Project Wizard: Dick Nixon’s Brazen Plan for Post-Watergate Redemption

The disgraced president's plan to remake himself as a statesman shows how disconnected he was from reality—but also how resilient and effective he could still be.
Once Nixon boarded a helicopter to leave the White House after resigning, many Americans assumed they'd seen the last of him. (Bob Daugherty/Associated Press)

When Richard Nixon, the first president to have been driven from office, landed at his “Western White House,” in San Clemente on August 9, 1974, the same day he’d resigned, his career and life lay in ruins. He had strived for decades to reach the highest office in the land, and in 1968 had finally achieved his ultimate triumph, and had been overwhelmingly reelected. But now, as he saw it, he had been done in by a conspiracy of his “enemies.” When friends and acquaintances picked up Nixon’s phone calls from San Clemente shortly after he arrived there, they heard a deeply depressed man, sometimes in tears, convinced that “they” would never relent. “They won’t be satisfied until they have me in jail,” Nixon said.

Nixon’s fatal flaw was that he saw “enemies” everywhere; he was filled with resentments. He’d been looked down on all his life, he believed, by people of greater means. An awkward man, essentially a loner—he had very few friends—he never quite fit in, and he resented those who did. Most seriously, he confused political opponents with enemies. And so he came into office prepared to “get ’em.” Thus the White House hired thugs to spy on his “enemies,” including potential opponents in 1972, to “get the goods” on them. Nixon hired as his aides the kinds of people who would carry out his bizarre and even criminal orders. He didn’t understand boundaries. A major reason for Gerald Ford’s pardon was to put Nixon’s tribulations behind the country and to allow it to move on to other matters. When Nixon gave his final, iconic, two-hand V-shaped wave and boarded the helicopter parked in the South Lawn of the White House to take him to the plane for California, the nation had every reason to think that at last he was gone. He had made his troubles ours, had taken us on a wild ride through history but now he would be out of sight. Finished.

But this was a great misunderstanding of Richard Nixon: As he’d said so many times before—he wasn’t “a quitter.” It wasn’t in his nature to give up. He’d come back from innumerable defeats and setbacks throughout most of his existence. He’d lost the presidency in 1960 and the governorship of California two years later. Everyone knew that Nixon was finished then. Six years later he was elected president. (Only three other people in our history had lost the presidency and then won it, none of them in modern times.)

And so this remarkably resilient man wasn’t about to quit now. Determined and methodical as usual, with the help of aides who had gone with him to San Clemente at government expense, Nixon made a plan. This secret plan, codenamed Wizard, was one to regain respectability. He would show ’em again. What would have crushed most people to Richard Nixon was another crisis to be overcome.

But this was a new kind of struggle—not for something as tangible and requiring such fairly conventional means (even for him) as political office, but to rehabilitate his reputation. How, exactly, does one in this unprecedented situation go about that? Most people wouldn’t have dared to try. But Richard Nixon was as driven about this struggle as he had been about those that had gone before.

Yet for all his self-pity and sense of persecution, on at least one occasion Nixon showed a striking degree of self-knowledge. In a conversation with an aide in the early weeks of his exile, Nixon reflected on what had brought about his downfall. He said to the aide, “What starts the process are the laughs and snubs and slights that you get when you are a kid. But if you are reasonably intelligent and if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence, personal gut performance, while those who have everything are sitting on their fat butts.” He had appointed tough guys as his aides, he said, because he wanted people around him who were, like him, fighters. He went out for high-school and college football, and the fact that he had no real athletic ability “was the very reason I tried and tried and tried. To get discipline for myself and to show others that here was a guy who could dish it out and take it. Mostly, I took it.”

And then Nixon recognized the danger of such an approach to life: “You get out of the alley and on your way.” At first it was easy. “In your own mind you have nothing to lose, so you take plenty of chances. It’s a piece of cake until you get to the top.” Then came the danger. “You find that you can’t stop playing the game because it is part of you … So you are lean and mean and resourceful and you continue to walk on the edge of the precipices because over the years you have become fascinated by how close to the edge you can walk without losing your balance.”

“This time it was different,” the aide responded.

“Yes,” Nixon replied quietly. “This time we had something to lose.”

* * *

Now Nixon’s preoccupation, even obsession, after being forced from office was to become a respected figure. It wasn’t for him to live out the rest of his life in disgrace. He was determined to become someone people listened to—a senior statesman, a sage. And the best way to be considered a sage, Nixon understood, was to establish one’s credentials as an expert in foreign policy, a man known to world leaders. Domestic policy didn’t cut it the same way: Lectures and articles on education or the environment didn’t attract the Brahmins and the business leaders Nixon wanted to attract, didn’t occupy nearly as much space on the stage. No splashy trips.

In accordance with the Wizard plan, the former president first would write another memoir (because statesmen wrote memoirs), both to make money and to give his own version of events. Money wasn't a new preoccupation but now Nixon feared expensive trials (until the pardon) and had just paid a heap in back taxes rather than risk impeachmment on the matter. Nixon’s book sold astonishingly well. To get some questions behind him and make still more money, Nixon also struck a lucrative deal for a series of interviews with the British talk-show host David Frost, which aired in 1977. Nixon was paid a whopping $600,000 for signing and was to earn from each sale of the interviews, an odd arrangement. On Watergate, which the deal held to one of the four sessions, Nixon wasn’t nearly as revealing as the play and movie Frost/Nixon had it, but interest in him was sufficiently strong and he said just enough—“I let down my country”—to draw great interest and line his pockets.

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Elizabeth Drew

Elizabeth Drew is a writer based in Washington, D.C. The author of 15 books, she is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and a former Washington correspondent for The Atlantic and The New Yorker.

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