The last days of Richard Nixon's presidency have been getting a lot of play lately. It's the 40th anniversary of his resignation—the only presidential resignation in American history. Late one night I listened to a documentary about the Nixon White House tapes. Hearing the smutty Oval Office conversations of the 37th President of the United States, and the grainy German brogue of Henry Kissinger flattering Nixon as "one of the greatest American presidents" thrust me right back to my late childhood. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein have been making the rounds of the interview programs to commemorate the anniversary. They are no longer the callow Washington Post city beat reporters who stumbled onto one of the great stories in the history of journalism, but hoary and wrinkled national icons.
Last week I saw a Colbert Report done in retro 70s style in which Stephen Colbert, sporting 70s sideburns and chain smoking, managed to interview Nixon aides Pat Buchanan and John Dean in the same half hour. They are both old men now, but their personalities have held up surprisingly well after decades in the bruising arena. Buchanan cheerfully said Nixon should have burned the White House tapes. Dean speculated that the 18 ½ minute gap (on June 20, 1972, three days after the burglary) contained cover-up evidence so damaging that Nixon felt he could only survive if he erased that section of the tape.
When transcripts of select tapes were grudgingly released by the White House in April 1974, the American people were deeply dismayed to hear Nixon's potty mouth—the constant use of the f-word and other presidential filth, hints of anti-Semitism, racist innuendo, profound cynicism, a kind of base political grubbiness that made you want to shower. And those were the tapes he agreed to release!
I remember precisely where I was when Nixon resigned. It was August 8, 1974. I was a cub reporter and photographer for the Wahpeton Daily News. It was a summer job after my first year of college. We had one of those old AP wire machines in the newsroom. All day every day it clacked out what seemed like miles of copy on endless rolls of coarse tan paper, like a clunky oversized manual typewriter caught in perpetual motion. Every twenty minutes or so the copy editor, a man named Johnson (who had a Hasselblad camera), walked over to the AP teletype and tore off the accumulated copy—about the sagging economy, the increasing desperation of the war in Vietnam, and the latest antics of the Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army. He used a metal rule (called a pica pole) to tear the ten-foot length of AP copy into individual stories, some of which he marked with a red pencil and sent back to the next room to be set into newspaper type.
The AP teletype machine had an alarm bell system. If the AP regarded the news as especially important, a bell would ring. If it were more important, two bells. Etc. On most days, and for weeks at a time as I remember it, no bells rang. But this was one of the pivotal days in American history. At some point in mid-morning, five bells rang in quick succession. There were eight or ten of us in the newsroom gabbing and pretending to work, some just loitering as Nixon's presidency unraveled before our eyes, styro coffee cups strewn all over the furniture. When the alarm bells went off we all rushed, like a newsroom cliché, to the AP teletype and actually jockeyed for position. The words tapped out in a kind of hectic and agonizing slow motion. The AP reported that it had learned … on good authority … that President Nixon … would resign … at noon the following day, August 9, and … that Nixon … was preparing … to address the nation on … television … later tonight. There is nothing like the excitement of terrible news, especially when it has no direct relation to your personal life.
That afternoon the crusty publisher of the Daily News, Newell Grant, sent me out to Wyndmere or Hankinson to take pictures of a farmer who had won the Soil Conservation Farm of the Year award. I drove slowly listening to radio updates on KFYR. I was experiencing that strange great-crisis numbness: "How did this happen, what can it mean, what will happen next?" I arrived at the award-winning farm in mid-afternoon, loaded a 35mm film canister into my Canon F1, and knocked at the door. It took a long time for the farmer to come to the door. I introduced myself. He, too, was benumbed. He looked at me with a kind of stern sadness and said slowly, "You will have to come back some other time, young man. The President of the United States just resigned. This is no time to stand around in a shelter belt."
The farmer's response seems a bit silly in retrospect, but that is only because we have all endured so much disillusionment in the last four decades, lost so much decency and civility and decorum and modesty of spirit. We are now collectively jaded about the nature of power. Back then there was still a sense that American government resonated with the provisions of the U.S. Constitution, that the way things actually happened in the national arena could be understood by reading a civics textbook. The President of the United States used the f-word? The president ordered thugs to break in to the offices of his enemies, including the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist in Los Angeles? That's Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers. The president delivered weepy (and perhaps intoxicated) White House monologues about how the power elites of American had always hated his guts and sought to destroy him? The president believed the "Jews" control everything? The president had known that Vietnam was lost before he took office, and his "secret plan to end the war" was just an empty campaign catch phrase?
That evening, when the president addressed the nation, I walked into a bar in Breckenridge with my camera. Somewhere in my files is the photo I took, which ran the next day under the headline, "Back Home in Breckenridge." It's a grainy Tri-X black and white photo, of Nixon staring out of a flickering television screen high above a group of five or six old men drinking Schnapps, two of them in suspenders and wearing checkered flannel shirts. I asked the men what they made of it. They all had rural accents. "Crook finally got what he deserved!" said one of them. "What he done, they all do, he just got caught," said another. "This is a sad day for America." "Hell, he opened China. That'll be remembered long after this nonsense is forgotten." "You wish we had McGovern?"
My late father's dream was to listen to all 2,636 hours of the White House tapes. That would take a full year of eight-hour days—more Nixon than I wish to hear. But I'm going to listen to a bunch of the most important of them in his honor, and take one last roll of film with my old Canon F1. And find and scan that Breckenridge bar photo. And drink a little Schnapps for all we have lost.