Pre-Watergate Nixon letter expresses excitement for recording presidential history

Cover of the Fall 1972 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Photo by Ollie Atkins

Buried in the archives of The Saturday Evening Post are treasures from the nation’s nearly 300 years of history, whether in vintage advertising, classic illustrations, or insightful reporting that illuminates life in America of decades now passed.

Frequently we find old articles with an interesting point of view, providing us with insight on specific historical events from the people who lived through them.

And in the case of this gem from our Fall 1972 issue (right), some articles look much different when measured with the hindsight of history.

Then-President of the United States Richard Nixon wrote this letter for the Post in relation to a photo essay by official White House photographer Ollie Atkins, which appeared in the same issue. The full text of Nixon’s letter appears below. Click here to see the photo essay as it originally appeared in the Post.


To Communicate Dimensions of Truth

By Richard Nixon

In the archives and libraries of America are carefully preserved the records of each of our Presidents—letters, minutes, diaries, memoranda—and now even tape—recorded interviews with those who are a part of past administrations. But only in recent times has the strong effort been made to preserve a complete photographic account of Presidential history.


Though I often joke with Ollie Atkins, the official White House photographer, about his persistent efforts always to be in the right place at the right time with his cameras, I must say that I am very happy indeed with the modern practice of keeping a full photographic record of the Presidency. For as I look over Ollie’s pictures, including those which make up the photographic essay on these pages, I realize again their unique ability to communicate dimensions of truth which are often missed in the written record.

Through these pictures, for example, I can feel again the sense we all had in Peking and Moscow of participating in one of history’s watershed moments. And I am reminded, too, as I look through these photos, of nuances of personality in those I have known which are sometimes difficult to put into language. By helping to preserve the mood, the spirit, the character of a person or an event—or an entire administration—the photographer can perform, I believe, a unique public service.

When historians study all the records of the Nixon years, I hope they will conclude that these were good years, years in which we ended a difficult war, achieved significant arms control agreements and made peaceful negotiation the way of life among nations. I hope, too, that this Administration will be remembered as one which reordered an economy which had grown dependent on wartime spending, decentralized and revitalized a Federal bureaucracy which had grown rigid and unresponsive, and helped a divided Nation substitute the rule of reason for confrontation and disorder.

There have been moments of disappointment in these years, of course, but there have been many more moments of great satisfaction. After nearly four years as President, I believe we can be proud of the record we are leaving for those who will write the history of this Administration—even as I am proud of this photographic essay concerning some of its highlights

{signed} Richard Nixon

What the Queen Does for a Living

Queen Elizabeth II, 1963
Queen Elizabeth II in New Zealand, 1963. (Photo by Ollie Atkins, © SEPS)

At first glance, the queen appears hardly essential to the survival of Great Britain. She signs her name to Parliamentary laws and “accepts” every new prime minister, but these are just formal ceremonies: the British government could function easily without them.

Meanwhile, the queen, throughout her 60-plus-year reign, has been steadily giving up privileges other monarchs took for granted. Her royal household — including her family, her staff, and the upkeep on several houses — is $60 million each year. While this is a princely sum, it has been frozen for 20 years and its purchasing power has dropped by 75 percent. Moreover, the queen now pays income tax, which further reduces that figure.

It’s a precarious position, this queen business. Without any true power of her own, her income is subject to the approval of Parliament, which can deny any expense it doesn’t like. Meanwhile, there is a significant number of Britons who call for the end to a monarchy that seems expensive and silly to them.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth must regularly appear among her subjects and work her royal charm to build support and allegiance to herself. As British journalist Malcom Muggeridge observed in the Post back in 1957:

When, as in the case of Queen Elizabeth II, a monarch only reigns, with no ruling powers whatsoever, it is inevitable that the focus of interest should be transferred from the office to the person.

It is the queen herself, her family, her associates, her way of life, which hold the public attention. The role she has inherited is purely symbolic, and the functions that go with it are purely ceremonial. Because she has no power, she must be, in herself, wondrous. If she were ordinary, she would be nothing.

She must be alluring, removed from the necessities and inadequacies of ordinary men and women — a creature of this world in the sense that she has a home, a husband, and children, and yet not quite of this world in that she is a queen.

Muggeridge concedes the queen does a fairly good job of projecting this royal mystique, despite the disenchanted mood of post-war Britain.

The monarchy has grown more glamorous in circumstances which, theoretically, should have reduced it to the proportions of a Scandinavian dynasty.

Debutantes throng more numerously and eagerly than ever to be presented at court. Mayors and other local dignitaries proudly rustle up gray top hats for the Buckingham Palace garden parties. Labor ministers lay aside their red ties and delightedly attire themselves in knee breeches to attend upon Her Majesty.

This is the queen’s greatest, and most historic service to the country: dispensing royal approval and honors. Each year, hundreds of British citizens are nominated for knighthood, or an order of chivalry like Commander of the British Empire. The queen, advised by the Prime Minister’s cabinet, grants these awards to a handful of distinguished, and proud, men and women. The title lack the privileges they once conveyed, but they’re still highly valued. Few Britons turn down them down.

Strangely enough, people are still clamorous for these baubles, which constitute an inexpensive form of political patronage. Happy the government that can bribe with knighthoods, baronetcies and peerages rather than with jobs and money. It is so much cheaper and less complicated.

The queen would seem to be essential to this procedure. If the honors were conferred by a president or a prime minister, the odds are that they would lose some of their allure. The worthy alderman kneels ecstatically with creaking joints before the queen to receive the accolade; the aged party hack finds one more canter in him when it is a question of being elevated to the peerage by Her Majesty in person.

Answering the question posed by his article, “Does England Really Need a Queen?” Muggeridge concludes:

Queen Elizabeth II, 1963
Queen Elizabeth II prepares to speak to a harbor throng near her yacht in New Zealand. (Photo by Ollie Atkins, © SEPS)

The British monarchy does fulfill a purpose. It provides a symbolic head of state transcending the politicians who go in and out of office, who, as King Lear so wonderfully said, “ebb and flow by the moon.”

It expresses that continuity which has enabled Britain to survive two great revolutions — the French and the Russian — and two ruinous and destructive world wars, without being torn by civil conflict. But this function must not only be fulfilled. It must be seen to be fulfilled.

The queen, in other words, must be put across, not only as a charming wife and mother who dresses pleasingly, if not always elegantly, who wins hearts wherever she goes, and who presides gracefully over a lunch or dinner table even when her guests include politicians, writers and statesmen, rather than her own intimates, sharing her own simple, unintellectual tastes.

She must be put across, as well, a useful unifying element in a society full of actual and potential discord.

This post was updated on September 10, 2015.