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.

Next, he would burnish his credentials with a number of foreign trips; he wrote op-eds for major papers and made speeches, mainly about foreign leaders he had known. These talks could be tedious and name-droppy. Nixon understood that some attendees were coming to see a freak show, but he knew how to impress his audiences. He was a smart man—intelligence and judgment being different qualities—and he often won them over with his knowledge and his speaking style. He talked without notes or a podium. His sonorous voice and certitude projected confidence, and he appeared a font of wisdom. Nixon the foreign-policy expert wasn’t the Nixon of Watergate memory—defensive, wriggling, perspiring, taking liberties with the truth.

In early 1976, he traveled again to China, where he was treated as a visiting statesman and issued foreign-policy pronouncements as if he were still president, or thought he was. His China trip, and apparent confusion about his role, weren’t appreciated by the Republicans who were engaged in their own attempts to lead the nation, or the numerous party members who wanted Nixon to just go away. Coming as it did during the Republican nomination contest, the trip particularly displeased President Ford, who was seeking election in his own right to the office Nixon had left to him; now Ford was facing a strong nomination challenge from Ronald Reagan. (Ford was constrained to jam in a trip to China of his own during the primaries.)

Soon after his heady China trip, Nixon planned a six-week worldwide tour, but a number of foreign leaders sent word that they had no time to see him, and his two former secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and William Rogers, told him that such a trip was ill-advised. Nixon failed to grasp that it was too soon since he had been forced to leave office to start playing world leader again, but he agreed to postpone that trip. He did appear at the Oxford Union in late 1978, where he was greeted with jeers but at the end of his appearance received a standing ovation. Upon his return to the United States, Nixon told a reporter a line that became famous as his guiding philosophy: “A man is not finished when he is defeated. He is finished when he quits.”

Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon talk with Deng Xiaoping at a 1979 State Dinner. Nixon got himself invited at Chinese insistence, despite Carter's reluctance. (Wikimedia Commons)

Nixon’s climb back toward respectability became increasingly audacious as the years went on. Though Jimmy Carter loathed Nixon, the former president got himself invited to the first state dinner for Chinese leaders, in 1979—at the insistence of the Chinese—despite the fact that Carter wasn’t at all eager to have him there. And his plan began to show results: After Nixon took yet another trip to China later that year, he was voted one of Gallup’s 10 most admired men in the world.

He was playing fantasy president, which meant attending the funerals of statesmen, since that’s what presidents and ex-presidents do. But the circumstances of Nixon’s ex-ness made for a most unusual situation and discomfited former presidents whose legitimacy wasn’t in question. In 1981 he attended the funeral of the shah of Iran; later that year he managed to get himself included—along with Ford and Carter—in the official delegation to the funeral of Anwar Sadat, making for a rather tense threesome. At the end of the Cairo ceremonies, having told no one but President Reagan’s national security adviser Al Haig (who had urged Reagan to include Nixon in the funeral entourage), Nixon slipped away from the delegation and took an extensive tour through the Middle East, despite a recurrence of his painful phlebitis. When Nixon returned from the trip, he sent a supposedly private report on his findings to the president—and released it to the press. This was a to be a technique he would use often to get attention to himself as the elder statesman.

But his speeches and globetrotting could take him only so far. He was limited by having San Clemente as his base of operations and, understandably, he was becoming bored with its relative isolation. So in 1980, despite his many vows to leave it to the federal government, Nixon sold the house in San Clemente, and he and his wife Pat moved to New York, locale of many of the poobahs— publishers, bankers, captains of industry, and foreign-policy eminences—whom he needed to cultivate in order to implement Wizard. New York was where, as Nixon put it, he could be “on the fast track.” The Nixons moved into a townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (having been blackballed by various co-op boards). In time, movers and shakers flocked to Nixon’s townhouse, having eagerly accepted one of the most coveted dinner invitations in New York.

Nixon’s dinners, most of them stag, were ritualized affairs. At 7 p.m. sharp, he greeted his guests in the foyer; this was followed by light conversation, along with drinks and hors d’oeuvres in the upstairs library. (Nixon mixed the drinks himself, specializing in dry martinis.) Nixon’s new home was fixed up in Chinese décor. At dinner, delicious Chinese food was served by Chinese waiters. The conversation was focused on a topic Nixon selected, and following dinner the group repaired to the living room for more light conversation, the host, though still awkward, often telling stories. Then, precisely at 10:30, Nixon would look up at a clock and remark, “Well, I promised to get [so and so, naming a prominent guest] to a house of prostitution by 11:00, so I guess we’d better call it a night.” Everyone knew it was time to leave. Afterward they talked about the dinner all over town.

Nixon meets with Bill Clinton at the White House in 1993. (Wikimedia Commons)

Nixon became a New York celebrity—dining in fine restaurants with other famous people, local powers, and visiting dignitaries; his attendance at football games was pictured in the papers, as were sightings of him around town. He wrote articles for Foreign Affairs, the New York Times, and the newsweeklies. He was having, for him, a wonderful time. Newspaper stories began to appear hailing Richard Nixon’s latest comeback—reminiscent of all the times in his career when he was down and seemingly out and pundits would call on him and return to announce a “new Nixon.”

But in just three years, disturbed by the seamier side of New York and worried about its effects on his grandchildren, on whom he doted, Nixon moved again, this time to the quieter, suburban Saddle River, New Jersey.  But he still wasn’t done: Now there was a new generation to cultivate. So he held a series of cocktails and dinners at his New Jersey home for journalists who hadn’t yet come of age during Watergate and presumably had no preconceptions. Nixon set out to impress them with his worldly knowledge, and most came away awed. In 1984 and 1988 he went to the belly of the beast, and addressed conventions of newspaper editors and publishers in Washington, D.C. Each time, he was asked to opine on the upcoming presidential election, and though he sometimes got it wrong (his predictions were questionable at the time) he received standing ovations from people who had driven him from office. He appeared on the cover of newsweeklies, on one occasion threatening that he wouldn’t write a requested column otherwise.

His welcome back into the political world remained unenthusiastic—but that didn’t stop him from engaging himself in it. He wasn’t invited to the Republican conventions, but he made it his business to know what was going on, calling candidates and operatives, offering advice. Across the nation, people were astonished to hear his voice on the phone, and it apparently never occurred to him that his counsel wasn’t necessarily desired. He learned the names of who was running each campaign and what were the poll numbers in almost every district. After Reagan was reelected, Nixon was so disconnected from reality that he made a serious run at getting a high-level position in the administration. He felt that he had earned it. Reagan aides were incredulous.

In perhaps the most brazen act of his effort to be a foreign-policy guru, he blackmailed Bill Clinton into consulting him on Russia. A few months after Clinton took office in 1993, Nixon got word to him that if he weren’t paid proper respect as a foreign-affairs expert he would write an op-ed in a major newspaper attacking the president’s handling of foreign policy. Following Nixon’s subterranean threat and some lobbying by his allies, Clinton telephoned him, appearing to seek his advice. Still under pressure from the Nixon camp, Clinton then reluctantly invited him to the White House on the eve of a two-man summit with Boris Yeltsin in April 1993. The meeting was held at night so that no press would be around to ask questions and take pictures of Clinton and Nixon together.

Presidents Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter, and Ford, each with their wives, all attended Nixon's 1994 funeral. (Wikimedia Commons)

Patricia Nixon died in June 1993 and the nation saw a distraught Richard Nixon sobbing at her funeral. Recent discoveries suggest that they were closer than it appeared in public—their attachment apparently having grown stronger during Nixon’s exile. (Pat was delighted to be out of politics.) Nixon himself died of a stroke the following April 29. A grand array—President Clinton and his wife, along with four ex-presidents and their wives, more than a hundred members of Congress, numerous ambassadors, and other grandees—gathered in Yorba Linda for the funeral.* The voices of Henry Kissinger and Bob Dole cracked as they delivered their eulogies (though Nixon knew that Kissinger derided him behind his back while he served as national security adviser, and Dole used to wisecrack about Nixon). The funeral was carried on national television.

Nixon would have been pleased.

This post is adapted from Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon's Downfall.

* This post originally stated that three ex-presidents attended the funeral. We regret the error.