My Morning With Nixon


I was a hippie in San Francisco when the only U.S. president to resign waved goodbye, flashing a fake grin. We watched the televised Nixon stride toward the helicopter that lifted him and his wife Pat off the White House lawn. Hunching up rigid shoulders and stretching his arms so wide that one hand appeared to touch the chopper's emblazoned American flag, the chastened president posed as a human victory sign.

Nine years later, in 1983, I entered my New York Times office to a ringing telephone. "This is Ray Price, President Nixon's press secretary. He wants to speak to you."

Then came the unmistakable voice: "I admire your artwork for my op-ed piece today, and I'd like to have the original." I tightened my grip on the receiver.

Though now -- in 2014 -- Nixon looks pretty moderate, that day's picture had been problematic. I was appalled that we were publishing his text, yet I saw how valid his argument was. Then-President Reagan's hatred of the "evil empire" made him recoil from US-Soviet summitry. But American presidents, Nixon contended, must meet their Cold War counterparts.

As op-ed art director, it fell to me to come up with an illustration. I normally commissioned seasoned editorial artists, but rather than risk receiving a biting Nixon caricature, I chose to do this one myself. I pictured him huddled with a Communist leader he'd regularly taken on. The magnificently eyebrowed Brezhnev was a treat to draw, but Nixon? Working from a dozen photos, it took many drawings before I arrived at a neutral portrayal.

Now Nixon wanted my original; it validated his obsession to be seen as a pivotal policy maker.

"Honestly, Mr. President, authors often feel entitled to original art, but it belongs to the artist."

"I'd like to sign a copy of my memoirs to you."

"Brezhnev made me a better offer." The Russian was dead, but Nixon didn't laugh. "Alright, it's yours."

"Can you be here tomorrow morning?"

"Come to 26 Federal Plaza in downtown Manhattan," secretary Price told me. "At the end of the hallway there's an unmarked door. Knock three times, pause, then knock again, once."

Ohmygod, it's a secret cabal! But I felt prepared to meet the reclusive, notorious Nixon. When I was a child, my mother told me how he'd demonized his Senate rival, Helen Gahagan Douglas, by seizing a trumped-up taunt -- she was "pink right down to her underwear" -- that her primary opponent had flung against her. Nixon underscored the "pinko" notion by printing his flyers on rose-colored paper. Douglas retaliated by coining a nickname, "Tricky Dick."

As a student, I planted myself in the path of troop trains carrying the youths Nixon dispatched to an unwinnable war. As a citizen, I penned passionate letters of protest when his secret Cambodia bombings were revealed, and like everyone -- I was amazed that the man who ordered a massive criminal cover-up scooted out scot-free.

Nixon claimed to be a Quaker, but he was nothing like the people in the Friends Meeting I'd attended as a kid. Those gentle mortals meditating on wooden benches hewed to pacifism and believed that "There is that of God in every man." Would I find godliness in Nixon?

Reaching the unmarked door, I knocked the cryptic signal. Two poker faces peeked out -- "We're the Secret Service" -- and ushered me into a vast, nearly empty room. In the distance was a large, lawyerly desk. Dangling from a glistening brass pole was an American flag that would never unfurl. The man who emerged from behind the desk incarnated what I'd just drawn--widow's peak, ski-jump nose and jowls atop shoulders that drooped like the flag.

Nixon extended his hand. "We're both California Quakers," I said, "but I've remained a pacifist." My brazen opener propelled him into a lengthy monologue on Quakerism's founder, George Fox. "Fox was unjustly imprisoned," said Nixon, launching into lecture mode and betraying his identification with a persecuted 17th-century figure. Wooden and self-conscious, he was clumsy at the natural give and take of conversation.

I sat down on the carpeted floor to open the big portfolio I'd brought to demonstrate that the picture he was acquiring was just one example of Op-Ed art. Nixon couldn't care less. He was far more concerned with my comfort -- "Wouldn't you rather sit in a chair?" -- or his discomfort at my informality.

"Do you enjoy your work?" he asked. "How long have you lived in New York?" I congratulated him on initiating Chinese-American relations, a feat that enabled my recent invitation to the People's Republic.

"I'm going there next week," he announced. "Then why don't I go with you," I joked. Nixon startled me by taking my light-hearted comment seriously. While he stared at the floor, I imagined tagging along on such a trip. No one was then afforded the Chinese reception Nixon enjoyed; even The Times's executive editor got the standard factory tour. Finally he raised his head: "You see ... Pat's not going." I realized my offhand remark was a real faux pas in the presence of someone who must visit China regularly for a royal welcome he otherwise rarely receives.

When Nixon said, "You're fortunate to be so young and full of creative ideas," I asked about his daughters. His chest expanded as he spoke of being a father and grandfather. For two and a half hours I was alone with the former president, save for secretary Price sitting silently in a distant corner of the graveyard-size office. Then Nixon reached for a copy of RN, his 1,120-page memoir. As he inscribed it, an agent tiptoed in with a camera to catch the moment. "I'm pleased you came," the ex-president said, managing an awkward smile while we walked to the door.

One week later, I received two 8 x 10" glossies that show Nixon ceremoniously folding his letter thanking me for the "sketch ... [that illustrated] my detente peice." [sic] In the foreground is a bronze miniature of Checkers, the cocker spaniel he'd once exploited in pleading for his political life. Defending himself against accusations of an improper $18,000 campaign contribution, Nixon spoke of his wife's "respectable Republican cloth coat" and of a gift to his daughters: "The kids ... love the dog, and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're gonna keep it."

Three decades after that clever dog diversion, which secured Nixon's precarious position as Eisenhower's running mate, he held onto a statuette of the spaniel. But instead of facing its owner behind the desk, Checkers -- still performing public relations -- turned out to confront the camera.

Soon I began receiving all of Nixon's books -- each personally signed. I suppose I should have sent him a thank you note, but I never could.