Presented by Fisher Investments: Laying Blame; Toning It Down; Time to Go
Good morning, it’s Tuesday, August 6, 2019. The Cabinet meeting convened by Richard Nixon 45 years ago today was originally scheduled for 10 in the morning, but the besieged president lingered in the Oval Office until 10:37 a.m., and then took a brief detour to the White House barber shop before entering the Cabinet Room at 11:04 a.m. Perhaps he knew what awaited him.
Assembled in that historic room was his entire Cabinet, four aides and confidants, including Alexander Haig Jr. and White House press secretary Ron Ziegler, along with the chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Seated between Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, Nixon began by saying he wanted to address a current domestic policy issue -- namely, inflation. To the other men present, it seemed as though the president was in denial. The most important matter before the country -- the only matter than concerned them that morning -- was the president’s impending impeachment. Nixon addressed this, too, but in fits and starts.
He thanked the Cabinet secretaries for sticking by him, claimed he wanted “the facts out” about Watergate. Although transcripts of secret White House tapes had been released the day before, making the situation politically untenable, Nixon insisted that his lawyers still believed he’d committed no impeachable offenses. He acknowledged that the House was a lost cause and that he might lose a Senate trial, too. But he wouldn’t resign, Nixon said, because it would set a bad precedent for future presidents.
He sounded like a man trying to convince himself. But one person present, a Republican known for decorum not brashness, wasn’t having any of it, as I’ll explain in a moment. First, I’d steer you to RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion columns spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:
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At one point during his fateful August 6, 1974, Cabinet meeting, President Nixon invited Gerald Ford to weigh in. This put the vice president on the spot, as Ford pointed out. Then, from one of the chairs along the wall behind the table, an unlikely emissary spoke up. It was George H.W. Bush, the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Noting later that Nixon looked “beleaguered, worn down by stress, detached from reality,” Bush felt the need to speak candidly.
No recording of the meeting is available. Nixon’s surreptitious taping system, which caused him so much grief, had by then been disconnected, so there’s no record of exactly what Bush said. But no one there ever forgot the gist of it: Bush believed the president had to go.
In Jonathan Aitken’s authorized Nixon biography, this advice is rendered quite simply: “Mr. President, you have to resign.”
In “Final Days,” the famous account by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Bush is heard essentially echoing Attorney General William Saxbe in saying that the president’s ability to govern had been impaired.
However it went down, White House Chief of Staff Al Haig explained in his own memoirs just how bold this was. Bush was not a Cabinet official. He had presumably been invited to the White House that morning because he’d been so strong in his public defense of the president. But in the meeting, Haig recounted, there was a sudden stir from his side of the room and Bush “seemed to be asking for the floor.” Nixon did not recognize him, but Bush spoke anyway.
“Watergate was the vital question,” Haig wrote in recounting the Bush moment. “It was sapping public confidence. Until it was settled, the economy and the country as whole would suffer. Nixon should resign.”
Nixon was torn about what he should do; so was his wife, Pat. Over dinner upstairs in the family quarters, the first lady emphatically urged her husband not to step down, Nixon later said. “She was the last to give up,” he recalled. Yet, without any further conversation between them about it, the president noticed later that evening that Pat had already been going through the family’s personal effects, organizing and packing for their exile from the home they’d known for 5½ years. “With us sometimes, as it is between people who are very close, the unspoken things go deeper than the spoken,” he said. “She knew what I was going to do.”
Actually, the last holdouts -- those who were truly the “last to give up” -- were Nixon’s two daughters, Tricia and Julie. On this date in 1974, the younger of the pair, 26-year-old Julie, wrote a note and put it on her father’s pillow for him to find when he went to bed.
“Dear Daddy,” it began. “I love you. Whatever you do I will support. I am very proud of you. Please wait a week or even ten days before you make this decision. Go through the fire just a little bit longer. You are so strong! I love you.”
She then signed her name, with a brief postscript. “Millions support you.”
This was true. It was also true, as Nixon had told Al Haig that same day with gallows humor, “Well, I screwed up real good, didn’t I?”
Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics