As soon as the June 1972 break-in to the office of the Democratic National Committee IDNC) at the Watergate Hotel and Office Building hit the news media that summer, according to David Eisenhower he, Julie, and Tricia “smelled danger in how the Nixon campaign was handling it.” For the next two years Julie and Tricia, seasoned and efficient administration advocates, broke precedent among presidential daughters by spending hours in the public eye defending their father in an attempt to defuse one of the most damaging political crises ever to threaten the nation’s chief executive.
David now sees the two-year saga in which the daughters stood up for their father as a “great drama which feels Shakespearean.” The whole episode for him was a “giant car accident — like a tragedy.” Julie described the Watergate period as a “searing experience for us all.”
During the spring and summer of 1973, the first year of the President Nixon’s second term, the Watergate story became daily front-page news across the country. As a Senate Watergate Committee was formed and investigated the break-in and the president’s 1972 campaign finances, Julie and David Eisenhower took the lead in defending the president in print interviews and on live television.
Julie became the de facto family spokesperson, deemed by the press as the one family member who was not afraid to tackle the crises directly. Nixon would later be roundly and justifiably criticized for allowing his daughter to defend him publicly when he knew that some of what he had led her to believe was not true. During Frank Gannon’s series of thirty hours of videotaped interviews with Nixon made in 1983, Gannon asked the former president about his decision to let Julie speak for him, what many felt was “a crime of the heart.” Nixon denied that Julie spoke to him about her talks and that he was aware of what she was doing. Nixon’s lies about this reveal what a sore spot the issue was for him.
Julie’s availability, her candor and her personable persona won her the respect of the American people. Humorist Art Buchwald quipped that she was the only person in the Nixon administration “whom this country believes.”
As the crisis intensified in 1974, Tricia decided that she needed to offer her father more public support. Tricia told NBC reporter Russ Ward she was outraged “at the witch-hunt atmosphere” that she felt surrounded the president and his administration. Quoting her father, she said, “One year of Watergate is enough. Let’s get on with the business of the country.” On January 31, 1974, Tricia and Ed joined fifteen hundred people at “National Prayer and Fast for the Watergate Crisis,” a pro-Nixon rally in Lafayette Square across the street from the White House.
Tricia’s husband Ed Cox had stayed out of the defense lineup, but he broke his public silence to express his indignation. At an impromptu session with Julie and the press at the pro-Nixon rally, he called former White House counsel John Dean “a coward” whose “whole object was to get immunity.” Cox asserted that the president was the victim of “one of the most vicious witch hunts in American history.”
David further entered the fray to talk about the extraordinary pressures the Watergate crisis was putting on their marriage, fanning tensions with his wife, by granting a remarkably forthright interview that was published in the February issue of McCall’s. He acknowledged that his basically happy marriage to Julie was affected and the strains led the couple to quarrel at times. While Julie took great pains to appear “friendly and cheerful” in public, he said, at home she “would bark at me now and then.” According to David, Julie had a “tendency to take things too much to heart.” She carped at him when he forgot to wash the dishes. Julie was reportedly angry with his attempt to interject a more human perspective into the family reaction to the crisis.
In March, Tricia told Washington correspondent Trude B. Feldman that the Watergate burglary was “stupid and dishonest,” a sentiment her sister Julie shared. Promoting her father as a “man of peace,” Tricia stated that Nixon was “a completely honest person.” Julie also stated her public faith in her father’s integrity. It had to have been extremely painful when they later found out that their father had been lying to the American public.
In April, in order to debunk wild rumors about their marriage, Tricia and Ed spoke to Winzola McLendon of Ladies Home Journal. The Coxes dismissed rumors that they supposedly “had three children, the marriage had fallen apart, [and] she had Hodgkin’s disease.” The Coxes were particularly incensed that Newsweek magazine had accused them of cheating on their tax returns. They had paid what they owed. Speaking of her father’s critics, Tricia declared that “Accusation without proof, accusation by unnamed so-called sources, accusation by rumor, is just often a license to libel and lie.” Tricia thought impeachment would be a “political act” that would damage “our system of checks and balances.”
In late July the House Judiciary Committee voted in favor of an article of impeachment charging that Nixon had tried to obstruct the investigation of the Watergate case. On August 2, Dick asked Pat, Tricia, Julie, David, and Ed to meet with him in the Lincoln Sitting Room. He described the contents of the June 23, 1972, tape in which he supported obstructing the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in. He told the family that this tape, which had been subpoenaed and was about to be released to the Senate Watergate Committee and the special prosecutor, would make it impossible for him to continue his fight to stay in office. Tricia, Ed, David, and Julie took copies of the transcripts to their rooms and read them. Tricia and Julie were still opposed to his resigning. Ed encouraged Nixon to stay on and David told the president to do what he felt was best.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein assert in their book The Final Days that the family was not as united as they tried to portray. They report that David Eisenhower and Ed Cox faced considerable hostility from their implacably committed wives when, as the truth became more public knowledge, they tried to convince them that the evidence warranted a resignation. David Eisenhower remembers “how attuned Julie and Tricia were to public opinion and how savvy they were.” He sees Woodward and Bernstein’s description of the conflicts within the couples as an blatant misrepresentation of the family situation.