LET NIXON be Nixon.
As if there were any choice.
For 90 minutes over the next two weeks, CBS News will bring Richard M. Nixon back to American television, where he was born about three decades ago. It's yet another chapter of Nixon Against the World and The World Against Nixon, and at least the two-thirds of it made available for preview are what might be described as fabulously fascinating TV.
Three 30-minute Nixon segments will be shown--the first on "60 Minutes" Sunday night at 7; the second on "American Parade" Tuesday night at 8; the third on "60 Minutes" on Sunday, April 15. The interviews, conducted by longtime Nixon associate Frank Gannon, may not have devastating revelations in terms of content, but they show a Nixon more relaxed, more direct, a little less guarded and considerably more what-the-heck than in previous TV interviews.
Included in Nixon's reminiscence about the aftermath of Watergate and his decision to resign the presidency in 1974 is an anecdote about a telephone call he made to Gov. George Wallace, hoping to talk Wallace into interceding on his behalf with Rep. Walter Flowers, who sat on the House Judiciary Committee. Nixon recalls being turned down by Wallace and says, "The call had taken only 6 1/2 minutes. But as I hung up the phone, I knew it was all over. I turned to Al Haig. I said, 'Well, there goes the presidency.' "
Nixon admits that he and aides discussed "ways the Watergate burglars might be silenced" earlier in the crisis, that "blackmail" was considered as one alternative, and that "We even considered giving clemency to those that had done it, so that they wouldn't talk about those higher up. We didn't do it. But we considered it."
Nixon has always given us a good time on television and this latest romp is no exception.
He talks about:
* Watergate. "Watergate was illegal, and . . . it was wrong and . . . it was a very, very stupid thing to do."
* The Cover-up. "Whatever the stupidity of Watergate . . . [it] was exceeded by our reaction to it. It was stupidity at its very highest."
* The Tapes. "I should have destroyed them . . . They should have been destroyed . . . There were several reasons that they weren't burned. First, when the taping system was disclosed, it was the wrong time. I was in the hospital with pneumonia, and I just couldn't make a tough decision like that. Second, I had bad advice, bad advice, from well-intentioned lawyers who had . . . the cockeyed notion that I would be destroying evidence."
* His initial reluctance to resign from office. "I thought it would be an admission of guilt, which of course it was."
* His obsessions with secrecy. "I was paranoiac, or almost a basket case with regard to secrecy, and Henry Kissinger as well, because, believe me, if you think I was tough on these leaks, he was even tougher at times . . ."
* His last day in the White House. "I . . . heard the chanting outside. Reminded me of the Vietnam days. Except that this time the chant was, 'Jail to the chief, jail to the chief.' Didn't bother me, however . . . After all, I'd been heckled by experts."
Purchase of the 90 minutes of Nixon interviews, culled from 38 hours recorded by Gannon, for a reported $500,000 (an undisclosed amount of which goes to Nixon), has precipitated something of a hullabaloo (mainly in newspapers) about "checkbook journalism." Former CBS News president Van Gordon Sauter, now a CBS executive vice president, said earlier this week from New York, "That's just ludicrous, the people who cry 'checkbook journalism.' What we have is a video memoir and a video memoir of value. This is no different from Time magazine excerpting a book by Alexander Haig or The New York Times purchasing a book by Nixon. It's the acquisition of a legitimate memoir."
That Gannon is a former Nixon aide also caused some grumblings. But Gannon does not appear soft in his questioning. Don Hewitt, executive producer of "60 Minutes," says, "Gannon is no patsy." He asks Nixon if he had a "loveless marriage" and about his wife's reputation as "Plastic Pat." He says, "If there is one most common denominator of the American establishment, my guess is that it is dislike of Richard Nixon." And he asks Nixon why, after Watergate, he never simply told the nation, "I'm sorry."
Nixon's reply to that one: "There's no way that you could apologize . . . which would exceed resigning the presidency of the United States. That said it all. And I don't intend to say any more."
On the eve of resigning, Nixon says, he had an emotional meeting with his daughter Tricia. "She came over to me, put her arms around me, kissed me on the forehead, and, tears coming into her eyes, . . . said, 'You're the most decent man I've ever known,' and I said, 'Well, I just hope I haven't let you down.' But I knew I had."
Nixon's circuitous situational logic is in evidence as in the past, especially in an if-we-hadn't-but-we-did answer he gives Gannon about bugging the Democratic headquarters, the act that led to the Watergate break-in and to his downfall. Nixon concedes he was remiss--but mainly in not keeping a closer eye on his own campaign. "That was a mistake. I should have watched it. If I had been watching it, believe me, we wouldn't have ever bugged that. But if we had done it, it would have been more successful. But we would never have done it."
As for the "Plastic Pat" rap, Nixon blames that on the press. "She was called 'Plastic Pat' because she was my wife. If she had been the wife of a liberal--my God, they would have canonized her."
He reveals more of his Quaker nature and offers Nixon-analyzers still more to munch on in discussing his wife and their marriage.
"She doesn't believe in . . . public demonstrations of affection and that sort of thing. We never held hands in public. She isn't a public kisser. I'm not either, for that matter," Nixon says. "Look," he adds, scowling, "when I hear people slobbering around publicly--'I love her' and all that sort of stuff--that raises a question in my mind as to how much of it is real . . . We just don't go for those public declarations of, of love."
Nixon is still Nixon. Still tilting at his favorite windmill, The Media.
"My fights with the media, of course, are legendary," Nixon tells Gannon. Earlier, he says, "One of the reasons that I think most of our media friends--quote, unquote--rather miss me is that they just can't resist psychoanalyzing because they think I'm a very complex, and therefore interesting, person."
Nixon says he blames Washington Post Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and their book, "The Final Days," for his wife's stroke and says, "Certainly, as far as I'm concerned, I have nothing but contempt for them." Again and again he returns to the subject of the press. He blames the press for exploiting the instability of Martha Mitchell ("I've never forgiven them for it") and in an "I Gave Them a Sword" mood says of Watergate, "They had the big guns, but we passed them the ammunition. And they proceeded to shoot it right back at us. Now . . . I've talked to people in the media--you know, we do talk on occasion--and they say, 'But it's the responsibility of the media to look at government generally, and particularly at the president, with a microscope.'
"I don't mind a microscope, but--oh, boy--when they use a proctoscope, that's going too far."
This Nixon sounds more like the Nixon on the Oval Office tapes than Nixon usually has in interviews. The first "60 Minutes" portion will include two expletives, which Hewitt says will not be deleted. Going way back to 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower hesitated about keeping Nixon on the ticket as vice president after the "Checkers" speech, Nixon recalls, "I said, well, General . . . the problem here is the indecision . . . And then I sort of blew my top a bit and I said, 'You know, there comes a time when you either have to s--- or get off the pot.' "
He also quotes Henry Kissinger as having said, during negotiations with the North Vietnamese to end the war there, "They're just s---s, the North Vietnamese; they're just tawdry s---s. When it comes to negotiating, they make the Russians look good."
Nixon says that once while in Russia, Kissinger, in a room with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, made a joking reference to the fact he knew he was being observed by a TV camera hidden in a chandelier. "He and Gromyko were talking, and Gromyko, when he saw this piece of paper that they were discussing, that Henry had brought along, he said he'd like to have copies. And so Henry took the piece of paper and held it up to the chandelier Nixon gestures as if holding up the paper and said, 'Six copies, please.' "
He also notes that Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev, "a ladies' man" who was once accompanied at Camp David by "a very handsome, full-bosomed Russian girl," offended Mrs. Nixon during a visit to the Soviet Union. "He made one crack, at an airport, I recall, when we went down the line and there were . . . several pretty girls who were there with flowers and so forth welcoming us . . . He turned to me with a little wink, and he said, 'Would you want to take one of these with you?' And Mrs. Nixon didn't appreciate that, and I understand it well."
Nixon looks relaxed in these interviews and is by turns exasperating, amusing, flabbergasting and flamboyantly melodramatic. The Nixon interviews are sure-fire; Nixon haters will love them and Nixon lovers will love them. That takes in just about everybody. Says Hewitt: "When you mention Richard Nixon, it's like driving a locomotive through the room. Nobody doesn't have a reaction."
The last words on the second segment of the interviews are Nixon's, summoning up his feelings as a helicopter took him and his wife away from the White House for the last time. "I closed my eyes. I was pretty tired, then. Been up all night, thinking. So forth. And as the helicopter began to rise, I heard Mrs. Nixon, who was sitting in the seat next to us, speaking to no one in particular but to everyone, and she said, 'It's so sad. It's so sad.' " graphics/photo: Former president Richard M. Nixon being interviewed by Frank Gannon