Excerpt: Elizabeth Drew’s ‘Washington Journal’

The Rootless Man

Nixon had bought the house in San Clemente—a large Spanish-style building overlooking the Pacific Ocean—during his presidency with the help of his friends Bebe Rebozo and Robert Abplanalp. But he was essentially a rootless man—unlike other presidents he had had no place with which he was identified, no real hometown. Just as he invented himself, Nixon invented “homes.” The larger spread at San Clemente made more sense for him at this point than his other house, at Key Biscayne, and to the extent he belonged anywhere, it was California, where he had grown up and begun his political career.

From early in his presidency, Nixon spent an uncommon amount of time fleeing the White House and Washington. He went to Camp David often with Rebozo, his closest and only real friend. But it wasn’t a friendship of equals: Nixon valued Rebozo’s company for the latter’s ability to remain silent for long stretches of time. The two men also engaged in heavy drinking together.

During his White House years, there had been indications that the President liked his liquor, but the full extent of his fondness of the drink, or its effects, was unknown to the general public throughout his presidency; it began to become apparent later to some people when they read the transcripts closely. And even though the transcripts suggested that he had been drinking, it wasn’t until later that people learned how serious his drinking problem was. When he drank a lot, Nixon slurred his words to such an extent that it was difficult for his aides and others to understand him, and he sometimes seemed out of control. He would call aides and others at all hours of the night, issuing outlandish instructions—for example, to fire an entire floor of the State Department—and then slamming down the phone—often as not only to pick it up again to emphasize the order. (“This order is not appealable.” Slam.) It was left to the judgment of aides—whose judgment was clearly questionable—to decide which of the middle-of-the-night orders by the president of the United States to carry out and which to ignore.

Adding to the problems caused by his drinking, Nixon began to take Dilantin—a medication supplied to him by the financier Jack Dreyfus—to deal with his deep depression. Dilantin was an anti-convulsive drug that had never been approved for depression, and its effect was to exacerbate the characteristics of drunkenness: mental confusion, slurring one’s words, irritability. A man in this state was making fateful decisions.

I learned later that Rebozo and Nixon were drinking heavily together at Camp David on the eve of the invasion of Cambodia. During the run-up to the invasion, Nixon made so many calls to his national security adviser that after midnight one night, Kissinger ordered a member of his staff back to the White House, saying “Our peerless leader has flipped out.” Kissinger sometimes referred to the President as “our drunken friend,” and had aides listen in to hear what he was hearing. Nixon had taken to watching Patton over and over, and he ordered his staff to view it before the invasion of Cambodia. The recollections of various Nixon associates of that period makes it quite evident that the orders to invade a neutral country without authorization from Congress—an invasion that set off riots on campuses across the country and led to the killing of four students at Kent State by National Guard officers— was heavily affected by Nixon’s anxiety and inebriation.

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