Jonathan Aitken: My Personal Watergate Memory

Roundup: Talking About History

Jonathan Aitken, in the Sunday Times (London) (Aug. 1, 2004):

...By coincidence I had a ringside seat at the ensuing drama of America's only presidential resignation on August 9, 1974. That summer I was the house guest of a well-known Georgetown hostess, Kay Halle. Kay's basement was occupied by a White House aide, Frank Gannon, and his girlfriend Diane Sawyer. She is now a CBS television presenter but in those days she worked for Ron Ziegler, Nixon's press secretary.

Four days before the resignation Gannon invited me to lunch in the White House mess. The place was as gloomy as a funeral parlour, but as a newly elected British MP who knew and admired Nixon (I had met him while working as private secretary to the former British foreign secretary, Selwyn Lloyd), I was welcomed and introduced to various departing aides to the president including Alexander Haig, Ziegler, Don Rumsfeld and Bob Finch.

Rose Mary Woods, the president's secretary, was weeping as she shoved papers into packing cases for the flight into exile at San Clemente. Nixon was in seclusion on the verge of a mental and physical breakdown.

We now know that what was troubling him most were demands for the granting of presidential pardons to key aides such as Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Charles Colson and John Mitchell. It was even suggested that Nixon should grant a pardon to himself. "Unthinkable ... I'll take my chances," he said, later adding defiantly in the days before his successor President Gerald Ford pardoned him: "I don't think prison would be so bad. All I'd need would be a good supply of books and a hard table to write on. Some of the best writing in history has been done from jail -look at Gandhi and Lenin."

I made one minuscule contribution to the final days of the Nixon presidency. Over lunch that day in the White House I offered the opinion that the historians of the future would treat Nixon more kindly than the journalists of the present. "Do you really think that?" said the excitable Ziegler. "Would you write it in a letter and I'll give it to 'the Man'?"

So, using House of Commons notepaper, I duly penned a British-style valedictory note of sympathy to Nixon. Ziegler later told me that he had handed it to the president aboard Air Force One just before 12 noon -the hour at which his resignation took effect. Nixon appreciated the gesture, for he told me so many years later when I became his biographer.

Thirty years on, Nixon continues to fascinate. Ancient speculations surfaced again last week after the death of Fred LaRue, a White House aide who many suspect could have been "Deep Throat" -the Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's inside source on Watergate. But it is getting easier to make an objective assessment of the man and his record. Most of Nixon's White House tapes are now in the public domain. More importantly, the hate-filled passions that he exacerbated because of Vietnam and Watergate have diminished with time.

Nixon's greatest strengths were his political resilience and his foreign policy prescience. Both were at work even at the nadir of his disgrace. He started to run for ex-president on the day he ceased to be the president. Minutes after finishing his final resignation speech to his staff he was helicoptered off the White House lawn towards Andrews air force base where Air Force One was waiting to fly him into exile. Anyone else would have been in the depths of despair. Not Nixon. "As the helicopter moved on to Andrews I found myself thinking not of the past but of the future. What could I do now?..."

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Jim Lynch - 8/9/2004

Hunter Thompson came to bury Nixon, not praise him, when he penned his farewell to the Trickster. The obituary in full was first printed in Rolling Stone magazine. I submit this extract, I suppose, because I agree with its every word.

"It was Richard Nixon who got me into politics, and now that he's gone, I feel lonely. He was a giant in his way. As long as Nixon was politically alive--and he was, all theway to the end--we could always be sure of finding
the enemy on the Low Road. There was no need to look anywhere else for the evil bastard. He had the fighting instincts of a badger trapped by hounds. The badger will roll over on its back and emit a smell of death, which
confuses the dogs and lures them in for the traditional ripping and tearing action. But it is usually the badger who does the ripping and tearing. It is a beast that fights best on its back: rolling under the throat of the enemy and seizing it by the head with all four claws. That was Nixon's style--and if you forgot, he would kill you as a lesson to the others. Badgers don't fight fair, bubba. That's why God made dachshunds.