By Benjamin Shapell
The presidential story of 1994 might well have been one that ignored Bill Clinton. The Republican November sweep was certainly the political event of the year. But the Spring of 1994 witnessed the passing of the last familial combatants from the famous 1960 presidential race-reunited pairs, if you will – when Jackie joined her late husband John, and Richard Nixon joined Pat. It was a year in which America observed the 20th anniversary of Watergate. And it was also a year in which America experienced something which most Americans couldn’t recall – the first death in over 20 years of an American President.
Richard Nixon, on the one hand, at ease and fiercely dedicated to his family throughout his lifetime was, on the other hand, a man who seemed uncomfortable in public life even after attaining the Presidency of the United States. He was, writes Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose, highly knowledgeable and disciplined but also inherently suspicious and incapable of trusting others. Beneath the surface there was always a simmering anger whose sources can only be guessed at. “He was,” writes Ambrose, “the angriest American President.”
Withdrawing to public life after his resignation, Nixon devoted himself to giving a personal, if defensive, account of his Presidency. He wrote many books, traveled widely, and became, to many, a behind-the-scenes guru to Republican and Democratic Presidents alike. Interestingly, one of Nixon’s last political predictions was that California Governor Pete Wilson, if he survived his reelection effort in November, would be nominated for President in 1996. One down, but the latter remains to be seen.
Nixon will be remembered for many things – his “Checkers” speech, his trips to China, Kent State, and his fierce opposition to anti-war agitators – but he will be recalled first and foremost for the Watergate scandal, an event which occurred 20 years ago and still remains seared in the conscience of those old enough to remember it.
Nixon’s passing one year ago also brought to mind some interesting presidential trivia. The 21 years between the deaths of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon represent the longest period without a President dying in America in more than 160 years. The only longer duration was the period between the deaths of George Washington (1799) and John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (both on July 4, 1826). It also marked the end of a streak in which there were five ex-Presidents alive, a short streak which commenced with Clinton’s inauguration on January 20, 1993, and ended with Nixon’s death on April 22, 1994. It was, though, a period of 15 months which excited the public, perhaps hoping that all five Ex’s and current President (making six) could somehow be brought together. It would be a chance to supersede the exciting events of November 5, 1991, when four ex-Presidents and President Bush participated in the opening of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
But, alas, there would be no suitable occasion to make that happen. On the lighter side, it brought an end to an old joke told in 1992 by a volunteer guide at the Reagan Library: “Did you know that we have five Presidents who are not buried on American soil?”, he asked. As several visitors stared in astonishment, the guide hit his punch line: “Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush.”
Was that 15 month window the first time we’ve had five living Ex-Presidents and one incumbent? Not quite. But it was only the second time in U.S. history that five former Presidents of the United States were alive. The first time was during the first term of President Abraham Lincoln, a streak which lasted only 10 months starting from March 4, 1861 until January 18, 1862, when John Tyler died. The other former Presidents included Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan.
Ironically, when Richard Nixon was going through his Watergate crisis (a time when counsel with former Presidents might have been desired by the incumbent), there were no former U.S. Presidents alive (from LBJ’s death on January 22, 1973, to Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974). Lincoln, surrounded by ex-Presidents, certainly got advice, whether he appreciated it or not, considering that ex-Presidents, even today, seem to have trouble agreeing on anything.
But there was no difference of opinions at the outbreak of the Civil War when, four days after the attack on Fort Sumter, ex-President Franklin Pierce (who many felt was largely responsible for this war, including Lincoln himself) wrote to ex-President Van Buren, suggesting that he call a meeting of the five living ex-Presidents to consider how the Civil War might be averted.
“The present unparalleled crisis in the affairs of our country is, I have no doubt, filling you, as it is me, with the profoundest sorrow…If the five retired Presidents of the United States, still living, were to meet at the earliest practicable day at the city where the Constitution was formed, might not their consultation…reach the Administration and the country with some degree of power?…Whatever the result may be, can we permit our remaining days or years to be disturbed by the consciousness that, after having been honored by the confidence of the Republic, we have passively seen it drift to destruction…Should this suggestion commend itself to your judgment, will you communicate with Mr. Tyler, Mr. Fillmore and Mr. Buchanan, and advise me of the results.”
Obviously, the five ex-Presidents weren’t successful in maintaining the peace. Perhaps Lincoln viewed it as fruitless interference. Considering Lincoln’s chilly relations with former Presidents prior to and during his Presidency, perhaps the project was doomed from the start.
Tyler had already, two months before, attempted a settlement, having presided at a peace conference attended by 22 states which met in secret session at Washington D.C. Tyler met with President Buchanan whom he found to be “in a bad psychological and emotional state, hoping only to complete his term and get out of Washington before the first shots were fired.” His rooms at the Brown’s Hotel were filled with frightened people looking to the ex-President to save the Union. But by February 15th, the convention was hopelessly deadlocked. He met President-elect Lincoln on February 23rd. But all efforts failed, and by the end of the month Tyler denounced the peace convention and called for Virginia’s secession from the Union. In late 1861 he was elected to the Confederate Congress (so much for peace!) and died, as did Van Buren, in 1862. Fillmore and Pierce went on to become rabid anti-Lincoln dissenters and died virtually ignored. The bitterness of war had spared no one: “Brother-against-brother” was soon echoed by “President-against-President.”
Originally published in INSIDER’S REPORT, March, 1995.