Richard Nixon’s Last Christmas Trick

On Dec. 23, 1973, then-U.S. President Richard Nixon pondered his future.

The portents were ominous. In October 1973, his vice president, Spiro Agnew, had resigned amid a corruption scandal. A week later, Arab oil-exporting countries had declared an embargo on the United States. Three days later, Nixon had fired the Watergate special prosecutor, prompting his attorney general and deputy attorney general to resign in protest in what became known instantly as the Saturday Night Massacre. And just days earlier, a Senate committee had subpoenaed his taped conversations as part of the Watergate investigations.

Nixon scrawled his grim conclusion on a notepad: “Last Christmas here?”

It was. Two hundred and twenty nine days later, Nixon boarded a military helicopter to leave the executive mansion for the last time as president.

But in the short term, he would make a little presidential trivia by flying to his California mansion for a vacation—but going by commercial airline rather than Air Force One.

As the federal, nonpartisan Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum once noted on Twitter, United Airlines Flight 55, from Dulles to Los Angeles on Dec. 26, 1973, marks the only time a sitting president has flown a public, commercially scheduled flight. This trip seems self-evidently important in a “dad history” way (it’s even been trotted out in a Tom Clancy-brand novel).

Nixon’s stunt was sold to the press as an environmental move, a gesture of responsibility in energy-conscious times. It entered the history books as trivia.

But in reality, it was the flight of a defeated man—one who had already half given up on the presidency he had fought tooth-and-nail to win, and one of the most powerful symbols of his office with it. Exploring this trip, and why it was misremembered and misreported, reveals a lot about how preconceptions can lead analysts to miss what’s really happening.

President Richard Nixon and his foreign policy team, including Henry Kissinger, fly to China aboard Air Force One on Feb. 20, 1972.

Nixon and his foreign-policy team, including Henry Kissinger, fly to China aboard Air Force One on Feb. 20, 1972. HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Heads of state first took to the skies in the middle of the 20th century and made their aircraft symbols of their administration. U.S. President John F. Kennedy worked with his wife and a celebrity designer to transform a utilitarian orange and white design into the familiar blue and white scheme now synonymous with presidential travel.

The two Boeing 707s with the call sign Air Force One didn’t just get new paint jobs. Descriptions of these presidential aircraft routinely mention their role as a military communications hub—a reminder of the executive power to launch Armageddon.

So why, then, would Nixon make a show of giving up these planes and their penumbra of power at one of the low points in his presidency?

The year 1973 had begun with an administration optimistic that it could build on Nixon’s landslide 1972 reelection to rack up a lasting legacy. There was an early success: a formal end to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Yet Watergate had curdled everything. In May, White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman and others were forced to resign for their roles in Watergate. The Senate Watergate Committee publicized the scandal in televised hearings. At the same time, the energy crisis caused daily, wrenching economic pain for Americans. Nixon’s approval ratings collapsed.

Not everyone had a bad year. Nixon’s foreign policy maven Henry Kissinger had enjoyed a triumphant one. Watergate made Kissinger the quotable, successful front man for foreign policy. He won the mother of all bureaucratic turf battles by taking on the role of secretary of state while keeping his post as national security adviser. He also won a Nobel Peace Prize as lagniappe.

Yet the political climate of the energy crisis crimped even Kissinger’s style. On Christmas Eve, the Mexican foreign minister telephoned him to pin down Kissinger’s plans for a visit. “Can I call you, say, after Christmas?” Kissinger dodged. “One problem is how to get down there because I don’t like to travel in a military plane right now, with the energy crisis, you see.”

Nixon faced similar constraints in his planning to get out of Washington. On Dec. 24, Nixon decided that he would go to his “Western White House,” a mansion in coastal Orange County, California, that he called La Casa Pacifica. (The house, paid for through opaque sources and upgraded at federal expense, was the center of a Watergate sub-scandal.) He had his military aide make the reservations for the party of 25 family members, staff, and Secret Service agents, at a total cost of $4,841 (about $30,000 today).

Nixon kept the plans secret even from his staff. He kept a normal schedule on Dec. 26, taking meetings with Kissinger, Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin, his energy czar William Simon, and former New York state governor Nelson Rockefeller. Then, at 4:20 that afternoon, he was driven to Dulles International Airport with his wife, Pat, and his daughter Tricia.

Kissinger learned about the trip late on the afternoon of Dec. 26, even though he had spoken to the president an hour before he departed. “I wondered if I had lost my mind,” he told White House Chief of Staff Gen. Alexander Haig in a call about the trip minutes before the flight took off.

“He didn’t tell you?” Haig replied. “He was ashamed to.”

“Well,” Kissinger said, “he should be.”

A gas station in Portland, Oregon, during the fuel crisis of 1973.

A gas station in Portland, Oregon, during the fuel crisis of 1973. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The presidential party arrived at Dulles about an hour after leaving the White House. Skipping the airport’s mobile lounges, the motorcade drove straight to the DC-10 jetliner, where Nixon walked to seat 2A. His dog, an Irish setter named King Timahoe, flew in the baggage compartment.

Rain and baggage problems delayed takeoff for 45 minutes, but the flight was otherwise uneventful. The president ate the inflight dinner (ribeye beef), watched part of a movie (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, starring Ingrid Bergman), and napped. Most passengers didn’t even realize that the president was onboard until midway through the flight, when Nixon walked through the plane, shaking hands and signing autographs and, as one stewardess told the Los Angeles Times, “surprising the life out of them.”

The airliner landed at Los Angeles International Airport at 8:02 p.m. Pacific Time. A motorcade met the plane, and the president and his family were driven to San Clemente. Bewildered passengers left afterward, met by reporters eager to interview them about their unexpected encounter.

When modern presidents travel, the media follows them, at the very least in the form of a press pool through which reporters share daily coverage of presidents. Nixon’s flight broke this rule. The White House only informed a pair of reporters about the trip an hour before the flight took off.

Tom Brokaw, then a weekend anchor for NBC’s Today Show, wrote in a later memoir that he was disturbed by the trip because of potential risks to the president’s safety. Professional self-interest also colored his views: Without press coverage, Brokaw wrote, how would the public learn the truth if something awful did take place? Brokaw bought a red-eye ticket and followed the president westward.

A New York Times page from Dec. 28, 1973, details Nixon's commercial flight.

A New York Times page from Dec. 28, 1973, details Nixon’s commercial flight. New York Times

The news broke on Dec. 27, with the morning newspapers. The White House maintained that the trip had been undertaken to save fuel. “He just decided to go to California and thought that he could, as president, take many steps to set an example in the field of energy,” Deputy Press Secretary Gerald Warren told the New York Times.

Newspapers echoed the talking point. The Chicago Tribune reported that the usual assortment of presidential helicopters and airplanes for such a trip would have cost almost twice as much in fuel costs alone. The Los Angeles Times headlined its above-the-fold account “Nixon Saves Fuel.” Nor was the coverage limited to major papers: the Cedar Rapids Gazette ran the Associated Press coverage on its front page, reporting an even more favorable estimate of fuel savings.

The coverage was not all favorable. The New York Times raised concerns that the United flight lacked the communications technology needed. (White House officials said the president had brought along the necessary equipment.) The Associated Press reported that Federal Aviation Administration agency head Alexander Butterfield “first learned of the trip as the airliner carrying the presidential party was taxiing out for takeoff.” Butterfield said he was “dismayed” that the president had kept his plans secret. (Earlier that year, Butterfield, a former White House deputy chief of staff, had revealed the existence of the White House taping system to Senate investigators.) The White House responded that security required secrecy about the president’s movements.

Still, the press coverage showed Nixon as something closer to a gladhanding politician than a criminal mastermind—a welcome change, under the circumstances.

“You are on the front of the Times and the Post walking in the plane,” Kissinger told Nixon when they spoke by phone the next day.

“Good or bad?” Nixon asked.

“Good,” Kissinger said. “I am surprised. I expected them to say bad, but they all say terrific.”

Kissinger, perhaps hurt to be left out of the secret, voiced his displeasure. “I did not think the President of the U.S. should fly commercially,” he said. “I am surprised at it all.”

Nixon explained that he had not told his secretary of state “deliberately,” so Kissinger didn’t have to lie for anyone.

“You have to [lie] enough for a good reason,” he said. “This would have been for a bad reason.”

Nixon invited Kissinger to join him in California and concluded by instructing Kissinger to lie to the press about their conversation. “I think you should say you talked with the president today for a half hour,” Nixon said. White House records show the call lasted only six minutes.

Never sociable, the president retreated into his shell even further during his stay in San Clemente, doing literally almost nothing. On Jan. 2, 1974, in a typical passage for this period, his calendar shows only two entries: “9:45: The President went to his office” and “2:00: The President departed his office.” The following day, he spoke with Kissinger for three minutes—and with Ohio State University football coach Woody Hayes for four. The most consequential meeting he took was an hourlong interview with lawyer James D. St. Clair, whom Nixon hired as his defense attorney on Watergate—and impeachment—issues.

On Jan. 9, his staff presented him with a “surprise” birthday party that began at 10:30 a.m. sharp and ended at 11 a.m. exactly. In possibly the only unscripted moment, Nixon invited King Timahoe to lick the cake—before it was served.

Later that day, Nixon, his wife, and his daughter drove to Sunnylands, the Palm Springs home of the then-U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, Walter Annenberg. En route, the presidential party stopped at a McDonald’s in the small town of Banning. They ate in the limousine—possibly the most pathetic presidential birthday meal in history.

The Nixons stayed at Sunnylands for two days. On Jan. 12, Nixon, his wife, and his daughter boarded a presidential Lockheed JetStar at the Palm Springs Municipal Airport. With the president aboard, the smaller plane, which sat only eight, nevertheless bore the callsign Air Force One. The plane arrived at Andrews Air Force Base the following morning.

Nixon, his wife, Pat, and daughter Tricia board a plane after his resignation in 974,

Nixon; his wife, Pat; and daughter Tricia board a plane after his resignation on Aug. 9, 1974. Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

The media was eager to find symbolism in the presidential flight, whether in approachability or environmental responsibility. Even their objections to the flight were framed in terms of security and transparency.

But the trip was a symptom of a presidency that had all but collapsed already—and a president who was barely bothering to play the part at all.

There’s evidence that Nixon psychologically quit the presidency long before he resigned. One systematic study of Nixon’s presidency establishes that Nixon disengaged from the presidency on Dec. 6, 1973, when Gerald Ford was confirmed by Congress as his vice president and heir apparent. After that, Nixon met with his top officials for only 15 percent of the time he had during his first term, an average of just two meetings a day. His public schedule, by contrast, showed no decline in activity—a president keeping up appearances.

That duality persisted even while Nixon languished in San Clemente. In a latter-day version of The King’s Two Bodies, Nixon may have done nothing but the president continued to act, signing major legislation creating health maintenance organizations, reorganizing the country’s railroads, establishing the nationwide 55 mile per hour speed limit, and protecting endangered species.

Ironically, the mythos of the presidency probably made the collapse harder to discern in real time. The image of presidential power that the White House likes to project is matched by an image of superhuman competence and discipline. Even scholarly theories of presidential behavior often begin by assuming that presidents will allocate their effort optimally.

And yet even competent and stable presidents spend their time making small decisions as well as big ones. They indulge petty whims and private vendettas. They disengage from the job—some more than others. Gossip columnists and presidential fanboys exaggerate the importance of such presidential peccadilloes. Yet self-consciously serious analysts are too ready to dismiss those seemingly irrational behaviors as unimportant, leaving them to see the world through theories that deny the possibility of the unexpected.

Both fallacies shape how Nixon’s trip continues to be perceived. Yet even at the time, the White House stories about Nixon’s flight made no sense. If secrecy was required for security, then putting him on a commercial flight with a known arrival time and place was self-defeating. If saving fuel was the objective, taking the smaller Jetstar he returned in rather than the Boeing 707 would have sufficed—or he could have just gone to Camp David instead.

Public statements by the White House proved just persuasive enough to distract from the plain fact that the president was making irrational decisions—to cover up, in other words, the fact that the president had stopped functioning. It seems far more likely that Nixon, in a funk about his impending political demise, fled to lick his wounds in isolation—and give a kick to the press along the way.

Those weren’t the acts of a healthy, stable person, much less a well-adjusted chief executive. Even when Nixon’s private dysfunction, mostly kept hidden by a protective staff, broke out into the open as he boarded the United jet, the impact of the mad king’s flight still did not shake comfortable beliefs that he was acting more or less like a normal, publicity-obsessed politician.

Despite his erratic behavior, Nixon occupied the most powerful office in the world for months afterward. The political system found it easier to deny that exceptional events were taking place than to take the steps necessary to fix the problem at the root. It would not be the last time.

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