Robert Scheer’s interviews with and profiles of US presidents have shaped journalism history. Scheer developed close journalistic relationships with Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George H. W. Bush, and his reporting on them had a tangible impact on national debate—with examples including the famed 1976 Playboy interview in which then-candidate Jimmy Carter admitted to have lusted in his heart; and the 1980 interview with the Los Angeles Times during which the senior Bush confessed to Scheer his dream of a “winnable nuclear war.”
In Playing President, Robert Scheer offers an unparalleled insight into the presidential mind, analyzing administrations from Nixon to George W. Bush, offering insights that will surprise the reader—particularly those with rigid preconceptions about the decision-making processes of our leaders. Also included are reprints of Scheer’s famous presidential interviews, along with previously unpublished interview transcripts and select writings.
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RICHARD NIXON'S FROZEN SMILE
MOST OF THE TIME THAT I spent in one-on-one interviews with the Presidents in this book occurred while they were still trying out for the role, mostly in the rush of national campaigns for the presidency. As a print journalist, I was granted an access that — as the candidates' handlers would often remind — was unwarranted by the declining power of the news organizations I represented.
Difficult as it may be for younger generations to imagine, each of these Presidents could remember a time when print media was dominant and television was not to be taken so seriously. Some adjusted more fluidly to the evolving impact of the instantaneous and visual mass media, while others barely ever got it. Television entered the nation's life at different points in these men's political development, and they had varying degrees of familiarity with the medium while growing up.
Absent in the youth of Nixon, Carter, and Bush I, but increasingly dominant in the early years of Clinton and George W. Bush, television and its dramatic impact would prove decisive for all. Reagan is an exception in this regard, for while television was virtually nonexistent in the formative years of his life, his acting career made him superbly confident on any public stage.
The most reluctant to acknowledge the new television age was Richard Nixon, who, despite being unquestionably the best prepared of all modern Presidents before assuming office, never fully adjusted to the media form, which requires mastering a casual, open, and confident demeanor. This was no small failing, for in the end, whatever one concludes about his performance as President, it was his indelibly awkward and secretive style that did him in. He became the most disgraced of our Presidents, not because of the substance of his performance, but because of its fatally flawed delivery before a national audience.
If not for that failure of style, Nixon would have been able to finesse the Watergate burglary with the ease that all these other Presidents handled crises of far greater international significance. For example, Jimmy Carter's overreaction to a pro-Soviet coup in Afghanistan, which ended up nurturing dangerous Muslim fundamentalists — most notably Osama bin Laden — represents a far greater betrayal of the public trust. So, too, Reagan's Iran Contra scandal and George W. Bush's cooking of the WMD smoke to justify occupying Iraq.
As much as I disagreed with some of Nixon's policies (and my anti — Vietnam War activities resulted in various forms of harassment from his Administration, including a tax audit), I came years later to acknowledge that I had underestimated the accomplishments of his tenure in the White House. That is what led me, in the following essay written for the Los Angeles Times a decade after Nixon was run out of office, to attempt to separate the man's often loathsome style from his at times quite impressive substance.
I didn't undertake this reporting assignment for the Times in an effort to rehabilitate Nixon, and certainly not to court the approval of the disgraced President then living in virtual exile in his own country. I knew in advance that my requests for an interview would be turned down, since I had established myself years earlier as one of his most vociferous critics.
It was much to my amazement, then, after sending my published article to Nixon's office as a matter of formality, that I received a letter from the man himself (see page 22). Given how most of us in this profession struggle so mightily to attain a degree of objectivity, I value Nixon's response to my article as professional praise.
My visit with Nixon after his kind offer to grant me an interview (reprinted here on page 37) proved to be every bit as awkward as I anticipated. What I recall most is a sort of box-step dance we did as I entered his office: A standing Nixon greeted me with that odd frozen smile of his, just like in all the pictures, appearing to be warmly welcoming me, while actually retreating — causing me to stumble forward with my hand extended.
But no sooner was he seated behind his desk than did the other Nixon appear, the old fox who had mastered world politics. Confident and resolute to a fault, he quickly ticked off facts and theories on any subject I brought up, as if he had a Wikipedia chip implanted in his brain.
I mean, the man was dazzling in his clarity, particularly as he dissected the Reagan Administration's obsession with a "Star Wars" missile-defense system. The overall effect was impressively different from what I had expected: In this arena, Nixon was truly at peace with himself.
As for my own view of the Nixon presidency, I stand by the first article reprinted here. My perspective was reinforced while working as a screenwriter (along with my son Christopher) on Oliver Stone's 1995 movie, Nixon, which I insisted place considerable emphasis on the former President's achievements — especially the opening to China — while of course visiting the all-too-evident dark side of his Administration. At that time, we had only minimal access to the Nixon White House tapes, but the thousands of hours of recordings made public since then support my earlier assessment of his presidency.
RICHARD NIXON IS COMING ON STRONG. AFTER A DECADE of ignominious forced retirement following the disgrace of the Watergate scandal, the old warrior is now back, writing books and articles, advising the President's advisers, meeting foreign heads of state, and granting carefully selected television and print interviews.
And what he has to say may confound the expectations of his many detractors. For in this incarnation, Richard Nixon reminds not of the vindictiveness of enemies lists, the obstruction of justice, or the break-in of a psychiatrist's office perpetrated by "plumbers" on his staff, but rather of the grander shifts of foreign policy in what he views as the pursuit of global peace.
The new Nixon is Nixon as he would prefer to be remembered. His latest book, The Real Peace, is a defense of his policy of détente with the Soviet Union and summit meetings between the superpower leaders.
What is more surprising, the Nixon Administration, scorned for so long, is also coming in for more favorable treatment by some commentators.
A small but growing number of historians, scholars, and even rival politicians are beginning to re-examine the Nixon era and to challenge the view commonly held of Nixon as a failed President, the most disgraced chief executive in American history.
Nixon in his reemergence remains totally unrepentant about his Administration, which he insists was a glorious one despite some excesses here and there. And even some victims of those excesses, such as former Senator George S. McGovern, his 1972 opponent for the presidency, acknowledge that the Nixon era looks better with the passage of time.
"In dealing with the two major Communist powers, Nixon probably had a better record than any President since World War Two," McGovern noted in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times. "He put us on the course to practical working relationships with both the Russians and Chinese," an achievement which "stands in sharp contrast to the rigid, unyielding, backward-looking approach that Reagan takes toward all Communist regimes."
Reagan's foreign policy appears to be the major cause of the current reappraisal of Nixon. "Nixon is beginning to look better and more interesting after three years of Reagan," noted Jonathan M. Wiener, a historian at UC Irvine, "even among younger historians who were influenced by the anti — Vietnam War movement."
"History is all relative, and if you compare him to the current occupant of the White House, especially in his handling of foreign affairs, it's no wonder to me there's a nostalgia for Nixon at the helm," observed Robert Sam Anson, author of a forthcoming book about Nixon. Anson said his book "is not an apologia for the bad things he did," but he added that Nixon "did a number of undeniably good things that have been forgotten. He negotiated the first and only strategic arms limitation treaty, the opening to China. He ended the war, ended the draft; the eighteen-year-old vote came under his presidency. He did a lot of good things and they all got swept away by Watergate."
Author Harrison E. Salisbury, who has been critical of Nixon in the past, after reading an advance copy of The RealPeace, wrote to the former President and hailed his "vision" as "superb." Salisbury added, "As a primer for the country, and President Reagan, I cannot imagine a better [one]."
Nixon's foreign policy achievements are the focus of the current reappraisal, though some commentators also praise aspects of his domestic policy, especially his establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and his efforts to reform the welfare system.
But other scholars and politicians still contend that however sound some aspects of Nixon's foreign policy were, they are not enough to brighten his tarnished image.
"To say that Nixon had the sensible and obvious view, shared by my thirteen-year-old daughter though unfortunately not by the incumbent President, that we must deal with the Soviets, is not sufficient to absolve him of the abuses of power represented by Watergate," John D. Anderson, the former Republican congressional leader and Independent presidential candidate, said in an interview.
That more critical view continues to dominate both journalistic and academic circles, where the memory of Watergate defines the man. In what remains one of the oddest chapters in American history, this President who had left his mark, as few have, on American foreign policy and who continues to be prolific in his pronouncements, has become, in some quarters, very much a non-person — more the perpetrator of a scandal to be forgotten than the architect of a policy to be studied.
Although without much honor in his own country, Nixon continues to be admired abroad. Georgy A. Arbatov, a member of the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee and an expert on the United States, said in an interview last year that the Soviets consider Nixon to be the most effective post-war President.
Many Western Europeans share that view. "The Europeans always had a much higher opinion of Nixon than did the Americans, and looked upon Watergate more as a bagatelle than a crime," observed foreign policy expert Ronald Steel. "It's a difference of historical background. The Europeans are used to this sort of thing."
Since he left office, Nixon also has made several visits to China, each time receiving accolades for having opened the door to U.S.-China relations in 1972. The Chinese, who have never shown any interest in Watergate, explain their admiration for the former President by quoting an old Chinese proverb, "When drinking the water, don't forget those who dug the well."
Nixon's standing is also high in the Middle East. When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in October 1981, Nixon — along with former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald R. Ford — represented the United States at his funeral. He then made an eight-day trip to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia and, on his return, he issued a statement urging direct negotiations between the United States and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
In Israel, however, Nixon is still fondly remembered as the first U.S. President to visit Jerusalem — a trip he made on the eve of his resignation. "Nixon was then a hated person on the verge of impeachment in Washington," Amir Shaviv, a leading Israeli journalist, recently recalled. "But when he came to visit Jerusalem, thousands cheered him on the streets and the government of Yitzhak Rabin received him as a great friend."
Yet in this country, despite the vast outpouring of books and articles devoted to his involvement in the burglary of the Democratic Party headquarters and related sordid events, there has been scant notice paid to the major shifts in policy brought about during the Nixon years.
"We haven't had an historical interpretation of him since Watergate, but we've had a number of hysterical ones," charged historian Joan Hoff-Wilson, a University of Indiana professor whose study of the Nixon years will be published this summer. "It's the worst body of literature I have read on anyone, presidential or otherwise. It's so skewed by Watergate that you can't get a picture of him."
Hoff-Wilson, executive secretary of the Organization of American Historians, has interviewed the former President and attributes much of this bias against him to the fact that "journalists have a vested interest in making sure that nothing good is ever said about him ... Watergate is their major claim to fame and the whole investigatory syndrome that followed." By contrast, Hoff-Wilson argues that the Nixon Administration was the "most significant since [Franklin D.] Roosevelt's."
Whether or not one accepts that judgment, the abiding mystery of Richard Nixon is how a politician described by many as totally lacking in moral integrity and devoid of an intellectual and programmatic commitment could have achieved so much clarity of purpose in his presidency.
How is it that this man, who has been described in much of the Watergate literature as little more than a charlatan of the first order, accomplished so much as President? How can it be that Nixon, who for most of his life was derided by his liberal critics as a primitive and demagogic anti-Communist, who began political life in California by smearing his congressional opponent as a Red, now campaigns for "hardheaded détente" with the Soviets?
Some historians feel that such questions will inevitably compel a more complex assessment of the Nixon presidency. There are already some signs in the academic community of a perception that Watergate may be too narrow a window for viewing the Nixon legacy.
"Historians are trying out a Nixon revisionism in the classrooms," Stanford University historian Barton J. Bernstein said in a recent interview, "but so far a revised view of Nixon has not made its way into the literature."
Bernstein, who specializes in modern diplomatic history, is convinced, however, that "in another ten to fifteen years, I will be assigning literature that will argue the case for a reassessment of Nixon and for upgrading him because of some of his accomplishments in foreign policy."
Historian Hoff-Wilson is considerably less optimistic about the possibilities for a revisionist view of Nixon. "Until we die, I don't think there will be any significant change in the intellectual and published elite literature on Nixon," she said.
Hoff-Wilson, forty-four, considers herself part of that generation which opposed the war in Vietnam, but she chides her peers for not being able to transcend the "trauma" of that experience. "Most of my colleagues who are against him came out of the antiwar movement," she said.
One of her colleagues, Tufts University historian Martin Sherwin, has argued that his generation of historians is correct in making Nixon's role in Vietnam central to an evaluation of his Administration.
"Nixon is responsible for reaching a settlement of the Vietnam War in 1973 that he could have had in 1968, and this generation of historians remembers that and should," Sherwin said. He resists a revisionist view of Nixon "because there is no new body of documents or other information to warrant such a revisionism."
"I come down on the critical side," Sherwin said. "I think it's a mistake to believe that because the Reagan Administration has been such a disaster in the area of foreign policy, that that validates some of the worst policies that the Nixon Administration had pursued. After all, the U.S. bombing of Cambodia was an illegal, criminal act — a war against that country that was not approved by Congress."
UCLA historian Robert Dallek also disagrees with historians such as Hoff-Wilson who favor a major Nixon revisionism. "The history textbooks already give Nixon his due on détente and the opening to China and also hit him pretty hard on Vietnam and Watergate," Dallek said. "I don't think Hoff-Wilson's view of historians being blindly prejudiced toward Nixon is correct. The bulk of historians have made a more balanced assessment."
Hoff-Wilson conceded that "the negative things remain — Vietnam and the way that was handled, the secret war in Cambodia, and Watergate. I don't want to whitewash those things, but the problem is that that is all that's ever talked about. The problem is the imbalance with which we see him."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Playing President"
Copyright © 2006 Robert Scheer.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Gore Vidal,
Richard Nixon's Frozen Smile,
LETTER FROM NIXON TO SCHEER,
INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD NIXON,
Jimmy Carter's Lustful Heart,
INTERVIEW WITH JIMMY CARTER,
LETTER FROM CARTER TO SCHEER,
JIMMY, WE HARDLY KNOW Y'ALL,
Ronald Reagan's Obscure Complexity,
LETTER FROM NANCY REAGAN TO SCHEER,
PROFILE AND INTERVIEW WITH RONALD REAGAN,
George H.W. Bush's Entitlement Cool,
INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE H.W. BUSH,
Bill Clinton's Rascal Component,
LETTER #1 FROM CLINTON TO SCHEER,
LETTER #2 FROM CLINTON TO SCHEER,
INTERVIEW WITH BILL CLINTON,
George W. Bush's Perpetual Adolescence,