Excerpt: Elizabeth Drew’s ‘Washington Journal’

A Pursuit of Money

In the national uproar that ensued when Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon on September 8, 1974, a month after Nixon announced his resignation, inevitably there was widespread suspicion that there had been a deal: that in exchange for Nixon selecting Ford to succeed him, Ford would repay Nixon by protecting him from criminal prosecution. Ford even felt compelled to appear before a congressional committee to deny that there had been such a deal, and there was never any evidence of one. Though I felt at the time that Ford had done the right thing—that the country had been through enough upheaval and it was time to move on—some whose opinion I respect thought that the legal case should have proceeded, to make it clear that no one was above the law. According to this view, Nixon shouldn’t have gone to jail— removal from office would have been punishment enough—but the legal process should have been seen to its conclusion. Nixon was actually troubled about the pardon and hesitated for a while about accepting it for fear it would be seen as an admission of guilt. Yet he reconciled himself to accepting the bad publicity in exchange for avoiding years of expensive trials and perhaps even jail time.

Nixon’s most urgent order of business was to make money, though money wasn’t a new preoccupation. Rather than risk impeachment on the matter, Nixon agreed to pay $465,000 in back taxes (the IRS had said he owed at least $11,000 more); among deductions the IRS disallowed were for claimed business use of his vacation homes, for a masked ball given by Tricia Nixon, $22.00 for the cleaning of Mrs. Nixon’s bathroom rug, and $1.24 for interest on a department store bill. He paid no state or local income taxes for any of his residences.

Even as Nixon was giving his farewell speech to his staff, a longtime military aide was packing up crates full of presidential documents from the West Wing to ship them to San Clemente. The purpose was to use them as material for another book, from which he’d presumably earn substantial income. Nixon’s plan was to get everything useful out of the White House before the incoming Ford people noticed. And taking his Presidential papers to California would also prevent them from becoming public and causing him embarrassment. Nixon first tried to get hold of the papers semi-legitimately by persuading the General Services Administration to give him control over them for five years—at the end of which he could destroy them. (His failure to destroy the tapes had been a lesson.) But Congress stepped in to stop this egregious arrangement and passed a law stipulating that the presidential papers would go to the National Archives. Desperate to keep his reputation from sinking further, Nixon made a deal with the National Archives that documents and transcripts concerning Watergate and Vietnam wouldn’t be made public for some time. But despite the signed agreement to turn over his papers and transcripts to the Archives, Nixon proceeded to purloin them from the White House.

The Nixon military aide managed to collect the equivalent of three rail- road boxcars of documents and began transferring them to California. (Other documents were shredded using a special chemical.) But the plot was foiled when in an off-hour a Ford aide noticed strange trucks in the White House driveway and inquired what was in them. A revelation in the Washington Post just before Nixon left office interrupted another bit of kleptocracy—to ship to San Clemente millions of dollars in gifts from foreign leaders, including elaborate jewelry for members of his family. Under the law, any gift worth over $50 was to be turned over to the federal government. As a result of the disclosure the Nixons had to surrender the gems.

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