Editor’s Note: In “The Nixon Sightings,” Steve Hess recalls five key moments in his time working with Richard M. Nixon. Each vignette offers a peek into some of the events that drove a young Senator from California to the Oval Office. This series was written as background to Hess’ new book The Professor and The President: Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Nixon White House (Brookings Press, December 2014), a “dramatic narrative” of events in 1969-1970, told in the present tense.
We are ushered into the Oval Office. President Nixon has redecorated. There is a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, a huge desk that he believes had once belong to Woodrow Wilson, a royal blue rug with the presidential seal, and so much blazing gold in the draperies and on the sofas and chairs that Jamie, my eight-year-old son, complains the color is hurting his eyes. We are in one of the world’s most famous rooms. But it is not a setting in which a stranger will feel comfortable or be unimpressed.
We are there because I am leaving the government and the President has invited my family to the White House to say goodbye. It is late afternoon, the President’s last appointment before leaving for Ottawa and a meeting with the Canadian prime minister.
Nixon gives little gifts, things with a presidential seal, repeats jokes he has told many times, and tries small talk. This is not what he does best.
“What is your favorite subject in school?” the President asks ten-year-old Charles.
“Geography,” Charles replies.
“That was my favorite too!” says the suddenly animated President.
He now takes Charles on a tour around the perimeter of the Oval Office. He wants to show off his treasures from other countries. There is a bonsai tree from China!
The military aide is anxious, our appointment is longer than scheduled. The helicopter is on the south lawn waiting to take off for Andrews.
But this must wait. First, the Republican chief executive has a message for Charles and Jamie:
“You must travel when you are young. Even if you have to borrow the money.”
The President wishes to illustrate this point. He is now an old man with an imaginary cane trying to maneuver his way down a cruise ship gangplank. We are laughing.
This is the last time I was with Richard Nixon.