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Nixon Redivivus

Against his Democratic opponent, Senator Edmund S. Muskie, Nixon recommended: “P wants me to launch plan for ‘lib’ mailings supporting Muskie to all Democratic leaders and editors in South,” where it would offend conservatives. He had one of his favorites, Charles W. Colson, who was White House liaison with special interest groups, to hire a private detective to follow Senator Kennedy in Paris and take photos of him with various women, which were then leaked to members of Congress and the press. He wanted the IRS to investigate “the big Democratic contributors” and celebrities. After he had learned of the Watergate break-in, he thought that “every time we have a leak in our organization we should charge that we’re being bugged. Even if you plant one and discover it.” He ordered an IRS audit of the taxes of Lawrence F. O’Brien, head of the Democratic National Committee. To fight back the Watergate charges, he wanted “to get our people to put out that foreign or Communist money came in in support of the demonstrations in the campaign, tie all the ‘72 demonstrations to McGovern and thus the Democrats as part of the peace movement.”

Thus Nixon was no stranger to the Watergate “dirty trick,” even if he did not himself instigate it. The origin of the break-in went back to the Republican Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP), headed by Nixon’s former attorney general, John Mitchell, with support from Nixon appointees in the White House. He did not pay much personal attention to Watergate until March 20, 1973, almost a year after the event, and then devoted almost every day to it. As the web of evidence drew closer and closer to the presidential office, embracing Haldeman and Ehrlichman, he gave up on saving anyone but himself. At the end, he was bitter about Kissinger’s behavior—“he’s waiting to see how it comes out.” Nixon decided to surrender on August 7, 1974, and resigned two days later.

The cover-up, not the break-in, broke Nixon and almost everyone around him, with the exception of Kissinger. Haldeman himself was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury, and served eighteen months in a Federal minimum-security facility. Nixon was pardoned by his successor, Gerald R. Ford, and went into seclusion, seemingly in disgrace forever more.

Haldeman recounts in detail Nixon’s efforts to escape punishment but tells little about what Nixon did to deserve it. For those who want a blow-by-blow account, it is necessary to turn to Watergate by Fred Emery, the Washington bureau chief of The Times of London during the entire Watergate period and the author of a five-part British television series on the subject. His book is a serious effort to tell the story and supersedes previous accounts.

Emery, not having the Haldeman diaries, mainly depends on the tapes that have been made public. The most incriminating tape was that of June 23, 1972, soon after the break-in. When Nixon was told that the money for the break-in group came from the CRP, he proposed that those who had donated it should simply lie. He agreed that it was best to call off the FBI by telling it that the break-in was a “CIA thing.” Nixon’s advice was: “Play it tough. That’s the way they play it and that’s the way we are going to play it.” More than anything else, this “smoking-gun” tape, according to Nixon himself, induced him to resign.9 At one point, Nixon said to Patrick Gray: “I gotta have a relationship here where you go out and do something and deny on a stack of Bibles.”

Emery does not preach at the end. He permits Nixon to have the last word: “That the way I tried to deal with Watergate was the wrong way is a burden I shall bear for every day of the life that is left to me.” It was a burden that seemed heavy enough to prevent anyone from ever living it down.

5.

But not Richard Nixon. Kissinger once told Haldeman that “Nixon was absolutely superb in dealing with defeat, and terrible in handling success.” His greatest test in dealing with defeat came after 1974.

After his disgrace, Nixon took three-and-a-half years to write his 1,094-page Memoirs. By August 1975, he had received $600,000 and 20 percent of the profits for talking with David Frost. Beginning in May 1977, four ninety-minute broadcasts ran on American television. In February 1976, he had already come back in the news with a visit to Beijing on the fourth anniversary of his original journey; the old Communist oligarchs received him with much honor. In the summer of 1978, soon after the publication of his memoirs, he began to travel in the United States, in November to England and France. In England, he spoke at the Oxford Union, in France at a three-hour television interview. In January 1979, President Jimmy Carter invited him back to the White House for a state dinner in honor of the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. He made another trip to Beijing in September 1979. The Gallup poll put him among the ten most admired Americans, up in two years from one of the most despised Americans. His comeback was well on its way.10

The press, which had been Nixon’s nemesis, turned in his favor. When Nixon moved to New York in 1980, New York magazine of June 9, 1980, put him on the cover and devoted six pages to him. “Richard Nixon is back on ‘the fastest track in the world,’ as he calls New York,” it began. “He’s out walking the early-morning streets. Signing autographs at Yankee Stadium. On television.” Nixon began to invite well-known publishers, journalists, and politicians to lunches and dinners at his house in New York and later in Saddle River, New Jersey. As Marvin Kalb has related, “he delivered dozens of speeches, wrote op-ed pieces, addressed editorial boards ‘on background,’ courted journalists, and traveled from one end of the world to the other, meeting world leaders and discussing global issues. He visited every country in Eastern Europe, except Poland and East Germany.” In 1984, Nixon received $1 million for another series of television interviews. In May of that year, he appeared before the American Society of Newspaper Editors and was received with applause.

His greatest journalistic triumph came in 1986. Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, which had done most to investigate Watergate, and about whom John Mitchell had uttered the imperishable words, “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published,” decided, according to Aitken, to tell the editors of Newsweek, owned by the Washington Post Company, to do a major story on Nixon. He played hard to get. After refusing to cooperate, he agreed on condition that he should be the subject of a cover story. It appeared with a lengthy interview on May 19, 1986. The headline read: “He’s Back: The Rehabilitation of Nixon.” The article began by attributing Nixon’s rehabilitation to a previous scene six years earlier:

Suddenly he was in the room, and the conversation died. As Howard Baker tells it, Richard Nixon “looked like he was four feet tall, all shrunk up in himself and gray as a ghost.” It was January 1978, in Baker’s Senate office, where the notables were mustering for Hubert Humphrey’s memorial service in the Capitol Rotunda. “Nobody would get near him. Nobody would talk to him. The hush lasted until President Jimmy Carter walked over, shook Nixon’s hand and welcomed him.

If there was a turning point in Nixon’s long ordeal in the wilderness, that was it.

This turning point, as Nixon acknowledged, was not accomplished by chance. At his low point in 1975, he “decided that the key to structuring the comeback would have to be his acknowledged knack for geopolitics.” He was lucky in his successors, Ford and Carter, who made him look better by their own maladroitness. He worked incessantly to assert himself in the public consciousness as a geopolitical expert—travels, books, interviews, articles, private memos to those in or near the seats of power.

One of those memos has earned the distinction of being the subject of a book. In February and March 1992, during the presidential campaign, he sent a memo to fifty influential persons—it was reproduced or shown to many more—in which he made the success of a democratic transition in Russia the key to the fate of the world for the next fifty years. He called for all-out support of Boris Yeltsin as the only security against a catastrophic breakdown. Two sentences leaped out from his pages: “The hot-button issue in the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question of ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s.”11

This memo was leaked to The New York Times of March 10, 1992. It was interpreted by Thomas Friedman, who wrote the article, as a sharp criticism of President George Bush, as no doubt it was. Yet on March 11, Bush was prevailed on to speak at a conference in Washington, DC, on “America’s Role in the Emerging World,” sponsored by the “Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace.” Nixon spoke first in behalf of his plan to save Russia from itself. Nixon introduced Bush, who praised Nixon effusively but mentioned how much money it was going to cost to carry out Nixon’s program. After Nixon’s grandiose vision, Bush’s tepid response was a letdown.

Nixon’s grandstand play gave him all the publicity he craved but changed little. Bush and his Democratic opponent, Bill Clinton, paid lip-service to aiding Russia but neither was ready to do much about it. When Nixon visited Russia shortly before his death, he sought out Yeltsin’s ultra-nationalistic opponents for talks—as a result of which Yeltsin refused to see him. Nixon’s memo was a ripe example of pure Nixoniana. The dubious assumption behind the threatening slogan “Who lost Russia?” was that democracy in Russia could be won or lost in or by the United States. Nixon’s target was a Republican president who was embarrassed by an attack on his Russian policy. After Nixon’s return to the United States in March 1994 from another trip to Russia, he changed his line and urged Clinton to rethink the projected aid program to Russia. The entire incident reflected the adventurist streak in Nixon’s character, little chastened by his successful public rehabilitation and twenty years after Watergate.

Nixon’s last and tenth book, Beyond Peace, finished shortly before his death, also provides an insight into his makeup. It is in many ways a study in Nixonian fantasies. It begins with the words, “When I met with Mao Tse-tung for the last time in Beijing on February 27, 1976….” Name-dropping recurs throughout the book, almost on every page. One typical sentence reads:

During my last meeting with Leonid Brezhnev in the Crimea in 1974, I jotted down this note on a pad of paper: “Peace is like a delicate plant. It has to be constantly tended and nurtured if it is to survive. If we neglect it, it will wither and die.”

He even recalls a meeting forty years earlier with former British prime minister Harold Macmillan. He incidentally drops the revelation that De Gaulle told him to reestablish relations with China two years before he took office.

His most overworked words are “should” and “must.” The book is virtually made up of advice, instructions, and injunctions to countries throughout the world and finally to the United States on how to solve their problems, usually in a cliché. Japan is told that it “should use aid and investment to promote not just its narrow economic interests but also its broader national security interest in peace, economic progress, and political stability throughout Asia.” For the United States, he has this type of wisdom: “Idealism without realism is naive and dangerous. Realism without idealism is cynical and meaningless.”

In the end, his recipe for going “beyond peace” is something of a letdown: “The greatest challenge America faces in the era beyond peace is to learn the art of national unity in the absence of war or some other explicit external threat.” The book is constructed as if Nixon were President of the World, solving all its problems in a fantasy of superior wisdom and ultimate power.

What enabled Nixon to live down the disgrace of Watergate and rise again as an elder statesman and all-purpose sage? He certainly benefited from the fact that he had twenty years to remake himself. He conducted a deliberate, well-planned campaign of rehabilitation. We know why Nixon came back in public favor by what Nixon himself did. It is far harder to know why others were so receptive to his efforts. Was it patriotism to rescue the reputation of a tarnished American president? Was it guilt that he had been punished too severely for common political skullduggery? Was it respect for his own stubborn, awkward efforts to win back public favor? Was it a genuine admiration for his worldly knowledge and sagacity?

It was probably something of all these motives and incentives. As long as all the tapes have not been released, we have not heard the last of Richard Nixon.

  1. 9

    The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, pp. 1055-1061.

  2. 10

    Nixon’s road back is traced by Marvin Kalb, The Nixon Memo, pp. 17-23. Another version is in Michael R. Beschloss’s article, “How Nixon Came In from the Cold,” Vanity Fair, June 1992.

  3. 11

    The text of the memo appears as an appendix in Marvin Kalb’s The Nixon Memo. The most telling portion of the book relates how Kalb, then a correspondent for CBS, was put on Nixon’s “enemies list,” accused of being an agent of the Romanian government, wiretapped, repeatedly audited by the IRS, his office broken into. It is a chilling story.

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