"When Richard Milhous Nixon became president in 1969 I had been a freelance photographer in Washington, DC, for seventeen years. At that time I was out of Washington more than I was in, doing exotic and far-flung assignments for a variety of national and international magazines. Political photography, however, was a reality for any Washington-based photographer, and I did my share of it when I was in town.
Earlier, with the election of John Kennedy in 1960, Washington had undergone a sea change. No longer a sleepy Southern town, the city acquired a new glamour and status by virtue of the occupants of the White House. LOOK Magazine assigned me to do my first major features on the White House: Jacqueline Kennedy's "New Look in the White House," followed by "Christmas in the White House." Magazine interest in the presidency became a regular thing, and during the Johnson era that followed I was having as many as one hundred pages of photographs on it published in magazines each year.
It was therefore with some surprise that I realized that these regular assignments had come to a sudden stop when Nixon became president. I was curious as to why this should be. When I brought the subject up at story conferences with magazine editors I was told that they simply were not interested. Moreover, I discovered it was a two-way street. The Nixon White House had no love affair with the press, and they were very selective when it came to deciding with whom to cooperate. The average American knew precious little about how the Nixon White House worked, and the dearth of photographic coverage emanating from the White House presented a challenge to me. The editors might not be interested in the subject, but I was.
I had produced my first book, on Washington, several years earlier, and I liked the luxury of space to tell a story that a book afforded. If any subject deserved book rather than magazine treatment, the White House did. I met with Herb Klein, the President's director of communications, and proposed doing a book on the Nixon Administration - not just on the President, but on the workings of the entire White House staff. Allen Drury was to be the writer. The proposal was "staffed out," as they in the White House termed it, and six months after my initial visit the project was approved. The understanding was that neither photographs nor text were to be subject to review by the White House, and we were to receive full cooperation. For the most part, we did.
After the book was published in 1971, Attorney General John Mitchell was put in charge of the Committee for the Re-election of the President (CRP), with Jeb Magruder as his deputy. Magruder had been Herb Klein's deputy, and during a conversation with him early in 1972 he assured me that I could count on complete access should I wish to do any magazine story on CRP (referred to by many as "CREEP"). Armed with this commitment, I approached LIFE Magazine and was guaranteed four pages for such a story. A week before the Watergate break-in I telephoned Jeb Magruder to tell him of the LIFE assignment and to make arrangements to start photographing.
A discernible pattern developed while I was working at CRP in the weeks immediately following the Watergate break-in. I would be allowed to photograph a meeting for ten or fifteen minutes and then be asked to leave. I can only imagine what pivotal conversations must have taken place the minute I was safely out of the room. LIFE ran its four pages, selecting photographs that seemed important at the time. Subsequent events have given other CRP photographs - and individuals - far greater significance today.
In April 1973 an editor at TIME Magazine called me, looking for a picture of John Dean. I was too busy to spend much time searching for a headshot of a relatively unknown individual, but over the course of the next few days the editor called back several more times, with ever increasing urgency. My agent in New York, Louis Mercier, and I realized that something important was breaking. In quick succession, one newspaper story after another appeared, culminating in the announcement of the Senate Watergate hearings. With my coverage of the key players in the Nixon White House, and my coverage of CRP, I realized I had the beginning of an important historic photographic document and had no choice but to continue. I canceled all other assignments and dedicated myself to covering the Senate Watergate hearings in their entirety in 1973. Each day I would drive from my house in Georgetown, allowing ample time to find a legal all-day parking spot on Capitol Hill, and lug two cases of cameras, lenses, and film several blocks before beginning my day's work in the Senate Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building.
The Impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives in the summer of 1974 became the next important phase in my on-going documentation - then in its fourth year. Surprisingly, these hearings were sedate compared to the fireworks and conflicts that erupted between senators and witnesses during the lengthier and more highly charged hearings in the Senate. Also, as with the Senate, the House committee struck me as relatively non-partisan. There were differences between the two parties, of course, but at the end of the day three Articles of Impeachment against President Nixon passed with both parties contributing to the results. Certainly there was none of the partisan bickering that drove the Judiciary Committee in 1998 when the impeachment of President Clinton was being considered.
In August 1974 my project ended where it began - in the White House. It was certainly a far cry from the days in 1970 and 1971 when I had observed a staff in complete control of everything that happened there. During the week leading up to August 8th, when President Nixon announced his resignation, uncertainty and apprehension prevailed. And the dramatic moment in the East Room the next day, when the President mustered up the strength and control to say goodbye to his staff, Cabinet and friends, was like nothing any of us expected to experience.
One of the advantages of being a freelance photographer is that you are your own boss. It is often self-assigned work that best reflects the photographer, and has the greatest long-term significance. Staff photographers may have the security of regular employment, but they seldom have the freedom to pursue their own muse. I am certain that, had I not enjoyed the independence I did, the Nixon document as seen here would not exist. Certainly there was little intimate coverage of the Nixon White House behind the scenes, and even had there been, it is unlikely that the continuing chapters of the Watergate affair would have been assigned to the same photographer, with the same style and approach. It was because I was neutral, unaffiliated with any political group or with any publication with a known political bias, that I was allowed access to the White House in the first place. And because I owned my own material, I could decide how it would eventually be used.
Early on I had decided that the material I collected would remain under wraps until such time as passions had cooled, and people could look at the photographs objectively and with historical perspective. After twenty-five years I realized that was never going to happen completely in my lifetime. This was such a politically charged event that it will always arouse passions, both pro and con. In 1997, aware that I wasn't getting younger, I decided to take my Nixon material out of storage and organize the story myself, rather than leaving it to strangers at some future time. From the 576 rolls I shot I made over a thousand work prints. For more than a year I edited the photographs, researched details, and refined the collection in order to arrive at the 145 images found in my book, The Nixon Years 19691974, and the exhibition,
My four children were all under ten when their father thought producing this archive was more important than a steady income. I hope it has given them, and others of their generation and the generations to follow, a glimpse at the cast of characters who played roles in this American drama - in what was, up to then, the greatest political tragedy our country had known."