Much is being reported this week on the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon's resignation as president. But there is one very revealing conversation the 37th president had with an aide the day before he announced his exit that is unlikely to attract much attention.
That is because Nixon's conversation with then-White House Special Assistant Bruce Herschensohn shows the only president to resign the office to be quite different from the way he is usually portrayed in the national press.
"I left thinking I had convinced President Nixon to stay in office and fight the impeachment that was coming," Herschensohn said of their 47-minute private meeting on the afternoon of Aug. 7, 1974.
"But he put what he felt was the country's best interest first. What the Soviet Union might do while he was tied up with an impeachment trial was an overriding concern."
Herschensohn, who now teaches at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., recalled to Newsmax how "[then White House Chief of Staff] Alexander Haig was keeping those opposed to resignation from seeing the president during the first week of August. It was as if he was a prisoner in his own house."
But thanks to the intervention of daughter Julie Nixon Eisenhower, Herschensohn was able to secure a meeting with Nixon in his "hideaway" office in the Old Executive Office Building.
"He was very concerned about what might happen to South Vietnam if the [communist] North Vietnamese violated the 1973 peace accords," said Herschensohn, adding that Nixon was "100 percent accurate" as to what eventually happened.
North Vietnam finally conquered the South two years later after Congress, controlled by Democrats, refused to provide military aid to the Saigon government.
Regarding Herschensohn's concerns about then-Vice President Gerald Ford as president, Nixon "refused to say an unkind word about Ford" but "didn't challenge me when I said I did not think he was a 'foreign policy guy,'" Herschensohn said.
The aide finally got to this main point with Nixon:
"I told him this is one of those rare times in history when no former president is alive and said I believe that both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson would have supported you in recording conversations in the Oval Office."
"I said that 'people think you're the only president who recorded conversations.' I urged him to make the case that presidents since FDR have done this."
The president shook his head at the suggestion, Herschensohn said, and told me, "Lady Bird Johnson is alive — and she's a lovely woman. I don't want her to be hurt. Nor Mrs. Kennedy. She's been through hell. Our predecessors did good jobs. Even the ones we fought against. Don't use that argument to keep me in office. Never attack former presidents to defend me."
Herschensohn strongly pressed Nixon not to resign. He told him that while the House was certain to vote to impeach him, "I said I was sure the Senate would not vote to remove him because so many of the senators had done things so much worse."
Nixon, he recalled, listened carefully and made it obvious to Herschensohn that he had not made up his mind about resigning.
"He did say that he was worried a prolonged impeachment trial meant that [Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev would have 'the doors open in the world' and 'would be able to do things he would not normally do,'" Herschensohn told Newsmax, adding:
"Remember: with the exception of [Marxist Salvador] Allende winning [the presidency] in Chile in 1970, communists had not gained any ground since President Nixon took office in 1969. Just a year before, he had faced down Brezhnev by putting U.S. forces on red alert when Israel faced a surprise attack from Egypt and was worried Russia would intervene.
"He was also very concerned about what would happen to U.S. intelligence agencies if he resigned." (In less than two years, a Senate investigation of the CIA would reveal years of covert operations that led to wholesale resignations among the intelligence community).
The two went back and forth on several points. A week earlier, Herschensohn gave Nixon a draft of a suggested speech to Congress saying he would stand and fight impeachment. He left believing his boss would do just that. Nixon, of course, instead resigned because, Herschensohn says, "he put his country's needs first."
The former White House staffer went on to a career in television broadcasting and sought office in California before his teaching assignment. He told us he shared this story with Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for their book "The Final Days." They never used it.
"They said it was because there wasn't another source to confirm it, which is impossible in a private meeting," said Herschensohn, "I always felt it was because it did not make the president look irate or out of control. If someone peeked in the window at us that day and was told one of the two of us looked 'out of control' or 'irate,' believe me, it wasn't him."
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