In the final years of his life, long after his presidency ended in disgrace and on the brink of impeachment, Richard M. Nixon amazed former allies and enemies with the success he had rehabilitating his reputation.
A series of well-received memoirs, foreign policy pronouncements and carefully scripted appearances did much to confer on the former president the status of elder statesman, putting the dark pall of the Watergate scandal ever further behind him.
But today, on the 25th anniversary of the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, Nixon remains bedeviled by his own words, captured on more than 200 hours of White House tapes made public recently after years of litigation.
Former senator George S. McGovern (D-S.D.) sought to make peace with his old political opponent, beginning with a visit in 1984 to help celebrate Nixons 71st birthday. But disclosures in the Nixon tapes have since caused him to regret the effort. “I went to see him to heal the wounds,” McGovern said in an interview. “[But] I wonder from these tapes why I ever bothered to reconcile with him. Its hard to keep him on a pedestal with all these tapes speaking from the grave.”
The newly available tapes, all 201 hours of them, deal exclusively, as the law requiring their preservation puts it, with “abuses of governmental power popularly identified under the generic term, Watergate.” Other portions, far more lengthy, are to be made public in the next few years, perhaps demonstrating Nixons brilliance in foreign policy and his grasp of domestic issues. The “abuse of governmental power segments,” as they are labeled at the National Archives, show the old Nixon, but at the same time a much fuller, understandable and compelling Nixon.
It is this Nixon history will remember.
“These 201 hours are a story, not isolated sound bites,” says University of Wisconsin historian Stanley Kutler, whose lawsuit forced the public disclosure of the tapes. “A far richer and more interesting portrait of Nixon emerges from these tapes. Its not one that excuses or exonerates him in any way. But this is a real, live human being, not a cardboard figure.”
On the tapes, Nixon is profane, demanding, delighted, sad, insightful, angry, exultant, calculating and bitter. Some people, familiar with the scattered recordings obtained by Watergate prosecutors in the 1970s, have suggested that it is his paranoia that stands out, but there is much more than that. Richard Nixon had very real enemies and he knew it. They were out to get him, and he was out to get them, from carping newspaper reporters and television correspondents to liberal think tanks and “big Jewish . . . [expletive deleted]” who bankrolled Democratic candidates.
If there is one guiding principle about Nixon that stands out on these tapes, it is this: Do unto others what you think they have done unto you.
Take, for example, a phone conversation Nixon had with his top hatchet man, White House special counsel Charles W. Colson, on the night of May 15, 1972. A few hours earlier, Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, then the top vote-getter among Democratic presidential candidates, had been shot at a rally in Maryland by an addled, would-be assassin named Arthur Bremer.
“Is he [Bremer] a left-winger or a right-winger?” Nixon asked.
“Well, hes going to be a left-winger by the time we get through, I think,” Colson replied.
“Good,” Nixon said, chuckling. “Keep at that. Keep at that.”
Colsons lieutenant, soon-to-be Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt, told the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973 that he was told to get into Bremers Milwaukee apartment simply to find out “what kind of a kook this guy is,” but the idea really was to salt the place with McGovern for president literature. With the FBI on the verge of obtaining a search warrant, Colson was worried only that it might be a bit too late.
“I just wish that, God, that Id thought sooner about planting a little literature out there,” Colson said.
“Hah!” Nixon says, then breaks into a hearty laugh. “Ha-ha-ha.” Tying the Wallace shooting to left-wing antiwar liberalism clearly appealed to the president.
In the end, Colson canceled the operation. The FBI had the apartment sealed. But the next morning, at a meeting with Colson and top aides H.R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, Nixon was still urging a White House-inspired media campaign about Bremer, with tidbits to be obtained from FBI Director L. Patrick Gray.
“You got Pat Gray, he will be an accomplice,” Nixon says in confident tones. “Use him. And use Colsons outfityou know, to sneak out things. I mean, you do anything. I mean, anything!”
The tapes show how Nixon managed time and again to delude himself, to imagine that victory was within his grasp when it clearly wasnt. For example, he was convinced that President Lyndon B. Johnson had Nixons campaign plane bugged in the closing days of the 1968 presidential race. He also was convinced that if he could get hard evidence of that, he could blunt and perhaps undermine the Senate Watergate hearings before they got started in the spring of 1973.
“The plane was bugged, John, in that whole two-week period by [then-FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover, and Johnson knew every conversation that took place,” Nixon told former Texas governor John B. Connally, then head of Democrats for Nixon, in the fall of 1972. “Johnson had it bugged.”
Weeks later, Nixon told Haldeman that it was Hoover who in 1968 told the president-elect and Attorney General-to-be John N. Mitchell about the bugging.
Desperate to nail the story down, the Nixon White House called former LBJ press secretary George E. Christian and asked him to talk to Johnson about it. In an interview this month, Christian said he was informed that Hoover was the source of the story.
“When I told Johnson about Hoover,” Christian remembered with a laugh, “the only word he said was, Oh. Maybe a pause and then an Oh.” Christian said “there was high suspicion [in 1968] that somebody in the Nixon camp was playing footsie with Anna Chennault [a close friend of South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu] and the South Vietnamese, to try to head off the peace talks.” But he said he doubts that Nixons campaign plane would have been bugged.
“Frankly, I think they [U.S. intelligence] had everybody in South Vietnam under surveillance,” Christian said. “They didnt have to bug anybody else.”
Cartha D. (”Deke”) DeLoachthe number three man in Hoovers FBI and liaison with the White House under both presidentssaid “Johnson asked us to put a tail on, and conduct surveillance of Mrs. Chennault and the South Vietnamese Embassy.” He said the FBI did all that, but that there was no bugging of Nixons Secret Service-guarded plane.
Five years later, however, Nixon was convinced that DeLoach, then a vice president of PepsiCo, could give him the ammunition he wanted. Haldeman gave Nixon a disappointing report on Feb. 7, 1973, but Nixon seemed to know the details before Haldeman opened his mouth.
Haldeman: “DeLoach now says”
Nixon: “that they only tapped telephones?”
Haldeman: “Yeah. That his records show that they didnt bug”
Nixon: “But they were told to”
Haldeman: “and refused”
Nixon: [Expletive deleted.]
Haldeman: “to do it to candidates.”
The next day, aboard Air Force One, Nixon said he wanted PepsiCo President Donald Kendall to warn DeLoach he would be fired if a fresh investigation “finds anything you didnt tell us.”
DeLoach says Kendall got the message and assured him he would do nothing of the sort.
The day the Senate hearings began, on May 17, 1973, Nixon was preoccupied with word that the Watergate committee had been provided with a copy of a domestic spying plan Nixon had approved in 1970. Drawn up by Nixon aide Tom Charles Huston, it called for the use of burglaries, illegal wiretaps and illegal mail covers against political dissidents. “I think he was determined that, in his lifetime, these things [the White House tapes] would not see the light of day,” said University of Wisconsin historian Stanley Kutler, whose lawsuit forced the public disclosure of the tapes.
Former White House counsel John Dean had given the plan to U.S. District Judge John J. Sirica, who had jurisdiction over Watergate proceedings, and Sirica had provided it to the committee. Anticipating a leak to the press, Nixon was delighted to hear that the spy work had never been carried out because of objections from Hoover. He expected critics to conclude that the scheme had been carried out, and then he could pounce with a blizzard of affidavits saying that it had not been. The new White House counsel, J. Fred Buzhardt, had been assigned to collect the sworn statements.
“Be ready,” Nixon told Buzhardt enthusiastically. “Lay in the bushes and then whack em.” To press secretary Ronald L. Ziegler, the president said earlier: “If [Senate Watergate Committee Chairman Sam] Ervin [D-N.C.] springs this, the thing to do is hit it out of the ballpark. . . . I think Dean thinks hes got a great big plan that went into effect. And it never did. Boy, what a son of a bitch to put out such a thing like this.”
“Totally self-delusional,” Dean said this month of Nixons reaction. “One reason I took the plan with me was that the Richard Nixon I got a glimpse of and the Richard Nixon the rest of the world had a glimpse of didnt meet. I needed documentary proof.”
A man who thrived on crisis, or thought he did, Nixon harks back on the tapes, again and again, to the first big crisis of his political career: the case of Alger Hiss, a State Department official and accused communist spy whom Nixon had investigated as a freshman congressman in 1948 and who was eventually convicted in 1950 on two counts of perjury. What Nixon seems to forget, again and again, in citing the lessons learned from the Hiss case, was that the shoe was now on the other foot. Hiss had been found guilty of a coverup. Now Nixon was accused of one. Hiss had been the target of a congressional investigation. Now Nixon was. At times, Nixon talks as though he were still a member of Congress doing the investigating.
Little more than a month after the Watergate break-in, for instance, on July 19, 1972, Nixon was told by Ehrlichman that a cover story for Nixon campaign official Jeb Stuart Magruder was not going to work.
“Did he know?” Nixon asked.
“Oh Lord, yes,” Ehrlichman replied. “He was in it with both feet.”
“He cant contrive a story then,” Nixon said. “Ive been through these. . . . The worst thing a guy can dothere are two things, each bad. One is to lie and the other is to cover up. . . . If you cover up, youre going to get caught.”
“Yup,” Ehrlichman agreed.
“And if you lie, youre going to be guilty of perjury,” Nixon continued. “Now basically that was the whole story of the Hiss case. . . . Its a hell of a goddamn thing.”
Having said that, Nixon made clear he did not want Magruder to say too much.
“Well take care of Magruder immediately afterwards,” Nixon said. “In his case, itd be easy as pie. But in the case of all of them [the Watergate break-in defendants], I mean you could just give amnesty to all of them.”
John Dean says Nixons allusions to the Hiss case always baffled him. “We were in the position of Hiss, if you will,” Dean said. “Hed raise it. Id just sit there mum.”
Nixon always believed that crisis somehow improves the man, that only through adversity does one learn his own quality, says former ambassador Charles M. Lichenstein, a former Nixon aide and chief ghostwriter for Nixons first book, “Six Crises.”
“Personally, I think he pushed that [theme] too hard,” Lichenstein said in an interview. “I think he was better off in his last years when he wasnt fighting anybody anymore. The books he did on foreign policy, for instance, were written from a more relaxed posture and they flowed better.”
In a sense, Nixons rehabilitation of himself came too soon, but ironically, he was to blame for that. Congress passed a law in 1974 to make his tapes and other documents dealing with “abuses of governmental power” as well as materials of “general historical significance” public property. The law said the “abuse of power” portions were to be released “at the earliest reasonable date” in order to “provide the public with the full truth” about the scandals that had taken place.
A few tapes had come to light earlier that year under pressure from Watergate prosecutors and the House impeachment inquiry, forcing Nixon to step down before he was impeached. Had the rest come out promptly, Nixons subsequent comeback efforts might have obscured the damaging and sometimes destructive revelations. But Nixon and his lawyers fought disclosure so long and so hard that what might have been dismissed as old news is still new news in 1997.
Nixon, says Sam Dash, former chief counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee, “thought he was above the law.” The tapes bear that out. They show Nixon demanding a break-in at the Brookings Institution, relishing the idea of a chance to “blackmail” Lyndon Johnson, anticipating a cascade of money from International Telephone & Telegraph Co. in return for an antitrust settlement, chortling at the idea of planting a spy or two in the Secret Service detail assigned to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1972.
“We just might get lucky and catch this son of a bitch,” Nixon says of Kennedy. “Ruin him for 76. . . . Its going to be fun.”
The tapes are still not easily fathomed. Under restrictions imposed after years of litigation by Nixon lawyers, copies cannot be made until the year 2000 at the earliest, and no transcripts are available. Some of the recordings are extremely difficult to make out. According to Karl Weissenbach, acting director of the Nixon Presidential Materials Project, it would take, on average, 100 staff hours to produce a 90 percent accurate transcript of one hour of conversation.
Kutler, who is writing a book about the tapes, doubts they would be available even for listening if Nixon were still alive. “I think he was determined that, in his lifetime, these things would not see the light of day,” Kutler said. The settlement of Kutlers lawsuit was not reached until 1996, two years after Nixons death.
“I think its a simple matter,” Kutler said. “He didnt want to confront this. He ran for 20 years as an elder statesman. He didnt want that undermined while he was still around.”
Other litigation continues over compensation to the Nixon estate for public confiscation of his records. A proposed out-of-court settlement would have the government pay $26 million, convert the privately run Nixon library in California into a federal facility and ship all his papers and tapes there. They are now housed at the National Archives annex in College Park under a provision of the 1974 law saying they must be kept in the Washington, D.C., area.
Whatever the still-to-be released tapes show about Nixons accomplishments, “Watergate will be his constant companion,” Kutler said. “History has a way of diminishing details. Most presidents are remembered for just one thing. Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Warren Harding and Teapot Dome. FDR was an exception; with FDR you think of the Depression and World War II. Fifty, 100 years from now, we will always recall that Richard Nixon was the first president to resign because of scandal.”
© 1997 The Washington Post Company