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People Top 5
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- April 19, 1976
- Vol. 5
- No. 15
Photographer Ollie Atkins Recalls the Tearful White House the Night Before Nixon Quit
"Oh, come on, Ollie," the President said. "Take a few shots."
—Woodward and Bernstein
The Final Days
The date was August 7, 1974. Only moments before, President Richard Nixon, irrevocably compromised by the scandals of Watergate, had told his family he would resign the next day. Press Secretary Ron Ziegler, believing the Nixons were at dinner, asked White House photographer Ollie Atkins to go upstairs and take a few pictures.
"The White House was a rather formal place in those days," recalls Atkins. "An usher took me upstairs and I found the family was not at dinner but in the California Room. The usher was afraid to open the door. He turned to me and said, 'Mr. Atkins, you go in.' "
"I opened the door, and it was obvious I had walked into an awkward situation. The President and the men were not in tears, but Julie and Tricia were. And it was obvious that Rose Mary Woods had been crying. But by coming in, I broke the spell. I suggested we make a few family pictures and the President came to my support. Mrs. Nixon gave in to everyone else, and I took four or five shots. The whole thing took about five minutes."
First, Atkins made a family portrait—the President and Pat, daughter Julie Eisenhower and her husband, David, daughter Tricia Cox and her husband, Edward. Then, suddenly, the anguished President turned and embraced Julie, his steadfast defender during the Watergate ordeal. "It was a grab shot," says Atkins, 60, a resident of Washington, Va. "But I thought so highly of Julie I almost hesitated to take it. The photographer in me made me do it."
Finally, Rose Mary Woods, the President's secretary, suggested that Atkins photograph Nixon with the family poodle, Vicky. "It's kind of ridiculous," says Atkins, "but it is the last picture of the President shot that night in the White House."
Atkins, a former Saturday Evening Post photographer, had been taking pictures of Nixon since he was a rookie congressman from California. Atkins joined the Nixon presidential campaign in 1968 and became the official White House photographer on Inauguration Day 1969. He describes his relationship with Nixon as "very professional," and concedes that the President was rarely at ease in front of a camera. "His idea of a good balanced photo was to line up three people on one side, three on the other," says Atkins, "and if there was a child, he would stick the child in front of him."
President Kennedy, Atkins recalls, "was young, photogenic and easy in front of a camera. President Nixon was a different kind of fellow. He always dressed like the office manager. I rarely saw him without a tie and jacket. It was impossible to show him in the casual way we remember Kennedy. That just isn't the way he was. I only saw him wear one sport shirt—ever. I remember photographing him with Brezhnev at San Clemente. It was the only time I saw the President in shirtsleeves."
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