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Packed with revelations on almost every page, the Abuse of Power tapes offer a spellbinding portrait of raw power and a Shakespearean depiction of a king and his court. Never have the personalities of Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Colson, Haig, Kissinger, Dean, and Mitchell been so vividly captured with the spoken word. And never has an American President offered such a revealing record of his darkest self.
It's oddly refreshing to get the undiluted, unmediated sense of hugger-mugger....It makes for spellbinding reading, and plunges us back into that sordid, astonishing world like nothing else.
The Wall Street Journal
Just when you thought we didn't have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore...these new tapes show a president deeply immersed in the mechanics of a cover-up, giving full voice to the earthy language that, twenty-five years ago, made "expletive deleted" a household phrase.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Richard Nixon has been the subject of countless portraits, but none is more compelling than the one that emerges from these grotesque and riveting pages: Nixon raw, in his own words, a president unmasked.
From the Introduction
The year of events following the Watergate break-in is at the heart of this story. Prophetically, at the outset, Nixon and Haldeman discussed their special secret—the taping system—on June 20, 1972. The President thought that it "complicates things all over." Haldeman replied: "They say it's extremely good. I haven't listened to the tapes." And N
The arrest of E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA operative, following the Watergate break-in, filled Nixon with foreboding. On June 22, 1972, Haldeman told Nixon that Hunt, who had been involved in the Watergate break-in, "is in the process of disappearing." The next day, Nixon remarked that Hunt had "done a lot of things." Meanwhile, the first cover-up appears at the same time when Nixon learned of an attempt to pin it all on G. Gordon Liddy ("Is Liddy willing?" Nixon queried). A year later (April 10), Nixon worried that Hunt would expose "an earlier venture"—meaning the Plumbers and their illegal activities. Typically, such insights alternated with the President's remarks about the "comic opera" and "stupid" overtones of the caper, as he called it. Haldeman warned him of the "various lines of interlinkage in the whole damn business" (June 26, 1972), obviously referring to past White House activities that had involved such men as Hunt. But from the outset, Nixon recognized the problem of, and the difficulty of maintaining, a cover-up. On June 29, 1972, he told Haldeman, "It's a time bomb"; the next day, he said: "You can't cover this thing up, Bob." The next month (July 19), he invoked memories of the Alger Hiss case (a favorite theme): "If you cover up, you're going to get caught." That day, too, Nixon and Ehrlichman discussed whether Magruder could take responsibility. The President was now involved in the specifics of testimony (July 19: "Can't he [Magruder] state it just a little different?"). He still hoped to keep Mitchell free from blame. Yet one by one, each such firewall would be breached in the coming year. By May 29, 1973, thoroughly exasperated, Nixon would claim that the cover-up, "t he whole Goddamn thing, frankly, was done because it involved Mitchell."
Nixon knew of the cover-up from the start, as we well know from the famous "smoking gun" conversations of June 23, 1972. But he kept himself informed on the subject throughout the summer. He knew, despite later protestations of his ignorance of John Dean and his role, what his young counsel had been doing. Haldeman told him on July 20, 1972: "John Dean is watching it on an almost full-time basis and reporting to Ehrlichman and me on a continuing basis.... There's no one else in the White House that has any knowledge of what's going on there at all." That very day, Haldeman assured Nixon that the Department of Justice investigation was going "along the channels that will not produce the kind of answers we don't want produced." On obstruction of justice, the verdict of the tapes is clear.
Nixon often expressed admiration for Dean. Less than three weeks before Dean's famous March 21, 1973, "cancer on the presidency" discussion with Nixon,the President said: "Hell, I'm convinced that Dean is a pretty good gem....[H]e's awfully smart....[H]e thinks things through and all that. He's not cocky" (March 2, 1973). He told Dean on March 16 that "the problem is the cover-up." Still, it was necessary because "there's a hell of a lot of other crap going to hit" (April 28, 1973). A week after the March 21 meeting, Nixon said that Dean has "been a hero." Yet by April 25, the President told Attorney General Richard Kleindienst that Dean had ordered the break-in of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office.
Nixon always denied that he knew of "hush money" payments until Dean told him in March. But these tapes give the lie to what Nixon called a "myth." On August 1, 1972, Haldeman reported that "Hunt's happy." "At considerable cost," the President said. But hastily added: "It's worth it,...[t]hey have to be paid. That's all there is to that." On January 3, 1973, Haldeman told Nixon: "Liddy we're taking care of in one way. We've got to be very careful to take care of [Jeb] Magruder the right way, in the other way." After Dean left the March 21 meeting, the President told his longtime, faithful secretary Rose Mary Woods that he "may have a need for substantial cash for a personal purpose,"—a "campaign thing," he added. Again, before the March 21 meeting, Nixon acknowledged that his good friend, prominent Republican fundraiser Thomas Pappas "has raised the money." Haldeman responded by noting Pappas's great virtue: "And he's able to deal in cash..." (March 2, 1973). A few days later, on March 7, Nixon personally thanked Pappas for helping out "on some of these things that...others are involved in."
The climax of these tapes occurs with the conversations that led to the firing of Haldeman and Ehrlichman on April 30, 1973. On March 27, Haldeman had warned Nixon: "You fire everybody now, you send them to jail." Ehrlichman, meanwhile, continued to scheme to have John Mitchell take the fall for everyone regarding the break-in, while the cover-up would remain secret (April 14, 1973). Dismissing his aides was agonizing for Nixon. But on April 12, he had set his course: "We've got to think the unthinkable sometimes." After he dismissed his aides, the President's conversations on the night of April 30 are emotional, distraught, poignant, and sprinkled with his slurred words. "I love you," he tells Haldeman. A few days earlier, he told Ziegler: "It's all over, do you know that?"
The departure of Haldeman set the stage for the emergence of General Alexander Haig as Chief of Staff. Documentation for Haig's activities is hard to come by, as most of his papers remain closed in the Library of Congress (along with Henry Kissinger's). But the new tapes reveal much about the man and his role. The conversations of May 89 are classic expressions of bureaucratic maneuvering, as Haig consolidated his position, established control over the President's legal defense, excluded White House counsel Leonard Garment from effective access, and eased Haldeman away from the President. For Haig, the stakes are old-fashioned: Watergate, he tells Nixon on May 11, involves "good, strong Americanism versus left-wing sabotage." He knew how to exploit Nixon's cynicism. He wanted former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg as Special Prosecutor because he "is obnoxious and doesn't wear well with the people, which would be good for our point of view" (May 12, 1973). Near the end (July 12, 1973), Haig expressed his frustration with Watergate: "It's just like Vietnam, a strange place."
Nixon's jarring language about Jews recurs throughout the tapes. "Bob, please get me the names of the Jews, you know, the big Jewish contributors of the Democrats....Could we please investigate some of the cocksuckers?" he told Haldeman on September 13, 1971. The next year, on October 20, he criticized a reporter and an FBI executive: "[T]hey're both Jews and that has nothing to do with it, but it at least gives you a feeling of the possible motivation deep down of the liberal leftists." An anti-Semite? Perhaps; though many of his admirers quickly retort that such expressions never were "operational," that nothing resulted from them. And, it is noted, some key Administration players were Jewish. Nixon also regularly belittled Harvard men, yet he was quick to have them in his Administration. Probably, what was at work here was that corrosive cynicism that pervaded Nixon's remarks—similar to his cynical exploitation of an opponent's endorsement of school busing while his Administration compiled an enviable record on school desegregation in the South, or when he boasted to Charles Colson on dune 13, 1973, that "the blacks don't like" his choice for Director of the FBI, Clarence Kelley.
Nixon reminds us of his earlier history, with references to his role in the Hiss case and the firing of Sherman Adams, Dwight Eisenhower's chief of staff. He suggested reviving the virtually moribund House Committee on Un-American Activities following the Pentagon Papers incident. The Committee, he said on July 2, 1971, could investigate a spy ring, believing it could re-create the circus atmosphere of twenty years earlier. "[W]hat a marvelous opportunity for the committee....[Y]ou know what's going to charge up an audience. Jesus Christ, they'll be hanging from the rafters....Going after all these Jews. Just find one that is a Jew, will you...." Comforting old thoughts never were too far behind. On March 29, 1973, Nixon defended his use of the "Plumbers," a group engaged in illegal operations, ostensibly to thwart "leaks." "This is national security...We've got all sorts of activities because we've been trying to run this town by avoiding the Jews in the government because there were very serious questions [of leaks]."
The President needed his demons, his "enemies," in more familiar White House terms. First, there was Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers to major newspapers. "Try him in the press," Nixon told an aide on June 30, 1971. "We want to destroy him in the press." A few days earlier, on June 24, however, Nixon expressed a sneaking admiration for Ellsberg, wanting his own "Ellsberg, an Ellsberg who's on our side; in other words, an intellectual who knows the history of the times, who knows what he's looking for." Specifically, Nixon wanted a man to study records of past presidents and foreign affairs to reveal their shortcomings and failures.
The fact that the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers only fueled Nixon's anger. On July 1, 1971, after the Supreme Court allowed the newspaper to continue publication, Nixon the conspiracist responded: "Do you think, for Christ sakes, that the New York Times is worried about all the legal niceties? Those sons of bitches are killing me....We're up against an enemy, a conspiracy. They're using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear?" That same day, he attacked the media in general. "We want somebody to be a [Joseph] McCarthy....Is there another [Bob] Dole?" Then: "[T]he press now is putting their right to make money, to profit, to profit from publication of stolen documents under the First Amendment and that that overrides the right of an American who is fighting for his country....[G]et into some of this material. Hit it and keep hitting and ream them and [send] letters to [the] editor embarrassing, you know, Senator[s]-elect....I know how this game is played."
The creation and use of the Plumbers is, of course, at the center of abuse-of-power charges against the President. Shortly after the group broke into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office in Los Angeles, Ehrlichman told the President on September 8, 1971: "We had one more little operation. It's been aborted out in Los Angeles which, I think, is better that you don't know about. But we've got some dirty tricks underway...We've planted a bunch of stuff with columnists, some of which will be given to service shortly...about Ellsberg's lawyer, about the Bay of Pigs." Nixon always rationalized the break-in as a justifiable "national security" operation. His aide, Charles Colson, put his own gloss on such thinking, saying, "They weren't stealing anything,...they had broken and entered with an intent not to steal, [only] with an intent to obtain information" (July 19, 1972).
At the end, the conversations take on a funny, sad character when, for example, the President's friend Bebe Rebozo told the President about a supportive letter from the ex-Mayor of Jersey City, then a guest of the federal government at Leavenworth (June 12, 1973). (At the end, Nixon seemed comfortable only with Rebozo, Rose Mary Woods, and possibly Press Secretary Ron Ziegler.) Or Henry Kissinger solemnly reporting to the President that he now had the support of author Norman Mailer (July 12, 1973). Nixon assured his daughter (June 19, 1973) that Dean had nothing. He merely "was the carry-outer of this thing." Finally, and fittingly, in the last conversation here, Nixon urged Kissinger to "keep on fighting."
Altogether, we have a richer, more informed portrait of the only man to have resigned the presidency. The new tapes offer the best opportunity to view the "inner man," to capture him in different facets and moods—a man alternately resourceful and inept, exhilarated and depressed, combative and passive, prosaic and articulate, repetitive and informed, self-centered and empathetic, sometimes sad yet often comical. We have no known record of such unguarded and frank talk by any other president.
Copyright © 1997 by Stanley I. Kutler
|Cast of Characters|
|Introduction: The Tapes of Richard Nixon|
|Pt. 1||The Pentagon Papers and Other "White House Horrors": June 1971 - June 1972||1|
|Pt. 2||Watergate: Break-In and Cover-Up: June 1972 - December 1972||43|
|Pt. 3||Watergate: The Unraveling of the Cover-Up: January 1973 - April 1973||187|
|Pt. 4||The President Under Siege: May 1973 - July 1973||387|
|Epilogue: The Final Year: The Fall of the President: July 1973 - August 1974||637|