Saving the president

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This week, author and journalist Eugene Byrne brings us a joke about former US President Richard Nixon, who, among other things, is known for the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. The joke features Nixon at the seaside in San Clemente, California, but has been re-used in different forms throughout history

The joke

After he resigned from office in the wake of the Watergate scandal, President Nixon naturally felt very low. He retreated to the seaside home he had at San Clemente, California. He refused to accept any visitors, and didn’t have any security guards or servants.

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He had his own private beach, where he tried to relax and forget about his problems. Every day, he would go for a swim in the ocean.

One day, he was caught unaware by a big swell, and got into trouble, far from the shore. There was nobody else around to hear his cries for help anyway. He thought his end had come.

Suddenly, he found himself being pulled to the surface and back towards the shore by two young men who were evidently very powerful swimmers.

Back on shore, they explained to him, somewhat sheepishly, that they were surfers, and had often trespassed on his beach, thinking there was no-one around. They happened to be there when they saw him get into trouble.

Nixon, however, was only too happy to be alive. “I’d really like to show my gratitude in some practical way,” he said. “Is there anything I can do for you boys?” Turning to the first he said, “What about you, son?”

“Well sir” said the first surfer, “you could open this beautiful beach to the public.”

“Consider it done,” said Nixon. Turning to the other: “What can I do for you?”

“Mr President, could you arrange for me to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, alongside all those other courageous young Americans who died before their time.”

“I can probably do that,” said Nixon. “But why? That’s a very unusual request.”

“When my father finds out I saved Richard Nixon from drowning, he’s gonna kill me.”

The story

Richard Nixon (1913-1994) remains to this day by-word among some liberals and leftists for the cynical, unscrupulous and paranoid politician, not just on account of the Watergate scandal and its cover up, but for the whole of his political career, which had been dogged by accusations of shady back-room deals and gutter campaigning.

Nixon’s admirers on the right, on the other hand, call him a realist, and cite the smart hand he played in dealings with China and the Soviet Union, and in the Middle East. Along with Ronald Reagan, he is one of the founders of modern postwar Republicanism in America.

The story is a joke, there’s no truth in it. Though he went with his wife Pat to their home at San Clemente after his resignation in 1974, Nixon was far from being a recluse. He did have serious health problems for about a year, but once over these, he travelled extensively, made regular speaking appearances and wrote his memoirs. In the late 1970s he began a partially successful bid to rehabilitate himself as an elder statesman. The famous David Frost interviews in 1977 are mostly remembered for what he said (and didn’t say) about Watergate, but most of the time was spent talking about world affairs, on which Nixon was hugely knowledgeable. He supported Ronald Reagan’s Presidential bid in 1980 and later advised him on international relations.

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The same joke has been applied to plenty of other politicians, although it seems to stick to Nixon best, though Bill Clinton is often the subject as well. Its origins are older; there’s a version from the 1940s in which a Jewish man finds he’s saved Hitler from drowning.