More than most people, John Howard remembers the day Richard Nixon resigned the presidency 40 years ago Friday — Aug. 8, 1974.
After all, Howard was standing less than 40 feet from the disgraced president on the day he stopped being the most powerful person in the world.
“I was absolutely stunned,” Howard said Friday. “Here I was, a service brat from Tampa, standing 30 or 40 feet from where the president of the United States is resigning. You talk about luck.”
Howard, 65, who lives with his wife in Huntley, remembers how hot the White House was that day — both the politics and the mercury.
On that historic day, a day many people remember with foreboding because of the uncertainty of the nation’s governance, Howard was a sergeant with the U.S. Secret Service’s Uniformed Division serving in the White House.
“On that particular Thursday day shift we had been briefed that President Nixon was going to resign, give a short speech in the East Room, walk down the main hallway, ride the mansion’s elevator to the ground floor, then depart via Marine One,” Howard wrote in an email to the Gazette.
“It was a huge, huge relief,” he said of the transfer of power to the administration of Gerald Ford. “We had had such turmoil. Mr. Nixon’s people were not the easiest to work with. They were very unpleasant, and very strict.”
Because of the historic significance of the day Nixon was to resign, everyone in the Uniformed Division was instructed to wear the dress uniform, which Howard said was “miserable” in hot, sticky Washington, D.C.
What few people realized was that most members of the Secret Service’s Uniformed Division actually opted to wear their dress uniforms all summer — and they had Nixon to thank for it.
Nixon, according to Howard, loved to keep fires blazing year-round in the two working fireplaces in the West Wing — one in the Oval Office and the other in the Roosevelt Room. The National Park Service accommodated Nixon by providing the wood.
“To compensate for the fireplaces, the buildings’ engineers had to turn down the air conditioning, which meant that everyone inside the buildings got chilled quickly,” Howard wrote. “The air-conditioning system wasn’t computerized, so all the interconnected buildings froze so Mr. Nixon could stay warm and comfortable.”
Fortunately for everyone that day, “Mr. Nixon’s speech was short, and he and his family left down the main hallway. That meant that all of the staff had to exit the East Room via the Red Room, Blue Room, etc., or in front of my post,” Howard wrote.
Howard said he’ll never forget that Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s personal secretary, whom he blamed for the famous 18 ½ minute gap in the Watergate tapes that doomed the Nixon presidency, hugged the then-25-year-old Secret Service sergeant as she walked past his post to watch Marine One, the presidential helicopter, carry Nixon and his family away.
“Even when Mr. Nixon and family left on Marine One (there used to be an Army One — the Army and Marines used to ‘switch off’ in the early ’70s), the mansion was still a zoo,” Howard wrote. “It was one, long miserable day.”
Howard began his White House service in 1970 and completed it in 1975, when he accepted a Secret Service position protecting embassies in Washington. He retired from the Secret Service in 1994, moved to Huntley, and then went to work in the security field and, later, as a substitute teacher.
At the end of his email, Howard dropped this tidbit: “I’m one of the few people in Montana to have been called an (epithet describing a particular orifice) by two different White House Chiefs of Staff.”
Asked about those encounters, Howard tells both stories: The first time was by H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s top assistant, who was angry that Howard had allowed Jeb Stuart Magruder into the White House, only to have him turn around and start talking to the banes of the White House staff, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters credited with exposing much of the Watergate scandal.
The second time was by Donald Regan, first the Treasury secretary and then President Ronald Reagan’s top aide, who placed the moniker on Howard while Howard was assigned to the presidential detail during a New Year’s Eve visit by President and Mrs. Reagan to the California home of Walter Annenberg.
Howard said during his last year in the White House — 1974-75 — the political tension was gone, “but we didn’t see the political picture. We were mostly worried about taking care of our families.”
He made $8,000 annually when he started his White House career, and his pay in those days was tied to that of Washington, D.C., police.
Mayor Marion Barry was his favorite mayor, he said with a laugh, and for good reason. “One year, he gave us all a 17 percent raise,” Howard said. “We all loved that guy.”