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The Exile

He and Kissinger prolonged the Vietnam War for four years despite his 1968 campaign hints that he had a plan for ending it fast, yet he still despised the antiwar movement: “…To think that I was the one who had to face down those hippie hoodlums who opposed it. My God, I wasn’t just from another generation from these people; it was like I was from a different planet.” Still, despite those noisy protesters, he told Crowley, most Americans supported his war policy. Didn’t his 1972 landslide victory over the dovish George McGovern prove it? Very likely, yes. He was always good on the mechanics of politics. About the rise of the religious right, for instance, he was ambivalent. After the 1992 election, he told Crowley:

I was disturbed to see that the religious right gained so much momentum. They can contribute very positively to the [Republican] party, and I’m glad they’re on our side. But some of their positions, like outlawing abortion, are just too extreme for the United States. They must not be permitted to take over the party or the country. They are too hung up on individual kooky things. I admire their principles but don’t think that they should be necessarily put into policy.

During the Anita Hill hearings, he gave Crowley a view of what an old political master might have done. Hill had endangered Senate confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas with charges of sexual harassment. Thus Nixon to Crowley: “If I were Bush, and Thomas is defeated, and I needed to choose another nominee, I’d stick it to all of them and go for a white woman reactionary card-carrying right-to-lifer! That would drive them crazy!”

Nixon was probably the president with the strongest intellectual instincts since Woodrow Wilson, yet he held intellectuals in contempt. Crowley says he thought them “coldly arrogant” toward “less sophisticated minds.” Despite the conservative intellectual movement that was already remaking the Republican Party, he instinctively equated “intellectual” with “liberal Democrat.”

Intellectuals are generally not nice people. The modern intellectuals are particularly bad; they’re intellectual snobs and hypocrites. The conservatives are cold—they say they don’t care, and they don’t. The liberals say they care, and they don’t. I have more respect for a true-believing Communist than for an American liberal…. Most [intellectuals] completely lack courage and have absolutely no heart whatever…. Intellectuals hate to admit that they’re wrong. And most have led decadent lives; most are moral disasters.

Entertaining as all this faithfully recorded talk may be, there is something a bit eerie about it, too. All the lecturing by one man to a single listener—over 400 pages of it—begins to feel as if it’s taking place in an airless, claustrophobic space. There is the sense of a Beckett play in progress: a lonely old man not far from death sits in a room sifting through memories and talking to a young woman. Once he had power to make armies march and millions die, and now he is struggling to persuade himself that he still matters, though he knows he doesn’t. Now and then he confronts the reality and emits a cry of despair.

But will anyone listen?” he asks Crowley. “Will they listen to me anymore?”

Later: “I have been out there talking, but no one in the goddamned administration is listening.”

And, to Crowley: “When you go to sleep tonight, remember this: Presidents have some power; former presidents have none!”

After Crowley’s claustrophobic Beckett monologue, Stanley Kutler’s Abuse of Power feels like an old-fashioned Warner Brothers gangster film. It opens with the Boss giving an order to the boys: “Goddamnit it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.” The speaker is Nixon. It is 1971. He is President of the United States. Monica Crowley is three years old.

In the very next scene, the Boss is ordering a shakedown of rich people eager to cap their careers with fancy ambassadorships. Of one well-heeled tycoon who yearns to be called “Mister Ambassador,” he says, “I want him to be bled for a quarter of a million…. It’ll be worth a quarter of a million to just [have to] listen to him….”

A few scenes later: “I’m going to get that Council [on] Foreign Relations. I’m going to chop those bastards off right at the neck.”

Nixon connoisseurs will instantly recognize a fresh batch of White House tapes. They have been assembled, annotated, and edited by Stanley I. Kutler, a historian who struggled for years against lawyers and bureaucracies to get all of Nixon’s tapes into the public domain. Fewer than forty hours of tapes had been released in 1974; those were enough to force Nixon to resign rather than face impeachment. There were thousands of hours more, however, and Nixon “fought ferociously” to keep them suppressed because, says Kutler, he feared they would damage his attempt to rebuild his reputation. Finally, in 1996, two years after his death, the National Archives and the Nixon Estate agreed to release some 3,700 hours of tapes over a four-year period.

Kutler’s Abuse of Power consists of the first 201 hours of this previously unpublished material in edited form. The tapes begin with Nixon’s curiously outraged reaction to the leaking of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and continue through the Watergate period until the public learns the tapes exist. They fill a book of more than 600 densely packed pages with a tale at once squalid and absorbing. If Crowley’s purpose is to return Nixon to respectability, Kutler’s is to drive a stake through his heart.

The argument has never been whether Nixon committed the criminal abuses of power embraced by the term “Watergate.” The 1974 tapes were conclusive on that score. The question, as framed by Nixon’s champions, has always been: Were his offenses graver than similar deeds committed by former presidents who didn’t have the bad luck to have their every word recorded on tape? Since they all did it, it was unfair to single out Nixon for impeachment. The trouble with this defense is that it’s very hard to prove that earlier presidents did, in fact, commit abuses comparable to Nixon’s.

Kutler’s book leaves no doubt that Nixon was involved from the beginning in the Watergate cover-up. But why? Kutler reads these latest tapes as evidence that Nixon was afraid of what might come out about criminal activities before the Watergate break-in. In his fury about the Pentagon Papers leak, he had created the so-called “plumbers,” an assortment of adventurers who were supposed to deal with the leaks that outraged Nixon. Some of their plumbing was very odd indeed.

In one escapade they had broken into a psychiatrist’s office searching for a patient’s file. The patient was Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. The “plumbers” were apparently looking for material to damage Ellsberg’s reputation. Don’t ask how smearing Ellsberg would have diminished the public impact of the Pentagon Papers. We are dealing with people to whom revenge could be its own reward. Talking about Ellsberg to Robert Haldeman, his chief of staff, Nixon said they had to “convict the son of a bitch in the press. That’s the way it’s done.”

The Watergate break-in was a “plumbers” operation. That was in 1972; they already had a full year of activity. “Plumbers” were among the crew arrested for the Watergate break-in. Suppose they started to talk. People have always wondered why Nixon didn’t immediately accept responsibility for the break-in and shrug it off. Kutler believes it was because he knew that one small admission would open Pandora’s box, revealing what Attorney General John Mitchell called “the White House horrors.”

Breaking in seemed to be a way of doing business at the Nixon White House. The new tapes show that a year before Watergate, Nixon himself ordered a break-in at the Brookings Institution, a centrist Washington think tank. He thought it held classified material about Pentagon activity: “I want them just to break in and take it out,” he tells Haldeman. Then, referring to E. Howard Hunt, who was later to lead the Watergate break-in: “You talk to Hunt. I want the break-in. Hell, they do that. You’re to break into the place, rifle the files, and bring them in.”

Next morning, learning that the break-in hasn’t yet happened, he lectures on the nature of politics:

These kids don’t understand. They have no understanding of politics…. John Mitchell is that way. John is always worried about is it technically correct?… I want you to shake these (unintelligible) up around here. Now you do it. Shake them up. Get them off their Goddamn dead asses…. We’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy. They’re using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear?

This fresh group of tapes may be of more interest to historians and law students than to the general reader, but it contains hundreds of entertaining glimpses of life in the Oval Office as a president feels his power crumbling away. We learn, for example, that Nixon kept Senator Ted Kennedy under surveillance for nine months to learn about his “after-hours” activities. “Just might get lucky and catch this sonofabitch and grill him for ‘76,” Nixon muses.

There is Nixon’s strange obsession with Lawrence O’Brien, the Democratic national chairman, in whose office the Watergate burglars were arrested. O’Brien is targeted for an IRS tax audit. “We wanted to rummage through the records,” Haldeman explains. It was 1972, and O’Brien asked that the audit be postponed until after the election. Request denied, Haldeman reports. Nixon: “That’s a lot of nerve, to say to put it off until after the election.” Later, Haldeman reports the IRS hit “a dry hole.”

By the summer of 1973, with the cover-up collapsing, Nixon becomes furious at Senator Howard Baker. Baker is the ranking Republican on the Senate Select Committee, which is systematically demolishing Nixon’s defense. Baker’s objective stance has irritated Nixon for weeks; now his temper explodes. Senator Sam Ervin, the committee’s Democratic chairman, suggests that he and Baker come to the White House for a conference.

I said I would talk to him [Ervin] alone,” Nixon says. “Otherwise, we’ll get that simpering asshole Baker down here…. I’m not gonna let him come in.”

Fifteen minutes later:

…Now Howard Baker…never be in the White house again—never, never, never…. He will never be on a presidential plane again…. Now I screwed him today…. Ervin…said he and Baker he wanted to come, I said, “Oh, no,” I said, “I’ll see you alone. Baker is not going to be here again.”… I don’t want anybody in the White House to ever have any contact with him again. Ever. And another thing is this: cut him off. Give him a deep freeze.

That same day Henry Kissinger comes to the Oval Office with good news. He has just had a phone call from Norman Mailer, who is doing an article on Watergate. “Well, he says… for the first time in his life, he’s beginning to like you.” At this point only a person with a heart of stone can possibly laugh.

After so much about the bizarre aspects of Nixon’s personality, Allen J. Matusow reminds us that there was far more to his presidency than scandal. It is easy to forget that, while struggling with Watergate, he was also at grips with complex economic problems, including the worst recession of the postwar years. Professor Matusow’s economic history of the Nixon years is remarkable not only for the subtlety with which he analyzes Nixon’s economic predicament, but also for a clear and graceful prose that makes it a pleasure to read.

The predicament was that Nixon “happened to occupy the presidency at the moment when the postwar boom ground to a permanent halt.” From the outset, he had to deal with “economic traumas more severe than anything known since the Great Depression.” The economy was faltering by the end of his first year in office. During the time of Watergate, he confronted worldwide food shortages, an unprecedented oil crisis, double-digit inflation, and the worst recession of the postwar years.

At the end of 1971 it seemed possible that a depressed economy could destroy his hopes for reelection. Matusow’s book details the twists and turns with which he tried to avoid this. It was a cruel trial for Nixon, who was illiterate in economics and, moreover, bored by the subject. His search for experts’ advice finally turned up the unlikely John Connally, one-time protégé of Lyndon Johnson and now a Democrat for Nixon. Nixon made him secretary of the treasury and took such an astonishing liking to him that he ultimately said Connally was the only man qualified to succeed him in the presidency.

As an economist, Connally proved disastrous. He was influential in persuading Nixon to do the unprecedented by imposing wage and price controls in peacetime. That failed. Connally’s bellicose call for a showdown in world trade, if anything, probably deepened the troubles of American exporters. He proposed to force open foreign markets with punitive measures against nations that refused to cut back their exports to America. In this “get-tough-with-the-world” policy, Matusow says, Connally and his colleague Peter Peterson of the Council for International Economic Policy “nearly wrecked the world trade system.”

Matusow is especially good on Nixon as politician. Neither liberal nor conservative, he was out to preempt the center of American politics by building a “New Majority.” The old majority was Democratic, forged by Franklin Roosevelt, and consisted of an alliance between Southern conservatives, labor, and Northern liberals. Like the one-horse shay, it was ready to fall to pieces, and Nixon sensed it.

In addition to social conservatism, waving the flag, and playing the race card, Nixon sought center ground by judicious expansion of the welfare state. It was no part of Nixon’s initial purpose to cut taxes or slash expenditures, as conservatives were urging. He knew that spending money was more popular than pinching pennies, and he favored balancing the budget only so long as it did not cost him votes.

To convert labor, he courted George Meany, leader of the AFL-CIO. He adopted a destructive policy of imposing quotas on Japanese imports in order to satisfy the old Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, who was vital to his plans for capturing the South. Thurmond’s South Carolina textile mills were suffering under Japanese competition.

Nixon never fails to surprise us. Thus, for example, Matusow, having apparently hacked his way through the impenetrable Haldeman Diaries, finds Nixon talking about creating a new party with Connally’s help:

Following the November elections, the two of them would move to build a new political party, the Independent Conservative Party, “or something of that sort,” that would include Southern and other conservative Democrats, along with middle “road to conservative Republicans.”

By the end of Nixon’s second term, they could dramatically change the country’s entire political structure. “The candidate of the new party in 1976 would be John Connally.”

Perhaps Nixon was just schmoozing here with Haldeman. He was a masterful political tactician. Surely he couldn’t have believed that the country was ready for another Texan in the White House so soon after Lyndon Johnson.

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