Nixon’s tale of the tape

The release of the last of US president Richard Nixon’s secret recordings shows us his efforts to control his legacy — one his own tapes effectively destroyed, writes Sarah Thelen.

Nixon’s tale of the tape

THE excesses of the US National Security Agency (NSA) are nothing compared to the activities of the moral vacuum that constituted Richard Nixon.

Undoubtedly, the NSA’s snooping, as revealed by Edward Snowden, is breathtakingly broad in its scope, directly targeting millions of web users.

But the disgraced former US president, wouldn’t have stopped at merely snooping. During a 1971 meeting, convinced the Brookings Institute (a leading liberal think tank in Washington, DC) had access to government documents, Nixon banged his desk and demanded: ‘I’ve got to have one … I want a son of a bitch … We’re up against an enemy — a conspiracy-crazy enemy. We are going to use any means … Get it done. I want it done! I want the Brookings Institute safe cleaned out.”

Growing out of the Huston Plan (see panel) as compiled by conservative activist and presidential aide Tom Charles Huston, such extralegal projects were commonplace in the Nixon White House. Huston’s plan resulted from Nixon’s demand for an aggressive response to domestic opposition. Huston responded with recommendations for increased electronic surveillance (wiretaps and bugging), breaking into the offices or homes of suspected radicals, and interfering with the post.

Four days after enthusiastically endorsing the plan, Nixon changed his mind but never turned his back on its core — a fact hammered home by the recent release of 340 hours (94 tapes) of secret recordings by the Nixon Presidential Library.

Covering April-July 1973, the tapes include a series of telephone conversations following the Apr 30, 1973, speech in which the president accepted responsibility for Watergate and announced the resignation of his closest aides — including his chief of staff, HR ‘Bob’ Haldeman.

A generous listener might explain Nixon’s slurred words in these newly-available conversations as the result of exhaustion and stress, but the president was notoriously unable to handle more than a couple of drinks. The unease in his former chief of staff’s voice grows throughout their conversation:

Nixon: “Well, it’s a tough thing, Bob … but God-damn it, I’m never going to discuss this son of a bitching Watergate thing again. Never, never, never, never. Don’t you agree?

Haldeman: Yes, sir. …

Nixon: … Let me say you’re a strong man, God-damn it, and I love ya. … And I, you know [laughs] … and, by God, keep the faith. Keep the faith! …

Nixon: I don’t know whether you can call and get me any reactions and call me back — just like the old style, would you mind? Haldeman: I’m in an odd spot I’m not supposed to try and do that.

Nixon: Don’t call — don’t call a God-damn soul. The hell with it. Let me just say — save this call from me — from you, I haven’t heard from any Cabinet officer — except from [secretary of health, education, and welfare Caspar] Weinberger — an hour afterwards …

Haldeman: Well, when I called, the [White House switch] board said they were instructed not to put any calls through, so … That may be why you haven’t gotten any though ‘cause that’s what she [the operator] told me

Nixon: Alright, I’ll change it. I’ll change it. — But God bless you boy, God bless you. I love you — as you know.

Haldeman: OK

Nixon: Like my brother.

Haldeman: [unclear]

Nixon: Alright, keep the faith.

Unlike most of the people Nixon spoke to that night, Haldeman knew of the secret taping system. Aware their conversation was being recorded, he chose his words carefully, but the president appears to have forgotten completely, obsessively dwelling on perceived slights and insults.

As the conversation with Haldeman shows, Nixon wasn’t the forgiving and forgetting type. His lonely childhood and combative political career combined to create a highly sensitive, easily insulted, and even more isolated president (see panel).

This atmosphere all but guaranteed the president would lose touch with the national mood as administration officials quickly learned that the way to ensure access to White House resources, and even to the president himself, was to be the bearer of good news.

Aides therefore frequently embellished their reports so as to secure Nixon’s continuing support. Which is fine for updates on the compilation of a cross-referenced “bad guys list”, but problematic for unfounded claims of ‘breakthroughs’ in negotiations with the North Vietnamese from national security advisor (and later secretary of state) Henry A Kissinger. At times, his overly optimistic reports of secret Paris negotiations included detailed comparisons of the refreshments provided by the North Vietnamese during breaks in the negotiations as evidence of ‘progress’.

While Kissinger did continue his sensitive talks, it was at the expense of Nixon’s link with reality. The president’s personal management style didn’t help as the introverted Nixon rarely met with his staff, limiting Oval Office access to only his most trusted aides. Staffers even referred to two of these aides, the formidable Haldeman and John D Ehrlichman (White House Counsel and later assistant to the president for domestic affairs) as Nixon’s own “Berlin Wall.” Even Kissinger, Nixon’s foreign policy soulmate, had to clear most of his presidential meetings with Haldeman. One of the only other staffers to have unfettered access to Nixon was Special Counsel to the President Charles Colson, who quickly gained access due in large part to a shared deviousness and enthusiastic embrace of political dirty tricks.

In a May 1971 conversation, Haldeman reports on one of Colson’s projects to strengthen the link between Democratic presidential candidate Edmund Muskie and anti-war protesters White House officials portrayed as dangerous and violent radicals. Not only did Colson send oranges in Muskie’s name, but he would, Haldeman assured Nixon, make sure the press knew about the Democrat’s support for the protest.

Nixon: Chuck is something else.

Haldeman: Yeah. You know, Muskie sent those oranges down to the veterans … He didn’t go down himself, but he sent oranges.

Nixon: Did Colson order some oranges for him?

Haldeman: Colson sent oranges out yesterday [to a different group of protesters]. [laughs] From Muskie. …

Nixon: He just ordered them?

Haldeman: [laughs] Yeah. An awful lot of cases of oranges. I don’t know how the hell he does that stuff, . . . He’s going to get caught in some of those things … But it — he’s gotten a lot done that he hasn’t been caught at.

The tapes document the highs and lows of Nixon’s administration between 1971 until July 1973, making the secretive Nixon the most transparent of US presidents. Far from the first president to secretly record conversations — Presidents Franklin D Roosevelt, Dwight D Eisenhower, John F Kennedy, and Lyndon B Johnson all had their own systems — Nixon’s tapes are unique in their scope. Unlike the manually-operated systems of previous presidents, the recorders were voice activated as the technologically inept Nixon had already demonstrated his inability to operate even the simplest recording system: the two buttons on the dictaphones installed in his bedroom were too complicated for him to operate without confusion.

Despite their poor quality — most of the cheap microphones were hidden in centrepieces and other furnishings — the tapes provide a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of the Nixon White House, giving us unprecedented access to the president himself. Listening to the tapes puts us in the room — or on the phone — as Nixon and his top aides discussed critically foreign and domestic policies (race relations, poverty programmes, the Vietnam War, the historic trip to China, relations with the Soviet Union) and political strategy (polling data, public appearances, plans to undermine domestic critics).

Perhaps most compelling — and disconcerting — are the countless conversations between Nixon and his staff about his political and personal opponents. There was no room in Nixon’s world for even the idea of a “loyal opposition” — you were either with him or against him; an outsider or an insider. A resentment of establishment elites and mistrust of civil servants, combined with an inherently suspicious and secretive nature, led the president to consolidate political and diplomatic power in the White House. To maintain control over foreign and domestic policies, Nixon and Kissinger — the naturalised German Jew a fellow outsider despite his Harvard Professorship — jealously guarded information, creating an administration-wide atmosphere of secrecy and mistrust.

Nixon: But don’t be too damn sure of anybody! I mean, that’s — don’t be too damn sure about anybody!

Haldeman: You can’t.

Nixon: I am never sure of anybody.

Haldeman: Well [unintelligible]

Nixon: You know, Bob, the reason you and I ain’t so close now is, as you’ve noticed, I don’t put that — [inaudible]. Do you not now see why I don’t have staff meetings?

Haldeman: Damn right!

Nixon: Do you agree?

Haldeman: Oh, yeah!

Nixon: Don’t you think I’m right?

Haldeman: I sure as hell do!

Nixon: I don’t have staff meetings. Now I’d rather — I know it would charge up the staff for me to sit around and talk to ’em directly. But who knows — first, with — without evil intentions, some are going to leak. …

Haldeman: And it is — it’s a horrible way to have to work, but it’s...

Nixon: Yeah.

Haldeman: ...it’s essential.

Such conversations have ensured that the tapes, a resource intended to improve his memoirs and cement his legacy as a peacemaker and statesman, have instead reinforced a view of him as a suspicious, vindictive and paranoid man. In fact, the Nixon caught on tape is, in many ways, much worse than his harshest critics imagined. The racism, xenophobia, and anti-semitism on display — particularly in conversations with or about Kissinger and other Jewish White House staffers — are shocking, even as they are no longer truly surprising.

At the same time, the tapes capture important diplomatic moments including the newly-released recording of Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev discussing their hopes for a June 1973 summit (excerpt available at www.nixontapes.org), detailed planning surrounding the unprecedented presidential visit to the People’s Republic of China in 1972, and countless conversations debating US options in Vietnam. As much a domestic concern as a foreign policy issue by the 1970s, the Vietnam War played a defining role in Nixon’s presidency.

Determined to achieve what he described as “peace with honour”, Nixon and Kissinger refused to consider a full US withdrawal from the country. But, domestic opposition undermined their negotiating position, with the added insult that dissent directly challenged presidential power. Believing that the antiwar movement was part of the larger web of “revolutionary” and “radical” groups seeking to destroy the country (the same groups targeted by the Huston Plan), Nixon and his aides rarely considered the legality, much less the morality, of their plans.

Thanks to the tapes, we can listen to these conversations and see both sides of Richard Nixon. The experienced diplomat negotiating with world leaders and the conniving, vindictive, and hyper-sensitive president receiving a report from Haldeman of a plan to have the Teamsters — at the time a notoriously corrupt and violent union led by the imprisoned Jimmy Hoffa — “dig up their eight thugs … regular strikebuster-types and all that and … beat the shit out of some of these people. And hope they really hurt ’em, you know what I mean? Go in with some real — smash some noses.”

This was obviously Nixon at his worst, but even conversations showing him in a better light underscore the obsessive need for control at the core of Nixon’s presidency. Meeting with David KE Bruce, the experienced diplomat set to lead the US Liaison Office in Peking (now Beijing), the president frankly explained his approach to foreign policy:

Nixon: But in this instance, I want you to feel, David, that you are basically, not the State Department’s ambassador, you are the president’s, and I want you to be in on everything. You see what I mean? You’ve got to remember that we cannot — there’s parts of these games that we don’t want to go to the bureaucracy.

Bruce: I will, Mr President. I certainly will. Because the security of the State Department is, in my mind, non-existent.

Nixon: It’s non-existent. …

Bruce: No, I think that I understand that part of the [unclear]. And I think the back channel can be used [unclear].

Nixon: Well, I want to use the back channel. And also, when Henry gets over there to do the briefings. I think it’s very important that you be with him.

Bruce: Well, I would like that.

Nixon: So that you can, you know, get the feel of the thing, too.

Nixon’s obsessive need for control over all aspects of policy meant even the most experienced and skilled US ambassador of the 20th Century could not be trusted to do his job without detailed instructions from the president.

The irony of course is that a need for control is what has let the Nixon genie out of the bottle — in that the tapes, now almost entirely available to the public, have made him perhaps the best-documented and most psychoanalyzed president in history.

Taken as a whole, they give us a full sense of the complexity of this ruthless and ambitious man. Thanks to Nixon’s determination to block public access to the records of his administration, each set of tapes and documents opened by the Nixon Library has been subjected to closer scrutiny than would have been possible had they all simply been released when first requested by the Watergate investigators. But Nixon was never one to surrender control, no matter how small the issue.

Even as he recognised the potential dangers of the tapes, Nixon couldn’t resist the chance to have an unimpeachable record of his administration — even if it would eventually provide the foundation for his own impeachment and resignation.

Nixon: They’d get so many damn tidbits — out of context. Or, of course, if you got a hold of those tapes, you could run a radio series and it would never be done.

Haldeman: [inaudible]

Nixon: You know, we swear in here, do a lot of things I don’t do — generally — for public purposes. But I want to destroy them — I want to get at them right now. Show me where the box of switches are … But the Cabinet room — that’s worthwhile’

Sarah Thelen (PhD, American University) worked at the Nixon Archives before moving to Ireland where she lectures in US history at University College Cork and Trinity College Dublin.

A COMPLEX AND CONTRADICTORY MAN

Richard Milhous Nixon was, above all, a complex and contradictory man: a loner who obsessively sought public approval, a hardline anti-communist who found common ground with the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China. Nixon arrived in the Oval Office via a circuitous route from a failed lemon grove in Orange County, California, to Duke University Law School, and back to California where the star college debater took on the incumbent Democratic Representative and, after an unscrupulous campaign, arrived in Washington DC in 1947 to take his seat in Congress alongside another new arrival — John F Kennedy.

In stark contrast to the charismatic Kennedy, Nixon was a socially awkward man who never quite fit in and kept people at a distance. As a child, he was not close to either of his parents and his mother, Hannah Milhous Nixon, was frequently away from the family’s home in Yorba Linda, California, nursing Nixon’s two older brothers through the final stages of tuberculosis. As a result, her younger son grew up very much on his own; clearly missing her, the 10 year-old Nixon wrote to her in the voice of a family pet closing his 1923 letter with: “I wish you would come home right now. Your good dog, Richard.”

Despite achieving heights of power unimaginable to a barefoot boy working in a struggling grocery store before school, Nixon always saw himself as an outsider. Even so, he constantly sought entry to and recognition from the elite establishment. A later contempt for these institutions was rooted in repeated failures to do so: first when finances prevented him accepting a Harvard scholarship, again when the wealthy men of the Franklin Club at Whittier College rejected his application, and yet again when the young lawyer failed to secure a job with a prestigious law firm. Nixon’s resentment of elites would define his life and political career, and contribute to his combative approach to politics.

A natural fit, therefore, for the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) where his dogged pursuit of suspected communists — most famously Alger Hiss, a State Department official convicted of spying for the Soviet Union — made him a national figure and Dwight D Eisenhower’s vice president. Convinced that he lost the 1960 election to Kennedy because he wasn’t underhanded enough, Nixon brought an “ends justify the means” attitude into the White House in 1969 as encapsulated in his retort to interviewer David Frost in 1977: “If the president does it, it isn’t illegal.”

Insulated as he was by layers of assistants, Nixon frequently struggled to differentiate between rhetoric and reality. Part of why he could be an effective speaker — as with his appeal for support for the Vietnam War from the “great silent majority of my fellow Americans” — was that he usually believed what he was saying. And his fiercely loyal and protective staff rarely corrected him.

THE HUSTON PLAN

This June 1970 memorandum was drafted by Tom Charles Huston, a young conservative activist, White House staffer, and former chairman of Young Americans for Freedom.

In his 43-page memorandum, Huston outlined the perceived threat to the presidency, American ideals, and even democracy itself posed by domestic dissent. Having made his case — essentially preaching to a choir made up of Nixon, his senior aides, and the intelligence community — Huston then detailed a plan to counter this threat. He proposed a package of programs ranging from increased, but still legal, monitoring of groups known to be dangerous to more extreme, and illegal options, such as electronic surveillance, burglary, and group infiltration.

Once exposed, a US journalist described the plan as giving the White House, the FBI, the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency access “all the way to every mailbox, every college campus, every telephone, every home”. Nixon initially approved the plan, but changed his mind after opposition from J Edgar Hoover (right) — the head of the FBI and usually an enthusiastic supporter of extralegal efforts against radicals — and attorney general John Mitchell. The plan was not entirely abandoned, though, and provided a blueprint for future illegalities.

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