On Thursday, the Nixon Presidential Library released Richard Nixon’s grand jury testimony before the Watergate Special Prosecution Force. Kept classified since 1975, the documents reveal an argumentative and defensive ex-president only 10 months after he resigned from the White House.
For one man, Weil, Gotshal & Manges partner Richard Davis, the released files were more than just a glimpse into Nixon’s psychology. They were a trip down memory lane. Davis’s words are also on the transcripts, as one of the prosecutors on the case, tasked with questioning the former president about those 18 1 / 2 missing minutes on the Nixon tapes.
Davis, who was 29 at the time he questioned Nixon, spoke to me by phone about the release of the testimony. It turns out the ex-president may have been happy to know his thoughts were out in the public.
What did you expect to see in the files?
Some people thought this would answer questions about the Watergate scandal. There were a lot of expectations. What I knew ahead of time was that we didn’t ask any of those questions. We agreed to only ask questions pertaining to an active grand jury investigation. I was curious as anyone else to have my memory refreshed.
What made the biggest impression on you during the testimony?
This has stuck with me through the years. We were really sort of the enemy to him, but he wanted us to know that he was doing really important things. He would wander into extremely sensitive areas of information, such as with U.S. relations with China [classified information has been redacted in the released files]. He defended some of his actions on the grounds that he was doing it to protect his work on the national security front.
In the transcripts, Nixon seems at times like he’s joking around, other times as if he’s pretty angry. How did he come across in person?
He was plainly not over the extraordinary emotionalism of his departure from the White House. He was not past that and he was determined to make it clear that he was no worse than anyone else. When you read a cold transcript it’s difficult to convey emotion. His attempt at humor, for example, when you were there, there was an awkwardness to it.
Was Nixon trying to obfuscate in the testimony?
He was trying to speak for the record. The tapes itself established his guilt. He was just trying to remind everybody that the world he lived in was not just Watergate and related episodes. There were two Richard Nixons. There was the Richard Nixon that did some very positive things. He really wanted to explain why he should not be defined by the events that led to his resignation. He seemed to be saying: “I was not just Watergate. I was important, difficult tough national security issues and I dealt with them well.”
Did his testimony help your investigation?
It helped the investigation in the sense that it closed out areas that we could not have otherwise closed out without asking him. Take the 18 1 / 2 minute gap. Did this solve the mystery of the 18 1 / 2 minute gap? The answer is no. But it was an important part of saying we had done everything we could do. We could close our investigation at that point. I don’t think we were shocked that he didn’t point us to additional criminal activity.
What do you think we miss about the Nixon story?
There’s a tendency to see everything in black and white terms. He’s evil or he’s great. We still don’t focus on the fact that there are people who are bad but still do some good things. Real life is more complicated than we try to portray it.