Nixon’s parting shot: ‘Have a merry Christmas, fellas!’

[dropcap]R[/dropcap]ICHARD Nixon had just finished his resignation speech to the nation from behind the desk in the Oval Office. He read it out from loose sheets of paper, which he shuffled and stacked repeatedly before the cameras went live. He was now a living, breathing blot on American history. Then he got up from the desk and walked by the CBS camera crew. It was forty years ago August 8, another hot day in the nation’s swampy capital. “Have a merry Christmas, fellas!” he said to cap the absurd and sad affair as he strode out of the room.

It’s an anecdotal gem explored on the anniversary of the speech by Andrea Denhoed at the New Yorker in a piece entitled “The Weird Minutes Before Nixon’s Resignation.” Denhoed looks back through the present-day work of comedian Harry Shearer, who she reports was fascinated by Nixon as a young man and who has become an obsessed Nixon-ologist, driven by what he describes as the president’s “bizarre and remarkable unintentional humor.”

Shearer has reenacted the speech and the surrounding minutes as part of a TV series called “Nixon’s the One,” which he wrote with Nixon scholar Stanley Kutler. Sheaerer stages scenes built up from the famous Oval Office tapes made by Nixon that ultimately exposed the president as a liar and the depth of the Watergate coverup. “Nixon’s the One” aired first in the United Kingdom and is scheduled to air this fall in the United States.

If you haven’t seen the video of the actual Nixon speech that includes the minutes directly preceding the on-air portion, you should. Nixon acts light-hearted. He makes awkward jokes and walks around the desk. He is a man who has built a career on playacting for a very long time and he strains to give it one more go. You can’t look away. The tape leaves you turning the images around in your head to try and make sense of the man.

Why did he exit with that line? “Have a merry Christmas, fellas!”

Here’s Denhoed:

[blockquote] At the very end of Shearer’s reënactment there is a line that isn’t in the original recording and hadn’t been made public before the show; it was found in a staffer’s notes. It is the most straightforwardly funny moment in the scene, and it captures what, despite Nixon’s fighting spirit, must have been the chaos inside his head. He delivers his speech. He stacks his papers. Then he gets up, and — despite the fact that it’s a warm August night — he cheerfully says to the crew, “Have a Merry Christmas, fellas!” [/blockquote]

Was it confusion? Was it cheerful?

Maybe it was Nixon — after the long fight to quash the Watergate story and stay in office — still in character but finally able to acknowledge the fact that he was out, that he wouldn’t see the Oval Office camera crew before Christmas, or ever again.

Or maybe it was a wry parting shot from the famously bitter and defensive political brawler, like: “Okay, there it is, my great gift to all of you bastards. You satisfied now? I’ve resigned. Have a merry Christmas, fellas!”

[ Image: ‘Nixon Agonistes’ by Brianna Privett. ]


  1. Interesting riff on a weird story about an enigmatic man. I was in a tiny mountain village in Austria that hot August day, and even there, the headlines were writ huge on the front pages of local papers and the International Herald Tribune. Nixon would have been better suited playing the sad clown in a circus than as a politician.

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