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Nixon in the final analysis had provoked a revolution. He had been re-elected by a landslide in 1972 in a contest as close to being fought on ideological issues as is possible in America. Overwhelmingly, the American people had chosen the moderate conservative course, not the radical liberal. For reasons unrelated to the issues, this choice was now being annulledwith as yet unpredictable consequences.
So the verdict of history would be mixed. But I did not recite my caveats that evening; he would hear enough of that in the lonely months aheadmost tellingly from himself. It was evident that he could hardly bear the thought of the indignity of a criminal trial. Neither could I. If this came to pass, I told him, I would retire from office. And I believe I would have.
I kept returning to the theme that the judgment of history would be less severe, that it would remember his major achievements. But Nixon was not easily consoled. "It depends who writes the history," he kept saying. He did not do justice to himself. He had built better than he knew: nearly a decade later, the basic categories of our public discourse on international affairsChina, the Middle East, the strategic balance, energy policy, new initiatives with alliesare those established during his years.
To professional Nixon haters, this may seem a maudlin rendition of a self-inflicted denouement that was entirely justified. I was too close to events to see it that way. That night of Aug. 7,1 was nearly shattered by the human tragedy of the President seeking a solace beyond anybody's capacity to furnish.
Near midnight, after about two hours in the Lincoln Room, Nixon started escorting me to the elevator. He stopped at the door of the Lincoln Bedroom and suggested that he and I pray there together. There was no good way to put a period to such a tempestuous career. I am not sure that this was not as meaningful as any and more appropriate than most.
Nixon recalls that he invited me to kneel with him and that I did so. My own recollection is less clear on whether I actually knelt. In whatever posture, I was filled with a deep sense of awe. A passage from Aeschylus ran through my mindas it happened, a favorite of one of Nixon's obsessions, Robert Kennedy:
Pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until in our despair there comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
After about half an hour in the Lincoln Bedroom I returned to my White House office. Soon Nixon called. I must not remember our encounter that evening as a sign of weakness, he said. How strange is the illusion by which men sustain themselves! This evening when he had bared his soul I saw a man of tenacity and resilience. And so I told the stricken President that if I ever spoke of the evening, it would be with respect. He had honored me by sharing with me his last free night in the White House. He had conducted himself humanly and worthily.