For Nixon, the Show Must Go On
Good morning. It’s March 7, a date in presidential history reminding us that presidents are human beings, as well as leaders, and that they usually find a way to persevere no matter what is happening around them.
In March of 1974, the pressure was closing in on Richard Nixon. On the first day of the month, a grand jury had indicted seven former Nixon administration officials in the burgeoning Watergate scandal and named the president himself an unindicted co-conspirator.
Talk of impeachment was starting to be heard on Capitol Hill. And though Richard Nixon was no favorite of Hollywood, he was a native Southern Californian and possessed the sensibility that the show must go on. He did his part 39 years ago tonight at a White House dinner by personally supplying the piano accompaniment to the great Pearl Bailey.
Bailey was a longtime Richard Nixon supporter, and on March 7, 1974, she stood by her man, while showing Washington how she earned her nickname, “Ambassador of Love.”
The president was hosting the midwinter conference of the National Governors’ Association and Ms. Bailey was wrapping up her solo performance when the singer got the idea to have the president join her on stage.
Like Harry Truman before him, Nixon’s piano playing was more than passable, but this wasn’t entertaining friends in his living room: This was accompanying a legendary singer before an audience that included political allies and rivals (as well as three future presidents).
“You don't play as well as I sing,” Bailey said while coaxing Nixon to start playing, “but I don't sing as well as you govern.”
When the president drummed out the first few bars of “Home on the Range,” Pear Bailey quipped, “Mr. President, I wanted to sing a song, not ride a horse.” Getting into the swing of things, Richard Nixon then played tunes she could get into: “Wild Irish Rose” and “God Bless America.”
Sadly, the session was not filmed, but we can rely on contemporaneous witnesses for their reviews of the music and the banter between the president and the first lady of torch singing:
“Absolutely tops!” pronounced California Gov. Ronald Reagan.
“I laughed so much I cried,” added Vice President Gerald Ford.
The Washington Post, where the most damaging investigative reporting on Watergate had been published, put down its swords for the evening, too.
“President Nixon and Pearl Bailey,” it noted, “performing as an impromptu ‘Dick and Pearl Show,’ momentarily upstaged Watergate, the energy crisis, troubles in the Middle East and the economy.”