In the following guest blog post, Lary Wallace, a magazine writer and editor who did his graduate thesis on Nixon’s oratory, takes a new look at his farewell remarks from a distance of four decades.
Outside the White House gates, crowds spent the night chanting, “Jail to the Chief.” On August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon delivered his resignation speech via live broadcast and then managed a few hours’ sleep. At 4 a.m. his watch stopped, its battery at last run down on this, his very last day in the White House, the day he made his farewell remarks to the White House staff. It would be his final speech as a professional politician and, whether he knew it or not, his masterpiece. For sheer shamelessness, for raw naked honesty, for pathos and bathos, for autobiographical allusion and psychological revelation, there’d never been anything from a president quite like it, and there hasn’t been anything like it since.
* * *
* * *
Delivered in a moment of crisis, amidst a profound depression that would last for months, the emotion he exhibited in the speech was real. Everyone in the room felt it. Henry Kissinger in his memoirs would call the speech “one of the most dramatic moments in American history,” “an elegy of anguish,” “as rambling as the previous night’s had been disciplined.” His wife, Pat, was none too pleased “that after all the agony television had caused us,” as Nixon would write, “its prying eye should be allowed to intrude on this last and most intimate moment of all.”
Nixon allowed it to intrude nevertheless, and our understanding of this profoundly peculiar man is only the richer for it. On the speech’s fortieth anniversary, it’s well worth highlighting a few of those moments that make it a sui generis piece of political theater—those places where the speech achieves its transcendent strangeness, becoming literature writ historical, and history writ literary.
Nixon shared some wisdom remarkable in its lack of self-awareness: “[T]here are many fine careers. This country needs good farmers, good businessmen, good plumbers, good carpenters.” It was, of course, a want of good Plumbers—if not plumbers—that led to Watergate and its fallout, the most recent manifestation of which was Nixon delivering this very speech in farewell. It was an obliviously allusive line, perfectly naked in its grim humor and subliminal diagnostic accuracy.
He recalled his humble origins in Orange County, California, his father “sort of a little man, common man,” and yet “he was a great man, because he did his job, and every job counts up to the hilt.” But his father was nothing compared to his mother: “[M]y mother was a saint. And I think of her, two boys dying of tuberculosis, nursing four others in order that she could take care of my older brother for three years in Arizona, and seeing each of them die, and when they died, it was like one of her own.”
It was at this point in the speech that friend and former counsel Leonard Garment thought to himself, “Oh, my God, he’s beginning to break down. A binge of free association. Money, father, mother, brothers, death. The man is unraveling right before us. He will be the first person to go over the edge on live television.” David Eisenhower, too, thought his father-in-law was about to crack. He stood beside him along with Nixon’s two daughters, Julie and Tricia, and Tricia’s husband, Ed Cox. And of course, as ever, there was Pat. Except that Nixon would not mention Pat even once during the speech.
Wiping sweat from his upper lip, Nixon put on his glasses and read at length from a famous passage in the journals of Theodore Roosevelt (always something of a hero to Nixon), in which Roosevelt writes of his wife and baby daughter dying on the same day, and of how “the light went from my life forever.” Having finished his reading, Nixon choked up and fought back sobs and sniffling. There were plenty in the audience who’d given up the fight. Kissinger, for one, “was at the same time moved to tears and outraged at being put through the wringer once again”; “the anguish on the platform engulfed us all. In defeat and disgrace Nixon had at last prevailed; he had stripped us of our reserve; we were naked before these elemental feelings and our hearts went out to this man who transcended his extremity by refusing to act as if he were defeated.”
Pat stood by him with that same tight smile, pained and painful, that television viewers had known since Nixon’s Checkers speech, more than twenty years earlier. Kissinger did not approve of Pat’s omission from Nixon’s remarks—after all, “without his capacity for make-believe,” she “must have suffered the most grievously of all”—and he was not alone. Stephen Ambrose in his triple-decker biography of Nixon opines, “It was odd that Nixon could have given this speech without mentioning Pat, could have been so insensitive as to read another man’s description of his wife. It made many of those present, and those watching on television, wince.” Yet Julie, in a biography she wrote of her mother, responded to such criticism, “[T]hat would have been asking too much of any man. We were standing so close to my father that he could reach out and touch us if he wanted. . . . [M]uch of the regret he felt at that moment, yet left unspoken, was that he had let his family down.”
Winding toward his peroration, Nixon prescribed some enlightenment wisdom even less self-aware than the “plumbers” line: “Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
These weren’t the last words of the speech, but they were close. There could have been no more-appropriate way for Nixon to end his political career, vexing and perplexing, leaving us to wonder, as ever, just how much of his obliviousness was in fact self-destructive canniness.
Nixon’s farewell remarks and his Checkers speech are two of the 83 texts included in The Library of America collection American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton.
* * *
* * *
Video of Nixon’s farewell remarks to the White House staff
The speech begins at the 3:00 mark