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In February 1972 I was in Caracas, Venezuela, having the time of my life during Carnival season—meeting new people, exploring the area, enjoying pottery and painting. Returning to the hotel one day, I was greeted at the lobby desk with a phone message: “Please call Noel Koch at The White House.”

Noel Koch was one of President Richard Nixon’s White House speechwriters. I had applied for a position at the White House, and Koch was looking for a replacement for his previous, shortlived secretary. (When I came on board at the White House, Koch and John McLaughlin, another speechwriter, actually had a bet as to who would keep his secretary the longest! Koch won.)

Standing directly behind me as I was reading the message in the hotel lobby was an individual obviously interested in keeping a close eye on my whereabouts. I could only speculate that he was perhaps a security guard for the Venezuelan Presidential Affairs Office, as the Venezuelan President was due to attend a Carnival Gala at that particular hotel. The mysterious observer followed me and stood behind me as I placed the call to Washington. He followed me to the door of my hotel room and was there each morning as I left. He escorted me to the outside door of the hotel, and each evening he was there again when I returned. Apparently, they took no chances.

The call to Washington was brief, but I heard Noel Koch’s voice for the first time at the other end. "I want more than a writer. I need an assistant for research and writing who can also type. Actually, I want to hire two persons—an assistant and a secretary—but the word came down that I could only have one person. You have administrative and research experience and you have strong typing skills with a record of success in an office environment. Are you interested?"

Was I interested? Of course! But how would I respond to such an offer while visiting in Venezuela?

Kristi Planck Johnson is pictured in 1971 while working for NASA during a trip to Florida to witness the launch of Apollo 15. Her next job would be in the White House Speechwriter’s Office, an office in which wide-ranging assignments included drafting the plaques placed on the moon by the Apollo astronauts.

Author's Collection

I had been traveling to the White House for interviews since August 1971. My initial visit was to investigate a position for a friend who worked on Capitol Hill in a “fishbowl” and asked if I would look into a job she was hoping to land. I had top-secret security clearance from my work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Legislative Affairs Office and could easily file past the White House guard, and I did. In the course of the conversation, it became apparent that the Presidential Appointment Office might be interested in my skills, too, as I had experience in shorthand and typing, as well as academic research credentials with a master of arts degree in Scandinavian studies and European diplomatic history. Further interviews would be necessary. The saga dragged on into the fall months with weekly phone conversations: “We have not made a decision yet but hope to have news for you next week. Give us a call next Thursday.” My summer appointment at NASA expired. So did the extensions to that appointment. In November, I moved over to the Cost Accounting Standards Board (CASB) to work for a project director.

In December I was told that the presidential schedule position had gone to a man. They were unable to hire a woman, said the personnel administrator, with some sense of embarrassment. Subsequently, I received phone calls from various offices within the White House saying that my resume was in hand and could I report for an interview. Passing the White House guard became a familiar experience. While most of the positions were not ones in which I was particularly interested, I proceeded to the interviews because it was interesting to visit the White House and because an interview might lead to another arena, and that, in fact, is exactly what happened.

In January, I began hearing advertisements on the radio for traveling to Caracas to celebrate the Carnival season. I’d never been to South America, so I thought, why not give it a try. I applied for a week’s leave and off I went. The week passed rapidly, and I was thinking it would be nice to extend my time by a few days. I contacted my boss at CASB, and he agreed to extend my leave for four more days. The day I received the extension was the same one in which the phone message appeared in my hotel mailbox.

Additional phone calls from Caracas to Washington took place for the next few days to work out details such as when I would return and have a face-to-face interview with Koch. In addition to the numerous phone conversations, Koch had plenty of White House sources to rely on, as he spoke with fellow staff members who had already interviewed me for other job prospects. Even so, we both needed time to talk more seriously about this new and rather unique venture. Koch wanted me to return to Washington as soon as possible. I compromised and returned to Washington two days later. After our initial meeting and interview, I was hired, and then began the paper trail of necessary forms and bureaucratic procedures.


Political Personalities: Gerald Ford, Bob Dole, and Charles Colson

Under the purview of the president’s speechwriting staff, there was also the responsibility to control what other Republican politicians might say on behalf of the president. To that end, Koch and I quite often wrote statements and short speeches for Republican leaders on Capitol Hill. Typically, Koch and I discussed the nature of the statement. I did research at the library of the Old Executive Office Building (OEOB, today the Eisenhower Executive Office Building), read various newspapers from across the nation, and once in a while used congressional resources and the expertise of the staff at the Library of Congress. I presented the research to Koch who, in the meantime, had started writing his message in longhand on a legal-size yellow notepad. Koch’s strength was the ability to write in another person’s style. His words were carefully selected, and after a few rounds it was easy to decipher for whom we were writing even without seeing the name of the person in print. I took the handwritten draft and typed another one, making changes I felt would enhance the writing. After several drafts, I prepared a final copy and the document was ready for delivery.

We were kept busy during the evening news hour so that we were not privy to the facts of Nixon’s almost assured reelection. Colson wanted us to believe that Nixon was not doing well in the polls so that we would continue to work our knuckles to the bone to accomplish the job at hand.

Gerald R. Ford and Robert Dole were the two most prominent members of Congress for whom we wrote. Koch and I interacted with them on a daily basis. Ford, representative from Michigan and Republican leader in the House of Representatives, was a loyal supporter of Nixon. Nixon depended on Ford to speak on his behalf. Ford was a respected individual who would pause and read carefully whatever we delivered to him. He did not accept any suggestion of wording without personally reading the material.

Dole, senator from Kansas, was also chair of the Republican Party at the time. Writing for Dole, whether for a speech or for a written text, took courage and stamina because of his wry and sarcastic sense of humor. His wit was tough to mirror, but Koch’s skill generally met with approval from Dole, and any given delivery included a wait until the senator saw the text himself and gave his personal nod.

We also worked closely with Charles Colson, then busy with the Nixon reelection. Responding to Colson’s seemingly impossible demands was daunting. Our relationship with Colson was unique in that he was not directly in charge of the speechwriters. Yet he knew that Koch was equipped to write more than speeches. Colson had a way of keeping his staff on constant guard. The memorandum saying that he would walk over his grandmother’s body to get the president reelected was personally delivered to all staff members in our suite. We were kept busy during the evening news hour so that we were not privy to the facts of Nixon’s almost assured reelection. Colson wanted us to believe that Nixon was not doing well in the polls so that we would continue to work our knuckles to the bone to accomplish the job at hand.

Charles Colson served as special counsel to President Nixon from 1969 to 1973. His style was known to be demanding, as seen in the memorandum he sent to the president’s staff setting the rules and limiting time off during the 24-hour, 7-day a week reelection campaign. He promised to make amends for bruised feelings after the election. Kristi Planck Johnson was among the recipients of the memorandum.

Author's Collection

Charles Colson (here in 1973) served as special counsel to President Nixon from 1969 to 1973. His style was known to be demanding, as seen in the memorandum he sent to the president’s staff setting the rules and limiting time off during the 24-hour, 7-day a week reelection campaign. He promised to make amends for bruised feelings after the election. The author was among the recipients of the memorandum.

Author's Collection

Nixon’s University of Nebraska Speech

Although written by Koch before I arrived on the speechwriting staff, this was one of my favorite Nixon speeches. It was delivered at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln on January 14, 1971.

"There is a story of an old and very wise teacher in early Athens. There was no question the teacher could not answer. There seemed to be nothing in life the old man did not understand. And finally, one of his students hit upon a way to defeat the old man’s wisdom.

"The student determined that he would catch a bird and hold it concealed in his hands. He would ask the old man to guess what he was holding. If the old man guessed it was a bird, then the boy would make him say whether the bird was alive or whether it was dead. And if the teacher guessed that the bird was dead, the boy would open his hands and let the bird go, free and alive. But if the wise man guessed that the bird was alive, then the boy would crush out its life and open his hands to reveal a dead bird.

"And so it progressed, just as the boy had planned, until he asked the wise man: “Is the bird alive or is it dead?” And the old man said, My son, the answer to that question is in your hands.

"In your hands now rests the question of the future of this Nation, of its promise of progress and prosperity, of the dream of democracy and the future of freedom, of whether men can continue to be governed by human wisdom.

"And I believe that these things rest in good hands, and that as we put our hands together, your generation and mine, in the alliance we forge, we can discover a new understanding, a community of wisdom, a capacity for action, with which we can truly renew both the spirit and the promise of this great and good land we share together."1

And I believe that these things rest in good hands, and that as we put our hands together, your generation and mine, in the alliance we forge, we can discover a new understanding, a community of wisdom, a capacity for action, with which we can truly renew both the spirit and the promise of this great and good land we share together. - President Nixon, January 14, 1971

Limousine to the Hill and Other Places

Writing for political giants was one aspect of the position, but there were interesting corollary duties—including the delivery of our writing.

Here comes the fun part! I would call up the transportation office and request a limousine to travel to the Hill. Sometimes I had company and shared the limousine with other staffers. Other times, I rode solo. Occasionally I had several congressional deliveries to make for one visit to the Hill. These took some time: distances between Senate and House office buildings are not short. Some days I wished I had roller skates. The Capitol subway helped out once in a while.

When my contacts and deliveries were completed, I was ready to return to my desk to begin yet further assignments. If I had a short visit, the driver would wait for me. Otherwise, my ride back to the White House was just a phone call away.

One ride was especially memorable. Someone had the idea that President Nixon should be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. I was sent to the Royal Norwegian Embassy to secure the necessary forms. Koch and I proceeded to prepare the necessary documentation, signatures, and so forth. I then hand-delivered the nominating papers, first calling up the transportation office and requesting transportation to the Royal Norwegian Embassy. In great style I descended the steps of the OEOB portico, the limousine pulled up, and away we went. Diplomatically important documents delivered, I returned to the waiting limousine and a smooth ride back to the White House.

The drivers were masters at finding the best routes to our destination. On certain days and specific times of the day, traffic would be seemingly impossible, but not for the White House limousine drivers. They were able to weasel through the tightest spots and arrive more quickly than anyone. When working late at night, or into the early morning hours, White House staffers were offered transportation home. On those occasions, two or three of us would share a ride. The driver would always know the best and most efficient sequence for delivering his tired cargo.

Daily Impressions and Trials

Daily life at the White House was partly a matter of flashing the photo pass and walking through the gate if entering via the driveway between the OEOB and the West Wing of the White House. Security and trust were important words to understand. On any given morning upon arrival to work, tight security was necessary to enter the building on Pennsylvania Avenue—first taking a few steps down, a short walk, then many steps up to the landing that gave entry to the main lobby, where you presented your official pass.

After a trek down the hallway to Suite 111, Koch and I spread out our teamwork for the day. We had very lofty windows in the office that overlooked Pennsylvania Avenue. The tall door opening into the suite was a formidable door that was stately in appearance and also quite heavy. The hallways were wide, high ceilings throughout, modern elevators not used often but on occasion to make a trek to the OEOB library. At my desk was a push-button telephone and an electric typewriter. All around on the desk were unfinished speech drafts left from the previous day.

There were times when a certain amount of trust was in order to secure an audience upon arrival or departure of the president. Helicopter visits on the South Lawn were not unusual. One memorable jaunt extended to Andrews Air Force Base to join the welcoming committee when Nixon returned from his journey to China. I had just started working when one evening we were invited to hop on a bus to Andrews AFB. Needless to say, this was an exciting evening to be in the hangar waiting for the president and his entourage. These experiences were a part of the atmosphere while working closely at the center of world power and feeling that sense of closeness to something newsworthy.

There were other memorable speechwriters on the staff: John McLaughlin (a former Jesuit priest now married), Harold J. “Tex” Lezar, and John Andrews—all fulfilling particular avenues of interest and expertise. Koch’s specific tasks were to write on religious subjects (prayers offered during White House Sunday services) and science interests (words on the plaque placed on the moon).

Dave Gergen was a super speechwriter and worked closely with Ray Price, who was the official speechwriter and closest to the president. Gergen and his immediate staff supervised the speechwriting department. He was calm, fair, sensitive to his staff worker’s skills and strengths—as well as weaknesses. He also had the uncanny ability to smile with an even-tempered personality under the most difficult circumstances. It was never easy to keep everyone happy, engaged, and productive.

Being in the middle of this operation, if you will, was not easy, but we were isolated from the real center that surrounded the president. One would think there would be an enormous amount of activity, which there was, but in the form of control and order.

Being in the middle of this operation, if you will, was not easy, but we were isolated from the real center that surrounded the president. One would think there would be an enormous amount of activity, which there was, but in the form of control and order.

Then there was the Watergate Weekend! June 17, 1972. Friday was as usual, not a word in my hearing distance about any unusual activity that weekend. I woke up to the Sunday morning Washington Post as any other law-abiding citizen to read of the break-in. Surprised as ever! Monday morning was not business as usual. Rather, we were all abuzz as to how, why, WHAT? Each compartmentalized area had its own fences around the arena. Of course, the Watergate Weekend did have interest within the OEOB offices but also at the Reelection Committee headquarters. The latter consumed the news as much as the White House activity.

Henry Kissinger was a part of our days also. He was a strong figure who would often be seen standing in his West Wing office looking out the tall window, phone in hand. He would smile and wave to us as we walked between the OEOB and the West Wing. When close by, we could sometimes detect his strong German accent, but there were also times when we heard him speak with very little accent—near native speech. We were curious about his cultivation of that accent.

A drive to Thurmont, Maryland, and the site of Camp David is another vivid memory. The well-maintained main lodge and cabins were the retreat quarters for several presidents. Our speechwriting staff had some days there. Staying in an individual cabin, with the newspaper delivered to the door, was a luxury. There was the bowling alley, extensive dining areas, with large and small tables available, and delicious food prepared by navy staff. The nature trails for hiking and biking, away from the traffic and media bombardments, made for quiet moments to restore one’s mind.

Across the hall from our speechwriting offices was the office of John Dean, White House counsel. His secretary, Cathy Barker Roth, is a good friend of mine, but also loyal to her position. That loyalty was true in all of our social gatherings. We did not discuss office politics. After Roth left Dean’s office, she worked in the East Wing in scheduling and the Office of White House Visitors. It was while working in this special office with First Lady Pat Nixon that she was busy on Easter Monday. Why? A little-known secret is that Roth was the Easter Bunny at the Egg Roll event on the White House lawn. Mrs. Nixon asked her to research the history of the Easter Egg Roll tradition that started during the administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes. Then in 1970 and for a number of years after in Nixon and Ford administrations, Roth had the pleasure of dressing in the special Easter Bunny costume to greet the children coming to the South Lawn of the White House for the Easter Monday Egg Roll.

While on a few days’ break visiting family in Omaha, I was particularly impressed with a campaign speech delivered by Julie Nixon. Curious to discover who had worked with her on the speech, I returned to Washington only to learn that she had written the entire speech herself, and the assignment had never crossed anyone’s desk in the Speechwriting Office.

What about lunch time? I remember one lunch when, returning from a short break with friends, I was greeted by one of the speechwriters. He was on his way to someone else’s desk to quickly place an assignment on a desk before that individual returned from a lunch break. When the second person returned, there was yet another attempt to transfer the assignment to a third person. The problem was that this was an assignment to write a speech for Tricia Nixon. Few wanted to tackle that task because she was rarely satisfied with suggestions. Julie Nixon, on the other hand, was a co-writer—taking ideas and easily weaving them together with her own twist. While on a few days’ break visiting family in Omaha, I was particularly impressed with a campaign speech delivered by Julie Nixon. Curious to discover who had worked with her on the speech, I returned to Washington only to learn that she had written the entire speech herself, and the assignment had never crossed anyone’s desk in the Speechwriting Office.

When looking forward to a dinner engagement or a concert with friends after working all day, I often had to give up my plans because an emergency arose at 5:30 p.m. Perhaps an important draft for the president had to be prepared immediately. Perhaps a letter had to be written on behalf of the president, or a statement drafted based on a breaking news event. Suddenly it was clear that three to four or more hours of work would be essential to complete the assignment.

One day I was told that leaving for a vacation would be unacceptable given the nature of the crisis of the week. Disappointed is hardly the word to describe my feelings that day—furious was more like it. I had planned for months to take a long-standing dream trip to northern Scandinavia—a reindeer safari to be exact. Instead, I remained in the city and continued to crank out speeches and other writing necessary for “the good of the country.”

Of course, work came first and social life second. It was necessary to understand that you were working for an important person, at an important place, and that your part in that picture was extremely important. The speechwriting staff was not large. Each person’s contribution was crucial to the completion of any particular task. Your loyalty to the United States and to the Republican Party was a given. Accepting a position at the White House carried heavy baggage at times. The speechwriting staff was responsible for more than just writing speeches for the president of the United States! As a White House secretary and researcher, I always felt this was more than a job. It was also a chance to interact with people involved in national politics, with opportunity to contribute to the constitutional process of our federal government.


Kennedy Center Adventure

Once there was a rare evening when it looked pretty certain that we would not be working very late. Why not call the office that schedules the presidential box at the Kennedy Center to learn if there were tickets available? The president was out of the country, and evidently no one else had asked for tickets on that particular evening. Yes, there were tickets available. The adventure was about to begin. Entering the special door used for entry to the presidential box at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was awe-inspiring. In fact, there were several doors before the final entry to the special box where the president and his family, or other guests, would normally be seated. Waiting patiently for the opening strains of music, I noticed someone with a pair of binoculars peering at us from one of the upper tiers in the Concert Hall. “Who are these people? They don’t look familiar. Have we seen them before? We don’t see the president. Could there be a cabinet secretary among them?” I am sure there as disappointment as the anonymous guests enjoyed the evening in the ultimate of Kennedy Center seating.

As a White House secretary and researcher, I always felt this was more than a job. It was also a chance to interact with people involved in national politics, with opportunity to contribute to the constitutional process of our federal government.

Nixon Punch on the Porch

And, finally, there was a very personal bonus one day in July 1972. A birthday to remember! Unaware that anyone really knew it was my birthday, I was quite surprised when summoned to a special speechwriter’s office and then quickly escorted to one of the porches of the OEOB overlooking Seventeenth Street. Appropriately named in jest, the “Birthday Cake Building” was soon to be the site for my birthday. I was surrounded by colleagues and friends who had come to join in the celebration. We were high enough up from the street level so that there was some privacy. Yet the gray columns were spaced so that one had a feeling of being out in the open, enjoying the summer breezes.

Soon after we arrived, several carts were wheeled forward exhibiting a spectacular birthday cake and none other than the president’s favorite punch, which at that time was our favorite, too.


President Nixon’s Favorite Punch

1 quart Bacardi Light-Dry Rum

2 quarts Hawaiian Punch

2 small bottles ginger ale

Cherries and orange slices as garnies

Couple shots of Cointreau

No “official” function would be complete without this special beverage. Conversation continued. My colleagues, knowing my love for classical music, managed another surprise—a gift, a recording of Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, recorded in Paris with Mstislav Rostropovich conducting the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra and Chorus. After cake and sips of the “President’s Punch,” it was back to the office for a usual afternoon of wondering whether this would be a late night of research and writing.

I remained on the staff until June 1973, a little more than a year before President Nixon resigned as a result of the Watergate controversy.

This article was originally published in White House History Number 37 Spring 2015

Footnotes & Resources

  1. Richard M. Nixon, Remarks to a Student-Faculty Convocation at the University of Nebraska, January 14, 1971, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard M. Nixon, 1971 (Washington, D.C.: General Services Administration, National Archives and Records Service, Office of the Federal Register), 34–35.

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