Neme­sis gives the Tricky Dicky tapes another hear­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story - Stephen Loosley

The Nixon De­fense: What He Knew and When He Knew It By John W. Dean Vik­ing, 784pp, $34.99 (HB) IN re­sponse to trou­bling polls in late 1971, Richard Nixon de­cided on a cam­paign visit to Nashville, Ten­nessee, to the Grand Ole Opry. This weekly stage con­cert was the home of coun­try mu­sic and drew an enor­mous tele­vi­sion and ra­dio au­di­ence ev­ery Satur­day evening.

It so hap­pened that on the Satur­day evening con­cerned, Pat Nixon was cel­e­brat­ing her birth­day. So it was ar­ranged for the pres­i­dent to play Happy Birth­day to the first lady on the pi­ano on stage at the end of the per­for­mances. Now the Nixons had been es­tranged for some time and slept in sep­a­rate bed­rooms. Nonethe­less, as the ren­di­tion of Happy Birth­day reached its cli­max, with the per­form­ers and the au­di­ence singing to Pat Nixon, the first lady was gen­uinely touched.

As the pres­i­dent fin­ished, she came for­ward with arms out­stretched and tears in her eyes. Richard Nixon walked right past her and said to Bob Halde­man, the tough­est of his per­sonal aides: ‘‘That wraps up Ten­nessee. Let’s get out of here.’’ And they did.

I have al­ways thought this story was apoc­ryphal. But con­sider this pas­sage from John Dean’s new book, The Nixon De­fense: What He Knew and When He Knew It. It’s based on a taped White House con­ver­sa­tion in which Nixon and se­nior ad­viser Charles Col­son are dis­cussing Col­son’s post-White House ca­reer: The pres­i­dent said he was pleased that Col­son was go­ing to have a cou­ple of Jews as law part­ners at the firm he was join­ing in Wash­ing­ton, DC. ‘‘I don’t know if I will be

Novem­ber 15-16, 2014 able to live with them,’’ Col­son con­fessed. ‘‘Oh, they’re aw­ful,’’ the pres­i­dent agreed. He added, ‘‘I hope you’re not putting blacks in there. Don’t go that far.’’

Dean was White House coun­sel to Nixon dur­ing the Water­gate scan­dal. He par­tic­i­pated ac­tively, at first, in the con­spir­acy the pres­i­dent and se­nior White House aides con­structed to cover up the botched bur­glary in June 1972 of the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee in Wash­ing­ton. In spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion, Dean then changed course, opened up to the pros­e­cu­tors and be­came a cel­e­brated wit­ness for the Se­nate Water­gate Com­mit­tee chaired by Demo­crat Sam Ervin. All this is cov­ered in Dean’s 1976 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Blind Am­bi­tion: The White House Years. It was Dean’s tes­ti­mony, along with the White House tapes of the pres­i­dent’s con­ver­sa­tions with his aides, that ef­fec­tively de­stroyed Nixon’s pres­i­dency.

Dean has now pro­duced a de­fin­i­tive anal­y­sis of the Water­gate cover-up by lis­ten­ing to all the tapes re­leased by the Na­tional Ar­chives and Records Ad­min­is­tra­tion with the ben­e­fit of im­proved tech­nol­ogy. It is pos­si­ble to hear Nixon re­peat­edly con­demn him­self in his own words. The ti­tle of the book is based on the fa­mous ques­tion posed by Repub­li­can se­na­tor Howard Baker dur­ing one hear­ing of the Ervin com­mit­tee: ‘‘What did the pres­i­dent know and when did he know it?’’ Dean an­swers with clar­ity and au­thor­ity.

Water­gate changed the na­ture of pol­i­tics and the me­dia. Re­porters were im­por­tant in mak­ing democ­racy work be­fore Bob Wood­ward and Carl Bern­stein pur­sued the Water­gate story for The Wash­ing­ton Post. Ever since Water­gate, how­ever, re­porters of­ten have been cen­tral play­ers in what­ever po­lit­i­cal drama is un­fold­ing.

Dean’s book shows Nixon per­plexed at why the bur­glary oc­curred. In the Oval Of­fice tapes, he asks con­tin­u­ally what on earth peo­ple were do­ing in the DNC of­fices of party chair­man Larry O’Brien. He should have known. Nixon’s en­tire po­lit­i­cal ca­reer had been char­ac­terised by what his own pres­i­den­tial li­brary, at Yorba Linda, Cal­i­for­nia, eu­phemisti­cally de­scribes as ‘‘tough cam­paigns’’.

In fact, as Nixon muses, it would have been more pro­duc­tive for the bur­glars, or­gan­ised by the chair­man of the Com­mit­tee to Re-Elect the Pres­i­dent (CREEP), John Mitchell (a for­mer US at­tor­ney-gen­eral), to break into se­na­tor George McGovern’s head­quar­ters. The fact is, that’s ex­actly what the bur­glars were plan­ning to do next, un­der the manic di­rec­tion of G. Gor­don Liddy and the shad­owy in­flu­ence of E. Howard Hunt, of CIA her­itage and Bay of Pigs no­to­ri­ety.

But Nixon was not in doubt about si­lenc­ing the Water­gate bur­glars. Dean re­calls: ‘‘Then the pres­i­dent stunned me. ‘ How much money do you need?’ he asked, which was not a ques­tion I had ex­pected, nor a mat­ter to which I had given any se­ri­ous thought. I paused for an in­stant and reached for what I thought would be a size­able num­ber, mak­ing it all more dif­fi­cult. ‘I would say th­ese peo­ple are go­ing to cost a mil­lion dol- lars over the next two years.’ ‘We could get that,’ the pres­i­dent re­sponded ... ’’

Nixon was al­ways driven by demons, from the time he left Whit­tier, Cal­i­for­nia, to the pres­i­dency it­self. This is on dis­play in the Oval Of­fice tapes, as he vows again and again to de­stroy his en­e­mies. To il­lus­trate, here is Nixon in full cry talk­ing to John Ehrlich­man about O’Brien. He is ob­sessed with O’Brien’s tax re­turns: Nixon con­tin­ued, ‘‘But any­way, here we go. What in the name of God are we do­ing on this score? What are we do­ing about their fi­nan­cial con­trib­u­tors? Now they, those lists are made, they’re there. Are we look­ing over McGovern’s fi­nan­cial con­trib­u­tors? Are we look­ing over the fi­nan­cial con­trib­u­tors of the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee? Are we run­ning their in­come tax re­turns? Is the Jus­tice Depart­ment check­ing to see whether or not there are any anti-trust suits?’’

This is from the same pres­i­dent who went to China, built de­tente with the Sovi­ets and signed the Clean Air and Clean Wa­ter acts into law. His dark side is as ter­ri­ble as it is disturbing.

De­liv­er­ing the eu­logy at Nixon’s fu­neral in 1994, then pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton said Nixon de­served to be judged on his en­tire ca­reer and not just on Water­gate. Clin­ton was think­ing of him­self when he made that remark, but nonethe­less it re­mains true. Un­for­tu­nately, thanks to Nixon’s own words on Water­gate, he will al­ways be judged for the appalling mis­con­duct and crim­i­nal con­spir­a­cies that con­sumed his White House. Dean has drawn all the tapes to­gether and his nar­ra­tive is ut­terly con­vinc­ing. Nixon had no de­fence, none at all.

John Dean is sworn in as a wit­ness be­fore the Se­nate Water­gate Com­mit­tee in 1973

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