Inside the White House: The First & Last Days of a Banana Republic
August 15, 1974
“…a camera can misquote or misinterpret a man. An unconscious unintentional upturning of the lips can appear in a picture as a smile at a given moment. On the other hand too serious an expression could create an impression of fear and concern which also would be most unfortunate.”
“The Heart Attack,”
in Six Crises
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Tuesday morning. Inside the Cabinet Room Richard Nixon in smiling consciously and intentionally. This is the morning after he confessed to lying and deceiving not only the public but his most loyal supporters, his closest friends, his own family. Yet he has decided to call a Cabinet meeting to show the country he still is in command, that he intends to stay on and fight rather than resign. Having been Vice-President while his President was incapacitated, Nixon knows he has to show the rest of the government he is still of sound mind. Newspaper reports have begun referring delicately to the President’s “lack of touch with reality,” his “almost unnatural serenity.” Enough high-level members of his own staff have slipped quotes like these to reporters to raise the question of whether the President is stable enough to continue to govern.
So the White House has arranged what they call a “photo opportunity” before the Cabinet session gets under way to give the American people a clear picture of the President hard at work at the business of government. Allowing myself to be mistaken for a photographer, in order to get a close-up look at the President’s “serenity,” I follow a group of cameramen and film crews through Gerald Warren’s press office, up some steps into the gold-carpeted corridors of the White House West Wing, past a photograph of the President silhouetted against the pyramids, and finally into the Cabinet Room itself, where, 10 feet from me, Richard Nixon is smiling.
He continues to smile throughout the “photo opportunity.” He does not smile at anyone in particular. In fact, slumped down in his chair, he appears to be grinning most enthusiastically at the top of the Cabinet table.
Henry Kissinger, seated at the President’s right, leans over and appears to be speaking to the President with great animation. The President grins at the table top. Defense Secretary Schlesinger at the President’s left, brow furrowed as if with some weighty problem of nuclear strategy, leans over and speaks intently to the President. The President continues to grin at the table top.
The President seldom raises his gaze from the bleak teak. When he does, he shoots his eyes wildly up and then back again. The peculiar slumped posture he has adopted — apparently an effort to suggest a casual, easy-going sense of confidence and command — has buckled his suit jacket up around his chest. His lapels gape awry.
This is not a particularly reassuring glimpse of the Chief Executive. It comes close to making a prima facie case for resignation. Little did I know that for the past 48 hours, while the President and his family had been once again resisting resignation, his closest aides were conspiring behind his back to force him to resign.
Despite all the crowing from columnists about how the resignation process re-affirmed the strength and viability of the democratic process, the impression an uncharitable observer might get from several reports is that of a small staff cabal led by an ex-General driving an elected President from office against his will through the use of damaging leaks and dirty tricks. Defenders of Haig say he was acting responsibly to restore order to the processes of government and save the country from a dangerously irresponsible President. That’s what banana republic generals always say.
Wednesday morning. Looking back over my notes, I realize that what we have here is nothing less than America’s first full day as a banana republic.
Arriving early at the White House briefing room, the first thing I hear is that General Haig has summoned Gerald Ford to an early morning meeting. The President is not present. He may not have been invited. Purpose of the meeting undisclosed.
At the noon briefing Gerald Warren tries to make light of this hour-long session. Nothing unusual. Warren claims: Haig meets with the Vice-President “often.” Then Warren amends “often” to “regularly.” Then he amends “regularly” to “from time to time.” Finally he concedes, a bit sadly, “It would be fatuous of me to say that any meeting would be a routine meeting at this point.”
The other big rumor this morning is that Senator Goldwater tried without success to get through to the White House last night to “deliver a message” to the President that Goldwater, in fact, was turned away from the White House gate. This feeds talk that the President is holding himself incommunicado, that Haig is now running a caretaker government for a President paralyzed by despair and indecision. Further hints of palace intrigue surface at the noon briefing. A reporter asks Gerald Warren if St. Clair had a meeting with Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski to explore plea bargaining for the President.
Warren swallows hard. He delivers a curiously mechanical answer: “At Mr. St. Clair’s request I am in a position where I cannot speak about any meetings he is engaged in.”
Warren is a shaken man today. His unfaltering calm is legendary, but this morning instead of puffing placidly on his pipe, he rubs it nervously between his hands. Usually Warren is able to maintain his dignified calm in the midst of the most sordid Watergate deceit because he is genuinely ignorant of what is going on. Today he seems to know that something unpleasant is going on.
St. Clair’s peculiar request that Warren refrain from confirming or denying any meetings may well be another little maneuver in General Haig’s game plan. St. Clair, in fact, may not be doing any plea bargaining at all (if he was, he’d certainly tell Warren to deny it categorically), but by forcing Warren to drop a crude hint that the President might be trying to make a deal for himself, St. Clair pushes his client a little closer to a forced resignation — speculation that the President is clinging to office just to stay out of jail would make his already untenable position intolerable.
And then, not long after the briefing and shortly after Goldwater’s lunch with Haig, the wire services carry reports that Senator Barry Goldwater himself is predicting that the President will resign this very day. Goldwater plays a role in the Haig scenario analogous to that of the leading Catholic bishop in your average banana republic. He doesn’t lead the coup himself, but his tacit approval lends sanctity to the conspirators when they begin shelling the Presidential palace.
So as soon as the Goldwater report appears on the wires, reporters begin thronging into the briefing room from all over town to begin the death watch on the Nixon Presidency. Once Lyndon Johnson frolicked nude in the swimming pool that occupied the site of this briefing room. When Richard Nixon took office he paved over Johnson’s swimming pool with concrete, and built a brand-new press headquarters on top of it.
Not from any special affection for the press. No, “the President did that,” Alexander Butterfield testified, “to get the press out of the West Lobby so they would not inhibit guests to the White House and bother them.” The President’s plan worked. Not only is it impossible for the press to molest entering guests from the sunken briefing room, it is impossible to see them — the view from the briefing room windows is blocked by a sloping ridge of grass which yields only a glimpse of driveway.
This handicap is particularly galling today, because it makes it impossible to monitor who is arriving to meet with whom. Reporters and cameramen flock out of the briefing room to stake out the West Wing driveway from the White House lawn.
Around 2 p.m., a red Mercedes pulls up to the West Wing entrance and Rabbi Baruch Korff steps out. Not an insignificant development considering Rabbi Korff’s claim yesterday that the President would let him be the first to know if he decided to resign. The rabbi is ushered directly into the Oval Office to see the President. But midway through the vigil in front of the rabbi’s red Mercedes two armed White House guards approach a knot of reporters and order them back into the briefing room. New security restrictions have been imposed on reporters: they must remain inside the briefing room or get out of the White House entirely. There will be no loitering in between.
Back inside the congested briefing room “the lid” is off. The “lid lights” are located over the doorway connecting the briefing room to Gerald Warren’s office. The lid lights are two white plastic stars with light bulbs behind them. When both stars are lit, usually in mid-afternoon, the “lid” is on, which means that the White House press office has no more statements to issue for the day and daily reporters can feel free to head home. When both lights flash on and off alternately a “temporary lid,” or a “lunch lid” is indicated. Today, an hour after the regular p.m. posting has passed, both stars are unlit, which means the lid is off and something is going on.
What is going on is that General Haig is orchestrating the penultimate step in his scenario for deposing the President: the visit of Bishop Goldwater and his delegation to administer the last rites.
The day ends with the Goldwater delegation coming out of the West Wing and declaring to assembled reporters that they did not discuss resignation, they merely gave the President some “gloomy” roll call assessments.
Inside the briefing room the lid is on for the night.
But inside the White House that night a curious incident reveals how shrewdly Haig employs his knowledge of the Nixon psyche to seal the President’s fate. Inside the residence Henry Kissinger has dinner with the President and succeeds in convincing him he must resign. The only obstacle left is the Presidential family — wife, daughters, and in-laws — all of whom are reported absolutely adamant against resignation. The President calls them in to tell them the decision Haig and Kissinger have led him to make. Tears of grief and rage ensue. At this point, Haig steps in to ensure that the flood of tears doesn’t sweep the President back into battle. According to one report, at this very moment “Haig quietly arranged for White House photographer Hollie Atkins to record the sad and historic scene.”
Perhaps Haig calculated that to Richard Nixon, that which is recorded becomes irrevocable. Once the pictures were taken of the tear-stained decision, Nixon would find it far more difficult to change his mind in the middle of the night. Recording something gives it a special sanctity beyond the reach of late-night whims. Perhaps that is why Nixon was never able to bring himself to destroy the tapes, however self-destructive they were.
Thursday morning. Mrs. Ford postpones a scheduled visit to the foot doctor this morning. Mr. Ford postpones a scheduled fund-raising trip to California. Mr. Nixon summons Mr. Ford to an 11 a.m. conference. Gerald Warren postpones the 11 a.m. briefing till 12 noon when, he says, Ron Ziegler will appear with an important announcement.
Meanwhile, Warren’s assistants move out through the press handing out releases announcing what turned out to be the latest official act of the Nixon administration — appointments to the Pacific Sockeye Salmon Fishery Commission, to the U. S. delegation to the Dominican Republic Presidential Inauguration, to the D.C. United Fund Campaign. And, apropos of sinking ships and leaving jobs, he signs a catch-all bill which provides for a “vessel repair duty exemption,” and an extension of “liberalized eligibility for state-extended unemployment benefits programs.” He accepts three resignations from his own administration — one “with deep regret,” another “with a special sense of regret,” and a third “with deep gratitude.”
At 11:30 a.m. I find some wire service reporters backing Gerald Warren into a corner of his office and browbeating him mercilessly. Finally I see him shrug and concede something. The wire service reporters dash out of Warren’s office toward their phones in the rear of the briefing room. “We’re going ahead with it,” one of them whispers to the other triumphantly. “We’re going ahead.”
“With what?” I ask.
“The President’s drafting his resignation speech for delivery tonight.”
Later, one of the wire service people told me that when she asked Warren who was writing the resignation speech “Gerry told me ‘Ray Price is,’ but then added, ‘But the President is contributing his ideas,’ and all of a sudden Gerry broke down and cried. I put my arm around him. ‘The President’s own ideas.’ How sad it was.”
The strangest interlude of the nine-hour vigil that followed Ron Ziegler’s announcement that Nixon would go on tv that night was the time when the President placed the entire press corps under house arrest.
It happened this way. All day long reporters had been skirmishing with White House guards. A limousine would pull up to the driveway of the West Wing, a throng of reporters would pour out of the briefing room toward the West Wing to see who the arrival was, the White House guards would drive them back inside the briefing room.
But at 6:20 an armed guard takes up a position right outside the briefing room doors. Reporters trying to leave are told that no one is to exit or enter “for a few minutes.” No explanation. Orders.
About this time reporters seeking an explanation find the doors to Gerald Warren’s complex locked and dead-bolted shut. Pounding on the door produces no response. I pick up a White House extension phone in a corner of the briefing room just on the other side of the wall from Warren’s office and ask for Warren’s extension. One of Warren’s assistants answers.
I ask her if she knows the press has been locked in.
“Yes we do,” she says cheerfully.
“Why is it being done?” I ask.
“That’s a question you’d have to address to Mr. Warren, but I’m afraid he’s tied up now.”
“But we’re locked up.”
She hangs up.
The “few minutes” of lock-up have stretched into 20 minutes. The armed guard at the door refuses to explain. He repulses all pleas to let anyone out (one reporter yells: “I’ve got a terrible case of diabetes and if I don’t get out and get my insulin shot I’ll die.” “There’s a telephone inside,” the guard replies.) A technician with a walkie-talkie reports that the other half of his film crew and a number of other reporters have been detained in the guardhouse.
People line up to stare out the windows. An armed guard sprints by from the West Wing toward the residence. A panel truck tears past in the opposite direction. Something seems to be going on. There is some speculation that the President has decided to hold the press hostage in return for asylum in Costa Rica, that a coup is in progress (led either by General Haig or by the President against General Haig), that the President has done Something Drastic. There are jokes about the President turning the briefing room back into a swimming pool immediately, and about gas hissing through the vents.
At 6:52 the guard is lifted. People burst out to see what’s going on. There is a strange mournful wailing sound in the air, but it turns out to be nothing more than Korean hymns sung by the loyal followers of the Reverent Sun M. Moon.
Back inside, Warren’s door has been unbolted and reporters press inside to demand an explanation. Warren claims he didn’t know about the armed guard outside. He says his own door was shut because the President was walking back from the Executive Office Building to his last supper at the White House and he wanted to make that walk alone and unwatched.
There’s a strange passage in the “Caracas” chapter of Six Crises which might help illuminate this bizarre incident.
Nixon is in Lima confronting an anti-American demonstrator in his hotel lobby.
“I saw before me a weird looking character whose bulging eyes seemed to merge with his mouth and nose in one distorted blob. He let fly a wad of spit which caught me full in the face. One must experience the sensation to realize why spitting in a person’s face is the most infuriating insult ever conceived by man. Sherwood deserves the credit for keeping me from handling the man personally. He grabbed him by the arm and whirled him out of my path, but as I saw his legs go by I at least had the satisfaction of planting a healthy kick on his shins. Nothing I did all day made me feel better.”
Interesting, is it not, how Nixon’s hysterical description of the “weird looking character” sounds like a metaphor for the media, particularly tv with its “bulging eyes” which “merge into mouth,” a mouth that constantly spits out degrading insults at him.
For a man who thinks he has been driven from the Presidency to the brink of jail by the media, this business of locking up media may be Nixon’s way of giving his adversary with the bulging eyes one last kick in the shins before they don’t have each other to kick around anymore.
And this time Nixon might have some objective justification for wanting to keep the camera eye off him. On the front page of this morning’s Times there’s a picture of Nixon and Ziegler taking that same walk from the EOB over to the West Wing of the White House. The picture makes Nixon look like he’s doing some sort of awkward goose step behind the back of a uniformed guard. The Times printed the odd looking picture on the bottom of the front page, separated from the main Nixon story, but right next to a headline which reads “Many Mental Patients Simply Walk Out.” An amusing accidental juxtaposition perhaps, but in Nixon’s mind, grounds enough to make it impossible for the media to “simply walk out” while he took his last stroll. Undoubtedly nothing he did all day made him feel better.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 11, 2020