The Oval Office always smelled of cigarette smoke, of medical disinfectant and a faint undercurrent of sage. I just hope no one ever puts the great seal under a black light. Near the end, we had to steam-clean it after each new moon. The walls were a pale yellow, and on summer evenings like this the flags hung limp like so much damp laundry. There was nothing to do but wait, all night if I had to, looking out at the black Washington, DC, sky and my own reflection in the window, an old man’s reflection now. I couldn’t help sweating in the June heat, my shirt and wool jacket sticking to my back. It was always remarked that I never took it off publicly. I don’t like to come across as too informal. That, and there was some custom tailoring in there that it wouldn’t do for people to see. A hidden pocket that held a small-caliber revolver with a speed-loader. Regular bullets, no silver-plated nonsense. My insurance policy, along with a vellum scroll held to my thin, pale, old man’s calf with a rubber band.
A knock at the office door.
“Do you need anything else tonight, Mr. President?” It was one of the interns.
“No. Go to sleep, son.”
I locked the door behind him.
The clock on the wide wooden mantelpiece read 12:07 a.m. The first minutes of June 18, 1972. A mile to the west, on the sixth floor of the Watergate Hotel, Team A was finished with its work. Team B would be waiting in the hotel suite two floors below, checking their watches, smoking, bullshitting for eight more minutes.
I had been there three hours ago for the briefing. In person, over Henry’s strenuous objections, I was snuck in at the last minute in a waiter’s uniform, head bowed to hide my face. The face that, absurdly, had become one of the most recognizable in the world.
I arrived to join fourteen other men crowded into one hotel room. I leaned against the wall and the others sat on chairs, perched on the bed, watched from the bathroom doorway. Henry stood as always in a patch of quiet; no one ever liked to be within two feet of him. Liddy, quietly in command but glancing over at me every few minutes for encouragement, and Barker, who’d come through the Bay of Pigs fiasco with most of his body scarred. Gonzales, a locksmith. McCord, requisite FBI, glancing around as if he’d walked into the wrong room. Martinez, with quick eyes, and Sturgis, who listened without comment.
An eclectic array of equipment lay spread out on the bed— cameras, lock picks, tear gas, listening devices, duct tape, surgical gloves, thermite. Silver medallions, a small bag of salt, a Bible. Bundles of dollar bills, two hundred dollars each for everyone there. It all felt amateurish and haphazard, more like a strangely outfitted sleepover party than a clandestine operation.
Agent Hunt broke it down for them: “We recovered a few pages from a DNC research project,” he told them. “We knew they were polling behind, and it seems like they’re a little more desperate than we thought. They’ve started drawing from a different playbook.”
He held up a Xeroxed page of densely written Cyrillic, the word Gregor circled in two places.
“Maybe some of you recognize that name. If you do, you know it’s not politics as usual anymore. Nobody likes going outside the law, but I assure you, the president is fully behind us on this one. We clean the place out. This time tomorrow you’ll be on your way and no one will ever hear about what happened.” He glanced at me. There were people in the room who already knew this was not true.
The first team went out, Henry and the rest of them, and the second team, the ones whose names you will know from the newspapers, were left. After a while McCord went upstairs to tape the locks on the fire doors, and I came back here to wait.
It had been my office for four years. I cleared everything out when I arrived because of Kennedy. Kennedy’s desk was nice but I wanted a broader writing surface, and I like a darker wood, and I don’t like to sit where he sat. God knows what went on here.
The new desk was supposed to have been Woodrow Wilson’s, a man I admire. The twenty-eighth president was a sorcerer of no small ability within his limits, better than Eisenhower, if you ask me, until in 1918 he went too far, made a pact that brought the Great Plague. His dyslexia held him back, not to mention his education—there are some things they don’t teach you at Princeton.
The Wilson desk was a PR coup until—and it took fucking Safire to point it out—we found out it wasn’t Woodrow Wilson’s at all, it was Henry Wilson’s, a vice president who served under the Great Butcher, who, incidentally, had the least human blood of anyone to serve in the office.
The desk, I found, had several secret compartments. One contained papers handwritten in an unknown alphabet and bearing the signature of James Madison; another held a bronze dagger inscribed with the opening words of the Declaration of Independence. A third one was empty, and objects placed inside it for longer than eight hours would reliably vanish, I never found out to where. Nothing is ever the way you think it’s going to be, not even the job of your dreams.
I lit a cigarette.
Pat would be asleep by now. No one awake but me and the security guards.
Franklin D. Roosevelt built the modern version of the Oval Office in the thirties. He had some strange help, and it still has some strange properties. At this hour it can feel like a time machine going back, back to the barren swampland that once was here, the square miles of muck and still, black water. In November 1620, five hundred miles to the north, a hundred and two British settlers arrived and started dying. Half of them went almost immediately, from diseases caught during the journey coupled with no food and a killing winter. Only four adult women survived that first year. Fugitive Protestant mystics, Tilleys and Martins and Chiltons, they huddled together in half-built log halls, reading by firelight on the edge of a frozen continent next to a dark forest that stretched westward all the way to the Mississippi. They couldn’t even bury their dead. Outside, the snow had fallen six feet deep, and there were moving shapes in the night. They were fifty-three people without a country watching one another die until one of them, we will never know who, walked out into the darkness to do what none of the others would. The colony at Roanoke had died. Plymouth would live.
I stubbed out the cigarette and took off my jacket. The phone rang, once. It meant that Henry’s shadow team was climbing the hotel stairway to the eighth floor. As I later heard it, the Egyptian went first, clearing the hallway and sniffing out anything dead in the adjacent rooms. Henry followed, shambling. He always looked vaguely apologetic in his eternally rumpled suit, but if there’s anything on this side of the Atlantic that can destroy him, I’d like to know about it. Nothing was going to be the same after what happened at the hotel. I was used to calculating through events but I wasn’t used to anything on this scale. There were deep scratches on my forearms. I was shaking a little. Presidents didn’t do this kind of thing. Not by a strict constructionist view of things, at least.
It was time for me to do my part. I closed the blinds, knelt down, and rolled back the carpeting to reveal the greater seal of the office, set just beneath the public one. I rolled up my left sleeve and cut twice with the dagger as prescribed, to release the blood of the Democratically Elected, the Duly Sworn and Consecrated. I began to chant in stilted, precise seventeenth-century English prose from the Twelfth and Thirteenth Secret Articles of the United States Constitution. These were not the duties of the U.S. presidency as I had once conceived of them, nor as most of the citizens of this country still do. But really. Ask yourself if everything in your life is the way they told you it would be.
My family started a lemon farm in Southern California after they moved there in 1910. I wasn’t born yet, of course. Just my father and mother and my brother Harold. They thought the land was empty, and who wouldn’t have? Southern California was clean and dry, the sun shining every day on grassy hills, so hot and bright it seemed all the poisons of history must have been bleached out of it long since.
The land had just been sold to the Janss Investment Company, and the executives named it Yorba Linda. The year I was born the company dug a reservoir four miles from our house. There’s photographs of workers lining it with concrete, letting the river drain in, four and a half million gallons of water for farms like the one my parents started. You can see the mayor standing there, waving at the camera.
People were building all over the place. They were throwing up houses everywhere, staking claims, digging basements like they were the Earth’s first inhabitants. My parents just wanted to grow lemons.
Maybe it was the reservoir driving out something that had slept undisturbed for long millennia. Maybe the diggers touched something under layers of parched earth. Maybe my family brought it with them from Ohio.
I hear they’ve drained the reservoir. They turned it into a park, and they didn’t find a damn thing. The whole place is housing developments now. Whatever’s there has dug itself deeper, waiting for someone digging a well or subbasement to stumble on it, or just waiting for the right words to come, to tell it to come out. Some nights I think it followed me all the way back across the country. Most of the lemons never grew, and the ones that did, we had to burn. Jesus, but that land was rotten.
I speak the words, light the incense, and try to clear my mind, but it isn’t easy. The first time I was here was with Eisenhower in 1953. He was a different kind of man than you find now, the last president born in the nineteenth century. He smelled different. Up close you could see the seams where he had been sewn back together, a clumsy job by some Kansas doctor. He and I used to sit up nights in here listening to the crickets on the lawn. Just talking, drinking, and waiting for whatever call was coming. Like when the Trieste hit bottom in the Mariana Trench in 1960, and we waited for the news. The black phone rang, and he brought it to his ear; I could hear the midshipman’s voice squeak, and Eisenhower shivered in the heat. He knew things almost nobody knows now. He remembered waking up at dawn to pray to ancient gods of small-town Texas. He told me a lot about the war, things that no one will ever know. He said he wasn’t afraid of the future, just the past.
I put my jacket back on, thinking ahead to what would be in that room on the eighth floor of the Watergate Hotel. Chairs pushed to the walls. A dead man in a wool suit seated in the lotus position in the exact center of the room, eyes closed. It was freezing inside, outside the heat of a June night in Washington. Packing crates marked in Cyrillic. Black feathers.
Afterward the Cubans would do their part, the cleanup and set-dressing, before we staged the next act. They’d be found and the police summoned, and the team would be revealed as amateurish hired hands caught in the wrong place. Liddy would do his comic turn as the loose cannon. History would take its turn, and my public life would begin to unravel.
But I survived. I outlived the hippies; I outlived Elvis and Marlene Dietrich and the Soviet Union itself. It’s been twenty years since I was forced to stage my own death. The tiny silicon disk on the moon that bears my name is slowly gathering dust. I lived to see myself become a laughingstock, a cartoon villain, the place in the august roll call of presidents where history pauses and snickers.
This is the story of the great con game that was the late twentieth century, of American history’s worst presidency, of how I learned to lie. It is not history as you know it. Suffice it to say that there are at least three sides to this story, and I’m telling both of mine. I promise you I will show the same contempt for the historical record that it has shown for me.
My name is Richard Milhous Nixon. I swore an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. I was educated at Whittier College in Whittier, California, and I have seen the devil walk.