White House Duet

Good morning, it’s March 7. Forty-five years ago today, the pressure was closing in on Richard Milhous Nixon. A grand jury had indicted seven former administration officials in the burgeoning Watergate scandal and named the president himself an unindicted co-conspirator. Talk of impeachment was heard on Capitol Hill. And although Dick Nixon was no favorite in Hollywood, he was a native Southern Californian who knew that the show must go on. He did his best on this evening at a White House dinner by personally supplying the piano accompaniment to the great Pearl Bailey.

I’ve written about before (and recounted in my recent book). But it’s the rare heartwarming Dick Nixon story, so it’s worth reprising.

Pearl Bailey was a longtime Nixon supporter, and this night she stood by her man while also showing Washington how she earned her nickname, “Ambassador of Love.”

The president was hosting a gathering of the nation’s governors, and Ms. Bailey was wrapping up her solo performance when the singer got the idea to have the president join her onstage. Like Harry Truman before him, Nixon’s piano playing was 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 forward, “but I don’t sing as well as you govern.”

When the president drummed out a few bars of “Home on the Range,” Bailey quipped, “Mr. President, I wanted to sing a song, not ride a horse.” Getting into the swing of things, Nixon mentioned that St. Patrick’s Day was coming, then played “Wild Irish Rose,” which made Bailey laugh. For their finale, she suggested “God Bless America.”

Sadly, only a portion of the session was filmed, but contemporaneous witnesses provided 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.

Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter’s reaction was not recorded for posterity, but the Washington Post, where the most damaging investigative reporting on Watergate had been published, put down its sword for the evening. “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.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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