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The Captive of San Clemente

Fiction: Watching the 1976 Republican Convention with Richard Nixon.

THAT FAINT CLANKING SOUND, arriving through the open window of his home office: Was it coming from the courtyard? Was it being made by the pulley they’d attached to the house’s outside wall?

Christ, it couldn’t be, thought Nixon, looking at his new digital watch: 6:15 p.m. No, they still had the round-the-clock nurse with them, and she wouldn’t be letting Pat get up from her long afternoon nap for another 15 minutes, when he’d join her for a glass of fruit juice and dinner off the TV trays.

He heard the clanking again and realized it was just the halyard hitting the flagpole. Manolo must be lowering the stars and stripes a bit early. Nixon felt relieved to know that poor Pat wasn’t once more at the pulley, working it without complaint, no matter the agony, trying to regain the left-arm strength the stroke had stolen six weeks before. Thank God she could still use her right hand; he would die from the pity of it all if he had to sit there and feed her.

More of a breeze than usual was coming off the Pacific tonight. Nixon closed the window and turned up the sound on the office television. It was prime time in Kansas City, two hours ahead of San Clemente, and Rockefeller had just taken the podium to cheers that seemed almost affectionate, nothing like the catcalls he’d gotten twelve years ago in San Francisco. YOU LOUSY LOVER! YOU LOUSY LOVER! Sitting then on the sidelines of the Cow Palace, Nixon and Pat had stared ahead in disbelief, not reacting, pretending not to hear. Hell, maybe Nelson had had it coming—running off with Happy, who’d abandoned her own four kids—but Nixon would have preferred another Caracas shower of spit and stones to the shrieks of all those triumphant Goldwaterites, rushing like lemmings into Lyndon Johnson’s landslide.

The tilt-a-whirl of the last twelve years had ended up making Nelson vice president, the unelected standby to an unelected president; and now, in a last gyration, he’d been kicked to the curb, dumped by dumb, docile Jerry in order to placate the Reagan troops, who’d damned near succeeded in nominating their own man. Christ, this was some sorry spectacle for a sitting president. Limping over the finish line with a handful more delegates than the other guy!

And now it fell to Nelson to nominate his own successor—angry Bob Dole, whom the liberals were already calling Ford’s Nixon, Jerry’s “hatchet man.” Well, it was a bad choice, as he could have warned Ford—and tried to. No soap. So here was Nelson, still garrulous and not very bright—all money and dick, if truth be told—knocking himself out to be a sport:

Delegates to the convention, fellow Americans, last night in this hall the Republican Party made history. It endorsed the solid achievements of the first person ever to hold the office of president of the United States by appointment.

Christ, what’s the point of bringing that up? Ford’s biggest problem, if you didn’t count the pardon, was that he owed his goddamned job to Nixon, whose name hadn’t been spoken in four nights.

And I ask you, ladies and gentlemen, where else in the world would the winner go to pay a call on the runner-up?

Well, what winner but Jerry would be dumb enough to go to the hotel room of the man he’d just beaten, barely, as if he were room service rather than the goddamned president of the United States? Same as he’d pissed away the Bicentennial. No sense of any occasion’s demands and opportunities.

This could all have turned out worse, of course. The party could have decided that Nixon’s replacement and pardoner was so beyond the pale that they couldn’t even think of nominating him. They could have turned to some noble son of a bitch like Richardson, just to purify themselves for the voters. No, Nixon tells himself, do not raise your blood pressure higher than Pat’s by thinking about that cocksucker, who after all is going nowhere fast. The London embassy and the Commerce Department? What did they call it? “Downward mobility”? Christ, the bastard had done better under Nixon than Ford!

The former president was, on this summer California night, still in a jacket and tie. He never lets himself be without either when he goes to this office just yards from the house. If he starts sitting around in a Ban-Lon shirt, that’ll be the end of any chance to climb back even halfway from the hell of the past two years. Exile, they called it. Christ, it was more like house arrest.

As Nelson went on, he did allow himself to loosen the tie a bit, an action that tugged his gaze toward the accumulating typescript of his memoirs piled on a cabinet near the window. He was up to 1970, and the work was getting harder all the time. Try telling the story of your own administration without access to your own damned papers! Everything remained under the government’s lock and key 3,000 miles away, and Jerry Ford wasn’t about to intercede on his predecessor’s behalf for the sake of mere history.

The little, recent punishments, postscripts to the loss of the presidency, were turning out to be more inventive and sadistic than the giant axe that had fallen two years before. Just weeks ago, they’d thrown him out of the New York State Bar rather than allowing him to resign: Oh no, they weren’t going to let him get away with that again—not when disbarment could be made into a miniature version of the impeachment he’d “escaped.” You almost had to admire their maneuver; it was worthy of Colson in his best days.

Pat, who’d never wanted to be anything more than the wife of a lawyer, had taken the disbarment especially hard—the social disgrace of it, he supposed. It had, he was sure, contributed to the worst blow of all, this stroke. If she were well, she’d be coming in here, fetching him for the short walk back to the house and dinner, scolding when she caught him sipping a drink from the little cabinet on which the typescript sat. Put a little more water in that, pal. His imagination could so clearly see and hear her saying it, her smile untwisted and her speech unslurred.

Those sons of bitches, Woodward and Bernstein, had made her out to be a drunk. They were the main cause of this stroke, as surely as if they’d injected her with something. The Final Days: He’d told her not to read it, and she’d promised him she wouldn’t. But she’d borrowed it from one of the two secretaries he had here each day until five o’clock—a gal who’d been skimming it, maybe for libels but probably just from curiosity. One thing you could bet on: If Rose were still with him, she’d never have left the goddamned thing on the desk where Pat could see it. Reading the book over Fourth of July weekend is what sent the blood bursting out of her veins and brought on the heartbreak to which he now pays daily witness. To see his wild Irish rose playing with a preschooler’s blocks or trying to get back the coordination in her fingers by pressing them into a little steeple!

He turned his gaze toward the huge Oriental fan mounted on the wall— something she’d been given in China, not in ’72, but during their return trip this past February. God, how they’d enjoyed themselves! The crowds in Canton had been as loud, as crazed with friendliness, as the ones in Cairo back in ’74, two months before the end, when he still thought he might save himself by solving the whole insoluble Middle East mess.

Even in China, they’d not been able to get completely away from the news back home: Goldwater—a crackpot turned pseudo–elder statesman—had suggested Nixon do everyone a favor and just stay over there. Imagine being told in 1960 that he’d end up being able to stomach Nelson more than Barry!

He forced his attention back to the television. Rockefeller was going on too long about Dole: He has that quality of candor, of openness, of forthrightness, so needed in our times ... . No, he doesn’t. Dole is strong, but he’s a shifty SOB and won’t play well on the tube this fall. What is picking him going to accomplish? They don’t think they can carry goddamned Kansas without him?

Jerry, and the party, could have done a hell of a lot better, and that’s why he’d been on the phone for Connally late last night, once Ford had eked out this pathetic victory. He’d made two separate calls to the president’s hotel, but Cheney, the boy chief of staff, made sure he never got through. Well, this ticket was finished. Reagan might be going home the loser, but Ford didn’t realize that the poison of the primary season would kill him in November.

At the beginning, Nixon hadn’t given Reagan a chance. There’d been talk in February that his own trip to China should be postponed—lest Ford be hurt in New Hampshire by the sudden reappearance of his evil benefactor all over the front pages. (He should still have that much influence!) Ford had managed a win, though not by much. The real surprise had been seeing Reagan stick it out after that, through loss after loss, until he finally started winning in the South and West, forcing Ford into the death struggle that had ended only last night.

He suspected that Reagan’s wife, terrifying little Nancy, had made him stay in the race until things turned around in North Carolina—the state where things had turned against himself back in ’60, when he’d smashed his knee on that car door and wound up in the hospital, losing days he just didn’t have against Jack.

Christ, in another ten years the campaigns will all be blending together, to the point where he won’t be able to tell one from the other. Well, there’s no need to rush senility by getting half in the bag on a weeknight. Put a little more water in that, pal. He set down his drink.

Nixon’s eyes found Reagan in a framed grip-and-grin photo across the room. Yes, he’d shown something like grit, staying in as long as he had, scrounging for the last uncommitted delegates, even throwing a long ball and announcing a running mate—that liberal asshole from Pennsylvania—weeks before the convention. Up until now, Nixon had always considered Reagan the luckiest son of a bitch since Coolidge, though there’d been bits and pieces, here and there, that he’d admired in the smooth, coasting pretty boy. The students at Berkeley had never rattled Reagan—he’d rattled them—whereas the kids on campus and in the streets had driven Nixon up the wall. Christ, he didn’t need his papers to remember that part of 1970!

Ford’s people would have a hell of a time conciliating Reagan’s. Agreeing to one minority platform plank was hardly going to do the job. “Morality in Foreign Policy”! Jesus, as if all Reagan’s human rights griping amounted to a damned thing. His people were trying to make Ford and Henry look like Chamberlain just because they’d agreed to whatever meaningless crap Brezhnev had wanted at Helsinki. Reagan really objected to “non-intervention” in the Soviets’ internal affairs? Well, if the world blew up, the gulags would blow with it, and the prisoners still wouldn’t be free to vote and go to church; they’d only be free to be dead.

At least Ford was willing to let Kissinger remind him that the larger world was important. Christ, when Reagan heard somebody mention Canton or Cairo, he thought of Ohio and Illinois. He had no more vision than he did realism, and God knows he didn’t have the wit to understand that those two things went hand in hand.

The TV cameras had just cut away from Nelson, for only a second, to show Henry taking his seat in the convention stands, next to his Nancy—a smart gal, even if she does smell like a tobacco barn. Now the two of them could catch the end of their old patron Rockefeller’s remarks and try to ignore the boos with which Reagan’s forces had greeted their arrival.

Maybe not just Reagan’s people, either. Maybe some of Ford’s were booing, too, because even now Henry brought with him memories of You Know Who, the man who’d been on five of the last six tickets to come out of a goddamned Republican convention.

It was no surprise that these days he and Henry spoke as little as they did. He’d no more expected their “friendship” to endure than he had the Paris Peace Accords. All the digs that had gotten back to him (“our meatball president”) had been predictable, and he’d had to keep himself from puking when he first asked, last summer, for Henry’s permission to travel to China—and been told to wait until after Ford went in the fall. Of course, once he himself did go, Ford’s people didn’t turn up their noses at his trip report.

Christ, Rockefeller was still at it, quoting Truman now: Bob Dole is a man who can pass the test once put out by that great and beloved Missourian from Independence, who said so aptly: “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

Well, thought Nixon, I’m now the only ex-president you’ve got. He’d buried all the rest of them—Ike, Truman, and Johnson—during his own time in the White House. And he was still, far-fetched as it might seem, determined to make the most of his singular status, however prematurely it had been conferred. And when Ford became an ex, as he surely would five months from now, you could damn well be certain that Nixon would find a way to outshine the competition.

He looked at the pink phone messages from last night, noting one from Peter Cox. Same last name as his son-in-law, whose political career may have stalled out before it started. Too bad Tricia didn’t have the drive of Ron’s little frau! This Cox, from Dallas, was a Reagan man, he recalled; but he also took care of Connally’s interests. And he must know that Nixon had done all he could in the last few days to advance John’s prospects. A thank-you call? Nixon fingered the pink square of paper and wondered.

Nelson had at last surrendered the microphone to some blind woman delegate from Iowa, who was assuring everyone that poor battle-mangled Bob Dole would soon be building wheelchair ramps for the disabled all over America. This was the sort of penny ante stuff that had always bored him while he’d governed the country. NBC must be bored, too: They were cutting away from the speaker to show a film clip of Reagan, who’d yet to arrive in the hall. The footage came from earlier in the day, when he and Nancy had had to thank their crushed supporters. As Nixon watched it, the usual mixture of feelings stirred in him. He could never quite make up his mind about the man. Reagan had been too smart to let Ford lure him into the Cabinet; you had to give him that. But he’d always had it too easy, especially with the goddamned Republican Party in California. Usually so lazy, they’d gone all out for him in ’66 and made it possible for him to do what Richard Nixon, an ex–vice president, hadn’t been able to four years earlier: send Pat Brown packing from Sacramento. (Christ, Brown’s kid had moved awfully fast! Now the governor at 38. Really, what the hell is wrong with Tricia’s Ed?) But this is the end of the trail for Reagan. If Carter gets in, and he will, there won’t be a reasonable shot for Ron until ’84—the country hadn’t thrown out an incumbent since Hoover—and at that point Reagan will be older than Eisenhower was when leaving office.

In fact, Reagan is two years older than himself: and here he is, still only 63, with his feet up on a hassock and the remote control in his hand.

All the goddamned plastic horns were getting on his nerves. He clicked off the television, just as the delegates got ready to vote for Dole. He took another look at his watch and saw it was time to steel himself for dinner with Pat. He exited the office and crossed the patio. To think that two months ago, he’d still been worrying about his own slight limp, from the phlebitis. Now it’s paralysis; and hers, not his. The courtyard’s flowers, he could see, were neglected; who knew if she’d ever be able to get back to gardening? But the lawns were better: The book advance and the money from selling the place in Key Biscayne had allowed them to put the groundsman on an extra day a week.

He stood still for a moment, gathering his courage into an approximation of hers. Trying not to make a noise, he tugged on the pulley, wondering not how long it would take her to recover, but how long it would take him. He snapped on the smile he’d summoned for 30 years, 10,000 times or more, whenever he’d entered a room full of people he needed.

Onward and upward: her favorite saying.

He’d be done with dinner in 15 minutes; then he’d go back to the office and return the call from Connally’s man.

This piece is an excerpt from Thomas Mallon’s novel in progress about the Reagan years. Mallon is the author, most recently, of Watergate: A Novel. This piece appeared in the December 31, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “The Captive of San Clemente.”