The truth is most of the major names of the Richard Nixon era are, like the former President, dead, but there are enough remaining, including his daughters and brother and key appointees such as Henry Kissinger, to fill the ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel. An estimated 400 of the Nixon faithful reunited on Wednesday night to celebrate his 100th birthday on the very day he was born in Yorba Linda, California. While the main event was a gala dinner it was bookended by a chatty cocktail hour and a boisterous after-party in the hotel bar. “I’m catching up with people I haven’t seen in years,” said Steve Bull, who served as Nixon’s appointments secretary.
Coming across the barroom to Bull’s table was Nixon’s younger brother Edward “Ed” Nixon, who flashed the two-handed, two-finger victory sign associated with Nixon in good times—winning the presidency twice—and bad, departing from the White House after resigning from office in the Watergate scandal. The youngest of four brothers, Ed, who is 84 years old, looks like Richard and sounds like Richard, so it was a little surreal to hang out with him, but interesting, as well. We asked him what was his best memory of his brother. “Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “When we drove cross-country, from Chicago back to home (in Whittier, California). I was 9 and he was 26.” Nixon is president of his own company, Nixon World Enterprises, based in Lynnwood, Washington.
It was a “Hey, isn’t that . . .?” kind of evening, as in, hey, isn’t that Fred Thompson? Yes. He’s an actor and former senator but also was the Republican counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee. Hey, isn’t that Ben Stein? Yes. His father, Herbert, was Nixon’s chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. Hey, isn’t that David, Susan, and Anne Eisenhower? Yes. Nixon was Vice President to their grandfather, President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Susan Eisenhower took a moment to reminisce, recalling that when she did a senior-year study during boarding school, the Nixons gave her a bedroom on the third floor of the White House for the three months of her DC-based project.
Reminiscences were ripe throughout the evening, though most of the guests artfully skipped the mention of Watergate. This particular evening focused on the good times, recalled with affection by daughters Tricia Nixon Cox, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, former Secretary of State Kissinger, evangelist Franklin Graham, and speechwriter Pat Buchanan, who delivered the stem-winding speech that traced the arc of Nixon’s life and political career—which reminded us that Nixon lived in interesting times (some of his own making). The lineup also included Fred Malek, a businessman who had many roles in the Nixon administration but started as a special assistant. “What a turnout,” he said as he looked into the packed ballroom. “You are among some of the best friends a man or woman could have in their lives.” What was it like to be on the Nixon team? “We were young and inexperienced, and most of us came, like our leader, from humble beginnings and then rose in the White House,” he said.
Kissinger praised Nixon for “courage and vision.” In proposing a toast, he said, “It was my privilege to have been able to work with him.”
Franklin Graham read a message from his father, Billy Graham, that said, “I considered Richard Nixon one of my greatest friends, whom I knew even before he was elected President . . . and whose friendship continued afterward. Just thinking of him and Pat brings a flood of warm memories to my mind.” Dwight Chapin, who was Nixon’s deputy assistant and who went to jail for nine months due to Watergate, said, Nixon “certainly had an eventful and meaningful life, and in his time he taught us the meaning of dedication, determination and patriotism. In the 19 years that he’s been gone, his balance, his judgment, his experience have been missed every single day.”
Julie Eisenhower’s comments were the briefest and, for this audience, the most to the point: “He was the best father in the world. He loved his country. He made us proud. Happy Birthday, RN.”
It was impossible to be at the dinner and not get sucked into the past, a wash of memories of a time in Washington when members of Congress lived here, people who were opponents during the day socialized with each other in the evening hours regardless, the pace was slower, and there was a mandate, at least among some, to stick together through thick and thin. Watergate was a horrible, messy, and complicated time for the nation, but the impact resonated emotionally and personally in the community of Washington, home to virtually everyone involved in the scandal—White House staffers who were implicated, members of House and Senate who investigated the break-in and cover-up, the government, the judiciary who sent people off to jail, the lawyers who rang up so many billable hours, and the media, who for the most part were at odds with Nixon well before Watergate.
During the social parts of the evening, when guests talked over cocktails, dinner, and after-dinner drinks—when they weren’t exclaiming to one another, “Is that you?”—there was mention of legacy. Ed Nixon and former Navy Secretary John Lehman wondered how long it would take for history to balance Watergate with what they viewed as Richard Nixon’s many domestic and especially foreign policy accomplishments. The consensus was a long time, if ever. Beside me at dinner was 21-year-old Bobby Bostock, a George Washington University junior whose father is the curator for the Nixon Centennial who worked with Nixon on his books and also with the Nixon library. Bobby grew up learning the whole of Nixon’s history, but he said in school, “all you really hear about is Watergate.”
The emotional high point of the evening was, expectedly, the singing of “Happy Birthday.” Screens around the ballroom showed video of Nixon, famously a hobby pianist, banging out the tune on an upright piano. The ballroom audience sang along with Nixon while hotel staff rolled out a birthday cake replica of Nixon’s birthplace and childhood home. The dinner part of the evening ended with another song—400 voices singing “God Bless America.”