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January 20, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments


George W. Bush is not someone I have much personal sympathy for, but I was transfixed nonetheless by the scene on the Capitol steps today after the inauguration as he and Laura stood with Barack and Michelle Obama, and then went down the steps to board the helicopter Marine One. How difficult it must be to leave not just the job but the home and all the people who worked with and attended to him. And of course how much more difficult to leave as a failure. His failure may be reason for us to rejoice at his departure, but still, it was painful to watch.

I was reminded of that most familiar (and welcome) of presidential departures, Richard Nixon’s on August 9, 1974. It’s one of those moments, and dates, I never forget, like Kennedy’s assassination and 9/11.

I know exactly where I was, and where I was the evening before when he announced that he would resign the next morning. I had an enormously eventful week leading up to that day — a story for another time — but part of the story of that week, for me, is that I was up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire from Sunday, August 4th, to Wednesday the 7th, with four others, and we weren’t following the news. We had no access to TV, didn’t get the newspaper, weren’t listening to the radio, basically were out of touch. As a result, we totally missed the big story of Monday the 5th, the release of the smoking gun tape revealing that Nixon knew of the Watergate cover-up and had been lying all along. I guess I got back to my Cambridge apartment some time late on the evening of Wednesday the 7th. What I remember is that when I turned on the news, so much had transpired that I had no idea what they were talking about, with discussion in the air of Nixon’s resigning.

The next night, I went to dinner with my old high school friend Barbara, who was in Boston on vacation after her first year of medical school in Buffalo. (I had completed my first year of graduate school.) I would be driving down to New York the next day, and this was our farewell dinner after our time in New Hampshire and, the week before, in Maine. We went to a French restaurant that was one of the top restaurants in Boston at the time, overlooking Storrow Drive in the apartment complex that’s next to Mass General Hospital. At one point, all of us — diners and staff — crowded into the bar along with the bar patrons in order to watch Nixon make the speech in which he announced his resignation. I’ve never been part of any event quite like it. I don’t remember what I ate. I don’t remember much at all. But I do remember leaving dinner behind to squeeze into the bar and watch that moment that just 4 days before was unimaginable. The next morning, before heading down to New York, I watched Nixon make his famous farewell speech to his staff. What a speech! Read it if you never have. Oh, you can read and watch it here. The part I always remember is the passage about his mother:

Nobody will ever write a book, probably, about my mother. Well, I guess all of you would say this about your mother — my mother was a saint. And I think of her, two boys dying to tuberculosis, nursing four others in order that she could take care of my older brother for 3 years in Arizona, and seeing each of them die, and when they died, it was like one of her own. Yes, she will have no books written about her. But she was a saint.

And then, the walk to the helicopter and the farewell. What a moment.

Categories: History, Politics
  1. awilliams53
    January 26, 2009 at 6:44 AM

    Errol Morris’ work fascinates me. Check out his latest blog entry and photographs of Bush, particularly the last ones from the goodbye press conference….



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