On the morning of May 11, 1974 — a Saturday, partly cloudy — President Richard M. Nixon woke up in the White House to this Washington Post headline:
As the Oval Office walls closed in, Nixon’s staff scrambled to find him friendly audiences. They found one at Oklahoma State University, on solid Republican ground, where later that evening Nixon would give a commencement address in front of 30,000 people — one of his last major speeches as president.
Before boarding the plane, he got a haircut.
Leaving Washington during times of scandal is on the first page of the commander-in-chief crisis playbook, though presidential commencement speeches rarely coincide with executive power showdowns. On Saturday, President Trump will give the commencement address at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., a speech scheduled weeks before he fired FBI director James L. Comey.
Despite the swirling Nixon comparisons, Trump is not nearly in the pickle the country’s 37th president was when he left the White House that May evening, his receding hairline freshly trimmed. The day before, following the release of transcripts from Nixon’s secret Oval Office recordings, the House of Representatives began impeachment proceedings.
“I want the most comprehensive notes on all those who tried to do us in,” Nixon had told White House aide John W. Dean III, according to the transcripts. “They are asking for it, and they are going to get it.”
Dean was more than willing.
“What an exciting prospect,” he said.
Just before 5 p.m., the president’s plane took off for Oklahoma from Joint Base Andrews, according to White House logs in the Nixon Library. First Lady Pat Nixon accompanied him. When they landed, a crowd of several thousand people applauded the couple as they walked down to the tarmac.
“Hang in there,” supporters told him as he shook hands. “We are with you.”
Nixon spoke briefly to the crowd. He noted that he visited the state numerous times campaigning for president.
“I have that old Okie spirit,” he said, before a helicopter flight to campus. “I’ve got it down deep in my heart, and we never give up.”
The audience at Oklahoma State was enormous. There were some protesters, according to news accounts and audio of the speech. Some shouted, “Liar!” and “Pay your taxes!” They were immediately drowned out as thousands cheered.
Nixon, even with his enormous ego, knew he was stepping on stage at a perilous moment.
“This school,” he said, “once had a tradition of non-controversial speakers. Well, now you have changed it tonight.”
Nixon continued buttering up a crowd that didn’t need it, hoping those listening by radio around the country might soften their views of him.
“I know you are very good at wrestling,” he said. “I could learn a little from you at that, too.”
Nixon quickly nodded to the Watergate scandal, saying he hoped “that the House of Representatives will act promptly so that we can reach a decision, so that the President, the Congress can get on with the people’s business.”
Then he turned to the future of the country.
“We can be thankful that for the first time in 12 years, the United States is at peace with every nation in the world,” Nixon said. “We can be thankful that for the first time in eight years, every American prisoner of war is home where he belongs and that he came home on his feet and not on his knees.”
The United States had economic problems, but “Americans enjoy more freedom, more opportunity, better jobs, higher wages, and a greater chance for a great future than in any place in the world,” he said.
He spoke of energy independence, the hardiness of the nation’s farmers and food system, and his efforts to reform healthcare (Yes, in 1974.)
“We have now before us is an achievement that Americans have dreamed about but have never been able to achieve before, a program in which every American will have health insurance if he needs it,” Nixon said. “This can be accomplished without additional taxes, and most important, where it is accomplished not by destroying the existing private medical system which has given us the best health care in the world.”
Nixon’s address went on for nearly 30 minutes. Reporters wrote that he looked tired, defeated. He ended by trying to push the graduates, the country, and perhaps himself, up a steep hill.
“Yours was the generation, a generation that asked questions, a generation not afraid of controversy,” Nixon said in closing. “But a generation that, when the chips were down, was strong in the right, believed in what we were doing.”
And then he was off, back to Washington, to the isolation of the White House, to his impending fate.
That day’s Washington Post, perhaps still laying around the White House residence when the Nixons arrived at 1 a.m., had published more transcripts from his secret tapes. On one, from less than a year earlier, Nixon told aides he was growing weary.
“I sometimes feel,” he said, “like I’d like to resign.”
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