Tags: Nixon | Watergate | Stein

Reminiscences of a Nixon Insider

Tuesday, 01 May 2012 01:37 PM

By Ben Stein

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Sometimes — no, often — it is hard to believe that it really happened. That I worked in the heart of the Nixon White House, in the bowels of the White House maybe better said, in the darkest and last days of Watergate, and it was by far the strangest and most fulfilling job I ever had until I did my part in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Let me tell you a little bit about it.

nixonrabin.jpg
Former President Richard M. Nixon (left) meets with then newly-elected Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1992.
(Getty Images)
To start at the beginning, I always loved Nixon. As a lad of seven, when all of my leftie neighbors were saying his name with disdain during the 1952 campaign, I got a book out of the Parkside Elementary School Library in Silver Spring, Maryland about Nixon. I think it was by Earl Mazo, but I could well be wrong.

What I took from the book was that RN was always the outsider little kid on the playground being kicked around by the school yard bullies and teased. But he kept coming back for more.

He had no money, but he became a lawyer and a successful young man and then he saw the girl of his dreams. He was not his future bride’s first choice. But he persisted. He went so far as to offer to take her to dates with other boys in his car so he could spend a little more time with her. Eventually, he married her, and she became Patricia Ryan Nixon.

For some reason, I guess for obvious reasons, I identified with RN.

This love continued and I cast my first vote for President Nixon in 1968. My wife of only a few months was so angry at me that she got out of the car in traffic on Elm Street in New Haven and ran away crying. ( For her sins, she was mugged on her way home.)

When Watergate happened, I was separated from that wife ( whom I later remarried for all eternity ). I was living with a young woman named Pat and I still recall watching the local news in DC, where I was a miserable trial lawyer, with Pat watching TV with me, about a puzzling break in at the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C. That was June of 1972.

A few months later, I was teaching at the hippie capital of the world, UC, Santa Cruz, was a hippie myself, but was still one of only three votes cast for Nixon on the campus, out of over 1,500 voters.

I left UCSC largely because of a quarrel with the provost of my college over whether it was proper for the students to make a huge swastika in the dining room to mark their dismay over Nixon’s re-election. He thought it was fine. I didn’t and I quit.

Back in Washington, again, miserably practicing law, I started to write op-eds protesting the congressional lynching of Nixon aides and the lack of due process they were given. Now, here comes a key part of the story: My father was Herbert Stein, at the time chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.

He had been lukewarm about RN and enthusiastic about Nelson Rockefeller, but I had converted him to a Nixon fan. My mother was a fanatical Nixon fan. FANATICAL.

Notice was taken at the White House of my op-eds in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

In the early Fall of 1973, I was asked by a genuine nobleman, Peter M. Flanigan, a long-time friend and helper of Nixon’s and a war hero, genius, and a high pooh-bah about international trade at the White House (and a great pal of my father ) if I were interested in working on the White House speech writing staff. Yes, I was. In spades.

I went for an interview with a smart, poised fellow named Ray Price. He was amazed at my long hippie hair (artifact of Santa Cruz ) but apparently could detect my admiration for RN. He hired me almost immediately. That was in mid November of 1973.

I did not work for Ray directly though. My boss was a tall, florid, genial fellow from Yale College and Harvard Law School and the U.S. Navy named Dave Gergen. He turned out to be by far the best boss I have ever had, kind, good natured, great sense of humor, extremely intelligent. The best boss I ever had, by a country mile.

After a mock-stern warning from Dave and the chief researcher, a beautiful woman named Anne Morgan, that I was not to expect a lavish office and a TV, I was assigned what I then considered a very lavish office — tiny by comparison with Dave’s office, but big enough for a beautiful wood desk, a couch with silk upholstery that matched the floor to ceiling windows, and a round table and a book case on which I had my IBM Selectric.

There were no computers of any kind and no faxes that I recall. I did have a small but very much appreciated color television. I used it to watch soap operas to put myself to sleep for my twice-a-day nap on my couch — sleeping under an Afghan comforter my beloved Grandma Jesse had made for me. I also had the White House Communications Agency, put up news programs and RN speeches to watch.

By an incredible stroke of luck, my office was part of a five-person suite of offices that included on my left, a feisty Irishman named John R. Coyne, Jr. ex-Marine, ex-National Review, Columbia grad, alumnus of the staff of my fellow Marylander, Spiro “Ted” Agnew, who recently left under sad circumstances. John turned out to be a poet and a man of great empathy and insight. We are close friends to this day.

On the other side was our secretarial pool with two secretaries, one named Cheryl and the other named Toni. They were both young and lovely and hard working and extremely long suffering. To their left was the much larger office of Aram Bakshian, Jr., like me, from the DC area, with hardly any formal education, but probably the most well educated, smartest man of my age I have ever met.

Both John and Aram had amazing senses of humor. They were, again, astonishingly smart, far beyond what I had experienced even at Yale Law School. Aram also is still a close friend indeed and continues to shock me with his insights and intelligence.

Both of them were deeply fond of RN, but I am not sure either of them approached the subject with the same obsession I felt on his behalf and especially about how badly he was being mistreated.

In the suite to their left were extremely fierce Nixon partisans, Pat Buchanan, and a Californian named Ken Khachigian, also brilliant and devout and still a close pal. Bill Safire had just recently left the neighborhood to be a columnist for The New York Times. To the right of our suite of offices was the office of Dave Gergen — a large office — and next to him, a conference room of some size where we speech writers would frequently meet for our marching orders.

I loved the job from the first instant. Because I was a lawyer and an economist and also the youngest and presumably the most energetic, I was given the jobs involving economics, numbers, and law. Because I was considered a hippie, I was also given writing jobs associated with the environment, long a favored cause of mine. I wrote mostly messages to Congress sending up legislation, at first, and speeches very rarely.

I loved the job because of the prestige of the address: the Old Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House, the couch in my office where I could take naps after lunch, the fascinating and challenging speeches and messages I had to write — but mostly because I was defending RN. I genuinely loved him and thought that he was being crucified by the leftists who never forgave him for exposing Alger Hiss and for making peace with China, thereby encircling the Soviet Union and essentially ensuring that the Cold War ended with a stupendous Soviet defeat.

Frankly, I am not sure RN saw that far ahead, but maybe he did and the Russians definitely saw it.

The way I saw it, RN was the most exalted of all beings — a peacemaker. He ended the war in Vietnam, brought home our POW’s, saved Israel’s life in the Yom Kippur War even when many American Jews were criticizing him bitterly, signed the first strategic arms limitation treaty with the Soviets, and opened up China.
Blessed are the peacemakers.

RN, as I saw it, lived an exemplary home life with his beloved Pat and his two daughters, Julie and Tricia. Yet he was despised by the left, who idolized the partying, predatory, drug using John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy led us to the brink of world annihilation in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nixon brought us only peace. Yet Kennedy, the adulterous menace to society, was worshiped, and RN was cursed.

I was angry about that then and I am now. (I do not in any sense claim to be better than JFK morally, but then I never pretended to be, by the way.)

Back to loving the job. I also loved the people I worked with. Not a clinker among them. All devoted, all good humored except for one I won’t mention. They were the kindest, friendliest people I ever worked with. I especially recall our press secretary, Ron Ziegler. Even on the most trying days, he was a prince.

Alone among White House staffers though, I had two additional benefits. My father worked two floors above me and I could visit him any time. I had lunch with him in the White House Mess about twice a week. (At one of those lunches before my job started, I met Elvis, who was having lunch with Bob Haldeman. I still cannot believe it happened.) I got closer to my father than I ever dreamed I could be, and I was extremely happy about that.

One time I had a difficult question about economic statistics. I walked up the two stairways to pop’s office to ask him about the data. I said, “Only look it up if you have nothing more important to do,” and my father said magical words: “What do you think I have to do that’s more important than helping my son?”

It got better. My girlfriend, Pat, worked at my father’s shop, the Council of Economic Advisers, as a statistical clerk. We saw each other many times a day. She usually went home earlier than I did and she would come back to pick me up with our dog, Mary, an immense, gorgeous Weimaraner, skittering down the marble halls to find me. That also was bliss.

Motivation is everything, and we worked like madmen and madwomen at the Nixon White House. We wanted to save the Nixon presidency. It was huge to us. I have always worked hard, but at the White House I rarely left before midnight and got back by about 10 a.m. I worked every day, as did almost everyone else there.

My first major job was to write up a long message about energy and the environment. It was to accompany the comprehensive energy and environmental legislation the RN was sending up to (haha ) end our dependence on middle eastern oil after the pain of the Yom Kippur War Arab oil embargo. It was, like so much of RN’s work, the first of its kind.

That was a herculean task, requiring coordination with many government agencies and departments, and taking weeks if not months. I was blessed to work with Paul O’Neil, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, who was an actual genius.

That was the hardest, most concentrated job I have ever done before or since. Naturally, it didn’t go anywhere in Congress. Every later president has copied it and theirs didn’t work either.

I also worked soon thereafter on RN’s proposal for universal national healthcare. That, also, was a nightmare of complexity. My recollection — which could easily be wrong, after 40 years or so — is that our basic idea was to find out who had health insurance and if those people could not afford insurance, we would send them checks to buy it.

We would also have rural healthcare centers and health improvement centers that would have people doing calisthenics or eating whole wheat or flaxseed oil. That whole idea was not even close to as controversial as it now is.

It is amazing to think about it, but that was a Nixon plan supported by a Republican minority in Congress. It was killed dead by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who later wrote that he regretted doing so.

We also had plans and ideas about how to improve education. Even then, we were well aware that education for black children was a disgrace and RN had plans to fix it. Obviously, again, those came to naught.

Within a few months of my starting — in fact even before I started at The White House — it became clear to me that RN would probably have to leave office prematurely. The press was hounding him mercilessly over what seemed to me like trivia.

The Democrats in Congress were after him. The GOP in Congress was mostly lukewarm about him. (That was a totally different, far more diffident GOP than we now have. It was a docile GOP that actually cared what the press said.)

RN had done what the press screamed were high crimes and misdemeanors. Our former counsel, John Dean, was testifying against us. The tapes were being bandied about.

The nation was in a foul mood after Vietnam and the gasoline shortages and high prices and long lines at gas pumps and rapidly growing inflation.

“I can survive anything political,” RN once said, “but I cannot survive 50-cent gasoline.” (Yes! Gasoline had cost only about 30 cents a gallon before the oil embargo and Americans were addicted to cheap gasoline. And gasoline was close to that killer 50-cent mark)

My work came to be more and more on what we called “Watergate Defense.” Because I was a lawyer, I wrote in response to congressional queries about Watergate.

My proudest moment came when I wrote a rebuttal to a charge from the Watergate subcommittee. That charge was that RN and the Republican National Committee had received a bribe from ITT ( a large conglomerate) to drop a Justice Department case against ITT for one of its many acquisitions.

I researched and searched, and called people all over the government, and found that the timeline of events was such that the decision to drop the case against ITT had been taken long before the whole issue of the so-called “bribe” even came up in any way or even before the acquisition was discussed at ITT.

That was the one and only charge against RN that was dropped by the committee and did not make it into the long list of “misdeeds” he had supposedly committed.

This all led to a major treat for me. Somehow, probably through Peter M. Flanigan, word of my work on Watergate defense reached Julie Eisenhower.

She sent me a kind note on lovely blue stationery and invited me to lunch with David Eisenhower at the Solarium on the third floor of the White House. I can barely recall what we talked about. Probably our mutual dismay at the hatred of the media towards her father.

I do remember thinking, “I am here with the daughter of the president of the United States and the grandson of the supreme allied commander and president. My grandparents were immigrants and here I am.” But then I thought, “Well, Dwight Eisenhower was a humble small-town Kansas boy and Mr. Nixon’s father was a street car motorman. So, this is America.”

Later, Julie began to ask me if i cared to walk RN's dogs, King Timahoe, Pasha, and Vicky, around the EOB and the White House grounds when she and her family were traveling. I love dogs and considered it a privilege. I often saw King Timahoe in California later but that's another story. Just the memory of King Timahoe lying at Mr Nixon's feet in San Clemente drives me wild.

"This dog is with the foremost peacemaker of the century," I would think. "That's a lucky dog." There were almost no dull moments at the White House. The Watergate situation got worse and worse. More and more damaging material came out. To me, an amateur historian, it never seemed as if much that was really bad was coming out.

At worst, RN had obstructed an investigation into a burglary. That seemed like very small potatoes compared with having call girls in the White House, ordering illegal assassinations of foreign leaders, starting a massive war in Vietnam under phony pretenses, allowing us to enter World War II totally unprepared, allowing us to enter Korea unprepared — and endlessly lying about it the way some other presidents had done. (I do not pretend to be morally better than they are.)

The work got more and more desperate, but we stayed at our posts grinding out material. We always hoped for a miracle. Our spirits were good, all bucked up day by day, by the wit in our daily news summary from the astonishingly gifted staff of Mort Allin. It had many great jokes in it. My favorite was a report of two reporters in the pressroom talking. One says to the other, “What’s the hardest question you could ask the president?”

The other one says, “Mr. President, what do you do all day?” The first one says, “That’s too hard.”

I got my scariest jolt one night very late when Dave Gergen came to me and asked me to come into the conference room. There, on a gleaming table, sat a large cardboard box. “I want you to go through what’s in that box and make it understandable and show that the president didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” I said and Dave left the room. I opened the box. The stacks of paper were all headed “IRS FORM 1040 — Income Tax Returns for Richard M. and Patricia R. Nixon.” There were hundreds, maybe thousands of pages.

At issue was whether RN was allowed to take a large deduction for donating his official papers to the Archives. There was a memo from RN’s tax lawyer in New York saying he wasn’t. But somehow, the deductions had been taken anyway. Not good.

I remember thinking that I was impressed at how much confidence in me Dave had, to think I could make something helpful out of this. In the morning, I called the tax lawyer in New York who was in charge of RN’s taxes. I told him I was trying to get it straightened out. He sighed and said he was glad I had that job and not him.

I went home, exhausted and was ill. Dave tracked me down at home and told me I had to come down to work right away even if I were ill. He said if I didn’t, I would be called before the Grand Jury.

I did as ordered but no hint of a Grand Jury subpoena ever came through and Dave seemed to consider the whole thing eminently unimportant. I am still not sure why he did that, and I am sure he doesn’t even remember the whole incident, but I was frightened. In the event, RN had to pay substantial added tax.

We writers had certain rules. We each had an anecdote book of RN’s favorite anecdotes. The one I remember most clearly was of RN visiting his aging mother in the hospital when he was chasing down Alger Hiss to the general derision of the media. His mother said to him, “Richard, don’t give up.” RN, the young RN, answered, “Now mother, don’t you give up.” We used that often.

There was also one about how there was as much dignity in emptying bedpans — which his mother had done as a nurse — as there was in being president. (I believe it’s true. You don’t have to tell lies to empty a bedpan.)

Was I afraid during Watergate? Plenty. The events that frightened me the most though were about that old devil, money.

My girlfriend had talked me into buying a small (very small) home in an elegant neighborhood called Wesley Heights. It had only recently been opened to Jews. I was terrified that if I bought it, and “if” I lost my job, I would never be able to get another job and I would lose everything. That truly scared me. I was endlessly figuring out how long until foreclosure if I lost my job.

There is a vast amount more that I could say. We had frequent White House receptions, which were agony. Everyone was looking around for someone more important than me to talk to. We once had a shocking racial epithet mentioned at a conference on healthcare by a most unlikely source, one of our most liberal staffers. Aram Bakshian put me into stitches with his jokes about a staffer who was the daughter of a German rocket scientist, or so we were told.

By and large, day by day, it was bliss. The fascinating work, the challenges, the lunches with my father, the fast friendships I made with Julie and David Eisenhower, the dear comradeship with John Coyne and Aram Bakshian and Ken Khachigian, the surprise visits from Pat, my girlfriend, not Mrs. Nixon, of course. A truly wonderful woman . . . the prestige. All of it was great. I was closest with John Coyne, who was the first to suggest that RN would resign rather than be thrown out, and I look to John for wisdom to this day.

It ended in August 1974, soon after the discovery of what was considered a highly incriminating tape excerpt from RN. I saw that the end was coming when I was walking through the basement of the White House on about Aug. 1, and noticed moving men taking out clothing and dishes. I told my next door neighbor in Wesley Heights, a reporter for a Rome, Italy newspaper, that he probably should not go on vacation that week.

How does one grow broke? “Slowly and then, all at once,” as the saying goes. That was how my time at the White House with RN ended.

General Al Haig, who was chief of staff, called us together in an auditorium, told us staffers how brave we had been ( “. . . as brave as any men I have ever led in battle . . .” he claimed, which was certainly not true of me), then told us he was, “. . . a harbinger of horror . . .” and that we could not survive much longer.

Then RN resigned and the next day he spoke an incredibly moving farewell to the White House staff and spouses. I was there with Pat, both of us crying. I was chewing gum and crying. My father and mother were sitting nearby. I have never seen my mother so distressed and sad, sobbing, despairing, in anguish. My father looked as if his father had just died.

The RN speech was the most candid speech I have ever heard from a public figure, straight from the heart about his pain. His family stood behind him. I cannot imagine the agony of that day for them.
Then RN left out onto the South Lawn into a Marine helicopter and then he was gone — but not forgotten.

Julie stayed behind to pack more mementoes. RN was to have a small staff in San Clemente. I wanted to go but was not allowed to.
I recall walking out of the White House to the EOB, still sobbing.

Fred Dent, the kind South Carolinian who was Secretary of Commerce, patted me on my shoulders. “It will be all right,” he said, but his voice was hoarse.

I stayed on working for a genuine saint, Gerald Ford, for about three months. Then, apparently the new chief of staff, Don Rumsfeld, was upset that I was watching the Nixon farewell speech over and over on my TV and suggested I leave.

He was right. Time to move on.

I went to New York and then to L.A., and got to spend a great deal of time talking to Mr. Nixon in San Clemente. Those were by far the most amazing talks I have ever had with anyone. Some day, I will write about them, too.

Now, Mr. and Mrs. Nixon are dead. Bill Safire is dead. My mother and father are dead. I was 28 when I started at the White House. Now, I am 67, and bewildered about life generally.

But if I ever have the chance to talk to Mr. Nixon again in some sort of afterlife, we would probably talk about Nixon and about the beautiful people who hated him, and the Grahams and the Kennedys, and all of the pretty, rich people who hounded The Peacemaker from office, and I would say, paraphrasing F. Scott Fitzgerald when his narrator says his last words to Gatsby before Gatsby is killed for doing a good deed, “Mister president, you were better than the whole bunch of them put together.”

Mr. Nixon said he would leave us a “generation of peace” and he did, and who among us would not wish him to be back to guide us right now, today? I miss him every day. Richard Nixon. The Peacemaker.

Ben Stein is a writer, actor, and lawyer, who served as a speechwriter in the Nixon administration as the Watergate scandal unfolded. He began his unlikely road to stardom when director John Hughes cast him as the numbingly dull economics teacher in the urban comedy, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." Read more reports from Ben Stein — Click Here Now.

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