It is often said that you can judge a leader by the quality of the people with which he surrounds himself. Thirty-five years ago today, I came in brief contact with a member of President Nixon’s White House staff whose deep sense of humanity, even in the midst of what had to be the most difficult and heart wrenching day of his career, reflected that of his boss.
On August 8, 1974, I was a 16-year-old fervent supporter of President Nixon. Two years, earlier, I had worked phone banks in Hackensack, New Jersey (every night except Sunday, from Labor Day until Election Day), as part of the President’s re-election effort. Months later, as Watergate unfolded, I had joined up with a self-described group of “31 housewives” in Glen Rock, New Jersey, who had formed a group called Americans for President Nixon to rally support for the President.
That fateful morning, as speculation that the President would resign that night began to harden into certainty, I was watching the Today show. My deep dismay at what appeared to be the inevitable was somewhat lifted when Bruce Herschensohn, who was serving as a Deputy Special Assistant to the President, appeared, expressing his view that the President should not resign.
Bruce’s words gave me hope. I wanted him to know that there were people out there who shared his belief. So an hour later, I called the White House and asked for Mr. Herschensohn’s office. I was connected to his secretary, briefly introduced myself, and started to tell her that I heard Bruce on TV and wanted him to know how I agreed with what he said.
As I was really getting going, she gently interrupted me and asked me to hold. A moment later she returned to the line and told me that Mr. Herschensohn would like to speak with me. With all the passion of a teenage Nixon supporter, I told him how much I hoped the President would not resign. Bruce very generously heard me out and thanked me for calling. I hung up feeling that at least I had tried to make my voice heard in support of the President.
Of course, that night President Nixon did announce his resignation, leaving me disheartened, discouraged, and depressed. Two days later, however, my spirits were lifted when a Certified Mail package from the White House arrived at my back door.
I couldn’t imagine what it was. Full of an anticipation I had only previously ever felt on a Christmas morning, I ripped open the package and found two white boxes, each with President Nixon’s signature printed on the cover, accompanied by an envelope.
Inside the envelope was a short letter, dated August 8, 1974, from Bruce. It said: “Dear Bob: The President wanted you to have these as a memento. He is aware of your hard work and loyalty. / Thanks, too, for your telephone call today. It meant a great deal to all of us here and, more important, it means a great deal to the President./ Respectfully, Bruce Herschensohn.”
I opened the two boxes and found a pair of presidential cuff links in one and a matching tie bar in the other. I was overwhelmed. Even now, 35 years later, I am revisited by the same sense of gratitude for the kindness shown to me by a man with whom I had only briefly talked but who, even in the middle of so much agony, took the time and made the effort to comfort an upset young American.
The fact that a man of Bruce Herschensohn’s heart and character served President Nixon and supported him to the end and beyond reflects so well on the heart and character of Richard Nixon. I came to see those same qualities for myself 16 years later, when I had the honor to work with President Nixon in writing much of the exhibit text for the Nixon Library. On this bitter anniversary, it is worth reflecting on the fact that Richard Nixon earned the loyalty of men like Bruce Herschensohn. I know it’s something that I will never forget and that I hope history will eventually remember.