As he lay in a hospital bed recovering from pneumonia on July 18, 1973, President Richard M. Nixon made a fateful decision.
“Those tapes are going to defend me,” Nixon told his chief of staff, Alexander Haig, after a restless night pondering how to respond to the bombshell revelation to Congress of a recording system that turned itself on automatically whenever he was in the room.
In the short term, it was a disastrous calculation. Nixon came to bitterly regret his decision after the Supreme Court ordered the release of the “smoking gun tape” linking him to the Watergate coverup.
He resigned as president on Aug. 9, 1974, after his last Republican allies turned against him. But history is full of surprising twists. As the author of a new book about Nixon’s handling of Watergate with the Shakespearean title “King Richard,” I believe that the tapes actually help his long-term reputation.
Thanks to the tapes, we can gain a degree of intimacy with Nixon that will never be possible with any other American president, eavesdropping on him as he faces his greatest crisis.
Even as we recoil at the dirty tricks, racist asides and frequently vulgar diatribes, we also feel the pain of a self-made man who scrambled all the way to the top only to lose it all, largely because of his own mistakes. Above all, we see him not as a political caricature, either loathed or loved, but as a human being in all his contradictions, a man of huge talents and equally enormous flaws.
Following Nixon around the White House as he harangues his aides, rages at people who have crossed him and exchanges loving telephone calls with his daughters, we are forced to step into his shoes and view events through his eyes. We witness his hopes and fears, moments of triumph and trials of torment. The grandeur of his ambitions and suddenness of his fall inspire awe and pity, in the same way we are transfixed by the hubris of Oedipus or the agony of King Lear.
The essence of classical tragedy is that the audience experiences the hero’s suffering and learns lessons from his downfall. It is Nixon’s anguish, along with his doubts and introspection, that make him human and empathetic. The tapes enable us to get beneath the blustery, tough guy veneer and discover the awkward, restless soul from the struggling Californian Quaker family who wanders around the White House with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
“I’m the only one at the present time in this whole, wide, blinking world that can do a goddamn thing,” he moans to his press secretary, Ron Ziegler, at one point. “You know, keep it from blowing up.”
A resilient politician with a reputation for bouncing back from defeat, Nixon went to great lengths to avoid any suggestion of vulnerability. But his sensitive side comes through in these private tapes, particularly as the Watergate scandal starts to unravel, in the weeks and months after his second Inaugural.
As White House aides like John Dean and Jeb Magruder turn on each other, and eventually turn on the president, Nixon finds it impossible to conceal his inner torment.
“Nobody will ever really know what they put a president through on a thing like this,” Nixon confides to Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser at the time, after a particularly stressful day that culminated in his first public address on Watergate and partial acknowledgment of White House involvement.
The tapes reinforce a point made by Kissinger in his memoirs in which he describes the “strange mixture of calculation, deviousness, idealism, tenderness, tawdriness, courage, and daring” that coexisted in Nixon, evoking “a feeling of protectiveness among those closest to him.”
Other aides made fun of Nixon’s klutziness and awkwardness. Known for its cutthroat ruthlessness, the Nixon White House was the gang that couldn’t shoot straight when it came to Watergate.
“Jesus,” laughs Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman in mock exasperation at one point. “We’re so goddamn square we get caught on everything.”
There are numerous examples of Nixon's vicious side on the tapes, some of them unintentionally humorous. One of my favorites, which reflects Nixon's idiosyncratic way with words, records his anger over FBI leaks.
The Germans had the right approach in World War II, he tells his nominee for FBI director. If they went through a town and one of their soldiers was hit by a sniper, “they’d line up the whole goddamn town and say, ‘Until you talk you’re all getting shot.’ I really think that’s what has to be done.”
Along with the hate-filled bile come moments of warmth and tenderness. Some of the most affecting tapes are snippets of conversations with his family, particularly 24-year-old Julie, who sought to jolt her father out of his growing despair by passing on nuggets of “cheery” news.
He took her calls even at the tensest moments of Watergate when he was most distracted. Any father can relate to the way in which Nixon’s voice changes from imperious and irascible to loving and caring whenever his daughter comes on the line and the pride with which he relays her comments to subordinates like Haldeman or Kissinger.
The drama reaches its peak at the end of April 1973, a few months after Nixon’s smashing reelection victory, when he is forced to part with his two closest aides. Unlike Donald Trump — the president to whom Nixon is most often compared — Nixon shied away from confrontation and hated to personally fire anyone.
You can hear him numbing his pain with shots of whiskey, accompanied by the tinkling of ice cubes in his glass, as he takes a farewell call from faithful Haldeman. It is a moment as devastating to him as the loss of his beloved older brother, Harold, from tuberculosis while he was still a young man.
“God bless you, boy,” he blurts out. “I love you, as you know.” There is an agonized pause. “Like my brother.”
It is difficult to imagine Trump saying those words as he cycled through four chiefs of staff in four years, just as it is hard to envisage Trump suffering the way Nixon did as his presidency fell apart.
But then we don’t have nearly 4,000 hours of Trump’s private conversations. What we do have are nearly 57,000 boastful tweets, which, alas for future Trump biographers, are not the same thing at all.
Michael Dobbs is a former Washington Post reporter and author of “King Richard: Nixon and Watergate-An American Tragedy,” being published Tuesday.
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