Elon Green | Longreads | August 2018 | 16 minutes (4,019 words)
Roger Morris was standing on the South Lawn of the White House. It was early 1969, and Richard Nixon had only been in office for three or four weeks. Morris was a holdover on the National Security Council from Lyndon Johnson’s administration, staying on at the behest of Henry Kissinger. Morris and his colleagues had been invited to fill empty spots on the lawn during a ceremony involving a visiting head of state. “I was suddenly aware of this figure, very close to me on my right,” Morris said. “I looked over and it was Pat Nixon.” Morris decided that, though he’d never met the first lady, as a courtesy he ought to say hello.
When the event concluded, Morris turned to Nixon. “I just want you to know how much I am enjoying my work. It’s a pleasure to work for a president who is so well-informed in foreign affairs,” he said. Morris wasn’t just blowing smoke. He found Nixon quite knowledgeable about his own portfolio — Africa, South Asia, and the United Nations. As Morris told me, “[Nixon] knew a lot of heads of state in Black Africa, personally and well, for years.” And it wasn’t uncommon, he said, for Nixon to point out mistakes made by Richard Helms, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, during briefings.
Nixon looked at Morris rather quizzically. “Oh dear,” she said. “You haven’t seen through him yet.” Morris, stunned, could only nod.
Pat Nixon was formidable. That year, during a visit to Vietnam, she became the first first lady to enter an active combat zone since World War II. But her relationship with the president could be a challenge. “No question it was a tough marriage,” Bob Woodward would tell Nixon biographer Fawn Brodie in 1980. “Even the people we talked to, who were very defensive about him, just felt that he didn’t treat her very well.”
Alexander Butterfield, the Nixon aide who revealed the president’s secret taping apparatus, told Woodward not long ago that the first lady was “borderline abused.” Nixon would ignore her when they were together. “I wanted to shake him. ‘Answer her, goddamn it; she’s your wife!’”
There have also been darker reports, many of which were rounded up in Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan’s 2000 Nixon biography, The Arrogance of Power. For instance: Allegations that Nixon “kicked the hell” out of Pat in 1962. That, after telling America that the country would not have him to “kick around anymore,” the former vice president “beat the hell” out of her. That, in fact, she had been so injured “she could not go out the next day.” That, on an unspecified occasion, one aide or perhaps more “had to run in and pull [Nixon] off Pat,” who sustained bruises on her face.
That Nixon struck his wife while he was president.
‘Oh dear,’ Pat said. ‘You haven’t seen through him yet.’
The allegations have, for the most part, been in the public record for decades. (The Nixons’ daughter, Tricia Nixon Cox, unequivocally denied the allegations made in The Arrogance of Power in 2000.) But they remain relatively unexamined, particularly considering the severity. The scrutiny is not commensurate with the accusations.
For years, journalists and historians have mostly danced around the reports, gently poking and prodding. Nixon chroniclers tend either to acknowledge that the reports exist without assessing their reliability, or they ignore them altogether. A conspicuous absence of specifics in the public record — dates, locations, and documentation — may be to blame for this, and, especially when writing about allegations of abuse, one must write with care and caution.
What can be said with confidence is the truth of the matter has not been been satisfactorily resolved. With the benefit of distance and perspective, it’s worth giving the alleged incidents a second look and considering their sources more closely, because allegations of abuse are taken more seriously today than they were a half-century ago — or even more recently, when this history was being written.
In 1962, Nixon was running for governor of California against Edmund “Pat” Brown. He’d spent the previous eight years as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. Nixon was suited to the position. “Eisenhower radically altered the role of his running mate by presenting him with critical assignments in both foreign and domestic affairs once he assumed his office,” wrote Irwin Gellman, one of the great Nixon chroniclers. “Because of the collaboration between these two leaders, Nixon deserves the title, ‘the first modern vice president.’”
The gubernatorial campaign was contentious. “Nixon had charged that Brown was soft on communism and crime, while the governor claimed that the former vice president was interested in the governorship only as a stepping stone to the White House,” the Los Angeles Times recalled years later.
Brown told Fawn Brodie, in her Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character, that during the campaign he heard that Nixon “kicked the hell out of her, hit her.” The book was published in 1981, which makes this, I suspect, the earliest on-record accusation of its kind.
In a recording of the interview from July 1980, which is held with Brodie’s files at the University of Utah, Brodie and the loose-talking former governor wonder if the alleged abuse — they had both heard the rumors — was physical or purely emotional; they’re uncertain. This is what follows:
BRODIE: Were you aware of Pat as a campaigner, in the campaign, at all? Was she —
BROWN: I don’t think she campaigned. She may have gone to a few women’s parties. But we got word, at one stage of the campaign, that he kicked the hell out of her. He hit her or some damn thing. Did you ever hear that?
BRODIE: That story keeps surfacing.
BROWN: Some of the guys that were on the plane with the campaign came to me confidentially and said, “Nixon really slugged his wife. He treated her terribly. He hauled her out in the presence of people.”
BRODIE: He slugged his wife in front of people?
BROWN: Well, in front of one of the press that was supposed to be friendly to him. He got so angry.
BRODIE: He hit her.
BROWN: But I can’t prove that. I never used it.
Brodie disliked Nixon. As Newell Bringhurst recounted in Fawn McKay Brodie: A Biographer’s Life, Brodie called her subject a “shabby, pathetic felon,” “a rattlesnake,” and a “plain damn liar.” When, in November 1977, Brodie’s husband, Bernard, was diagnosed with cancer, she paused her research, quoting her husband saying: “That son of a bitch can wait.” (Brodie herself would die of lung cancer in January 1981, never entirely finishing the manuscript.)
In a recent conversation, Bringhurst called Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character Brodie’s weakest book. “It’s not a balanced biography at all,” he said. “She went into that — into the research and the writing — with a biased perspective.” It’s true, and understandably so: After Nixon was elected president in 1968, after promising to end the war in Vietnam, Brodie’s son was nearly drafted. When Nixon, several years later, attempted to smear the leaker of the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, a RAND Corporation colleague of Bernard Brodie’s, it was salt in the wounds.
Brodie had for many years taught college classes on how to write a biography. And yet, said Bringhurst, “she violated, in many ways, the very canons that she tried to teach her students: You have to have some empathy and perspective for the person you’re writing the biography on.”
The allegations have, for the most part, been in the public record for decades. But they remain relatively unexamined, particularly considering the severity.
Brown wasn’t the only source for accusations leveled against Nixon during that period. There’s a quote from Frank Cullen in The Arrogance of Power by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, who, to their great credit, explore the allegations in greater detail than any biographers before or since. Cullen, a Brown senior aide, said he had heard that Nixon “beat the hell [out of]” Pat in the wake of the gubernatorial loss.
By the 1962 campaign, Cullen was an old hand at politics. He’d volunteered on John F. Kennedy’s congressional campaigns in 1948, and stayed on for the Senate run in 1952. In 1960, during Kennedy’s campaign for president, Robert Kennedy introduced Cullen to Brown, who would appoint Cullen assistant legislative secretary. (In 1972, Cullen helped coordinate the visit to the United States by China’s table tennis team that was later famously called “ping-pong diplomacy.”)
Other people have made accusations about Nixon. In March 1998, in a talk he believed to be off-the-record, Seymour Hersh told an audience of Harvard’s Nieman fellows about “a serious empirical basis for believing [Nixon] was a wife beater. … I’m talking about trauma, and three distinct cases.” Hersh would reprise the charge three months later during appearances on CNBC and NBC.
More recently, Hersh wrote about it in his memoir, Reporter. A couple hundred pages in, he writes that a few weeks after the resignation:
I was called by someone connected to a nearby hospital … and told that Nixon’s wife, Pat, had been treated in the emergency room there a few days after she and Nixon had returned from Washington. She told her doctors that her husband had hit her. I can say that the person who talked to me had very precise information on the extent of her injuries and the anger of the emergency room physician who treated her.
After receiving the tip, Hersh called John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s White House counsel. Ehrlichman not only declined to wave Hersh away from the story, but said he knew of two other instances of abuse: one from 1962 — presumably the instance referenced by Cullen — but also one that occurred during Nixon’s presidency. (Hersh, in an interview with me for the Columbia Journalism Review, said his hospital source was a doctor.)
The biographers Summers and Swan, who interviewed Hersh, also talked to John Sears, who worked for Nixon in 1968. With Sears, who was suspected of being Deep Throat, it’s essentially a high-level game of telephone: Sears heard from Waller Taylor, a senior partner at Nixon’s law firm, that in 1962 Pat Nixon was hit so hard “he blackened her eye” and “she threatened to leave him over it.”
Sears, now 78, told me he was surprised by Taylor’s story because he himself had neither seen nor, until that point, heard of such abuse. Still, he said, “I saw no reason [Taylor] would make up such a thing. He was a friend of theirs.” This seems to be true. Summers and Swan note that Taylor’s father had been an early supporter of Nixon’s, and Taylor himself introduced Nixon to trickster Donald Segretti. Segretti, however, disputes the latter point. “I’ve had a lot of things over the years made up about me that are just complete fantasy. This sounds like one of those stories,” Segretti said. “I do not know who this Waller Taylor was, [and] I never met President Nixon.” (For good measure, without prompting, Segretti also denied authorship of the “Canuck letter.”)
Sears recalled telling the story to Patrick Hillings, who succeeded Nixon in Congress: “He said it was quite possible; the whole business of the loss in California had made them both upset, and that Nixon had finally agreed to move to New York and get out of politics. But there was a lot of problems in and around that.” Hillings, said Sears, didn’t attest to the truth of the allegations, “but he thought it believable.” (I asked John Dean, who succeeded Ehrlichman as White House Counsel, if he knew about the abuse allegations. Dean’s name doesn’t come up in any of these stories, but historically he’s been quite critical of his old boss — he cooperated with the Senate Watergate investigators — so I assumed he would be candid. “I have zero knowledge of RN striking his wife,” he emailed.)
Seymour Hersh told an audience about ‘a serious empirical basis for believing [Nixon] was a wife beater. … I’m talking about trauma, and three distinct cases.’
The game of telephone continues with a quote from William Van Petten, a reporter who covered the ’62 campaign. Van Petten told a writer named Jon Ewing that he found Nixon to be “a terrible, belligerent drunk” who “beat Pat badly … so badly that she could not go out the next day.” Van Petten, Summers and Swan write, was informed this had happened before, and that Nixon aides, including Ehrlichman, “would on occasion have to go in and intervene.”
What to make of it all? For his part, John Farrell, author of last year’s Pulitzer finalist, Richard Nixon: The Life, dismisses much of this, asserting that the sources are not to be trusted. “Richard Nixon fired John Ehrlichman. Nixon fired John Sears, too,” he said. (Sears said he left under a “mutual understanding.”) However, he allows, “Pat Hillings would have known. Pat Hillings was incredibly close to the Nixons. But he’s not with us anymore.”
Summers, who conducted the interviews with Ehrlichman for The Arrogance of Power, doesn’t believe that Nixon having fired Ehrlichman tainted the source. “In the sense that one assesses the credibility and character of someone who’s talking to you, I found Ehrlichman a credible interviewee, and not a vindictive interviewee.”
On August 8, 1974, 61-year-old Nixon resigned the office of the presidency. He was in poor health, exhibiting persistent phlebitis and shortness of breath. In September, he would be admitted to Long Beach Memorial Hospital, where he was given a blood thinner. Scans revealed evidence of a blood clot that had moved from his left thigh to his right lung.
Then, in October, after what one of his doctors later described as “groin pain and the persistent enlargement of the left leg,” Nixon went back to the hospital. He would remain there for three weeks and lose 15 pounds.
Sometime during this period, again according to Hersh, Pat Nixon was taken to a local emergency room. Evidently, her husband had attacked her at their home in San Clemente, California.
I called Hersh to see if he could shed more light on this. “That’s ridiculous,” he said, “I’m not interested. Bye bye.” Mentioning that he had a guest in his office, he hung up.
So I asked Anthony Summers for more information, anything really, about that hospital visit. Did he and Swan attempt to verify Hersh’s source? “I have a very vague memory that we looked for a doctor at the San Clemente hospital.” Did he find the doctor? “I don’t recall.” He suspects the answer is buried in his notes, which aren’t retrievable.
Something to consider, when assessing the plausibility of the abuse allegations, is there’s little doubt that Nixon struck others. According to Farrell’s biography, during Nixon’s 1960 campaign for president, on a swing through Iowa, the strained candidate
vented by violently kicking the car seat in front of him. Its enraged inhabitant, the loyal [Don] Hughes, left the broken seat, and the car, and stalked off down the road. At an otherwise successful telethon in Detroit on election eve, Nixon once again lost his temper, and struck aide Everett Hart. Furious, Hart quit the campaign. “I was really mad,” Hart recalled. “I had had a rib removed where I had had open heart surgery, and that is where he hit me.”
Hart, said Farrell, spoke to Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s secretary, over the phone about the incident, and said he could not forgive the man. Woods summarized the phone conversation in a memo currently in Nixon’s archives.
More than a decade later, in the summer of 1973, Nixon, mired in the Watergate scandal, visited New Orleans to give a speech to a veterans group. It was expected to be a friendly audience. As Nixon walked toward the convention hall, reported the Washington Post’s magazine, “he wanted nothing in his way, in front or in back, before he got at the crowd inside.” However, “breathing on him from behind was [Ronald] Ziegler and the clump of TV cameras, mics, and newsmen that inevitably followed.”
An angered Nixon, as Michael Rosenwald wrote last year, “stuck his finger in Ziegler’s chest, turned him around, and then shoved him in the back hard with both hands, saying ‘I don’t want any press with me and you take care of it.’” It was even caught on tape, which was fortuitous because a Nixon aide later denied the incident had occurred at all.
The earliest chronological firsthand accusation is also the most shocking. In 1946, Nixon ran against Jerry Voorhis, a five-termer in California’s old 12th congressional district. Despite his incumbency, or perhaps because of it, Voorhis ran a terrible campaign. To boot, there were reportedly phone calls to prospective voters from an anonymous caller inquiring, “Did you know that Jerry Voorhis is a communist?”
Nixon destroyed him. In his account of the defeat, Farrell includes a quote from Zita Remley, a Democratic campaign worker of whom a Long Beach paper enthused in 1960 that, were she to ever faint, “it’s certain that she could be immediately revived by fanning her with a political brochure.” Remley found Voorhis “very white and sort of quiet. … He just sort of put his head in his hands.”
Something to consider, when assessing the plausibility of the abuse allegations, is there’s little doubt that Nixon struck others.
Farrell mentions Remley once more in the book, in the endnotes, where he accurately describes her as a “Democratic partisan” who claimed to have “firsthand knowledge of the anonymous phone calls.” However, he writes:
Remley, at least, is a troublesome source: a Nixon hater who fed at least one demonstrably false story about Nixon’s taxes to the press and claimed (more than 20 years later) that Nixon slapped her outside a public function — an assault that, if verified, would have ended his career but that she didn’t report to the police at the time.
Remley talked about the slap in question with Fawn Brodie, who wrote about the knotty tax business:
[Remley] had become a deputy assessor of Los Angeles County with the job of checking veterans’ exemptions. In 1952, just after the election, Nixon sent a notarized letter to her Los Angeles office requesting a veteran’s tax exemption, which was granted only to veterans who, if single, had less than $5,000 worth of property in California or elsewhere, and if married, $10,000.
As Brodie (who misspelled Remley’s first name as Vita) tells it, Remley knew that Nixon bought a pricey home in Washington, D.C., and denied the request. The powerful political columnist Drew Pearson found out and published a damning story.
Nixon was upset about it. In RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, he wrote that Pearson’s column was “teeming with innuendo and loose facts” and claimed that Pearson retracted the column three weeks after the 1952 election.
That sets the scene for what followed later that year. Brodie writes:
When Nixon was speaking in the Long Beach auditorium, Mrs. Remley went to hear him. Arriving late, she listened from near the open door. As he emerged he recognized her. In a sudden fit of rage, he walked over and slapped her. His friends, horrified, hustled him away in the dark. There were no cameras or newsmen to catch the happening, and Mrs. Remley, fearful of losing her job, told only a few friends.
Farrell doesn’t buy it. “She really detests Nixon,” he said. “She could have ended his political career right there by filing a complaint. And yet she never did. There’s no hospital report. There’s no police report from that incident. It’s just her talking, years later, to Fawn Brodie.”
Those doubts are among the reasons Farrell chose to exclude the Remley incident from the book’s text, “to signal to the reader that I didn’t believe it.”
Of the allegations more generally, Farrell continued: “In the period after Watergate, Nixon was accused of everything — some of it quite fanciful — and it’s significant, I think, that you had three of the greatest investigative reporters, Woodward and Bernstein and Hersh, and not one of them put it in print in their long investigations on Nixon.” Neither Woodward nor Bernstein responded to repeated interview requests.
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Farrell is right that, given the opportunity to thwack Nixon about this, the otherwise fearless trio declined. Maybe that means something. After all, if “Woodstein” and Hersh couldn’t nail him, who could? But maybe it just says something about the nature of investigative journalism; chasing dozens of consequential stories at any given time, and they don’t all pan out. Which doesn’t, of course, make them false. It just means the threshold for publication — a hospital report or a doctor’s testimony, perhaps — wasn’t met by deadline.
Decades later, we’re left having to deal with a handful of hazy stories, and wondering about the motives of the men and women telling them.
Of all the allegations, it’s Zita Remley’s that really gnaws at me. I am willing to concede, as Farrell contends, that Remley lied about Nixon’s taxes, even if there’s evidence she just made a dumb mistake. What I keep returning to is this: What did this obscure campaign worker stand to gain from accusing the still-living Nixon of slapping her? It certainly wasn’t fame. From what I can tell, Remley’s death in 1985 didn’t even merit an obituary in the local papers.
As we’re seeing now, the women who accuse powerful men — Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes — do not reap windfalls. Their lives do not seem measurably improved by sticking their necks out. (Quite the contrary. Stormy Daniels, for instance, was recently arrested for touching undercover detectives in a strip club — charges that were later dismissed.)
Now, imagine doing this 40 years ago — which is to say, 20 years before Monica Lewinsky was dragged through the mud and Bill Clinton left office with an approval rating of 66 percent.
What’s the upside?
“This is an agonizing subject for me, because I heard some of the same stories, from a much earlier period,” said Roger Morris. A source suggested I talk to Morris, who resigned from the National Security Council in 1970 when Nixon ordered the bloody Cambodian “incursion.”
Morris wrote 1991’s Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician, which charts Nixon’s life and career through the election of 1952. He heard stories in Whittier, California, where Nixon moved at the age of 9, and Washington. The tales, always off-the-record, were passed along by friends and acquaintances, often elderly Quakers. (I asked if there was anyone I could talk to; Morris said they were all dead.)
As we’re seeing now, the women who accuse powerful men — Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes — do not reap windfalls.
“I had heard stories about the physical abuse of Pat Nixon as early as the Congressional years, which would have been ’47, ’48, ’49, and much of 1950,” Morris continued. “They had these terrible, raging fights, at high decibel.” Per the descriptions he heard of altercations at the Spring Valley home, Nixon had “manhandled” his wife, “not necessarily beaten. It was a violent relationship, in that respect.”
Morris didn’t hear the stories when he was in government, but only much later, starting in around 1983, when he began work on the book. He could never nail down the details, so, while his book includes accounts of the marriage becoming increasingly strained, there’s no reference to physical abuse. “I didn’t have any real, solid verification. I did not have any eyewitnesses.” Which is not to say his sources were bad, or distant; among them, Morris said, were in-laws of the Nixons. “They were plausible people, serious people.” He believed the stories, but lacked what he felt would be necessary for inclusion — eyewitnesses, testimony from doctors, or hospital records. (That’s to be expected, and it’s one of the inherent difficulties in writing about abuse.)
“If you ask me if this is probable — could it have happened? Absolutely. It is consistent with too much testimony of what we know about their relationship. It was stormy. It was given to outbursts of anger, profanity. It was not based on abiding, mutual respect,” Morris said. There had once been a great deal of love between them, “but as in many marriages, it was depleted and exhausted.”
Just before we hung up, Morris added: “We’re living in a very different era now, and I do think historical figures ought to be judged whole, as it were, against the setting of their times, but also against the setting of posterity.”
Elon Green is a writer in Port Washington, New York.