Someday, perhaps, we really won’t have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore. But for now, he’s still very much alive on obscenity-laced tapes at the National Archives and Records Administration, which yesterday released 240 more hours of the 37th president bugging himself.
You might think we had learned everything the celebrated Nixon White House tapes can teach us in the nearly 30 years since their chief conversationalist resigned in disgrace from the White House, or in the nine years since he died. But as NARA archivists in College Park work their way through the aural record of perhaps the 20th century’s most tumultuous administration, each release of tapes renews Nixon’s spectral hold on us as we hear him plod his pathways of paranoia and deceit.
The latest conversations were recorded on microphones in the White House, the Executive Office Building and Camp David from July through October 1972 as the viral contagion from the June burglary of Democratic campaign offices in the Watergate Hotel began gnawing in earnest at his administration.
Perhaps the most entertaining tapes are those from mid-October in the days immediately after Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein published their first truly far-reaching story, tying the Watergate break-in to a program of political espionage, sabotage and surveillance that would ultimately lead to the White House.
“What is the circulation on this really shocking goddamn story on [presidential appointment secretary Dwight] Chapin this morning?” the president asks H.R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, on Oct. 15. Woodward and Bernstein had discovered that a young Californian named Donald Segretti, recruited for the Nixon reelection campaign by Chapin, had been roaming the country sabotaging the campaigns of various presidential candidates.
Haldeman explains that Chapin had known Segretti in college. “Christ, that’s where the problem is. Those kids talk too much,” Nixon says. In the 1968 campaign, he recalls bitterly, his carefully groomed presidential image was later undone by Joe McGinnis, author of “The Selling of the President,” whom he also describes, with an obscenity, as a “liberal.”
Nixon doesn’t appear to know about Segretti’s activities, but he is clearly unsettled that Segretti’s pay has been traced to funds dispersed by Nixon’s personal attorney, Herbert Kalmbach. “I think you better get pretty quickly the story ready on Kalmbach. As to the funds he was using.” It was never any secret, Nixon says, that Kalmbach was raising money for the Nixon reelection committee, and “we have to separate Watergate” and the Segretti business from the presidency itself.
Well, there’s a bit of a problem, Haldeman says. G. Gordon Liddy, one of the Watergate burglars, heard that someone was running around doing sabotage, “and you know Liddy’s pretty vicious. . . . He said, ‘My people are going to kill him.’ . . . The guy was in serious jeopardy.”
The solution, Haldeman said, was that Liddy was informed that Segretti was one of the Nixon campaign’s own saboteurs, and thereafter Segretti and Liddy worked together on several operations.
“It all leads to Liddy,” Haldeman says. “That’s what worries us. There are all these strings out there and one leads to another.”
“We’ll just have to brazen it out,” Nixon says. “I wish it were otherwise. . . . You’ve got to find a way to stop the Kalmbach thing, and the way to do it is to tie Kalmbach to the election committee. You see my point, don’t you? Kalmbach must be tied totally to the election committee . . . not as the president’s lawyer. . . . The main thing they’re trying to do is to tie this to me personally; indicate I was not telling the truth. About the White House. Nobody in the White House knew about it, right?”
Haldeman: “Watergate? No. Except in the sense that Howard Hunt [another White House aide] worked on both. And he was in contact with Segretti.”
In addition, Haldeman says, there were “intelligence inputs” received by the White House that may have included information gleaned from the hidden microphone Nixonians had planted in the Democrats’ Watergate office. That microphone had malfunctioned. The Watergate burglars were arrested when they broke in to replace it.
Haldeman points out that he receives daily briefings from agents planted within the Democrats’ presidential and vice presidential campaigns.
Nixon ponders this and eventually decides, as he was wont to do, that the real problem is the press. “Sue the bastards!” he says, pounding his desk audibly. “Forget the Democrats, sue the media! Sue The Post.”
He and Haldeman conjure a scenario where Segretti sues The Washington Post for libel. “He couldn’t win it, of course, and he could drop the suit right after the election, but it would create doubt in the public mind.” Haldeman suggests they could serve Post executives with a subpoena during the public dedication of the Post’s new building downtown, scheduled for that week. They enjoy the idea but don’t appear to take it very seriously.
“The goddamn press can do anything it wants,” Nixon says bitterly. “It’s the damn Eastern Establishment. They can’t help what’s happening” with the prospect of his reelection.
Even as they are discussing spies, sabotage and payoffs by the president’s personal lawyer, Nixon and Haldeman sound indignant at The Post’s articles, which Nixon describes as “hearsay, guilt by association, character assassination and smear . . . the most scurrilous personal attacks on a president in history.”
Nixon had Haldeman, assistant for domestic affairs John Ehrlichman and press secretary Ron Ziegler go over statements designed to portray him as too busy with the great issues of the day to even consider something as trivial as Watergate. But the tapes show him repeatedly interrupting talk about the Vietnam War, the European economy and other global issues to drag his staff back to Watergate, even though the scandal was just beginning to make waves.
Yet not all of the talk on the tapes is of such serious matters. Nixon also found time to discuss daughter Tricia’s complaints about Secret Service involvement in her personal life, not to mention his own office visits from soul music icons James Brown and Ray Charles. The audio quality of those last tapes was such that Nixon’s reflections on funky music could not be ascertained. A better-quality recording, however, brought forth a presidential discussion of sex.
The occasion was Haldeman’s wondering report of a Washingtonian magazine article on sex and power in the District. The story not only cited chapter and verse of sexual peccadilloes in Congress and past administrations, Haldeman exclaims, it also suggested “that you’d be better off getting some broads in here than to going off on weekends to Key Biscayne with Bebe Rebozo,” Nixon’s businessman friend.
The article voices doubt, Haldeman reports, “that there was a single satisfactory sexual relationship in the entire Nixon White House.”
“They’re wrong,” the president replies. “I’ve seen those Secret Service guys out at San Clemente.”