Thirty-five years ago this Sunday, August 9, 1974, I stood next to my girlfriend Pat in the East Room of the White House, about twenty-five feet from where Richard Nixon stood, with his wife, Pat, his children, Julie and Tricia, their husbands, David Eisenhower and Ed Cox, and watched Mr. Nixon give his farewell to the White House staff and the Cabinet and their families.
It was a hot, muggy day and it was raining in my heart. I believe that Mr. Nixon’s speech was the most candid Presidential free associating I have ever heard of. Tales of his father and mother, talk of poverty and triumph, but what I remember most is his parting words to us.
“It’s always a new beginning. Always. The young must know it. The old must know it….Always a new beginning. This isn’t good-bye. The French have a word for it. ‘Au revoir,’ We’ll see you again.” (This is a paraphrase…it was long ago.)
My parents were sitting in the first row of Cabinet people, my mother as ashen and tear sodden as I ever saw her, my father, then Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers (sic), as devastated as if he had lost a parent, and in a way he had.
When the remarks were over, Mr. Nixon went out to the South Lawn with his wife, Tricia, and Ed Cox. Julie stayed behind to pack.
We all waved good-bye, cried more tears. Then my girlfriend (who worked for the Council of Economic Advisers) and I headed west through the White House to get back to our stations in the Executive Office Building. Even now, it’s hard to say just how lost and sad I was. I felt as if something awful had happened to a man I admired. I felt terribly for Julie. But most of all, I thought my life was over, at age 29. I would lose my job. No one would ever hire me again, and I would be destined for a life of misery and penury. I had just bought my first house with my first mortgage. I was scared.
As I walked out the double doors to the blasting heat of West Executive Avenue, in a miasma of fear and confusion, I felt an amazingly reassuring touch on my back.
A firm, sympathetic pat on the back. I turned to see a wan but warm smile on the face of Fred Dent, Secretary of Commerce, who was a great pal of my father and whose beautiful wife, Millie, was a close friend of my mother. It’s been thirty-five years and I really cannot tell you just how much that pat on the back — without a word — reassured me.
Fred was a South Carolinian, a major power in the world of textiles, a legendary GOP fundraiser, and a magnetic personality. I had met him a few times before, but always under incomparably less stressful circumstances. For him to have extended himself to me in that moment was somehow transfiguring. I felt instantly better and reassured. With friends like Fred Dent behind me, life would go on.
Time passed. I was a speechwriter for Mr. Gerald Ford. I was a columnist at the Wall Street Journal. Then I came to California. I was a TV writer, a screenwriter, a columnist for major newspapers and magazines. For years, I taught law and economics at Pepperdine University in Malibu. I was an expert witness in trials about securities law issues, a witness before Congressional Committees.
By total chance, life made me a movie and TV cult figure. Time and chance, which happeneth to all men, gave me money, took away money, gave me back some money, gave me great highs and great lows.
I learned the virtues of constant work, of endless inner mobility and flexibility. In a real sense, I started running scared the day Richard Nixon resigned and I realized I had a mortgage to pay — and I am still running scared. When I meet people who do not work every single day, I am amazed. That’s the only kind of life I have known for 35 years. When I talk to a young person without a job who tells me her day’s job hunting that day was to go to a few websites and then to play golf, I am simply baffled. When I meet an unemployed person who goes out for sushi without a dime in savings, I am bewildered. My long ago girlfriend and I ate Hamburger Helper after Mr. Nixon resigned. (It was darned good, too.) In a way, the fear that was stuck into me when Mr. Nixon rode off on that helicopter to San Clemente was the best teacher I have ever had. I can exactly date the beginning of the work ethic that got me into a position of modest affluence and prominence to that day in August 1974.
I can also say that I am still pals with many of the people I worked with in the Nixon White House — my fellow members of the speechwriting shop, John Coyne, Aram Bakshian, Ken Khachigian, and our boss, Dave Gergen, who all gave me their own pats on the back later on. Even now, with my parents gone, Mr. Nixon gone, dear friends my age gone far too young, I can say that I learned the value of a touch at just the right moment on August 9, 1974 at the encouraging hand of Fred Dent, who has had his own terrible losses, but is still stalwart in South Carolina. “A little touch of Harry in the night,” referring to King Henry V casually and individually rallying his men the night before battle, said Shakespeare, was largely the reason for the British victory at Agincourt. For such small victories as I have had since 1974, much is owed to that pat on the back from Fred Dent as I walked into the sweltering, brutal August, Washington, D.C. pressure cooker. Bear it in mind when you see someone in fear. The human touch of sympathy can turn night into day.
Just today, August 5, 2009, I spent most of the day on Lake Pendoreille in my boat in the sun and wind. As the day wore down, and as I thought about how old I am and how much of my life is over — suggested, I guess, by the setting sun — I passed under the immense railroad bridge. Just as I emerged into daylight, a bright yellow Burlington Northern Santa Fe locomotive appeared pulling an immense freight train. Silhouetted by the sun, mirrored in the water, the train was such a mighty sight that I waved my right arm enthusiastically at the lead locomotive’s engineer. I was answered at once by three deafening blasts on the train’s horn, greetings, pats on the back from a fellow traveler on the planet, in glorious North Idaho. I felt euphoric.
“It doesn’t get much better than that,” said my pal and boating instructor, Tim Farmin. No, encouragement in this fragile life from a freight train makes a day complete. God bless you, BNSF engineer. God bless you, Secretary Dent and John Coyne and Aram and Ken and Dave and Phil and Wlady and Bob and Julie and above all, Mom and Pop, and my saint wife, and all who got me through to an afternoon on an Idaho lake where for a few hours, maybe I wasn’t running scared after all.