They weren’t exactly Felix and Oscar from Neil Simon’s play The Odd Couple, but Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton became confidants in the early 1990s in a remarkable presidential friendship.
When President Nixon died in 1994 at the age of 81, after a brief illness, the current president, Clinton, extended full state honors to Nixon almost 20 years after he resigned from office.
Clinton also spoke at Nixon’s funeral in California, and as of this day, he fondly cites his last letter from Nixon, received about a month before Nixon’s passing.
So why would Clinton and Nixon decide to form a brief, nonpartisan friendship?
The answer can be found in two words: foreign policy.
On the surface, the two men had little in common. As a college student, Clinton had protested against the Vietnam War. His wife, now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was a young lawyer who worked on the impeachment staff for the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate.
Likewise, President Nixon had unflattering words for war protesters like Bill Clinton when he was president, and he had some sharp early critiques of the early Clinton campaign in 1992.
The extent of their friendship came out in April 1994, when Nixon died in New York after suffering a stroke.
The New York Times detailed their relationship, which gave Nixon the satisfaction of a quiet role as a presidential counselor and Clinton the chance to tap into Nixon’s considerable experience with Russia and China.
The Times said the ice was broken when several politicians, including then-Senator Bob Dole, reached out to President Clinton, as Nixon was writing an op-ed story for the Times.
Nixon’s article praised parts of Clinton’s foreign policy regarding Russia, and the private friendship started.
While Nixon still had reservations about some Clinton policies in public, he was talking with the young president about Russia and other topics in private.
As a young vice president, Nixon had faced off against Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in the Kitchen Debate in the old Soviet Union, and his landmark 1972 trip to the Soviet Union was a key turning point in U.S.-Russia relations, coming just months after Nixon’s historic China trip.
Clinton still speaks about his last letter from Nixon: a critique of the evolving situation in Russia and its new president, Boris Yeltsin.
Television commentator Monica Crowley was a 21-year-old grad student in 1990 who wound up as a personal assistant to Nixon until his death in 1994, and she had first-hand knowledge of the relationship, which is detailed in her book, Nixon in Winter.
“Clinton got much-needed foreign policy advice from the nation’s elder statesman, and Nixon got a measure of public credibility and access to the president,” said Crowley. She also says it was Dole who built the bridge between the two presidents.
Clinton’s eulogy at the Nixon memorial service surprised some observers for its own sense of bipartisanship.
“He made mistakes, and they, like his accomplishments, are a part of his life and record. But the enduring lesson of Richard Nixon is that he never gave up being part of the action and passion of his times,” Clinton said. “He said many times that unless a person has a goal, a new mountain to climb, his spirit will die. Well, based on our last phone conversation and the letter he wrote me just a month ago, I can say that his spirit was very much alive to the very end.”
The letter from Nixon was a detailed analysis of the situation in the region of the former Soviet Union that Nixon had visited in 1993.
In his book The Clinton Tapes, author Taylor Branch was with President Clinton on the night he received word that former President Nixon’s death was imminent.
Clinton told Branch that Nixon suffered the same kind of stroke that killed Hillary Clinton’s father. Nixon’s letter was the best foreign policy analysis he’d seen, Clinton said, and he had only shared it with his vice president, Al Gore.
Ironically, Clinton taped his conversations with Branch in the White House, and those tapes have yet to be released.
Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.
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