quitter.”
After Nixon’s death, Mr. Price told NPR that Nixon did not want the speech “to be a mea culpa because he did not feel that anything he had done justified impeachment. He honestly did not, and I didn’t either. But, he did want it very much to be a healing document.”
“I think he went out the way he would have wanted to go out if he had to go out,” Mr. Price added. “He, of course, would have preferred not to give it.”
Raymond Kissam Price Jr. was born in New York City on May 6, 1930. His father was a securities salesman, and his mother was a homemaker.
At Yale University, from which Mr. Price graduated in 1951, he led the campus Conservative Party and worked on the U.S. Senate campaign of Prescott Bush (R-Conn.), the father of future President George H.W. Bush.
After Navy service during the Korean War, Mr. Price worked for publications including Collier’s and Life magazine before being hired by the Herald Tribune in 1957.
By the time Nixon resigned, Mr. Price was “exhausted,” he said years later, and yearned to return to private life. He remained a close collaborator of Nixon’s throughout his post-presidency, assisting him with his memoirs and other writings.
Mr. Price also served over the years as an assistant to William S. Paley, the chairman of CBS, and as president of the Economic Club of New York. He was called out of presidential speechwriting retirement to help draft President George H.W. Bush’s address for the 1992 Republican convention.
Mr. Price, who resided in New York City, never married and had no immediate survivors besides his sister.
Until the end, he defended the president he had served.
“I have been saying for a good many years that history would recognize him as one of our better presidents,” he told a reporter for Ohio’s Columbus Dispatch in 2002. “But not as long as history is written by people who have built their careers on the devil theory of Nixon.”