Among those who came to his funeral were President Clinton and four former presidents: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush. He had no doubt that he was superior to them all. Admittedly, Watergate—“that silly, silly thing”—had been a lapse, but in his opinion, when it came to presidential business that truly mattered, not one of those eminent mourners was in the same league with Richard Nixon.
Monica Crowley thinks so, too. The conviction has prompted her to issue two memoirs creating a portrait of Nixon, as the title of her second book puts it, in the winter of his life. The burden of them is that he was a far more admirable figure than widely supposed, a president who got a dirty deal from powerful forces—“armies of enemies”—who hated him. Hers is not the Nixon of the Watergate tapes, but a genial, complicated, avuncular old fellow in whom most of the bile, not all but most, is spent.
She has nothing new to report on Watergate, but who has? The familiar defenses are mounted again. They all did it, Nixon was the victim of an unfair double standard, and so forth. For historians there is nothing of consequence, either, in what Nixon said to her about the Vietnam War, the Cambodian invasion, or the secretive foreign policy in which he connived with an equally manipulative Henry Kissinger.
What is irresistible, however, is the powerful sense she conveys of Nixon’s personality when he was playing the endgame of his long struggle to come back from disgrace. This results from her use of extensive quotations. We often seem to be listening to yet another batch of Nixon tapes or, perhaps, tapes of another Nixon so different from the Watergate tapes that he seems to have undergone a character transformation. It is gossipy, outrageous, comical, fascinating, entertaining, delightful stuff.
To evaluate Crowley’s Nixon, it helps to know something about Crowley herself. She worked for him for the last four years of his life, and her devotion clearly bordered on adoration. She was twenty-one when she started: Nixon was seventy-seven, old enough to have been her grandfather. She was born in 1968, the year he was elected president. Her first memory of him was of watching his televised announcement that he was resigning the presidency. She was then five years old.
He had been out of office some fifteen years when they first met. He had spent every one of those years laboring to rebuild a reputation shattered by Watergate. These labors included a tireless book-writing program. The books presented him as a sage elder statesman whose knowledge and experience of great events could be invaluable to the nation, if Washington would only bring him out of exile and heed his messages. Discussing a work-in-progress with Crowley, he told her, “I’m writing this book not because I need to do it for myself but because the country needs to hear this kind of realism from me.” Years had passed with no one who counted listening to his realism.
Still, he went to the end without giving up. During Crowley’s brief time with him, he traveled to Russia and China, no idle journeys for a man teetering at the edge of eighty. Comically, in Russia he infuriated Boris Yeltsin by meeting with Yeltsin’s political opponents. Yeltsin reacted by cutting off Nixon’s transportation and security privileges and canceling his appointments with government people. Afterward, at 5 AM in Moscow, Nixon phoned Crowley in America, telling her, “Yeltsin, of course, had had a few when he erupted at me. That’s well-known.”
Crowley is miffed about the Watergate affair. Such a fuss! And why? Because “armies of enemies” made a “relentless attack on him, even as others commit crimes as egregious and are allowed to survive.” Yes, “he helped with his own hanging,” but “we claimed his political scalp as a prize to show that those wrenching years [the 1960s] produced at least one ostensibly righteous result. In him, we found a receptacle for all of our self-hatred and misguided upheaval. In his wrongdoing, we found shelter from our own.”
Nixon died for our sins?
Well, Crowley is unhampered by experience of the many Nixons who thrived between the Murray Chotiner “pink-slip” campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas and the “smoking gun.” Then, too, given a chance for long, close-up study of an aging historical figure, it would be a strange scholar indeed who spoiled it all by applying a gimlet eye to the old man, and Crowley seems to have been a precocious scholar. In her junior year at Colgate, she wrote Nixon a long, analytical, occasionally critical letter about his book 1999: Victory Without War. He invited her to visit, was impressed, and hired her to help in his writings on foreign affairs. She thinks he fancied her as a useful instrument for improving his reputation in history:
I believe he trusted me because he saw me as a liaison between himself and future generations, someone to whom he could tell his story one last time and upon whom he could rely to relate that story to others…. With the end of life coming ever closer, he felt an inescapable need to have his final say before a new generation, to cement the comeback….
Although she must have gussied up Nixon’s grammar to eliminate natural conversational stutters, her Nixon sounds like the genuine article. He blusters, fumes, feels sorry for himself, worries about the nation’s moral decay, talks trenchantly about politics and foreign affairs, reminisces about old triumphs, repeatedly declares he will not “wallow in Watergate,” complains incessantly about the unjust media, and goes on and on about his “enemies,” those beloved, hateful, indispensable “enemies” so essential to his view of politics as a blood sport.
“Why do you think people hate me?” he asked Crowley out of the blue one day. Then: “The problem with [then President] Bush is that no one hates him. An effective leader needs enemies because then you know you’re doing something right.”
Nixon had a positive lust for enemies. One of the more absurd moments of his presidency was the drawing up of the famous “enemies list” of persons who, in the lexicon of the Watergate Nixon, would be “screwed.” The person who should have been at the top of the list wasn’t even on it. He was, of course, Richard Nixon. As Watergate demonstrated, he was clearly the most deadly enemy he had.
The considerable pleasures of Crowley’s book come from the guilty sense that we are eavesdropping while he talks, and talks, and talks to what he believes to be an audience of one. Crowley is not troubled about reporting these confidential conversations. She believes he wanted her to speak to posterity in his behalf, but there is a great deal here that seems delightfully indiscreet for such a secretive man. Did Nixon really want his contempt for President Bush widely broadcast? Poor Bush. As Crowley tells it, he could do nothing to suit Nixon. The old master of foreign policy was outraged by Bush’s handling of foreign affairs, and especially about his 1990 friendliness toward the Communist reformer Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union.
“Has Bush lost his mind?” Nixon asked Crowley when Bush did not try to shake Lithuania out of the Soviet bloc. “…He isn’t moving an inch on Lithuania. He just keeps letting his friend Gorbachev roll over the poor place.”
Another time: “The guy’s got no guts. He just doesn’t have it.”
And: “I think it’s nauseating that the media have proclaimed Bush a newly strong leader.” Bush had been “seduced by Gorbachev.” He was “too soft on Gorbachev.”
Nixon despised Bush’s secretary of state, James A. Baker: “Bad news,” he called him. “There is no vision there with Bush and certainly not with Baker. Baker was overrated as a strategist, and now he’s in totally over his head with foreign policy. He just looks like an amateur out there with [Soviet foreign minister Eduard] Shevardnadze, holding his hand and sounding like he has no backbone. And Bush isn’t much better. There is no grand thinking going on over there, no vision. They call it crisis management; I call it lack of leadership.”
Even Bush’s haberdashery irked Nixon: “I wish Bush wouldn’t talk about serious issues looking like he does. They catch him coming off the golf course, no tie, baseball cap—my God! Put on a tie! He should be dressed formally when discussing something as important as this [Soviet relations]. I always wore a suit—perhaps too much. I know it, but I was comfortable in it, and it was appropriate.”
Nixon, who made “expletive deleted” a household phrase, was offended by Bush’s locker-room talk about Saddam Hussein: “I cannot believe that Bush said ‘We’ll kick Saddam Hussein’s ass.’ Can you picture Gorbachev saying ‘We’ll kick ass in the republics’?”
It would be entertaining to hear him speak with equal candor about Ronald Reagan. It might have been poisonous. Soft as Bush was on Gorbachev, he told Crowley, Reagan would have “gone even farther.” This, however, is the only judgment Crowley quotes on the Gipper.
Gerald Ford, his pardoner, receives a brief commendation: “And poor Ford. The pardon was the kiss of death politically, and he still did it. You’ve got to admire his guts on that score.”
Exiled, shamed, and ignored through the Carter, Reagan, and Bush administrations, he was astonished to find the Democrat Clinton extending a friendly hand. Shortly after taking office, Clinton phoned for a forty-minute chat. Crowley suggests Nixon was euphoric.
…Most surprising—he confided in me; he said things that he absolutely would not want made public. I wonder if his wiretaps are working!
He was very respectful but with no sickening bullshit…. It was the best conversation with a president I’ve had since I was president…. It was never a dialogue with the others. I used to have to force things into the conversation with Reagan and Bush. This was a different cup of tea…. This guy does a lot of thinking.
Nixon seized the occasion to preach the importance of foreign policy, the area in which he considered himself a foremost authority. Did he immediately fancy himself becoming Clinton’s wise man in foreign policy? “As long as he is talking to me, he’ll be OK,” he told Crowley. “If he relies on his Carter-type advisers, he will run into trouble.”
Clinton invited him to the White House. It was a milestone in the long journey back toward respectability. Reagan and Bush had never done him this symbolic honor.
Eavesdropping, courtesy of Crowley, we learn what he thought of Robert McNamara (“typical elite intellectual type—cold and mean”); of Ted Koppel (“anti-Nixon all the way”); of foreign service officers (“the pits,” “all bad,” “all liberals, Democrats,” but “usually they don’t do too much damage”); of United Nations speeches (“worthless, but the media love that fluff”); of domestic economic problems (“let’s face it, very boring”).
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.
July 16, 1998