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January 3, 2007

He Was Right and I Was Wrong

Roy Meachum

In past writings I have described how Richard Nixon's White House loomed like a threatening shadow to me.

That was the first day after he was sworn in; long before what was described a "the second-rate burglary" at Watergate. What had been under his predecessors, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, an open and friendly place, where the nice guys on the gate welcomed me with friendly grins, turned hostile, on January 21, 1969.

In those years I was not particularly political. As I recall I voted for both Dwight Eisenhower and Mr. Nixon's first try for the White House. While surrounded by devoted Democrats I had attended presidential parties during the Kennedy and Johnson eras. Indeed, my service for Claudia Taylor Johnson on the cultural front stands as some of my proudest moments. Social Secretary Bess Abell and the First Lady's Chief of Staff Liz Carpenter earned and still receive my deep affection and respect.

It automatically followed that Republican administrations would not include me on any guest lists; that turned out to be true but not quite. When my future brother-in-law, best friend and deep dog Democrat, Davey Marlin Jones, received an engraved invitation he chose instead to ask me to take his wife.

Mary and I had a marvelous time, which I expected, of course, would turn into embarrassment when I was "outed." It never happened, the White House ushers who kept the dignity of the President's Mansion firmly in tact, by tradition and experience. They had not changed. We had a drink and summoned up memories. The "beau" of the occasion was actor Kirk Douglas who trotted out charm much beyond his diminutive stature.

At the end of the evening, my former Metromedia associate Sheila Raab Weidenfeld, whom I suspected had sneaked my name through the GOP watchdogs, assured me that my name would be on a future list. It never happened. I came away that evening with the assurance Gerald Ford was a very nice man; that passed in a shaking hand line. (Ladies always second so their husbands' names could be firmly fixed.)

Witnessing Mr. Ford's very civilized manner on that occasion served me in good stead that Sunday night I heard about the pardon for Mr. Nixon. I was furious, not at the thought of the ex-president escaping any and all punishment for his deeds in the Oval Office. It was much more personal.

Inside me rose a sharp, gut-wrenching reaction against Richard Nixon's name being brought up again; I was very willing to move on. But I was terribly upset that Watergate had not been buried. I was naive, of course.

In time, the subject passed, thanks to Mr. Ford. The pain the nation felt that Sunday was cauterizations, the quick sealing of a wound. The reaction, including mine, passed quickly, with the realization that I had been wrong; the "accidental" president was totally right when he chose to end the national nightmare over a "busted" chief executive.

The move to Frederick took me beyond the range of any desires to revisit the mansion where I had passed such memorable moments. At this distance the presidents are only disembodied voices or single dimension photos. They can no longer rouse strong passions - or so I thought. The Bush administration defied all logic by invading Iraq.

Before starting the Frederick column, I produced and narrated videotapes for the National Fire Academy, and it was there I was able to see and speak to ex-president Gerald Ford. Stepping away from the Firefighters Memorial, we found ourselves briefly alone on the edge of the crowd.

In recollection, we caught each other's eyes at the same time; he gave that patented nice guy grin. I was able to say, "Mr. President, how lovely to see you." Nothing more. And I meant it.

Almost exactly 10 years after that Sunday night, it was comforting to say the words, which he might not have understood. Why should he? I mean, how lovely to say words which sought to reassure Gerald Ford he had done the very right thing.

It was very good to hear that sentiment repeated endlessly over the national mourning that ended in Washington's National Cathedral yesterday morning.


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