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Raymond K. Price Jr., key Nixon speechwriter, dies at 88

Raymond K. Price Jr. was a voice of moderate Republicanism in the Nixon White House.
Raymond K. Price Jr. was a voice of moderate Republicanism in the Nixon White House.(Mike Lien/New York Times/File 1973)

NEW YORK — Raymond K. Price Jr., a cerebral, pipe-smoking speechwriter for President Richard M. Nixon who helped write the first and last words of his presidency, his inaugural addresses and his resignation speech, died Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 88.

His former lawyer, Zenon B. Masnyj, said Mr. Price had had a stroke and died at Lenox Hill Hospital. He lived in lower Manhattan.

Mr. Price was the editorial page editor of the New York Herald Tribune when it closed in 1966, and when he joined Nixon’s nascent second presidential campaign the next year, he brought with him the sort of moderate Republicanism that had characterized that newspaper’s opinion pages.

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His loyalty to Nixon was never-bending, even though he later admitted that he had been “deceived” by the president on aspects of the Watergate cover-up at the time it happened.

A book by Mr. Price, “With Nixon” (1977), is considered one of the strongest attempts to defend the president in the Watergate affair, the break-in at the offices of the Democratic opposition by a White House team of burglars and the administration’s attempts to cover up the crime.

He argued that Watergate had been a political trick concocted by Democrats, that Nixon had not been guilty of any crimes and that even if he had been, his accomplishments had outweighed any missteps.

Nixon wrote in his own memoirs that he had hired Mr. Price not just as a speechwriter but as “my principal idea man.” Mr. Price provided intellectual leadership in particular on matters concerning civil rights and improving business opportunities for black people.

As a speechwriter, Mr. Price provided Nixon with a stream of vivid yet moderate speeches, as well as touches of eloquence. “What America needs most today is what it once had, but has lost: the lift of a driving dream,” he wrote in a Nixon campaign speech delivered in New Hampshire in 1968.

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In an interview for this obituary in 2007, Leonard Garment, Nixon’s special counsel, said Mr. Price had “understood what the essential Nixon was all about.”

“He brought a voice that was in a sense his own, translated into the president’s voice,” Garment said. He described this voice as “an admixture of the prudential kind of Republicanism and the personal bite that Nixon had.” (Garment died in 2013.)

Nixon’s faith in Mr. Price was demonstrated after the president had asked for the resignation of his aides H.R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman in April 1973 and was preparing to address the nation about it.

By Nixon’s account, in instructing Mr. Price on how to prepare the speech, he told him: “Ray, you are the most honest, cool, objective man I know. If you feel that I should resign, I am ready to do so. You won’t have to tell me. You should just put it in the next draft.”

Mr. Price said in an interview with The New York Times in 1977 that he had persuaded Nixon not to resign in 1973 by arguing that Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, who would have become president had Nixon stepped down, was incapable of carrying on Nixon’s diplomacy. (Agnew resigned in October of that year, caught up in a corruption scandal.)

When Mr. Price, in August 1974, was actually writing Nixon’s resignation speech — after the House Judiciary Committee had approved three articles of impeachment and a tape recording had proved that Nixon had ordered a cover-up — the president stopped him. He told him to write a new speech saying he would fight until the constitutional process of impeachment had played out.

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Nixon shifted course as congressional support evaporated. The president never saw the second speech — the “fight on” one — according to Mr. Price. After conferences with Mr. Price through the preceding night and morning, Nixon delivered his resignation speech Aug. 8, 1974. As Nixon had requested, it contained “no groveling.”

Raymond Kissam Price Jr. was born May 6, 1930, in Brooklyn to Raymond and Beth (Porter) Price and moved with his family several times within New York City. His father was a stockbroker. The family moved to Morris Plains, N.J., when Mr. Price was a young boy. At 7, he started a newspaper called The Weekly Hornet, printing it on a decrepit hectograph machine and recruiting his friends to deliver it. The next year, the family moved to Setauket, on Long Island, where The Hornet appeared briefly before ceasing publication. Its peak circulation was 80.

Mr. Price was so interested in Republican politics that he wangled a seat with the Michigan delegation to the party’s 1948 national convention in Philadelphia to show support for the presidential candidacy of Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan.

Mr. Price went to Yale, where, as a member of the Yale Political Union, a debate society, he was president of its Conservative Party. He also helped revive a 19th-century Yale political discussion club, the Calliopean Society. The club came to be viewed as part of an intellectual conservative movement of resistance to what its members saw as a conformist liberal consensus at Yale.

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As a student, Mr. Price worked on the unsuccessful senatorial campaign of Prescott S. Bush in Connecticut in 1950. (Bush, the father of President George H.W. Bush and grandfather of President George W. Bush, won a Senate seat from that state two years later.)

Mr. Price also helped William F. Buckley Jr. research his first book, “God and Man at Yale” (1951), regarded as a catalyst of the modern conservative movement. He graduated in 1951.

Mr. Price served in the Navy during the Korean War. He joined the Herald Tribune in 1957 as assistant to the chief editorial writer. He worked as editorial writer, acting Sunday editor and assistant to John Hay Whitney, the owner, publisher and editor-in-chief, and was appointed editorial page editor in 1964.

That year, breaking with the Herald Tribune’s long history of endorsing Republicans, Mr. Price wrote an editorial supporting the election of President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, over conservative Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Mr. Price argued that Goldwater had made scant effort to appeal to moderate Republicans and independents.

When the Herald Tribune closed, Mr. Price turned down several attractive job offers to work on what turned out to be a never-finished novel. He wrote speeches for Illinois Republican Charles H. Percy in his successful campaign for the Senate in 1966.

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On Washington’s Birthday in 1967, Nixon surprised Mr. Price by offering him a job with his presidential campaign.

William Safire, who was a Nixon speechwriter and would become a columnist for The New York Times, said in an interview for this obituary that Mr. Price’s hiring in 1967 “raised a lot of eyebrows” among conservative Nixon backers. Not only had he endorsed Johnson, he had also voted for him. (Safire died in 2009.) Mr. Price wrote most of the set speeches for the 1968 campaign, although Safire said Nixon almost always edited his speeches and drew on the different perspectives of his speechwriters. Mr. Price, for example, would sometimes be asked to take a look at a speech written by Patrick J. Buchanan, a conservative, and make it more moderate. Conversely, Safire said, Buchanan might be asked to “punch up” a draft by Mr. Price.

Mr. Price became chief of Nixon’s speechwriting team in December 1970, succeeding James Keogh, a former Time magazine editor.

After Nixon’s resignation, effective Aug. 9, 1974, Mr. Price briefly remained on the job. In an interview for this obituary in 2007, he denied published reports that he had drafted a statement for Ford to read in pardoning Nixon but that the statement had not been used. (Ford did pardon Nixon, delivering a televised statement from the Oval Office in early September.) A week after Nixon left Washington for his home in San Clemente, Calif., he asked Mr. Price to visit him. Nixon asked him to be his principal collaborator on his memoirs, but Mr. Price said he was too “exhausted” to accept. He nonetheless helped on the memoirs and, more substantially, on four subsequent books by Nixon.

Mr. Price was later an assistant to William S. Paley, chairman of CBS at the time; worked as a public policy consultant; and served on presidential commissions on Central America and international economics. For 19 years he was president of the Economic Club of New York, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of business leaders.

Mr. Price returned to presidential speechwriting in 1992 for one conspicuous occasion: President George H.W. Bush’s acceptance of the Republican nomination for another term.

Mr. Price is survived by his sister, Beth Brown. Mr. Price’s persuasive skills as a speechwriter were evident during the 1968 campaign, when Nixon took digs at his Democratic opponent, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. Mr. Price’s words killed with kindness.

“Vice President Humphrey is a man I respect,” he wrote. “He is a man of honor and a man of his convictions. And he honestly believes in the old ways. I believe in a new way.”