Richard Nixon’s 1968 trip to Atlanta following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. included a private visit with the grieving Coretta Scott King, a ‘huge’ security breach at the funeral service – and an improvised exit after the president decided it was time to bolt, according to a new memoir.
The former vice president and his team spent ‘a significant amount of time trying to decide’ what he should do after King’s death shook the nation, former special assistant Dwight Chapin recalls in his new memoir, ‘The President’s Man.’
Aide Pat Buchanan focused on the impact it might have in southern states amid the GOP primary election, where segregationist George Wallace was running and the former vice president was the front-runner, according to a book excerpt obtained by DailyMail.com.
The April 1968 visit and funeral came early in the GOP primary process.
Nixon had a ‘personal relationship’ with the King couple, having met them at a 1957 independence celebration in Ghana when Nixon was vice president, recalls Chapin, 81, who was convicted of lying to a federal grand jury during the Watergate probe. He eventually served nine months in federal prison. At the time of King’s death he was a personal aide to Nixon.
President Richard Nixon met privately with Coretta Scott King after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Nixon flew to the King home to greet Coretta Scott King, who was ‘lying on the bed, fully dressed, propped up by a pillow. There was a chair next to the bed. Nixon went inside, sat down, and took her hand. “Hello, Coretta,” he said, “I am so sorry . . .”’ writes Chapin.
Nixon also paid a visit to the home of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr. ‘Other guests seemed surprised to see Nixon arrive. Few people were aware of their relationship. Nixon and Dr. King put their arms around each other and embraced,’ according to Chapin.
‘Dwight, get us out of here’: Nixon found himself in a long procession headed toward the cemetery after King’s funeral. He had told the family he would not be attending that event, and peeled out of the line, along with basketball great Wilt Chamberlain
Nixon had known the Kings for a decade at the time of MLK’s assassination
Vice President Richard Nixon meets Martin Luther King in 1957
Former Vice President Richard Nixon is engulfed in a sea of humanity as he is escorted to Ebenezer Baptist Church for the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dwight Chapin with Richard Nixon in the Oval Office. Chapin has written a memoir about his time with Nixon. He was convicted of lying to a grand jury probing Watergate
Nixon flew back a second time for King’s funeral, both times catching a ride on the plane of confidant Bob Abplanalp.
Nixon got a warm welcome when he arrived at the funeral. ‘We walked a half block from the car to the front door of the church, where more than a thousand people were gathered. They surrounded us and very quietly started clapping. It grew into an unexpected but welcoming soft-clapping ovation, a different feeling from what we had been expecting. I found it incredibly moving,’ writes Chapin.
Chapin writes that he spotted an ‘unusual-looking’ usher at the funeral service whom he would later learn had a concerning background.
The usher escorted Nixon to his third-row pew, ‘directly in front of Teddy Kennedy,’ and also escorted First Lady Jackie Kennedy.
Chapin spotted the same man at a Nixon rope line in Atlanta weeks later.
Chapin’s book comes out in February
‘I immediately brought him to the attention of Bill Duncan, our lead Secret Service agent. It was discovered, I was later told, that the fellow had recently walked out of a mental hospital. This was a huge lapse in security at the King funeral,’ he writes.
For all the goodwill Nixon got visiting with the King family and attending the funeral, the future president found himself in a four-mile procession heading toward the cemetery that he decided he had to exit.
Images of the funeral show Nixon jammed in with hundreds of people.
‘We had previously told the King family that Nixon would not be attending the burial,’ recalls Chapin. ‘I was walking along the side of the procession. Nixon waved me over and whispered, “Dwight, get us out of here.”’
‘He knew we were due at the airport and if we didn’t extricate ourselves, we would be walking all the way to the cemetery,’ he writes.
This sent aides scurrying to arrange a ride. It also caught the attention of basketball star Wilt Chamberlain, who had chatted with Nixon at the service.
‘Wilt Chamberlain saw what we were doing. He had heard Nixon say to others nearby, “We need to get to the airport. I need to be in New York,'” writes Chapin.
‘Can I ride with you?’ Chamberlain inquired. Nixon told him he could.
‘We plowed through the crowd that was five or six rows deep, with people packed at the turn observing the procession. With Wilt walking with him there was no way that Nixon’s departure wasn’t noticed.’
They located the ‘ancient black Cadillac’ that an aide had hired, with Nixon and the 7-foot-one Chamberlain squeezing into the back seat.
‘You can imagine the look on the driver’s face as he glanced in his rearview mirror and saw Richard Nixon and Wilt Chamberlain in the backseat. He appeared to be dumbfounded, but he got us to the airport,’ writes Chapin.
The AP ran an image of Nixon getting out of the car in front of King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Nixon ‘felt good about returning for the actual funeral. Maybe he realized it was the right place for a future president to be.’