I don’t recall when I first became interested in Watergate, but I do remember scurrying home from Washington elementary school when I was in the fourth grade to watch the Watergate hearings on television. Much of it was beyond my comprehension, however, I was picking up on enough to understand most of what was happening.
In mid July 1974, my grandparents took me to Norfork Virginia to visit my uncle Ron who was in the Navy. On the way, we stopped at Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Even my grandfather said he wanted to go back at some point. After spending some time with my uncle in Norfork, we drove up the eastern coast of Virginia and stopped at Washington’s birthplace site, and Mount Vernon. My grandmother had visited Mount Vernon during her senior high school trip in 1940, and remembered loving her time spent there. There were several pictures of her taken in the garden seated on the wrought-iron benches. It is now a family tradition during our own visits that we also have our photograph taken on those iron benches in the garden of Mount Vernon.
Aside from seeing my uncle Ron, the next several days became the true highlight for that trip. My grandfather contacted Congressman Elwood “Bud” Hillis and one of Indiana’s senators, Vance Hartke. At the age of nine, I only recall the senator having the personality of a dead frog. He seemed to be so disinterested in his visiting constituents. Congressman Hillis, on the other hand, quickly became one of my childhood heroes. He personally walked us across the road to the Supreme Court building where Chief Justice Earl Warren was lying in state. As we returned, a limousine pulled up to the steps of the Senate and a gentleman stepped from the car. Our congressmen rushed us over to the car to introduce us. We were introduced to VP Gerald Ford. I will never forget the tremendous kindness, and the sincere interest he displayed. Today, 39 years later, I am still deeply touched that this man, bearing a tremendous burden of what was to come, could be so genuine and act as if he had no other cares in the world save talking to us. VP Ford was not a politician; he was a man of the people, a true servant.
Several weeks later my parents and I were vacationing at Myrtle Beach. I was playing down in the pool with some kids I had met when Mother came to the balcony of the hotel and urged me to hurry upstairs. Pres. Nixon was addressing the nation.
The next morning, my parents held up our planned time to go to the beach so I could stay inside the hotel room to observe Pres. Nixon’s farewell to his staff in the East Room of the White House. I was transfixed, and still to this day, I am deeply moved by the video recordings of that tender moment in our nation’s history.
Years later, I remember reading an interview where Alice Roosevelt, watching President Nixon’s farewell from her home, was shocked to learn something about her own father. During Pres. Nixon’s farewell to his staff, he quoted a passage from Pres. Theodore Roosevelt’s diary that shed some light on the tragic loss of his first wife, Alice. Pres. Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice, was not aware of this particular moment pertaining to her birth-mother who died within hours of her own birth. I always thought it was pretty neat that Alice Roosevelt, a White House bride in 1906, also attended the 1972 White House wedding for Trisha Nixon.
For me, Pres. and Mrs. Ford seemed like my first real connection to the presidency. I think it helped they had four children, who were not much older than me; that made them seem more real, more one of us.
The following spring, my fourth grade class put together a cookbook. We were each assigned to bring in one or two recipes from our mothers. I brought in a recipe from my mother, and also wrote to the White House to obtain Mrs. Ford’s favorite recipe. Within a few weeks, I arrived home from school to find a large manila envelope with the words The White House in the upper left-hand corner. Inside was a form letter from Mrs. Ford’s secretary, a recipe for baked turkey casserole, and a half-dozen postcards of the first family. All the contents from this envelope are still in my possession. Many years later, following the televised funeral services for Pres. Ford, my sons and I sat down to Mrs. Ford’s recipe for baked turkey casserole.
Through the years, I’ve enjoyed reading about Watergate, and especially, the Nixon administration. I clearly remember Pres. Nixon’s funeral in 1994, followed a month later by Jacqueline Kennedy’s funeral. When I went to Washington DC for my annual Memorial Day concert festivities, the flags were still at half mast in honor of Pres. Nixon.
I’ve read his books, and I have always been impressed with the man’s incredible intelligence and knowledge of American and international politics. Despite the flaws and treachery that brought down his administration, for me personally, Pres. Nixon was still a great president.
His second inauguration, January 20, 1973, was the first one I ever witnessed. I have not missed watching a presidential inauguration since that day.