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Here is what they saidsome of it.
"I don't allow my feelings to be hurt," Richard Nixon said. "I learned very early on that you must not allow it to get to you. And as the years have gone onand this used to infuriate my critics during the White House yearsI made the decision not to respond, no matter how rough the attacks were."
I asked him about those two famous catchphrases"Tricky Dick," and "Would you buy a used car from this man?" They had been thrown off so glibly, so routinely, for so many years by so many people who may have assumed that there was not really anyone on the receiving end, at least anyone who was listening. I wondered about the person who was, indeed, on the receiving endNixon himself. Had he ever heard the linesthe "Tricky Dick" and "used-car" lines?
"Oh, my, yes," Nixon said. "Yeah."
Were his feelings ever hurt?
"If I had feelings," Nixon said, "I probably wouldn't have even survived."
Here, along the journey, is what they saidsome of it:
"I went to visit a middle school," Jimmy Carter said. "One of the bright young girls asked me why there's an old person who loses Social Security payments. I told her that couldn't happenonce you start drawing Social Security you don't lose it unless your income goes up.
"She said, 'No, my granddaddy doesn't make anything, and he lost his Social Security.' And I said, 'Sweetheart, you must be mistaken.' She said to me, 'Mr. Carter, you are mistaken.' She said, 'My granddaddy lives on the bridge over by the new domed stadium, and since he doesn't have a mailing address they cut off his Social Security.'"
Carter was talking about the mysteries of compassionwhy the need to help others kicks in in some people's lives, and why others are able to walk away from the troubles of people who don't have enoughor at least are able to turn their heads, in the hopes of not seeing the troubles.
He said that the question from the girl in the middle schoolthe girl whose grandfather lived on the bridgewas not a question he would have heard in the schools of his own, more affluent, grandchildren, in their own, more prosperous, communities.
"I think most of us find it difficult to cross the barrier that we erect around ourselves," Carter said. "We prefer naturally to be among folks just like us, so we feel at home and we talk the same language, we wear the same clothes, drive the same kind of cars, go to the same kind of schools, live in the same neighborhoods, and we feel that that circle of friends won't put a burden on us.
"You know. They won't make us feel guilty. They won't make us feel obligated."
Here is some of what they said:
"We were out at a hotel in Hawaii," George Bushthe first President Bush, George Herbert Walker Bushsaid. "Maui."
This was after he had left the presidency, he said. He and his wife had gone for a walk on the beach early in the morning, just to get some exercise and talk to each other and look at the water before the sun was all the way up, before the sand was full of tourists and vacationers. At a time of the morning when they could still have some solitude and privacy.
So George and Barbara Bush were walking near the ocean.
"And they had, on the beach, carved deep into the sand, a swastika," he said.
He said he didn't know who had done it.
"And in the middle of it, the Star of David," Bush said. "And next to it, another swastika.
"I got so madit was six in the morning, and I was walking with these Secret Service agents, and I was almost just crying."
He said he was unable to continue with his walk. The hotel, he said, was a "very rich, unbelievably secluded thing," and there was the swastika, on American soil, and the old World War II combat pilot who had become president of the United States thought of some of his comrades from the war, men who never made it home: "people who gave their last breaths," he said, to defeat the Nazis.
"Six o'clock in the morning," Bush said. "I took a rake, and I said, 'Let's clean this up, Barbara.'"
He did it himselfhe found a rake and erased the swastika in the sand?
"Yeah," Bush said. "Yeah."
Here is what they said, some of it:
"I would be scared," Gerald Ford said.
We were talking about how Ford would feel if he had a child growing up in an American city today.
Ford had always seemed so optimistic about the countryhe had always seemed to be skittish about nothing, nervous about no one. But he would be frightened for his sons and his daughter if they were children today?
"I would," he said.
And not just for his children. For himself, too.
If he didn't have Secret Service protection, he said, he would not want to take a walk through downtown New York or Los Angeles or Chicago all by himself late at night.
"I'd be apprehensive, alone," Ford said.
But he was always known as a big, strong guy, a former athlete who kept himself in shape.
"That doesn't do you much good when somebody comes up with a knife or a gun," he said.
In fact, such people had come up to Ford twice when he was president. Two women, on two separate occasions, had tried to assassinate him. Because the women failed, many people before long forgot about the incidents, at least about the specifics.
I asked Ford if he remembered the women.
"Yeah, the two of them," he said. "Sara Jane Moore, and . . ."
He tried to come up with the other woman's name.
"One of them wrote me," Ford said.
She had? From prison? I asked him which woman it had been. Squeaky Fromme?
"Squeaky, I think," Ford said.
So the woman who tried to kill him actually dropped him a note?
"There was a strange letter," he said. "Of course, she tried to and did escape. They caught her two or three days later."
Did the Secret Service show him the letter she had written to him?
"Well, that's interesting," Ford said. "The letter came to me, and I've saved letters from all kinds of people. Before I became president and after. And I had these evaluated forI just wanted to know their worth. That was one of the most valuable."
He had shown the letter to an autograph dealer?
He started to laugh. "It's amazing," he said.
"You didn't sell it, did you?" I asked.
"Oh, no," Ford said.
So of all the presidential papers he had saved, all the documents that played a part in affecting the course of nations and of world politics, the one that would bring the most on the open market was a letter from a woman who had wanted to shoot him?
"Yeah," Ford said, laughing anew.
Here is what they said:
Come on out, Ronald Reagan said. Come have a visit.
He said it in a letter from the house where he lived in retirement in California.
By the time I got there, things had changed.
There's one thing they never saidnever asked.
None of them asked what I was doing there. None of them asked why I had come to call.
Off to see the wizard
I'm not certain I could have given them a very good answer.
I wasn't entirely sure what I was doing there myself.
The best I had been able to sift it out in my own mind was that this was a trip of sortsa vacation trip in search of history.
Many Americans make such tripsalways have. They head onto the road to seek out the narrative story of our countryto see the places where the history has unfolded. Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, the White House, the Liberty Bell, Appomattoxthere has long been a draw to packing a suitcase, buying a plane ticket or loading up the car, and setting forth to take a look at the saga of the United States close-up.
I don't know the precise moment when it occurred to me that it was possible to give oneself a different kind of trip like that. A trip to beat all tripsa journey that had the potential to be more fun than anything a travel agent could book. An uncharted excursion into American history.
The presidentsthose who were still living, those who had held the office and had then gone back to their own livescould be a destination in themselves. They were members of a fraternitythe smallest and most exclusive fraternity in the world. If they would say yesif they would agree to the visitsthe journey held the promise of providing memories that would last a lifetime.
Only in this country, it seemed to me, was such an idea even conceivableonly in the United States could a person decide to go looking for the men who had been the most powerful in the world, and stand a chance of the idea succeeding. The authority that Americans bestow on their presidents is born of the democratic instinct upon which the country was founded; a president is given his power because the citizens decide to grant it. Maybeor so I thoughtthe members of the fraternity, the recipients of the gift of that power, never forget it. Maybe, in the backs of their minds, the instinct still exists to open their doors. Once, a long time ago, when they were first asking for votes, each of them had to knock on doors to introduce themselves to strangers. MaybeI hopedthey would not reject a knock.
I knew, of course, that I could not just literally knock. I would have to write and ask in advance, and the trip could take years to complete. I also knew that, for this to work, I should not come to their doors in pursuit of breaking news. That's not what this journey was abouteach of these men had seen his name in enough headlines to last him for eternity.
Instead, I would let the agenda and the itinerary write themselves. It would be a "what if?" journey. What if you set out on a long trip, with the hopes of encountering some people along the wayand what if the people were the presidents? What if you were determined to look for lowercase historyhistory spoken quietly, history related in unhurried tones by the men who, against all odds, had been the shapers of uppercase history?
What if you sought history as sort of a traveloguehistory you went out to visit and then brought home from the airport with you?
Ours is an enormous nationaround the world our size and strength and wealth are oftentimes resented. But as vast as the American canvas is, its open secret is that when you look closely at the canvas, you always find the details to be utterly life-sized.
Any trip, or so I have learned over the years, has the potential to be a good one, depending solely on the people you run into. I wanted to start this trip with certain people in mindI wanted to run into them on purpose. I wanted to try to go see the presidents, and to listen to them, just to find out what would happen.
Beyond the seeking-the-echoes-of-history of it all, in the back of my mind the trip had a theme. I hoped that the theme wasn't as quixotic as it soundedthese were men of substance, and we would, I hoped, talk about some substantial things along the wayso I never said the theme out loud, to the men or to anyone else.
But as I set off to find themthese men whose names were known all over the world; these men who had achieved immense authority but who, because they had risen to such high station, were inevitably cut off from the everyday lives of their fellow citizens; these men who were known by all but known by no one, whose exalted office had made them, paradoxically, ubiquitous to their countrymen yet, in the end, mysteries . . .
As I set out to find them, my silent, exhilarated thought was that of going off to see the wizard.
Follow the yellow brick road . . .
"Do you know how much that milkshake cost?"
This did not seem like the place where one would necessarily find himself waiting to see Richard Nixon.
The cafeteriaon a bottom level of a federal office building in lower Manhattanwas bare-bones and government-issue all the way, from the harsh fluorescent lights in the ceiling to the no-nonsense steel utensils, some wet and warm from just being washed, on the countertops around the big room.
It was well before 9 a.m., and most of the tables were occupied by men and women endeavoring to get their still-tired eyes opened with the assistance of jolts of coffee, before beginning their workday shifts for the various cogs of the bureaucracy of the United States, New York City division.
This was on a weekday morning early in the 1980s; it would be the first stop on my journey to visit the presidents, although at the moment, in the cafeteria, I had no idea there would be a journey, or that it would take the better part of the next two decades before the journey was through. All I knew, on this Manhattan morning, was that unless I had fallen for some intricately constructed prank pulled on me by someone with access to Richard Nixon's stationery, I would be seeing him within the next hour.
Nixon's letter had said to come at nine, but I am not a New Yorker and did not know my way around town all that well; I didn't want to take a chance on getting lost in traffic and being late. So here I was. A woman at the next table ate an egg-and-muffin sandwich and washed it down withof all things, at this time of the daya root beer. I made notesjotted down questions I might ask him, if he really showed up.
I wasn't certain he would. Not that I would have any reason to think thathis letter to me had been clear that he would, in his words, "welcome a visit"but this was at the juncture of Nixon's life when he had yet to reemerge from the almost total exile into which he had gone after leaving the White House. What would surprise me was not if he would cancel at the last minute; the only thing that had surprised me was that he had said yes in the first place.