For Subjects of Tapes, the Voice of History
By Karl Vick
Frank Mankiewicz pulls the hearing aids from his ears and lays them on the table face up, the conical fittings spiraling toward the ceiling like conch shells. Reaching for the headphones, he adjusts the fit, then turns the volume on the tape player all the way up, the better to make out the angry words of President Richard M. Nixon as he complains to Chief of Staff Alexander M. Haig Jr.
"All this crap about resignation," Nixon snarls. "They were throwing that out. They're not -- Mankiewicz and Braden and the rest of them -- they're not seriously thinking that I'll resign?"
"He's a revolutionary, Mankiewicz," Haig replies. "Mankiewicz is a known revolutionary."
"Of course," Nixon says. "Isn't that something? The McGovernites. The McGovernites . . . "
Mankiewicz smiles. Twenty-five years after he ran George McGovern's presidential campaign against Nixon, the "known revolutionary" is vice chairman of Hill & Knowlton, one of the lobbying and public relations firms that defines establishment Washington. He goes to work each morning in one of the buildings of the Watergate complex -- although not the same building in which henchmen from Nixon's reelection committee were discovered crowded with their burglary tools under a desk in Democratic National Committee offices, one-quarter century ago today.
If, in the intervening years, the Watergate itself has faded as a symbol and become once again more of an address, the same is seldom said of the other great revelation of the Nixon presidency: the tapes. Richard Nixon on tape is still a potent thing.
Especially when he's talking about you.
"I mean, it's amazing," Mankiewicz said, upon actually hearing his name bandied in the Oval Office two decades after the fact. He is 73. "It's not like the transcripts.
"I get the sense from their tone of voice that they had enormous things hidden that were yet to come. And maybe still are."
A man named Dick Tuck was even more on Nixon's mind. Tuck, also a Kennedy loyalist and Democratic regular who is now 73, never rose above the middle ranks in a national campaign. He might not have earned even a footnote in political history had the president and his staff not boiled up a strategy to lay a sizable portion of their scandal at his feet.
Tuck was a prankster. His practical jokes were so widely admired that, when the investigation into the Watergate break-in uncovered the "dirty tricks" squad of Donald Segretti's, Tuck was trotted out as the excuse. Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman led a parade of White House aides who publicly tried to explain away Segretti's sabotage as "an attempt to get a Dick Tuck capability."
It never took. Even Nixon, behind closed doors, said Segretti's efforts -- including a letter on the stationery of presidential candidate Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine) denigrating blacks -- weren't comparable to Tuck's pranks.
"Shows what a master Dick Tuck is," the president said in a conversation taped March 13, 1973. "Segretti's hasn't been a bit similar."
"Nixon was an admirer," his old tormentor admits. "He had kind of a love-hate relationship, with his paranoia."
It was at the invitation of The Washington Post that Mankiewicz and Tuck journeyed separately this spring to suburban College Park, where the National Archives maintains the public Nixon tapes on a couple of trays of white cassettes. Each visitor registered as a researcher (where the form asked for "title," Tuck, whose business card reads "Live Bait & Literary Agent," typed "Professor"), rode the elevator to the fourth floor and took a seat at the tables where, on a given day, perhaps three or four people are absorbed in the scandal that transfixed a nation for months on end.
"You're Frank Mankiewicz!" cries a lumbering fellow researcher, a man with hair long and thin and gray. Mankiewicz shakes the offered hand and moves to the counter. He wants the recording that captured Nixon at his very worst, a tape made after presidential candidate George Wallace was shot and left paralyzed in the parking lot of a Laurel shopping center. In the White House, the news was greeted with excited plotting on how to gain access to the assassin's home to plant McGovern campaign literature.
"Kick the ass of the agencies," Nixon tells his staff. " . . . I mean you do anything. I mean, anything!"
Mankiewicz listens to the tape twice. It would be hard to give the final sentence a more melodramatic reading than Nixon does.
"He's got that evil sound to him," Mankiewicz says. "It's like the Wizard of Oz."
Tone of voice isn't everything on the Nixon tapes -- he was driven from office by transcripts -- but it provides a sense of context that not even those who lived through the episodes can in some cases provide. Mankiewicz says he has no memory, for instance, of what McGovern said over the previous weekend that provided so much gristle for Nixon and aide John D. Ehrlichman on the afternoon of April 3, 1972.
Nixon sounds incredulous. "What in the name of God would McGovern, who's got a brilliant staff that's all Kennedy people -- "
"Mankiewicz," Ehrlichman puts in, by way of agreement.
Grinning at the compliment, Mankiewicz can only shrug at the rest. "Apparently they thought this was a serious misstatement of McGovern's. I don't remember it."
Nor does he recall a dinner party that the White House was chewing on for days. It took place after the election, in July 1973, when hearings on Watergate were coming to a boil. Henry Kissinger, then Nixon's national security adviser, attended and apparently later passed along to Haig what the White House regarded as prime intelligence on Democratic strategy.
"Henry last night was with these bastards Mankiewicz and Braden and Symington," Haig begins, referring to Mankiewicz's friend Tom Braden and Sen. Stuart Symington (D-Mo.) " . . . And he says that his impression of what they're up to is that they want this to peak off very late, as late as they can have it peak off. But they have one intention, and that's to get the president."
"Think they can do it?" Nixon says.
"No, no," Haig replies. "Not at all."
"Do they think so?"
"Oh yeah. They think so," Haig says. "They do have an attrition strategy."
Nixon chewed on those morsels all day, revisiting the topic with Haig, who this time refers to Mankiewicz as a "known revolutionary" (Under the headphones, Mankiewicz cries, "I thought I was brilliant!"). Nixon also took the subject up with Ron Ziegler but urged the press secretary to steer reporters off it. "Our reaction," Nixon advised, "must not be to wallow in this thing."
Mankiewicz repeats the phrase aloud. "It's apparently a word he uses in private conversation," he says. "I don't think it's a word any other American has used in any other context."
He has only a general idea of the dinner party, he says. "Nixon, I'm sure, was interested in these delectable little bits of gossip about the Georgetown crowd." Never mind, he says, that the party was in Chevy Chase.
Or that, in retrospect, the valued intelligence sounds a lot like common sense: The Democrats wanted the greatest Republican damage as close as possible to the next election. And in fact, Nixon held on until August 1974, resigning just three months before the midterm elections that gave congressional Democrats their huge "Watergate class."
In the interim, Nixon spent a fair amount of time stewing about perceived persecution.
"Dick Tuck did that to me," he tells Haldeman in October 1972, while discussing the Segretti disclosures. "Let's get out what Dick Tuck did!" What the president goes on to describe, however, are episodes of egged limos and staged violence that were traced to the Republicans themselves.
Listening, Tuck looks peeved. "He's saying the riot in San Jose was my doing," he says. "It was his doing."
Yet Nixon was hardly the first person to confuse the Dick Tuck record with the Dick Tuck legend. In his wallet, Tuck carries a Trivial Pursuit card that lists him as an answer. The question: "What Democratic prankster waved the train out of the station while Richard Nixon spoke from the caboose?"
The story has been repeated so often, Tuck long ago stopped correcting it. (For the record, he says, he did borrow a conductor's hat and wave to the engineer, but the train stayed put.) It is, however, true that the morning after the first televised presidential debate, as pundits were trying to decide whether Nixon or John F. Kennedy had won, Tuck enlisted an elderly woman to put on a Nixon button, embrace the candidate in front of cameras and proclaim, "Don't worry, son! He beat you last night, but you'll get him next time."
"He used to send out big press releases, you know, off of the plane," Nixon is telling Treasury Secretary John B. Connally on Oct. 17, 1972, his voice growing rich with appreciation as he harks to 1964. "And also in the last month of the campaign, every one of Goldwater's speeches was in the Johnson committee's hands before the poor son of a bitch put it out himself! They had a secretary, you see."
Tuck shakes his head, says he didn't do that, either. His pranks against GOP candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater (Ariz.) were so lighthearted that newspapers dubbed him the "Democratic pixie of the 1964 race."
"Basically," Nixon concludes in another conversation, "that's legitimate stuff, if you don't forge something."
Tuck beams. "Yeah," he says, "anonymous letters are fine as long as you don't forge anything!"
Back home in Parachute, Colo., Tuck has resumed work on the memoir put aside two years ago when his wife died. He has reflected before on the differences between dirty tricks and what he did on Nixon's 1960 campaign plane with a personal press pass and an oversize tape recorder. "It was a simpler world then," he once wrote, "and nobody suspected a guy carrying a bowling bag."
Still, it's enlightening, Tuck says, to hear the president and his men struggle under the weight of their own leaden efforts. On the Oct. 17 tape, Nixon calls Segretti "a little bit on the stupid side" and his efforts "half-assed." Haldeman dubs them "a very immature kind of operation, obviously."
But when Connally mentions one caper -- apparently a stack of pizzas a saboteur ordered for a Democrat's campaign -- the mood momentarily brightens.
"It sounds like a Dick Tuck operation," Connally says. "They thought at that time it was too clever for us to have done."
Nixon: "That's right."
Connally: "And also too smart."
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