By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 28, 2007
President Richard Nixon described the Supreme Court's June 1971 Pentagon Papers decision as "unbelievable" and "stinking," and vowed "to change that court," during an unusually frank telephone conversation on July 1, 1971, with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Referring to the six justices who voted 6 to 3 to permit newspapers to continue publication of material from the once-classified history of the Vietnam War, Nixon said: "You know those clowns we got on there. I'll tell you I hope I outlive the bastards."
"I hope you do, too," Hoover responded in the conversation, which was among the thousands of tapes released by the National Archives in 1999. It was recently discovered by the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs, which has been going through the tapes and posting them on its Web site. Slate's Jack Shafer then wrote about the taped Nixon-Hoover conversation.
Nixon said he thought Justice Byron R. "Whizzer" White would vote to keep the papers secret and was dismayed when the justice sided with the majority. "What's the matter with him?" the president asked, to which Hoover responded: "Of course, Whizzer White is of the old Kennedy crowd."
Turning to another justice who voted against the administration, Nixon said, "What in the hell is the matter with [Justice Potter] Stewart?" Hoover's answer: "Stewart is a very wishy-washy individual. He switches from one side to the other."
One reason for the call, the president said, was that he wanted public relations advice from the legendary FBI director on what to say in the wake of the decision.
"Some people think that now that this court has acted that I ought to make a statement about the freedom of the press and that we aren't trying to censor them and so forth," Nixon said. Faced with that advice, he added: "My inclination, whatever it's worth, is not to say so."
"My public relations judgment, Mr. President, is that you should remain absolutely silent about it," said Hoover, adding: "If you enter it now on the grounds of freedom of the press . . . it's the very thing that the enemies of the administration want to do, is to divert the attack upon you."
Hoover also said the press might make a martyr out of Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers first to the New York Times and then to The Washington Post. Hoover added about Ellsberg: "We've got a good, strong case on him."
Nixon interjected: "Well, I'd like to check some of the other people around him. . . . I think there's a conspiracy involved here." About two months later, the White House private investigative group, called the "plumbers" because they were trying to identify the leakers of information, broke into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist. Public disclosure of the burglary helped lead to dismissal of the criminal case against Ellsberg in 1973.
During their July 1971 conversation, Hoover said he had seen Post Publisher Katharine Graham on television the night before and "would have thought she's about, I mean, 85 years old [but] she's only about, I think, something like 57."
That led Nixon to describe her as "a terrible old bag."
The personal attacks would not have surprised Graham. In an old CNN interview, she once said of Nixon and those around him, "They called us the pointy-headed liberal establishment and attacked us in every conceivable way."