Nemesis gives the Tricky Dicky tapes another hearing
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