Forty years ago this month, Richard Nixon became the first and only president to resign the presidency. When Marine One lifted off the South Lawn carrying him into exile, he said to his son-in-law that it would take “10 years” for a rehabilitation to occur. He was wrong; it would happen much faster.
Recently uncovered documents found in the research for my book, “After the Fall: The Remarkable Comeback of Richard Nixon,” show that Nixon wrote in his diary in late 1974 that the road to redemption would come through “writing a book — maybe one, maybe more — and to follow it with speeches, television where possible, which will maybe put some things in perspective.”
For the 20 years that were to follow, Nixon pursued this exact game plan with astonishing success. His books on foreign policy became bestsellers; his speeches were sold out; and his television interview with David Frost was watched by 45 million — still the record for most watched political interview in history.
But the secret to the success of Nixon’s comeback lay not just with his public appearances but with his private conversations. The material found in the post-presidential papers researched for this book shows a former president who maintained a number of surprising relationships that fueled his comeback.
When his opponent in the 1968 election, Hubert Humphrey, called to tell him he was dying of cancer and wanted Nixon to come to the public funeral, Nixon was touched. He didn’t know that Humphrey made the offer because, as he said to his wife, “no president should live in exile.” Nixon’s public appearance at the Humphrey funeral marked his first return to Washington since Watergate.
Later, when Ronald Reagan took office, Nixon communicated with him often and with his senior staff. He also reached out to his friend Nancy Reagan. Even before the 1981 Inauguration he wrote to her and praised her for her “intelligence, charm and beauty” and urged her and her husband not to “change a game plan that is working.”
He also urged Mrs. Reagan to work with her husband to continue expanding the conservative base. He wrote that Democrat-turned-Republican former Lone Star State Gov. John Connally told him about a campaign trip to Texas where “he hardly saw anyone he knew” because they were new voters drawn to Reagan. The new president urged even more of this development by suggesting the new First Lady reach out to Main Street more than Wall Street when inviting people to the White House. Nixon believed the Reagan Democrats could become a permanent part of the new Reagan coalition.
Nixon’s Role In Reagan’s SDI
On foreign policy, he dealt directly with Reagan and urged him to speak once a week on the radio to set the policy agenda (this became the Saturday morning radio address) and to offer to share strategic defense initiative technology as a way of boxing in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. (Reagan made precisely this offer and it helped lead to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.)
Years later, when President Bill Clinton sought foreign policy advice, he often called Nixon. After Clinton decided to support Russian President Boris Yeltsin during a feud with his parliament, Nixon told the president that it was a “risk to support Yeltsin, but if he goes down without U.S. support it will be far worse.” Clinton’s resolve strengthened with these words.
In fact, Clinton thought so much of Nixon that he delivered a moving eulogy of the 37th president at his funeral on April 27, 1994. Clinton praised Nixon for “working his way back into the arena he so loved by writing and thinking and engaging us in his dialogue.” But Clinton was quick to note not just Nixon’s public work but his private advice and counsel. “For the past year, even in the final weeks of his life, he gave me his wise counsel, especially with regard to Russia.”
Clinton’s eulogy represented the crowning moment of the Nixon comeback and of the role his unique relationships had played in the process. And in his exile years, he hadn’t just made it back; he had made an impact.
Kasey S. Pipes is the author of “After the Fall: The Remarkable Comeback of Richard Nixon,” which is based in large part on never-before-seen post-presidential papers owned by the Nixon family. He previously worked for President George W. Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He can be reached on Twitter @kspipes
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I’ve said for many, many years that I thought history would be much kinder to President Nixon than most people during that time period ever thought it would.