How Julie Eisenhower And Tricia Cox Tried To Protect The President During The Watergate Crisis
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.
According to The Final Days, both sons-in-laws worried about Richard Nixon’s mental state and David was concerned that he might commit suicide. Although the Nixon family generally dismissed the book in 1976 as a malicious set of falsehoods, they have not been willing until now to disavow these specific assertions because, as one Nixon insider explained, they find it far too painful to relive this deeply traumatic period in their lives. In fact, when David Eisenhower spoke to this author, his memories came back in an “intense and vivid” way — which surprised him. He felt like he was suddenly reliving “a wartime experience.” As he talked to me, he “was struck by how precise his memory was about certain points of that time forty years ago.” “Amazing precision” was a trait he had noticed in talking to certain war veterans. This post-traumatic flashback is one of the reasons David will not allow for the transcripts of his interviews to be released during his lifetime by the Harry Ransom Center, where the Woodward and Bernstein papers are stored, at the University of Texas.
Ed Cox recalls being called by Scott Armstrong, a research associate of Woodward and Bernstein, and being threatened with the implication that if he did not give an interview, he would regret how he was portrayed in the book. He declined to talk. Cox told the author that he “came to no conclusion whatsoever” about the resignation and “followed Tricia’s lead because Tricia was much closer to the president.” Ed listened to the president on many occasions and tried to support him as he weighed different options, but did not feel that it was his place to tell him what to do. Michigan Republican Senator Robert Griffin, whom Woodward and Bernstein quoted, claimed that Ed was seriously worried about his father-in-law talking to the pictures of former presidents and worried about his drinking; he could not even talk to Tricia about his conclusion that Nixon should resign. Ed revealed that it was Senator Griffin who called him and made those statements and that Ed completely disavowed them during their conversation. The fact that Griffin told Woodward and Bernstein that those were Cox’s comments still infuriates Ed Cox today. He calls Griffin “an absolute scoundrel” who “went down in flames that day” to his “eternal shame.” Cox believes that Griffin, who was a Gerald Ford ally, “did it to me for his own gain.”
Bob Woodward sought out David Eisenhower at George Washington University law school. David agreed to talk with him and later with Carl Bernstein because “they had talked to everybody including the butlers, had promised that a story would not be printed without confirmation from two sources, and their book agent had also become a book agent for the Eisenhowers. “I was trying to humanize the family,” David explained to me. By talking, he sought to counter the impression that the family “was creating a citadel around RN and the White House and not listening to the press.” During the Watergate period, “we feared the worst and anything was possible.”
He does not remember telling Woodward and Bernstein or anyone else that he worried that the president might commit suicide,” but he does “remember thinking it.” Woodward and Bernstein wrote that David had been “’waiting for Mr. Nixon to go bananas,’ as he sometimes phrased it.” David never used that phrase and believes someone else made it up. Woodward and Bernstein or their sources may be embroidering the truth here. It is hard to know because they won’t reveal the names of the people they interviewed. David’s law school friend Brooks Harrington refused to comment to this author on whether Woodward and Bernstein had correctly quoted his statements about the Nixon family.
The Watergate period was “an existential threat — a situation where there is no script. I didn’t know how we would fare,” David said, “I feared for myself as well as for everybody.” When the Nixon family discussed the possibility of a resignation, they were not sure what it would mean and what would happen to them.
After Nixon released the June 23 tape, acknowledging that he had misled his lawyers and the public, and had participated in the cover-up, his political support in Congress collapsed. Two nights later, on August 4, the Nixons gathered in the third-floor White House solarium for dinner served on trays. Julie had tears in her eyes. Dick told his family, “Well, I screwed it up good, real good, didn’t I?”
Nixon gave his televised resignation speech from the Oval Office at 9:00 p.m. on Thursday, August 8. He told Americans that he would resign the presidency at noon the next day in hopes of healing the national trauma. The next morning the distraught family stood by the president in the East Room as he said good-bye to the cabinet and approximately three hundred members of the White House staff. He finished his speech by offering advice he had failed to heed until the end: “Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” As the numb family left the East Room, the crowd rose to their feet and applauded vigorously.
In the aftermath, Nixon faced widespread criticism for not mentioning Pat in his final address. Nixon justified the omission in his memoir, saying, “I wasn’t about to mention [Pat], or Julie or Tricia and have them break down in front of all the people in the country.”
On the day of the resignation, August 9, David and Julie bid Dick and Pat goodbye on the White House lawn, while Tricia and Ed accompanied them to San Clemente. Whatever sorrow and bitterness Julie, David, Tricia, and Ed felt about their two-year ordeal supporting the president, they kept to themselves while loyally continuing to support their parents. Any anger they might have felt at their father for misleading them was mitigated by the conviction that his resignation was the result of what they considered a politically unjust coup, every much as it was the consequence of a set of disastrous decisions Dick had made. David was deeply impressed by the “solidarity and grace” the Nixons showed during this entire ordeal.
David believes that, over the twenty years that followed the resignation, his father-in-law’s “expressions of contrition,” his appropriate withdrawal from the public eye and his re-entry “providing constructive advice” on national and international issues proved that he had the “type of judgment that allowed him to attain the presidency in the first place.”
Nearly forty years later Ed Cox could still speak enthusiastically to this author about what a great president Richard Nixon was, a belief David Eisenhower shares.