The Fifth Nixon

Rose Mary Woods (1917-2005)

No man is a hero to his valet. But some of us hope at least to be a hero to our secretary. And even if we're not heroic, even if we can't be Perry Mason, she'll still be Della Street—there to buck up the chief, to assure him that he's been in tight spots before and he always comes through.

Thus the White House, May 14, 1973, half an hour before midnight. Today George W. Bush would have been tucked up in bed for a couple of hours, but three decades ago Richard Nixon had things keeping him late at the office. The news wasn't good, and wasn't likely to get better. That was the view not just of political strategists but even of the leading celebrity psychic, with whom the president's secretary had recently met.

WOODS: Jeane Dixon tells us that May and June are going to be pretty bad. June may be worse than May. But everything will turn out to be fine and to be of stout heart and all that …
NIXON: That's why we have been brought into this world.
WOODS: Well, you particularly, and you'd be surprised how many people say, you know, God does bring the hardest problems to the strongest men.
NIXON: That's right.

When the going gets tough, the tough know how to delegate. When he decided to resign as president, it was Rose Mary Woods whom Nixon told first, dispatching her to the residence to inform his wife and daughters. So Rose went in to see the First Lady, and told Julie and Tricia, "Your father has decided to resign," and then explained that there would be no further discussion. The president arrived for dinner and they chitchatted about … other things. Small talk, which was never exactly Richard Nixon's big strength.

Rose had been known since the 1950s as "the fifth Nixon." But at the climactic moment of his life she seemed to be somewhat higher up in the rankings: the intimacy, the intensity, the honesty, were all between "the Boss" (as she called him) and his secretary, not between man and wife. Rose Mary Woods knew more about Richard Nixon than anybody else who ever worked with him, and she was just about the only one who never wrote a book about it. Nixon went to his grave in large part unknowable, and he has her to thank for that.

Uniquely, she was famous for eighteen and a half minutes: the "gap" in the White House tapes. She never claimed to be responsible for accidentally—or "accidentally," according to taste—erasing all eighteen minutes and twenty-eight seconds of it, but in the distillation of a defining moment the details get lost. Rose Mary Woods = gap. The Washington Post's Tony Kornheiser in a memoir of his father: " 'What happened to your teeth, Dad?' I asked softly. There were gaps. Rose Mary Woods gaps."

When she died, the wags at Kornheiser's paper ran an appreciation by Hank Stuever complete with its own gap—a chunk of blank white paper in the middle of the article. To mark the twentieth anniversary of Nixon's resignation, Theatre Babylon, in Seattle, presented an evening of selected dramatic readings from the White House tapes and a playlet called Rose Mary, That's for Remembrance, followed by intermission—or "a gap, if you will, in the proceedings."

Rose Mary's gap swallowed the decades either side of it. Scandals are complicated things. To catch fire with a public disinclined to wade through pages of densely investigative journalism, they need an image—and Rose provided it. She said she'd taken a phone call, in the course of which she'd accidentally kept her foot on the tape machine's pedal and accidentally hit the record button; and even though the phone was a long way from the foot pedal, the explanation could have passed muster if Rose hadn't gamely essayed a visual re-enactment—her limbs extended to the limit across the length of the office, her left hand reaching backward to the phone, her right forward to the record button, one foot straining for the pedal, presumably leaving the other free to snake round the desk and over to the corner to start the Ray Conniff on the eight-track. The big stretch was too much of a stretch for the court, and for the "silent majority," which broke its silence and started guffawing loudly. John Dean called her a "stand-up woman," and she was—if only she'd stayed in that position.

"President Sadat had a belly dancer entertain President Nixon at a state dinner," Johnny Carson said. "Mr. Nixon was really impressed. He hadn't seen contortions like that since Rose Mary Woods." And even as the years passed, for an inordinate number of novels set in the seventies the secretary became a shorthand for the era. She turns up in Rick Moody's The Ice Storm, and Delia Ephron's Hanging Up, and Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone, and Robert Ludlum's Apocalypse Watch ("I figured we had one of those Rose Mary Woods things"). In Samuel Shem's The House of God four generations of a family gather for dinner, and Rose's turn provides fun for young and old.

Spurred on by the news photos of Rose Mary Woods spread-eagled between the foot pedal of her tape recorder and the phone behind her as if awaiting a quick roll in the hay with Nixon, we laughed and chortled together that now, finally, Nixon was going to get his … my brother's four-year-old daughter … was learning to play with her toy phone by picking it up and spread-eagling herself and screaming RO-MARY REACH RO-MARY REACH …

When a celebrity becomes a pop-culture joke, we still know enough other things about him or her to put the gag in a broader context. When a real person becomes a punchline, that's all there is—"The Rose Mary Woods Award for Convenient Technological Incompetence" (an Arianna Huffington crack). The real Rose Mary Woods returned to Sebring, Ohio, a small-town girl who ended her days a spinster of the parish she'd grown up in. The "devoted secretary" was an easy joke even before women's lib put the very noun in jeopardy ("Secretaries' Week" is now "Administrative Professionals' Week," which takes a bit of the zip out of the Hallmark verses). But it's one thing to be the stereotypical secretary in love with the boss, quite another to love a boss whose principal characteristic to the media and the other elites is that he's unlovely and unlovable.

She remains the only secretary to get her own Time magazine cover, though she looks rather severe on it. She wasn't always. Dr. John C. Lungren, who first met her on the train—the Dick Nixon Special—in the 1952 campaign, when he signed on as Dick's doc, remembered Rose as "red-haired, pretty and Irish-Catholic." She was warm and vivacious; my favorite photograph from the presidential years is not The Stretch but one of her dancing with Duke Ellington, an improbable couple hitting the floor at a White House party to celebrate Duke's seventieth birthday, with Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck, and other hep cats supplying the music. (Nixon's avowedly "square" White House was, in fact, less cheesy than Clinton's Lite FM programming and more confident than the Kennedys' culturally craven collect-the-set approach.)

There was a man once, a fiancé. But he died when Rose was seventeen, and thereafter she was all business. She moved to Washington, got a secretarial job with the House committee dealing with postwar reconstruction in Europe, and met a young congressman named Richard Nixon. The granddaughter of an Irish stowaway, Rose was political and ambitious, and in the absence of non-secretarial outlets for such a woman in the Washington of mid-century, Congressman Nixon became her vehicle. She was tough and plainspoken. On Tony Lake: "I've watched him. He's a weak character." To Kissinger when he threatened to quit over Al Haig's move to the White House: "For once in your life, Henry, just behave like a man"—which he never had to take from the Soviets or the Chinese. She could be tough on the Boss, too. She was the first to tell him he'd lost the 1960 presidential debate, after her parents called from Ohio to inquire if the vice-president was unwell.

Not everyone around him wanted a "fifth Nixon": they had more than enough with the first four. After victory in the 1968 election Bob Haldeman, with Nixon's consent, decided to put Rose in a basement room far from the Oval Office. "Go fuck yourself!" she told the president-elect, for once declining to delete the expletive, and there-after refusing to speak to him until she'd been moved up closer to the action.

She stayed close, long after everyone else was gone, and when the man she considered "the greatest president this country has ever had" set about rehabilitating himself as the greatest ex-president this country has ever had, as a geopolitical-strategic colossus, the unlikely sage had Rose Mary and time, and not much else.

The secretary who kept the secrets died with them, and left us a Richard Nixon that she helped create. Miss Woods wasn't a speechwriter. Instead she took words out of the president's mouth, and the substitutions—the "expletive deleted"s that fell as furiously as radio bleeps on a gangsta hit—came to define Nixon as much as anything Ted Sorensen wrote for Kennedy. For all the low cunning and petty thuggery of the participants, the transcripts exemplify the almost touching naiveté of the administration. Whatever their crimes, their mistake spin-wise was stenographic. Asked to transcribe the tapes, Rose approached them like any other dictation assignment: she cleaned up the stumbles and stutters and folks talking over each other, put everything into proper complete sentences, rendered "gonna" as "going to," and excised the "yeah"s and "er"s and "um"s. That's what you want in a secretary if you're dictating a letter to the chairman of the Rotary Club. But it was a disaster for the Oval Office tapes: the cool, clinical precision of the language makes Nixon and Co. sound far more conspiratorial, ruthless, and viciously forensic than the incoherent burble of the originals.

But nothing was as damaging to the president as the "expletive deleted"s. According to his British biographer, Jonathan Aitken, "the tapes were censored with Hannah Nixon in mind." "If my mother ever heard me use words like that she would roll over in her grave," Nixon said. Words like what? "Dammit" and "Christ," mostly. So Rose loyally took out everything that would have crossed the late Mrs. Nixon's profanity threshold, and as a result readers assume that every expletive deleted isn't "Goddamn" or "that bastard" but "cocksucker" or "motherfucker." Hannah Nixon's boy went down in history as one of the foulest-mouthed sons of bitches ever to open his yap, even though Rose swore she'd never heard him swear. In the end, the perfect secretary was too perfect.