“A man is not finished when he is defeated. He is finished when he quits.”
Since Richard Nixon left office, we’ve learned a number of things about him that shed light on how he got into such terrible trouble, how he handled the biggest crisis of his crisis-ridden life—and more of what was going on inside the White House while we were watching, agape, from the outside. Moreover, looking back at the events of 1973–1974 offers new insights as to what Watergate was really about.
The story of what happened to Richard Nixon after he became the first president to have been driven from office is as interesting and compelling as most of the rest of his life. Nixon never managed to be boring. Little has been known about what he proceeded to do after he landed at his “Western White House,” in San Clemente on August 9, 1974. He was now essentially out of sight. The nation might have thought that Richard Nixon, having met with the ultimate political humiliation, had finally gone away and disappeared from public life. But—as he’d said so many times before—he wasn’t “a quitter.” It wasn’t in his nature to give up.
And so this remarkably resilient man wasn’t about to quit now. Deter- mined and methodical as usual, Nixon soon had a plan. With the help of aides who had gone with him to California, at government expense, he drew up a secret plan for his restitution, to regain respectability. It was given the code name Wizard. This plan took place out of sight because with the excep- tion of those few aides, Nixon was more on his own than since he’d begun his long and tumultuous political career. He’d struggled virtually all his life, had pulled himself out of deep troughs before, and he wasn’t about to stop now, not when all that he had fought for lay in ruins. This was the deepest trough of all, the most difficult situation to surmount. And now he was fight- ing a new kind of battle—not for something as tangible and requiring fairly conventional means (even for him) as political office, but to rehabilitate his reputation. How, exactly, does one in this unprecedented situation go about that? Most people wouldn’t have dared to try. What would have crushed most people was to Nixon yet another challenge to be met and overcome. He was as driven about this one as he had been about all those that had gone before.
Nixon’s defenders have argued that it’s unfair to look at the man’s record as president only through the prism of Watergate. That’s a valid point, and this section will also attempt to put his presidency in that larger perspective. What follows is a more rounded picture of Nixon’s presidency than could be assessed in the midst of Watergate, as well as a new view of what that crisis was about—the crisis that cost him his lifelong-desired place at the pinnacle of political power and the desperately sought affirmation that this country bestowed by electing him to that position. Richard Nixon may have been more disgraced than any other president in history, his career up in smoke, but he wasn’t done yet.
Down and Out in San Clemente
When friends and acquaintances picked up Nixon’s phone calls from San Clemente shortly after he arrived there, they heard a deeply depressed man, sometimes in tears about having been brought so low, convinced that “they” would never relent: “They won’t be satisfied until they have me in jail,” Nixon said. He also fell ill from a serious recurrence of phlebitis, contracted during his Middle East trip in June, shortly before he left the presidency. A later recurrence almost killed him. Yet for all his self-pity and sense of persecution by his “enemies,” Nixon had a striking degree of self-knowledge. In a startling conversation with an aide in the early weeks of his exile, Nixon reflected on what had brought about his downfall. He said to the aide, “What starts the process are the laughs and snubs and slights that you get when you are a kid. But if you are reasonably intelligent and if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence, personal gut performance, while those who have everything are sitting on their fat butts.” He had appointed tough guys as his aides, he said, because he wanted people around him who were, like him, fighters. He went out for high school and college football, and the fact that he had no real athletic ability “was the very reason I tried and tried and tried. To get discipline for myself and to show others that here was a guy who could dish it out and take it. Mostly, I took it.”
If he was poorer and physically weaker than others his age, he triumphed by working harder than they did, and: “You get out of the alley and on your way.” But then came the danger—and the trouble: “In your own mind you have nothing to lose, so you take plenty of chances. It’s a piece of cake until you get to the top. You find that you can’t stop playing the game because it is part of you . . . So you are lean and mean and resourceful and you continue to walk on the edge of the precipices because over the years you have be- come fascinated by how close to the edge you can walk without losing your balance.”
“This time it was different,” the aide responded. “Yes,” Nixon replied quietly, “This time we had something to lose.” His political career had been marked by unlikely comebacks. Only three others had lost a presidential race and then gone on to win one, and none of them in modern politics—Jefferson, Jackson, and Cleveland. When, two years after losing the presidential election to Kennedy, Nixon lost the California gubernatorial election, it was generally assumed that he was finished, as there were no more high political offices he could run for and win. Conceding the California race, he famously told the press corps, “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.”
His memoir, oddly named Six Crises (1962), approached his autobiography from an unusual perspective: each chapter described a time when, as he saw it, he’d been confronted with a challenge so great that it was a crisis, and he’d prevailed. Nixon talked about the book frequently, urging people to read it. (When Nixon met Mao on his breakthrough trip to China, in 1972, the wily Chinese leader flattered and preempted him by telling him he’d read Six Crises—before Nixon had a chance to tout it. Each had read up on the other, and Nixon for his part recited some of the Great Leader’s philosophical thoughts.) Nixon even instructed his staff to make sure that the “plumbers”—the ragtag group, most of them veterans of the failed Bay of Pigs operation against the Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro, who conducted the famous Watergate break-in and other underhanded and illegal acts against the president’s “enemies”—read the chapter about his confrontation with Alger Hiss. As soon as Nixon was elected to the House of Representatives, in 1946, at the height of the Red Scare, he sought and won a seat on the communist-hunting Un-American Activities Committee as a forum for getting attention—and his pursuit of Hiss, a suspected spy for the Soviet Union, brought Nixon to national attention and propelled him into the Senate. Hiss, then a respected member of the Eastern establishment (which Nixon so hated), ultimately went to jail for perjury, though later evidence arose that appeared to confirm Nixon’s charges. A mere two years and some devious pre-convention maneuvers later, Nixon was on the Republican ticket as the party’s vice presidential candidate. But then, facing charges of corruption through a slush fund collected by his friends and supporters, he fought to stay on the ticket by giving the “Checkers speech”—another chapter in Six Crises.
The Rootless Man
Nixon had bought the house in San Clemente—a large Spanish-style building overlooking the Pacific Ocean—during his presidency with the help of his friends Bebe Rebozo and Robert Abplanalp. But he was essentially a rootless man—unlike other presidents he had had no place with which he was identified, no real hometown. Just as he invented himself, Nixon invented “homes.” The larger spread at San Clemente made more sense for him at this point than his other house, at Key Biscayne, and to the extent he belonged anywhere, it was California, where he had grown up and begun his political career.
From early in his presidency, Nixon spent an uncommon amount of time fleeing the White House and Washington. He went to Camp David often with Rebozo, his closest and only real friend. But it wasn’t a friendship of equals: Nixon valued Rebozo’s company for the latter’s ability to remain silent for long stretches of time. The two men also engaged in heavy drinking together.
During his White House years, there had been indications that the President liked his liquor, but the full extent of his fondness of the drink, or its effects, was unknown to the general public throughout his presidency; it began to become apparent later to some people when they read the transcripts closely. And even though the transcripts suggested that he had been drinking, it wasn’t until later that people learned how serious his drinking problem was. When he drank a lot, Nixon slurred his words to such an extent that it was difficult for his aides and others to understand him, and he sometimes seemed out of control. He would call aides and others at all hours of the night, issuing outlandish instructions—for example, to fire an entire floor of the State Department—and then slamming down the phone—often as not only to pick it up again to emphasize the order. (“This order is not appealable.” Slam.) It was left to the judgment of aides—whose judgment was clearly questionable—to decide which of the middle-of-the-night orders by the president of the United States to carry out and which to ignore.
Adding to the problems caused by his drinking, Nixon began to take Dilantin—a medication supplied to him by the financier Jack Dreyfus—to deal with his deep depression. Dilantin was an anti-convulsive drug that had never been approved for depression, and its effect was to exacerbate the characteristics of drunkenness: mental confusion, slurring one’s words, irritability. A man in this state was making fateful decisions.
I learned later that Rebozo and Nixon were drinking heavily together at Camp David on the eve of the invasion of Cambodia. During the run-up to the invasion, Nixon made so many calls to his national security adviser that after midnight one night, Kissinger ordered a member of his staff back to the White House, saying “Our peerless leader has flipped out.” Kissinger sometimes referred to the President as “our drunken friend,” and had aides listen in to hear what he was hearing. Nixon had taken to watching Patton over and over, and he ordered his staff to view it before the invasion of Cambodia. The recollections of various Nixon associates of that period makes it quite evident that the orders to invade a neutral country without authorization from Congress—an invasion that set off riots on campuses across the country and led to the killing of four students at Kent State by National Guard officers— was heavily affected by Nixon’s anxiety and inebriation.
A Pursuit of Money
In the national uproar that ensued when Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon on September 8, 1974, a month after Nixon announced his resignation, inevitably there was widespread suspicion that there had been a deal: that in exchange for Nixon selecting Ford to succeed him, Ford would repay Nixon by protecting him from criminal prosecution. Ford even felt compelled to appear before a congressional committee to deny that there had been such a deal, and there was never any evidence of one. Though I felt at the time that Ford had done the right thing—that the country had been through enough upheaval and it was time to move on—some whose opinion I respect thought that the legal case should have proceeded, to make it clear that no one was above the law. According to this view, Nixon shouldn’t have gone to jail— removal from office would have been punishment enough—but the legal process should have been seen to its conclusion. Nixon was actually troubled about the pardon and hesitated for a while about accepting it for fear it would be seen as an admission of guilt. Yet he reconciled himself to accepting the bad publicity in exchange for avoiding years of expensive trials and perhaps even jail time.
Nixon’s most urgent order of business was to make money, though money wasn’t a new preoccupation. Rather than risk impeachment on the matter, Nixon agreed to pay $465,000 in back taxes (the IRS had said he owed at least $11,000 more); among deductions the IRS disallowed were for claimed business use of his vacation homes, for a masked ball given by Tricia Nixon, $22.00 for the cleaning of Mrs. Nixon’s bathroom rug, and $1.24 for interest on a department store bill. He paid no state or local income taxes for any of his residences.
Even as Nixon was giving his farewell speech to his staff, a longtime military aide was packing up crates full of presidential documents from the West Wing to ship them to San Clemente. The purpose was to use them as material for another book, from which he’d presumably earn substantial income. Nixon’s plan was to get everything useful out of the White House before the incoming Ford people noticed. And taking his Presidential papers to California would also prevent them from becoming public and causing him embarrassment. Nixon first tried to get hold of the papers semi-legitimately by persuading the General Services Administration to give him control over them for five years—at the end of which he could destroy them. (His failure to destroy the tapes had been a lesson.) But Congress stepped in to stop this egregious arrangement and passed a law stipulating that the presidential papers would go to the National Archives. Desperate to keep his reputation from sinking further, Nixon made a deal with the National Archives that documents and transcripts concerning Watergate and Vietnam wouldn’t be made public for some time. But despite the signed agreement to turn over his papers and transcripts to the Archives, Nixon proceeded to purloin them from the White House.
The Nixon military aide managed to collect the equivalent of three rail- road boxcars of documents and began transferring them to California. (Other documents were shredded using a special chemical.) But the plot was foiled when in an off-hour a Ford aide noticed strange trucks in the White House driveway and inquired what was in them. A revelation in the Washington Post just before Nixon left office interrupted another bit of kleptocracy—to ship to San Clemente millions of dollars in gifts from foreign leaders, including elaborate jewelry for members of his family. Under the law, any gift worth over $50 was to be turned over to the federal government. As a result of the disclosure the Nixons had to surrender the gems.
Nixon’s book was a great success. He received a handsome advance of $2.5 million for his memoirs, which he wrote with the help of some aides who had gone with him into exile. The resulting book, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, sold an astonishing 330,000 copies in just the first six months. (Nixon had sought to emulate his idol Theodore Roosevelt—or TR—by having his own initials, RN, be the title of the book, but the publishers talked him into merely putting them at the front of the title.)
While Nixon was working on the book he decided on another money- making venture: to grant a series of televised interviews. While American broadcasters vied for the opportunity, Nixon decided on the English talk show host David Frost. Nixon assumed that Frost wouldn’t ask him the kinds of troublesome questions that American journalists were likely to. Frost also offered Nixon a sweet deal: in a highly unusual arrangement, Frost agreed that Nixon would be paid a fee of six hundred thousand dollars, plus 20 per- cent of the profits from sales of the interview to television stations.
Thus, according to this agreement, Nixon had a financial incentive to say something that would guarantee headlines—and lots of sales. It was a fix. The supposed gladiators were in business together—a fact unknown by the viewers. But the deal almost didn’t pay off. Part of the arrangement between Nixon and Frost was that only one of the four sessions would be about Watergate. For the first three Nixon rambled through his foreign policy successes (as he defined them, including Cambodia); the interviews were considered soporific. So everything rested on the final Watergate segment. For a while Nixon remained unrevealing; both Frost’s and Nixon’s aides were becom- ing desperately worried that the whole thing would be a flop. But suddenly, through Frost’s misreading of a sign the Nixon side held up—he thought it said that they wanted a pause in the interview—there was an unplanned break. In the dressing room, Nixon’s aides told him that he had to be more forthcoming, and at the end of the break a Nixon aide told Frost that Nixon knew that he had to say more, “He’s got more to volunteer.” The deal was on. And so Nixon returned and uttered his more famous lines, “I let down my country.” And, “I gave them a sword.” He insisted that his mistakes “were mistakes of the heart rather than of the head.” These were unusual things for an ex-president to say, but they weren’t stunning revelations. It was highly improbable that Nixon, a lawyer and skilled debater, would start confessing now to the commission of crimes. Most open-minded observers concluded that the interviews had resulted essentially in a draw.
Unfortunately, the popular play and movie Frost/Nixon distorted the transcript of the Watergate interview. Both the play and the movie have Nixon confess to Frost that he he’d been involved in a cover-up—with Nixon’s
face distorted in agony, this was the climactic moment of the drama. Such a confession to criminal behavior would have been dramatic indeed, had Nixon actually said it. But the line in the script for the play and the movie omitted the first several words in the sentence that Nixon had actually said— which can be heard on recordings of the interviews—and an ellipsis was substituted, so that the script read, “. . . I was involved in a cover-up as you call it.” The audience of course could know nothing of the ellipsis, and so it was deceived into believing that Nixon had made a damning disclosure when no such thing has occurred. It made for high drama, but it wasn’t true. The actual line uttered by Nixon, when Frost pressed him to confess that he had more than made “mistakes,” that crime may have been involved, was, “You’re wanting me to say that I participated in an illegal cover-up. No.” On the doctored line rested the plot’s conceit that the canny Frost had bested the shrewd, evasive Nixon. The play had been set up as a David/Goliath confrontation: thus the sequence of the names in the title Frost/Nixon.
Despite Nixon’s efforts to make the subject of Watergate go away, it kept lapping up on the shores of San Clemente. By the end of 1974 and into the following year, a substantial number of his aides were sentenced to prison terms. Among the former top aides to go to jail were his former Attorney General and chairman of his reelection committee John Mitchell; his top assistants Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman; and also Charles Colson and John Dean—virtually the entire higher level of the Nixon White House. Some smaller White House fry, as well as the plumbers and their leaders, were also sentenced to prison.
The Sagehood Plot
Nixon’s preoccupation, even obsession, after being forced from office was to redeem his reputation, to become a respected figure, to raise himself up from his disgraced state, according to the Wizard plan. He wanted to become someone people listened to—a senior statesman, a sage. And the best way to be considered a sage, Nixon understood, was to establish one’s credentials as an expert in foreign policy, a man known to world leaders. Domestic policy didn’t cut it the same way: lectures and articles on education or the environment didn’t attract the Brahmins and the business leaders Nixon wanted to attract, didn’t occupy nearly as much space on the stage. No splashy trips. Nixon hadn’t been much interested in domestic policy. Various descriptions have been offered of Nixon’s domestic philosophy, but essentially there wasn’t one: he was a pragmatist—he moved left and right as the situation suited him. His approval of relatively moderate bills on domestic policies— certainly by the later standards of the Republican Party—were for the most part responses to initiatives by leading Democratic senators.
This was particularly true of the environmental policies he signed onto: the environmental movement took hold during his presidency, and Nixon wasn’t going to get isolated on the matter. And so the role of the federal government in regulating the environment grew considerably under Nixon— though in conversations with aides he referred to environmentalism as “crap for clowns.” Ehrlichman later wrote of his own frustration with the difficulty of getting the president’s attention to domestic issues and his efforts to keep Nixon from veering further to the right, as other aides urged.
The radical family assistance plan Nixon proposed—to replace welfare payments with cash assistance—was foisted on him by then-urban affairs adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who convinced Nixon that he could be Disraeli, a conservative who backed proposals that liberals could support. For a brief while, the grand notion of the family assistance plan, plus emulating a great statesman, appealed to Nixon. The plan would also enable him to reduce significantly the size and the power of the welfare bureaucracy—in general Nixon loathed the bureaucracies, viewing them with suspicion as definitely not on his side. Though Nixon announced his proposal with great fanfare on television, he quickly lost interest in it. In congress both liberals and conservatives disliked the plan, but for different reasons: many liberals felt that the payments were too low—and conservatives wanted nothing to do with cash payments for the poor. And so the program died on Capitol Hill. This was fine with Nixon, who in fact had told Haldeman that his goal was to convince liberals that he wanted to propose something progressive that conservatives would kill.
In the case of race, the most thorny domestic issue, Nixon’s policies were a mixed picture. He campaigned in 1968 on the “Southern strategy”: to appeal to both Southerners and blue collar workers in the North perturbed by efforts toward racial integration. In other efforts to have it both ways, Nixon sought to please liberals by ordering the Justice Department to enforce court orders on integration—and conservatives by making it clear that he would go no further than that. He openly opposed the busing of children in order to achieve racial integration of schools, a problem of particular sensitivity in the urban North. Nixon ordered the firing of Leon Panetta, then a Republican, from his job as head of the civil rights division of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare because Panetta openly complained that the administration was moving too slowly toward school integration. Nixon wanted to get George Romney, his Secretary of Housing and Urban Affairs, who pressed for housing integration in suburbs, out of his cabinet, but, characteristically, he couldn’t bring himself to fire him, and turned the matter over to John Mitchell, but Romney resisted Mitchell’s suggestions that he go.
Nixon displayed a marked indecisiveness at times, especially when it came to personnel, and his hesitation to fire Romney was fed by the storm that had broken out not long before over the fact that he had fired Interior Secretary Walter Hickel, who was popular among environmentalists and younger people. Hickel had been an anti-environmentalist when Nixon selected him, but he changed as he got closer to the subject. He had also infuriated Nixon
by openly criticizing the administration’s policies in Vietnam, saying that the president should show more sensitivity to the concerns of student protestors. Nixon had turned to Mitchell to do his dirty work and get rid of Hickel, but Hickel refused, and Nixon had to carry out the unpleasant mission himself.
He may not have had very firm principles about domestic policy, but Nixon wasn’t benighted, either. The result, however he got there, was—with the exception of race—a relatively progressive record on domestic issues. He accepted the idea that the federal government could be put to use to help the citizens. He was the last Republican president to do so.
Mr. Foreign Policy
Nixon was far more interested in foreign policy, where a president could make decisions with less interference from the congress—until the latter stages of the Vietnam War, that is—and where he could have the greater impact, for good or for ill. As President, Nixon eagerly embraced the role of international statesman. After losing the presidential and California gubernatorial elections he had traveled abroad and met foreign leaders—not all of whom were enthusiastic to meet a man who had lost two successive elections. But Nixon wasn’t easily embarrassed. Then, one of the first things Nixon did upon becoming President was to take a trip to Europe in February, meeting with heads of state. He was partial to Charles de Gaulle, who had taken the time to meet with him during his wanderings, and who implanted in him the idea of détente, a lessening of tensions with the Soviet Union. While biding his time before he ran for president again, Nixon wrote about this and also about the need to open up dealings with China. His openings to the Soviet Union and China were historic achievements. His policy on the Vietnam War remained controversial beyond his lifetime and is likely to remain so: the heart of the issue was whether he and Henry Kissinger carried on the war for an additional five years for a peace agreement very close to one they could have had that much earlier. He also engaged in serious arms control efforts as he pursued détente with the Soviet Union. Nixon’s record looked better the longer he was out of office and occasionally produced waves of nostalgia.
And now the former president would burnish his credentials by a number of foreign trips; he also wrote and spoke, his speeches mainly about foreign leaders he had known. In early 1976, he returned to China, the place of his greatest triumph, where he issued foreign policy pronouncements as if he were still president, or thought he was. His trips, and apparent confusion about his role, weren’t necessarily appreciated by Republicans who were engaged in their own attempts to lead the nation, or the numerous party members who wanted Nixon to just go away.
The China trip, coming as it did during the 1976 contest for the Repub- lican nomination, displeased Ford, who was seeking a real election to the office Nixon had put him in, and was facing a strong nomination challenge
from Ronald Reagan. (Ford was constrained to jam in a trip to China of his own during the primaries.) Soon after his heady China trip, Nixon planned a six-week worldwide tour, but a number of heads of state sent word that they had no time to see him, and his two former Secretaries of State, Kissinger and William Rogers, told him that such a trip was ill-advised. Nixon failed to grasp that it was too soon since he had been forced to leave office to start playing world leader again, though he agreed to postpone that trip. He did appear at the Oxford Union, where he was greeted with jeers but at the end of his appearance received a standing ovation. Upon his return, Nixon told a reporter his guiding philosophy: “A man is not finished when he is defeated,” Nixon said. “He is finished when he quits.”
Nixon became increasingly audacious in his climb back toward respect- ability as the years went on. He sought to make himself the indispensable advisor to presidents on foreign policy dealings—sometimes by devious met ods—and he often succeeded. Though Jimmy Carter loathed Nixon, in 1979 the former president got himself invited to the first state dinner for Chinese leaders—at the insistence of the Chinese—despite the fact that Carter wasn’t at all eager to have him there. After Nixon took yet another trip to China later in 1979, he was voted one of Gallup’s ten most admired men in the world.
Nixon was playing fantasy president, which meant attending all of the most important funerals, since that’s what presidents and ex-presidents do. But the circumstances of Nixon’s ex-ness made for a most unusual situation and discomfited former presidents who hadn’t been thrown out of office. In 1981 he attended the funeral of the Shah of Iran and later that year managed to get himself included—along with former presidents Ford and Carter—in the official delegation to the funeral of Anwar Sadat, making for a rather tense threesome. At the end of the Cairo ceremonies, having told no one but Reagan’s national security adviser Al Haig (who had urged Reagan to include Nixon in the funeral entourage), Nixon slipped away from the delegation and took an extensive tour through the Middle East, despite a recurrence of his painful phlebitis. When Nixon returned from the trip, he sent a supposedly private report on his findings to the president—and released it to the press. This was a to be a technique he would use often to get attention to himself as the elder statesman: he would send some very important figure a “secret” document stating his views on this and that and simultaneously make it available to reporters.
And then in perhaps Nixon’s most brazen act of his effort to climb back to respectability he blackmailed Bill Clinton into consulting him on Russia. He got word to Clinton that if he weren’t paid proper respect as a foreign policy guru he would write an op-ed in a major newspaper attacking the President’s handling of foreign policy. Following Nixon’s subterranean threat and some lobbying by Nixon allies, Clinton telephoned him, appearing to seek his counsel, and then, still under pressure from the Nixon camp, on the eve of a two-man summit with Boris Yeltsin, Clinton reluctantly invited Nixon
to the White House supposedly to give him advice. The meeting was held at night so that no press would be around to ask questions and take pictures of Clinton and Nixon together.
Nixon was a smart man—intelligence and judgment being different qualities—he impressed with his talks. His sonorous voice and certitude projected confidence, and he appeared a font of knowledge. To add to the dazzle he made a point of speaking without notes or a podium. Nixon the foreign policy expert wasn’t the Nixon of Watergate memory—wriggling, perspiring, defensive, toying with the truth. But his name-dropping speeches could take him only so far, and he was limited by having San Clemente as his base of operations and, understandably, he was becoming bored with its relative isolation.
“The Fast Track”
And so, in 1980, despite his many vows to leave it to the federal government, Nixon sold the house in San Clemente, and he and Pat moved to New York, locale of many of the poobahs—publishers, bankers, captains of in- dustry, and foreign policy eminences—whom he needed to cultivate in order to implement Wizard. New York was where, as Nixon put it, he could be “on the fast track.” (He had repaired to New York before, after losing the California governorship, and it had helped him get on his feet then.) The Nixons moved into a townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (having been blackballed by various co-op boards). In time, movers and shakers flocked to Nixon’s townhouse, having eagerly accepted one of the most coveted dinner invitations in New York.
Nixon’s dinners, most of them stag, were ritualized affairs. At 7 p.m. sharp, he greeted his guests in the foyer; this was followed by light conversation, along with drinks and hors d’oeuvres in the upstairs library. (Nixon mixed the drinks himself, specializing in dry martinis.) Nixon’s new home was fixed up in Chinese décor. At dinner, where delicious Chinese food was served by Chinese waiters the conversation was focused on a topic Nixon selected. Following dinner the group repaired to the living room for more light conversation, with the host, though still awkward, often telling stories. Then, precisely at 10:30, Nixon would look up at the clock and remark, “Well, I promised to get [so and so, naming a prominent guest] to a house of prostitution by 11:00, so I guess we’d better call it a night.” Everyone knew it was time to leave. Afterward they talked about the dinner all over town.
In time, Nixon became a New York celebrity—dining in fine restaurants with other famous people, local powers, and visiting dignitaries; his attendance at football games was pictured in the papers, as were sightings of him around town. He wrote articles for Foreign Affairs, the New York Times, and the news weeklies. He was having, for him, a wonderful time.
Newspaper stories began to appear hailing Richard Nixon’s latest comeback—reminiscent of all the times in his career when he was down and seemingly out and pundits would call on him and return to announce a “new Nixon.”
But in just three years, disturbed by the seamier side of New York and worried about its effects on his grandchildren, on whom he doted, Nixon moved again, this time to the quieter, suburban Saddle River, New Jersey. And he still wasn’t done: now there was a new generation to cultivate. So he held a series of cocktails and dinners at his new home for journalists who hadn’t yet come of age during Watergate and presumably had no preconceptions. Nixon set out to impress them with his worldly knowledge, and most came away awed. In 1984 and 1988 he went to the belly of the beast, and addressed conventions of newspaper editors and publishers in Washington, D.C. Each time, he was asked to opine on the upcoming presidential election, and though he sometimes got it wrong (his predictions were evidently questionable at the time) he received standing ovations from people who had driven him from office.
A bona fide ex-president would in the normal course have his own library, and Nixon was determined to have one as well, despite his - unusual circumstances. A library would guarantee immortality and present a proper picture of his presidency—as he saw it. Since the government wasn’t going to pay for a library for him, he and his wealthy backers had to raise the money. The library would be located in Yorba Linda, where Nixon was born and spent his early years. (His modest birthplace was to stand in its original place, on the grounds of the library.) Because his presidential papers belonged to the federal government in Washington, the library would be essentially a museum. Under the control of his family and allies, the Nixon Library downplayed Watergate by darkening the room that housed its display—his daughter Julie explained to Larry King that the purpose was “so that you want to move on.” The record was adjusted. The text of the transcript of the crucial “smoking gun,” the August 23, 1972, conversation in which Nixon told Haldeman to instruct the CIA to call the FBI off its investigation, the one that sealed Nixon’s fate, was doctored. The library declared the entire Watergate episode a “coup” perpetrated by Nixon’s “enemies.”
Nixon’s faux library was given a grand opening in July, 1990, a ceremony solemnly attended by President George H.W. Bush and former Republican presidents Ford and Reagan. Later, in early 1994, after a great deal of controversy, congress passed a law that provided federal funds for Nixon’s Library, and in time, transcripts of the tapes were transferred there from the Archives. But though the library was now technically under the control of the Federal Government, Nixon’s family and allies kept a strong hand in its management through the Richard Nixon Foundation, which was officially given a voice in its operation. Inevitably this collision of interests caused difficulties: the first director, Tim Naftali, a respected historian of the Cold War and a former employee of the National Archives, collided with the Foundation over his inviting speakers who had been critical of Nixon. And then, a protracted
and bitter row occurred when Naftali, with great effort, mounted a more honest—and far tougher—Watergate exhibit. The Nixon Foundation made hundreds of suggestions for changes to the new exhibit, including the omission of certain episodes, but all of them were ignored. In 2011, Naftali was forced out. While a long search for a new director was supposedly taking place, Nixon’s allies unveiled a new exhibit called “Patriot, President, Peacemaker,” which covered Nixon’s entire life but left out Watergate altogether. The Nixon backers explained that Watergate was already covered in the permanent exhibit—which of course covered the rest of Nixon’s life as well.
Patricia Nixon died in June 1993 and the nation saw a distraught Richard Nixon sobbing at her funeral. Recent discoveries suggest that they were closer than it appeared in public—their attachment apparently having grown stronger during Nixon’s exile. (Pat was delighted to be out of politics.) Nixon himself died of a stroke the following April 29, less than a year after his wife’s death. A grand array—President Clinton and his wife, along with three ex-presidents and their wives, and Henry Kissinger, Bob Dole and numerous othee grandees—gathered in Yorba Linda for Nixon’s funeral. Over a hundred members of congress were in attendance, as were a couple of hundred members of the diplomatic corps. Kissinger’s and Dole’s voices cracked as they delivered their eulogies (though Dole used to wisecrack about Nixon). The funeral was carried on national television.
Nixon would have been pleased.
Who Was This Man?
So, what are we to make of this man, and what is the meaning of his extraordinary presidency, unique in all of American history?
The tragedy of Richard Nixon is that he was a very smart man who had reached the pinnacle of political life in America only to lose it as a result of his own inner torment. No matter how high he went, or his historic international achievements (for which he became as noted in the foreign policy circles that meant so much to him as for his blatant disregard for the constitution), or the bankers and publishers he managed to impress, he never lost his resentments, his anger at those he thought had had it better than he did and he was sure lorded it over him, and his desire for revenge. Nor did he shake his awkwardness.
A former Republican congressman recounted having been summoned, along with some other back-benchers (led by the insurgent Newt Gingrich) to a meeting with Nixon at the Madison Hotel in Washington in1984. Nixon had been observing the group, and he wanted to meet some of its members—but only the new ones, no one with a direct memory of Watergate. Altogether about a dozen young congressmen met with Nixon in a large suite: the former congressman recalled meeting a very awkward man who didn’t know quite what to do after he greeted his visitors in the foyer of his hotel suite. It took an aide to suggest that they should move to the living
room and talk. Nixon didn’t know how to begin the conversation—but after an uncomfortable pause a congressman asked him to talk about foreign policy. Whereupon Nixon brightened and performed his lengthy disquisition about what was going on in the world and leaders he had known, enthrall- ing his audience. He even made a couple of prescient comments about the forthcoming presidential election.
He couldn’t remove himself from politics. Nixon wasn’t invited to the Republican conventions, but he made it his business to know what was going on, calling candidates and operatives, offering advice; he learned the names of who was running each campaign and what were the poll numbers in almost every district. Nationwide, people were astonished to hear his voice on the phone, and it apparently never occurred to him that his advice wasn’t necessarily desired. After Reagan was reelected, Nixon was so disconnected from reality that he made a run at getting a high-level position in the administration. He felt that he had earned it.
Sometimes it seems that Nixon never had a chance. He was trapped in a character that wouldn’t permit him to be content—he felt over and over that he had to prove himself, he was at war in his imagination. In Richard Nixon’s tormented mind a large array of “enemies” was out to get him—so he had to retaliate, “get the goods” on them, or even, as he put it, “destroy” them. He would never be accepted, he believed, because of his modest roots. Even after he won scholarships, his parents couldn’t afford the other costs of sending him to an elite college or law school. Certain that Ivy League graduates would always look down on him, he had to show ‘em. There could never be enough success. He was a lonely man—there was no one to challenge his assumptions, to set him straight in his confusion of political opponents with enemies. He didn’t recognize boundaries. He never learned to observe limits—anything went—and one thing led to another until he was in too deep to extricate himself.
For a man whose exposure to the world was extensive, his prejudices blinded him and led to some of his darkest moments. Count the Jews in the Department of Labor, he instructed an aide, and he had hired the kinds of people who would carry out such instructions. He simply couldn’t stop himself until he arranged his own doom. One can almost empathize with a man who was a prisoner of his own resentments, suspicions, hatreds. It’s tempting to indulge in amateur psychology in Nixon’s case, in part because his interior became so public—but that’s tricky business. Books have been written containing amateur analyses of the man, but most rely on a shaky determinism. The violent father and the mother who has been variously described as warm and cold, loving and distant, whose approval was, by most accounts, hard to win. Nixon’s childhood was marked by her long absences while she took care of two tubercular sons, both of whom died of the disease. With the poverty thrown in, Nixon’s is almost a Dickensian story. Nixon lacked the sort of support that might have saved him from himself: he had no stabilizing mentors, no lifelines to a more normal existence, no one to give him satisfaction with his talents and achievements. Yet people who have had difficult childhoods don’t necessarily end up nearly destroying constitu- tional government.
What, In the End, Was Watergate?
Though Nixon was named an unindicted co-conspirator by the Watergate grand jury for having obstructed justice, it’s a major mistake to think of his role in the whole of Watergate narrowly, merely in terms of criminality—the menace and the danger were far greater. The more I looked back some years later on the kaleidoscopic events of Watergate, the clearer became a pattern of activities that amounted to an attempt to subvert the democratic process. The President of the United States intervened in and attempted to undermine the nomination of a presidential candidate by the opposition party; the extent to which he caused the outcome doesn’t matter. Nixon used the powers and prestige of the White House to obtain money to pay for his own personal goon squad. Their activities were more than objects of curiosity, and what- ever mirth (albeit nervous) they stirred at the time evanesces when they’re seen as part of the larger purpose of undermining the workings of the opposition party. That way lay fascism. And Watergate was the second greatest test of the Constitutional system in our nation’s history: was the President accountable to the Congress and the courts?
Thus, Nixon’s nearly lifelong pattern of confusing opponents for “enemies” was carried right into the White House, where there was little hesita- tion to use the instruments of power at the top of the government to spy on, harrass, “destroy” them. (George Shultz, then Treasury Secretary, did refuse to implement the use of the IRS to audit those on the enemies list, thus earning Nixon’s sobriquet “candy-ass.”)
Fortunately, the plumbers were stumblebums, more fit for Marx Brothers movies than sinister plots on the part of the President of the United States and his aides. They bungled every assignment they were given. But the comic aspect of their cloddish performances collides in the mind with their role as an off-the-books operation to carry out the President’s personal vendettas—in the process tearing up Constitutional and other long accepted restraints.
I discovered later that the plumbers’ history-making break-in of the Democratic party’s headquarters in the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972 was actually their fourth attempt to get into the DNC’s offices—and in fact their second successful entry. By now conducting break-ins was rather routine for these misguided zealots—nothing special. (Though there were various theories, it has never been settled exactly what the burglars were looking for, or why they put taps on a couple of phones, including that of party chairman Lawrence O’Brien—but in the end those aren’t important matters. The point is that this was considered an okay thing to do to the opposition party.)
The plumbers’ first attempt to get into the DNC headquarters was through an elaborate ruse in which they staged a dinner within the Watergate building, which, they figured, would provide them a way to get into the DNC offices later. But the burglars ended up spending the night locked in a closet. On the second attempt they got as far as the DNC office, but they’d failed to bring the right equipment to break the lock on the door. So one of the burglars had to return to Miami to obtain the proper tools for their mission. The burglars did succeed in getting into the DNC offices on the third try, on Memorial Day weekend of 1972—but they made a hash of the job. (The bug on O’Brien’s phone didn’t work, and the documents they photographed were barely readable.) A highly dissatisfied John Mitchell ordered the burglars to go back to the DNC’s Watergate offices and get it right. But they got a bit careless with tape.
It was clear from a conversation Nixon had with Haldeman in the White House three days later, after he returned from a vacation in Key Biscayne, that he was worried that the capture of the burglars would lead to Colson and the number of things the plumbers—whom Nixon kept referring to as “the Cubans”—had done. In particular, he feared that the arrest would uncover the break-in of the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Field- ing, in Los Angeles, on September 19, 1971, nearly a year before. This raid was a flagrant violation of the Fourth Amendment. It’s also clear that the cover-up had more to do with the raid on Fielding’s office than it did with the Watergate break-in. Ehrlichman said later that Nixon had known about the raid on the psychiatrist’s office beforehand. The purpose of this break-in was to get hold of Ellsberg’s file in order to see if there was anything in his talks with his psychiatrist that they could smear him with (imagine!). Such material might also be useful in swaying the jury in Ellsberg’s trial.
Haldeman, a little blind to the details, said to Nixon, “They’ve been doing other things very well, apparently.” He and Nixon discussed the relationship of the various Cubans and their leaders to the White House; Haldeman suggested their line of defense for having broken into the Watergate: “We went in there to get this because we’re scared to death that this crazy man [McGovern] is going to become President and sell the US out to the co munists.” In this and a meeting the next day, it became clear that Nixon and his aides were especially concerned about the arrest of Howard Hunt: “He’s done a lot of things,” the President said. The swashbuckling Hunt, who directed most of the plumbers’ operations, was the hyper-belligerent Colson’s man. And they became apprehensive, fatally so, about what the FBI might learn. The President asked his aides, “Can you get a little better protection for the White House on that?”
It was from this conversation between Nixon and Haldeman that the famous 18 ½ minute erasure was made. Though the “18 ½ minute gap” remained a mystery during Watergate and for a long time after—White House aides had tried to place the blame on Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods—the evidence is compelling that Nixon had sat at Camp David working the keys to delete a large portion of this dangerous conversation. But what remained was incriminating enough—the cover-up was being planned right then and there. The disclosure of these conversations three days after the discovered break-in put the lie to the countless statements Nixon made to the public as to when he learned of any White House role in the break-in, or any attempt to cover it up.
The plumbers botched the job of the breaking into Dr. Fielding’s office, too. Though their two leaders, Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, cased Dr. Fielding’s office beforehand, when the plumbers, using CIA-supplied wigs and other disguises, including voice-altering devices, broke in they found no files at all, not to mention one on Ellsberg. Even so, the break-in still ma aged to defeat its purpose. In the course of Ellsberg’s trial on federal charges, the Justice Department, over Nixon’s strenuous objections, disclosed the raid on Dr. Fielding’s office. After that disclosure, the district judge presiding over the case ruled that the administration’s efforts to interfere in the trial “offend a sense of justice,” and he dismissed the case. The raid on Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s file was the single most damning—and alarming—act of the entire Watergate period.
The craziest idea of all: to firebomb the Brookings Institution in order to find material about Vietnam that Nixon was convinced was squirreled away there. The strategem, cooked up by Colson, whom even his White House colleagues considered unrestrained, resulted from insistence by the president: “Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get them.” It’s been speculated that the material Nixon was after was, variously, two unreleased chapters of the Pentagon Papers, information about the bombing halt just before the 1968 election, or perhaps a document that would disclose Nixon’s role in interfering with the peace talks—the collapse of which may have decided the election. (When an election is that close, any number of things can have caused the outcome.) Colson’s scheme was that the White House’s private goon squad start a fire in the building on Massachusetts Avenue and in the confusion when a fire truck that they themselves mocked up was arriving, the plumbers would blow open a safe in the office of Leslie Gelb or Morton Halperin, two former Pentagon employees who had worked on the Pengagon Papers, and seize the contents. But as it happened, neither Gelb nor Halperin had any such papers—they didn’t even have a safe. Some presidential aides realized the recklessness of the Brookings plan and called it off.
Was the Ending Inevitable?
In retrospect, the denouement appeared inevitable—but it certainly didn’t feel like that at the time. Not until quite close to the very end, once the “smoking gun” was discovered and Republican leaders, in an act more of self-preservation than courage, went to the White House and told Nixon he had to go. If Nixon didn’t accommodate them, they would have had to stage a trial in the Senate and cast some—even at that point— difficult votes. Nixon, it must be remembered, still had a base. It was a foregone conclusion that the House would adopt the Judiciary Committee’s Articles of Impeachment: they had been arrived at through a process that—as envisioned by chairman Peter Rodino, his young strategist Francis O’Brien, and the calm, methodical, un-partisan counsel, John Doar—ended in three articles that were adopted by bipartisan votes and that the country overwhelmingly deemed fair. But even then Nixon’s departure wasn’t a sure thing. With his presidency hanging in the balance, Nixon alarmed to the end—there simply was no telling what this desperate, out-of-control (and, we now know, heavily drinking) man would do. It’s to be recalled that the Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger, felt constrained to tell Pentagon military officials not to take any orders from the White House that hadn’t gone through him.
It wasn’t Nixon’s intent, of course, but the Watergate period ushered in an era of government reforms. Nixon had greatly expanded the president’s powers, and his downfall caused the congress to try to curb them or to take many of them back, as well as to reform some of its own procedures. In the 1974 midterm landslide for the Democrats, a reaction to Watergate, the Democrats picked up forty-nine House seats—the “Watergate Babies”— and gained five seats in the Senate. A flood of reform legislation ensued; among these were: campaign finance reform; the Freedom of Information Act, which gave citizens greater access to government records; more congressional committee deliberations were opened to the public; ethics rules for members the adminstration and congress, including a requirement to file financial disclosures; a Congressional Budget Office to prevent a president from refusing to spend funds authorized by congress (as Nixon had in his “impoundments”); authorization for special prosecutors to investigate alleged crimes in the Executive Branch; the War Powers Act, intended to limit the president’s power to wage war without the approval of congress (though this didn’t actually work as intended).
Some of these reforms had a more lasting impact than others; campaign finance reform remained the subject of an unending struggle, and the law’s impact was severely diminished by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts once Samuel Alito replaced Sandra Day O’Connor, in 2006; some decisions upholding the campaign finance law were overturned two years later, and the Citizens United case reversed a century of limits on con- tributions by corporations. Justices who didn’t understand politics or had a conservative agenda gradually opened up our political system to great floods of private money aimed at fixing nominations and turning elections at several levels—and also at affecting federal and state policies. There weren’t great grounds for optimism about returning to the post-Watergate campaign finance reforms, in fact or in spirit.
Government will always create opportunities for corruption. And not everything that is politically influenced is corrupt—and there’s more public alertness. The orgy of excitement over faux scandals in the fall of 2013 brought home the truth that scandals are a lot of collective fun for the press— certainly more so than the details of the federal budget. The difference lies in whether there’s systematized corruption sanctioned at the highest levels—as occurred during Watergate.
The temptation—born partly out of nostalgia, partly out of dimmingmemories, and partly out of partisan revenge—has existed since Nixon to analogize real or suspected egregious actions on the part of a president or his top people to Nixon or Watergate, but nothing has come close to the pattern of illegal and abusive activities at the top of the government that went on then, directed or sanctioned by the President himself—or for which he was accountable.
Watergate wasn’t this event or that one, but a pattern of behavior, a mentality that sanctioned activities that were without precedent or successor. Nixon told David Frost, “If the president does it it isn’t illegal,” and he was surrounded by toadies that largely went along with this stunning view. It’s not clear that Nixon actually believed this throughout his presidency: he was deeply worried about being found out. Though the Watergate period was alarming, honesty requires an admission that it was also a high—that for all its deeply worrisome nature, it was an exciting time, a wild ride through history, including several moments of hilarity. But it was essentially nervous laughter, giving cover to the fact that most of us were frightened, at least some of the time, many for most of it. Power was in the hands of people who gave the clear impression that they would do anything to maintain it.
In real time, we watched with fascination as the story played out in ensuing years—as some of his aides who’d gone to jail came out devoted, proselytizing Christians. Was all to be forgiven? It was a hard sell, but not for lack of trying. Nixon’s devotees continued to play down or redefine Water- gate as a sideshow, a coup against him by his enemies. Former participants produced stacks of books, many justifying their role at the expense of others; and thereby we were treated to an extended viewing of the nest of vipers that was the Nixon White House. The Nixon family and historians contin- ued to battle over what Watergate was. Little that Nixon touched or affected escaped the long struggle over the definition of the man and his presidency.
Richard Nixon would probably be surprised and also bemused that over time he became a cult figure. It’s unarguable that Nixon was one of the most fascinating political characters in all of American history. His awkwardness and characteristic colloquialisms made him an entertaining figure. But this was a man whose long-nursed angers caused him to destroy the presidency he had sought for so long. This was a man whose drinking and consumption of unprescribed medication caused him to be out of control at critical times, and it’s doubtful that we will ever know all of them or just when they were. Was this the case when he ordered two worldwide nuclear alerts for no apparent reason from the White House residence, where he had taken refuge during deep depressions? His aides considered it the highest duty to protect him, rather than the country from him. This was a man with no real friends, no one to remind him of the boundaries. He tested the constitutional system, and it held firm through a fortuitous collection of personalities who rose to the occasion. A misfit almost all his life, he convinced some of the press time and again that he had changed, and the establishment that he was a wise man. Do we have a screen adequate to prevent such a person from again gaining power?
That is not clear.