By PETER FORMAN
—Autograph May 2010
Most collectors of historic autographs understand that good content makes a letter more interesting and valuable. But the value of context is sometimes less obvious and often requires extra research. Understanding both content and context helps collectors make great buys and add real value to their autographs.
The basic starting points in understanding context are the date something is written and the person to whom a letter is written. A wonderful example of context increasing value is a routine Nixon letter which turns out to be far more valuable than it appears.
In an almost unheard of letter alluding to Watergate, Nixon writes to former California Senator and Nixon friend George Murphy. “On the other matter, I would be less than candid if I did not say that this has been a difficult period. But through it all I have been sustained by old and dear friends like you, and I just want to say again how deeply grateful I am.” It almost reads as a routine thank you note except for the date.
The letter was written on August 1, 1974. The day Nixon decided to resign.
While in California for his usual summer retreat in July 1974, Nixon’s presidency was quickly collapsing. On July 24th the Supreme Court decided that he must hand over his tapes to the Special Prosecutor. On the 27th the House Judiciary Committee approved the first of three Articles of Impeachment. The Nixons returned to Washington on Sunday, July 28th. At this point, the President was in virtual seclusion.
On Tuesday, July 30th the House Judiciary Committee voted the final article of Impeachment. According to Nixon’s Memoirs he was up all night into the dawn of July 31st contemplating his shrinking political options. He had concluded he would go down fighting and face impeachment rather than resign.
Later that day, physically and emotionally exhausted but determined not to resign, he heard from his lawyers and aides who reviewed the “smoking gun” tape of June 23, 1972. They informed Nixon that the tape would cost him all remaining political and public support. Everything he had thought through in the early morning hours had now changed, probably in the late evening hours of the 31st or early morning hours of August 1.
In his Memoirs Nixon writes: “On Thursday, August 1, I told Haig that I had decided to resign.” The two discussed the timing of an announcement. Nixon wanted to break it to his family over the weekend and then announce it on Monday, August 5th. Haig pushed for an announcement on Friday, August 2nd before the tape was released. Nixon agreed to think about it but asked Haig to direct Ray Price to begin drafting a resignation speech and to secretly inform Ford of the decision.
According to Ford’s memoirs, A Time to Heal, Haig met with him shortly after 9 a.m. on August 1st and said: “I want to alert you that things are deteriorating. The whole ball game may be over. You’d better start thinking about a change in your life.” Later in the day Haig again met with Ford, but without anyone else present. At the second meeting Haig raised the possibility of either Nixon pardoning himself or Ford pardoning him. It was the conversations on August 1st that gave rise to the speculation of a resignation for pardon deal.
At the behest of his family, Nixon agreed to delay any announcement of resignation until the tape was released so they could measure the fallout. The tape became public on Monday August 5th, the day Nixon originally wanted to make his announcement. On Wednesday the 7th, Republican Congressional leaders told him he had only a handful of votes left to fight impeachment. The next night Nixon told the nation he would resign and Ford took office on the 9th.
Knowing the events of August 1st, Nixon’s brief comment to Murphy reveals a sense of relief. The fight was over and he still had friends as he was beginning to think of his days after the White House. Missing in this letter is any pretense of fighting on and continuing the work of his presidency, sentiments usually found in the formal letters thanking people for their support of his Administration. The day he initialed this letter he had already mentally resigned the Presidency. Even his initials reveal a diminished man, slightly smaller and somewhat cramped from his usually flourishing RN signature.
Knowing the context of a letter helps reveal a fuller meaning of the content. Put another way, research adds value to your autograph investment.