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Postscript to Nixon

Had Jaworski been permitted to indict Nixon on the rumored graver charges or on still more detailed evidence than that before the House Committee, the likelihood is that this would have served to unify the country rather than divide it. Misgivings, perhaps natural in those who had believed in him so long, that the man had been cruelly hounded from office for offenses that in anyone else would have been considered venial, would have been laid to rest, and if a presidential pardon had come after trial and conviction, even his opponents might have felt that the time for mercy had arrived. The pleasures of picturing Nixon in jail have always been secondary to the desire that the true facts about him should be known and acquiesced in.

So whatever Jaworski has in his possession, or might secure, could hardly traumatize the country or, in Ford’s phraseology, “polarize the people in their opinions” and “challenge the credibility of our free institutions of government…at home and abroad.” That the spectacle of Nixon in the dock could be unpleasant to watch or read about is something else, but the simple plea of “guilty” would have obviated his appearance, except to enter the plea and hear the sentence. It is true that, given his character, one could hardly hope for this outcome: he has already withdrawn the mite of a confession that was wrung from him early in August when the Supreme Court decision forced him to hand over the clearly incriminating tapes of June 23 (six days after the break-in), which, as he admitted, were “at variance with certain of my previous statements.” He also admitted concealing that fact from his lawyers and from the legislative body examining the case. Today he concedes only “mistakes and misjudgments.”

A man on trial who is incapable of perceiving what his own actions amount to is obviously a public embarrassment, but that man, Nixon, has been on trial, in reality, for more than two years before the court of opinion and the television cameras, and our free institutions have not suffered for it, though there has been some amazement abroad. To prolong that trial, now that he has been separated from his official functions, and transfer it to a court of law—or to judge’s chambers—ought to have merits as well as painful aspects. At least the suspect would no longer be on view in his official persona, as head of state, under the scrutiny of other heads of state and their watchful entourages, alert for signs of strain as the grinning effigy shook hands, exchanged toasts, rose to deliver an after-dinner speech; Citizen Nixon could concentrate instead on his defense, which is what he ought to do if he is confident of his innocence. At any rate, there is no reason to think that protracting the “ordeal” of Richard Nixon would be as disturbing to the nation as Ford is making out.

Something nevertheless must have gravely disturbed him, unless the words we heard this morning relayed by BBC were mere oratory. If we assume that he was speaking from the heart (and American politicians, on the whole, are highly emotional beings), we must conclude that he had had a scare. Something had impelled him to act, and as rapidly as possible, to remove Richard Nixon from the public eye. He must never come to trial. That must be averted at all costs, and a swift and total pardon, whatever the risk to himself and to the Republican party, seemed to be the only course: “…if I can, I must.”

If the price of Nixon’s pardon would have to be amnesty for the others, he was willing to pay it. In fact, a blanket pardon would not only seem logical to the average guy; in the long run, it would be necessary to discourage civil lawsuits and keep Nixon out of the witness chair—there was a subpoena on him right now to appear in the September 30 trial and his pardon did not exempt him from the duty of being a witness. Executive clemency—an instrument that Nixon in the end did not dare use in his attempts at cover-up—was now Ford’s prerogative, and, being without complicity in the Watergate matter, he could afford to dole it out on the principle of equal justice and fair shakes.

It is worthwhile examining Ford’s language to try to divine what—if my supposition is right—had given him such a fright. “…I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed.” Whose bad dreams? He cannot mean America’s; except for inflation, the country is in a state of euphoria. Nixon’s, then. He is talking about Nixon, and the chapter that is closed is Nixon’s presidency and the events that happened therein. Nixon, in San Clemente, keeps trying to reopen that chapter; he will not write “the end”; his mind returns over and over to the scene of the crime or, rather, to the “misjudgments” he made. He is in a squirrel-cage turning round and round.

Ford again: “There is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part.” What tragedy? It cannot be Watergate, since most of us played no part in that drama, either as heroes or villains; we were spectators. And anyway, for us, it had a happy ending: Nixon went, and all his court with him. The American tragedy or what Ford sees as a tragedy is Richard Nixon. His rise and fall. He is a tragedy in himself, as a man, as well as in what happened to him, and in a sense we have all played a part in that: we voted for him, opposed him, cheered him, abused him, marched against him, strewed flowers in his path. We helped him on his way up and when he started to fall, we pushed him. That is surely how Nixon looks at it in exile at San Clemente with his “bad dreams,” which pursue him in a waking state and which may be mixed with intermittent brighter daydreams of a “comeback.”

In the last weeks there have been newspaper stories of his bizarre behavior at San Clemente: peculiar telephone calls to former colleagues on the Hill in Washington that seemed sometimes to imply that he thought he was still in office, vindictive tirades followed by apathy; we have had word-pictures of him poring over stacks of unopened mail, lonely walks on the beach, financial anxiety, fears of destitution; finally, and most oddly, as reported by the Washington Post, “inability to say the name of Leon Jaworski.” “He is emotionally depressed,” a visitor concluded. If all this is coupled with Ford’s allusion yesterday to the former president’s “health,” one can suppose that Nixon is—temporarily or permanently—insane, in other words, that his mental condition, were he to be indicted, would not permit him to stand trial. No wonder that Ford, who doubtless has been receiving reports and may even have been telephoned by Nixon, feels pity and terror.

Here one can see, through Ford’s eyes, where the interests of the country come in. If Nixon were committed to a mental institution (the normal procedure when a person under indictment is found unfit to stand trial), that could well affect the prestige of the United States, at least in the shocked view of its citizens. Royalty, since the office is hereditary, is allowed to go mad, but elected representatives, when they visibly crack up, are felt to cast discredit on the masses that voted for them. A history of mental illness, even an ancient history, as we saw in the case of Senator Eagleton, almost automatically disqualifies a vice-presidential candidate; the thought that a madman could succeed to the presidency is unnerving.

Luckily we have survived Nixon’s tenure. But the knowledge, if it took the form of a legal finding, that he is presently of unsound mind would inevitably give rise to second thoughts about his previous condition. Were his actions while in office those of a sane man and did he merely go into a clinical depression on losing the office? There is no sure way, obviously, of establishing that. The idea that his mental disturbance is no new thing will be attractive a) in confirming old suspicions on the part of a minority and b) in clearing up for the general public some hitherto inexplicable features of his behavior. We would no longer seek rational explanations for the tape mystery, why they were made and why he did not destroy them before it was too late; for his night visit to the student antiwar demonstrators at the Washington Monument to discuss football with them; for his strange remarks to Harold Wilson last spring and at Pompidou’s funeral; finally for the Watergate break-ins, if it was he who inspired and ordered them. The answer would be in our hands.

For some, sheer madness too would help explain some of his policies, e.g., the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam, the Laos incursion, the scare alert, last fall, of the armed forces during the Arab-Israeli war which was varyingly interpreted as a nuclear warning to Brezhnev and as a diversionary tactic in the tapes controversy. For others, however, i.e., the far right, it would be clear, finally, that a grandiose lunatic in the White House had arranged the détente with the Soviets and the brotherly recognition of Red China. In short, all Nixon’s policies and acts, including the SALT talks and “Vietnamization,” would be subject to reassessment if it could be argued that a deranged brain had initiated them, and Ford might well have worried about the unpredictable consequences for the stability of our alliances and undertakings.

But this is not all. There is still Watergate. According to reports, Nixon is alternately silent and talkative. We can only guess at what he is saying, since he receives only trusted people of his own camp, but accusations are said to be frequent, and the theme uppermost in his mind seems to be Watergate. No doubt members of the House Judiciary Committee come in for quite a bit of abuse, but it is hard not to think that some of his old familiars—Mitchell, Colson, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman—are being railed at for what they did to bring him to this pass. In his verbal incontinency, lashing out right and left, he must be telling not all that he knows but more than is good for him.

If he himself (as I continue to believe) was the guiding spirit and evil genius of Watergate, he is certainly, being Nixon, not proclaiming it, even in extremis, yet in casting blame wildly about, at the very least he must be revealing an intimate knowledge of what happened, spilling the beans with a vengeance (literally) and unaware, probably, of the extent to which he is doing so. In general, when any of us starts accusing others, he is likely to betray his own guilt, and Nixon can be no exception. Those who heard his disjointed farewell speech to the White House staff on television will not be surprised at anything this dissociated person may be letting fall at San Clemente.

The presidential transcripts published last June already show great unsteadiness of control: for long passages he seems to forget that the recording system is listening to what is said, then suddenly he will remember and revert to his public voice and to the authorized version of Watergate that presents him as utterly ignorant of what has been going on, a mere detached seeker of information. Then again he forgets. It is possible with a pencil to mark the points where this occurs. Not a word, however, is spoken—or at any rate appears in the transcripts—that indicates any foreknowledge of the June 17 break-in. There are several ways of interpreting this. Either he had no foreknowledge and was somewhat taken aback, as well as curious, or the tapes and portions of tape that disclose foreknowledge have been destroyed or partially erased, or in this particularly vital and dangerous area he was always mindful of the monitoring system.

It has been clear for a long time—more than a year—that we would not get the whole truth about Watergate, including the precise details of its planning, until one of the original nucleus of conspirators broke under the strain and began to talk, implicating his fellows, if not necessarily himself. But the last person from whom we would have expected this was Nixon. If in fact he has broken or was on the verge, Ford’s swift pardon was a move to shut him up, straitjacket him, for his own sake, as well as that of the public, which in Ford’s conventional view could not stand the shock of so much mud flying. “Lunatic” accusations by the former chief executive would inevitably have been followed by counter-accusations.

Without sharing Ford’s panic, I can feel a certain sympathy for him in his decision, the more so because I suspect the futility of it. The book cannot be sealed, as he ought by this time to know. If there is something in Watergate that keeps calling for cover-up, that can be summed up as the character of Richard Nixon. At the same time, there is something in Watergate—the same entity—that persists in disclosing itself, despite all efforts, well-meaning or evilly designed. Pardon will not quieten Nixon; nor in the long run will it defraud the public, if getting hold of the facts, the actual corpus delicti, rather than of Nixon’s flailing, struggling person is its real desire.

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