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Like President Trump, Richard Nixon also did not attend an important National Cathedral service: James D. Robenalt (Opinion)

September 2, 2018

Like President Trump, Richard Nixon also did not attend an important National Cathedral service: James D. Robenalt (Opinion)

CLEVELAND -- President Donald Trump was disinvited from speaking or even attending the late Sen. John McCain’s memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral yesterday. According to reports, Sen. McCain told those close to him that he did not want Mr. Trump at the service. Vice President Mike Pence attended the memorial services in Washington, D.C. in his place.

Among the growing list of parallels Trump shares with the late Richard Nixon, there is now a new one.

In January 1973, President Nixon did not attend former President Harry Truman’s memorial service at the National Cathedral out of sheer pettiness. He sent Vice President Spiro Agnew in his stead.

But Nixon’s longstanding animosity towards Truman was not his only reason for skirting the service. As with most things Nixon, there were multiple slights he nursed when it came to the National Cathedral.

Richard Nixon never got along with Harry Truman and the feeling was mutual. Truman famously said of Nixon: “Richard Nixon is a no good, lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in.”

Francis B. Sayre Jr., who was the dean of the National Cathedral, stood high up on Nixon’s enemies list.

Sayre, born in the White House in 1915, was Woodrow Wilson’s grandson. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Selma campaign and was one of the first clergymen along with King to turn against the Vietnam War. He was known to Nixon as a regular protestor outside the White House during Nixon’s first term.

Nixon also believed that Sayre was behind a reprimand Nixon received at Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black’s funeral in the National Cathedral in 1971.

Sayre was not in the pulpit at the time; another friend of Justice Black, the Rev. Duncan Howlett, took the shots at Nixon.

“Justice Black had little patience with strict constructionists,” Howett said, looking directly at the president. Nixon had campaigned on the idea of appointing only strict constructionists as Supreme Court justices, a race whistle at the time for jurists who would not support busing or who might even overturn Brown v. Board of Education on school desegregation. 

Nixon was furious after the Black service, blaming his Attorney General, John Mitchell, for persuading him to be present at the funeral.

Two years later, in January 1973, Nixon was still railing about it. “I wish we had some good excuse for not going to that darn Cathedral,” he said to his secretary Rose Woods in the Oval Office, the White House taping system picking up his every word. “That Sayre is going to deliver the eulogy of Truman, and I’m probably going to get lectured.”

Nixon in fact spent a good deal of time during the first week of January 1973 fretting about what to do. He worried aloud with aides, finally landing on the idea of calling his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, to see if Johnson intended to come from his ranch in Texas to Truman’s memorial in Washington.

The phone call on Jan. 2, 1973, would be the last time the two men would speak. “Happy New Year!” Johnson chirped when the White House operator connected him to the president. After exchanging some pleasantries about Nixon’s friend Bebe Rebozo, Johnson said, “Well, I just feel the torture you’re going through on Vietnam. I wish I could do something to help you.”

Nixon had just unleashed a massive bombing campaign over Hanoi (where John McCain was being held as a prisoner of war), which became known as the infamous “Christmas bombings.” Nixon confidentially reassured Johnson that the bombing was causing the North Vietnamese to return to the negotiating table in Paris. “We’ve got to finish this the right way and not the wrong way,” Nixon said.

Then Nixon got to his point. Both men had visited Independence, Missouri, after Truman died to pay respects, but now Nixon wanted to know if Johnson was coming to Washington.

“No,” Johnson replied, “I have no plans to go there at all.”

“Good,” Nixon responded. He now would have cover for not attending himself.

Johnson further explained his reasoning. He had gone to the Cotton Bowl the day before and had been up all night with chest pains. “I pay for it every time,” Johnson said.

His mission accomplished, Nixon got off the phone quickly and looked to Chuck Colson, who had been sitting at the president’s desk during the four-minute conversation. He remarked about Johnson’s discussion of his heart pains. “He’s a hypochondriac,” Nixon said to Colson. “He’s unbelievable.” Colson replied, “He’s so pathetic.”

Twenty days later, Lyndon Johnson died from a massive heart attack while taking a nap at his Texas ranch.

Nixon found his excuse for not attending Truman’s memorial and Dean Francis Sayre delivered the eulogy, calling Truman “a fearless son of simple soil, our brother Harry.”

Vice President Agnew and his spouse, Judy Agnew, sat next to Margaret Truman Daniel, her husband Clifton Daniel, and Mamie Eisenhower. They sang “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” as the recessional.

“Power reveals” LBJ biographer Robert Caro wrote. “It doesn’t always reveal you for the better, but it reveals.”

Richard Nixon’s character is often laid bare in private on the tapes. The current occupant of the White House shows his stripes in plain view in tweets and public pronouncements. The result however is the same: both men have shown themselves unable to overcome petty-mindedness at moments of great national import when important leaders are to be memorialized.

James D. Robenalt is author of “January 1973, Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam and the Month That Changed America Forever.” His latest book is “Ballots and Bullets, Black Power Politics and Urban Guerrilla Warfare in 1968 Cleveland.”

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