At around 6pm on March 16, 1974, my sister Lynn handed a bouquet of roses to Pat Nixon. Her husband, the President, stood beside her near the National Guard hangar of the old Nashville airport, alongside a welcoming committee that included Governor and Mrs. Winfield Dunn, Senator Howard Baker, and Senator William Brock. Lynn was in uniform, representing the Girl Scouts of the USA.
The First Lady has served as Honorary President of the Girl Scouts since the Hoover administration, and this was Pat Nixon’s 62nd birthday. Hence, the roses. Why Lynn? My dad recalls she was picked because she was an exemplary scout, of course….and because my mom was on the Girl Scout board and pals with that particular decision maker.
The President and First Lady arrived on separate planes. She was coming from South America, where she’d attended presidential inaugurations in both Venezuela and Brazil. According the White House diary, he had put in a workday at the White House, including a call to Henry Kissinger, before flying here to meet her plane.
The Shadow of Watergate
Just two weeks earlier, a group of Nixon’s advisers, now known as the Watergate Seven, had been indicted for their roles in a scandal that was beginning to close in around the President.
At the edge of the crowd, someone held up a large white sheet with the word “Impeach” painted on it and some witnesses recall others chanting the word. According to authors Ryan Barilleaux and Jewerl Maxwell, the Nashville stop was one of several “campaign-style appearances” the President made in late 1973 and early 1974 to “garner support from the public” as his administration was bogged down in the Watergate scandal.
I asked Lynn, now a math teacher at Oak Hill School, if she remembers the protestors. She does vaguely, but says “I was old enough by then to understand that not everyone agrees on everything.”
Both Mr. and Mrs. Nixon gave short speeches and were whisked away to opening night at the newly finished Grand Ole Opry House, the official reason for the trip. The President was due onstage.
‘Campaign-Style’ At The Opry
Mr. Nixon entertained the friendly crowd with music and humor, alongside Opry regulars. On the piano, he played Happy Birthday to the First Lady and then Wild Irish Rose, in honor of her ethnic heritage. He took an onstage Yo-Yo lesson from Roy Acuff, and spoke of seriously of country music being “from the heart of America”:
It talks about family, it talks about religion, the faith in God that is so important to our country and particularly to our family life. And as we all know, country music radiates a love of this Nation, patriotism.
Striking a lighter tone, Nixon quipped “Somebody was telling me that there is only one thing stronger than country moonshine and that is country music. I saw a couple of fellows outside that were combining the two, and believe me, it was plenty strong.”
— Grand Ole Opry (@opry) March 14, 2013
During the show, Acuff said “that is just what it takes to be a great President, is to come among people and be among we working people, we common people, and then be one of us. That is what it takes to be a real President”, and added, “We will never see nothing like this in our State again, never have before.”
Before the show was over, President Nixon found himself at the piano again. Backed by all the evening’s guests, he led a rousing sing-along of God Bless America.
Country singer Tex Ritter had passed away just two months earlier. His widow sat with Mrs. Nixon during the show and presented her with a dulcimer as a birthday gift.
Shortly thereafter, The President and Mrs. Nixon were driven back the airport where they flew back to Washington at 8:30pm. The Nixons were on the ground in Nashville for two and a half hours.
President Nixon would resign under the threat of impeachment in just 4 months.
Here’s some silent and shaky 8mm footage of President and Mrs. Nixon at the Nashville airport. Toward the end, you can see a homemade “Impeach” sign: