Nixon tapes, papers weigh in on fateful days of president
Posted: Wednesday, June 24, 2009 8:01 pm
By CAL WOODWARD
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — With an air of desperation, a hunkered down White House hatched a plan to save Richard Nixon’s presidency as the Watergate crisis began to consume it: Demonize the prosecutor in the eyes of lawmakers and the people.
The effort fell flat.
Hardball rhetoric was the order of the day in the Nixon White House, a collection of memos and tape recordings released Tuesday by the Nixon Presidential Library makes clear. This was so whether the president was willing the downfall of a Democratic “pipsqueak,” criticizing his own vice president for playing tennis or pressing South Vietnam to accept a peace deal that would leave it open to the communist takeover that followed.
Nixon is heard on a muffled tape recording telling his special counsel that abortion is necessary in some cases — including instances of multiracial pregnancy.
Speaking to Charles Colson after the January 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, the president said: “I admit, there are times when abortions are necessary, I know that.” He gave “a black and a white” as an example.
“Or rape,” Colson offered. “Or rape,” Nixon agreed.
The records show Nixon seemingly resigned to the likelihood of South Vietnam’s eventual collapse even as he strong-armed its president, Nguyen Van Thieu, to accept a settlement that would extricate the U.S. from the massively unpopular war.
He told his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, he’d do anything to get Thieu to accede, “cut off his head if necessary.”
Nixon historian Luke A. Nichter said the circumstances surrounding Nixon’s acceptance of a flawed peace-deal will probably be what scholars note from the latest disclosures.
“Producing the Vietnam peace agreement took the administration to the emotional brink,” he said. “At the very moment of triumph after finally ending combat operations in Southeast Asia, that process caused deep and lasting fissures among the top ranks in the White House.”
The tapes and documents also give insights into a well-known characteristic of Nixon and his aides — a hair-trigger sensitivity to political rivals and quick resort to machinations against them.
A 1972 meeting between Nixon and his chief of staff produced an informal directive to “destroy” the Democratic candidate for vice president, according to scribbled notes released in the new collection.
In a memo three years earlier, Nixon’s staff assistant describes placing the movements of the Kennedys under observation in Massachusetts after Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge in an accident that drowned his female companion.
The materials show Nixon as sharp-witted, manipulative and sometimes surprisingly liberal by comparison with mainstream Republicans today.
In one letter, he solidly endorses the Equal Rights Amendment, saying that for 20 years “I have not altered my belief that equal rights for women warrant a constitutional guarantee.” The amendment failed.
Yet in a taped conversation with George H.W. Bush, then GOP chairman, he pitched the recruitment of pretty women in particular to run for the party, after two caught his eye in the South Carolina Legislature.
“Let’s look for some,” he said. “And understand, I don’t do it because I’m for women. But I’m doing it because (a) woman might win some place where a man might not.”
Watergate was a gathering drumbeat through it all. The peril is palpable in memos that surfaced Tuesday.
A nine-page handwritten note by Nixon domestic policy adviser Kenneth Cole reflects on the unfolding “Saturday night massacre,” when Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox and lost the two top Justice Department officials in October 1973, bringing the nation to the edge of constitutional crisis.
Cox was pressing relentlessly for Nixon’s White House tape recordings as he investigated the president’s involvement in the Watergate cover-up. Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William D. Ruckelshaus, balked at Nixon’s decision to fire Cox — and were removed, too.
Cole recommended tearing down the investigator’s reputation — a tactic President Bill Clinton and his aides would try in his own impeachment drama years later, against prosecutor Kenneth Starr.
“Cox wanted to keep this an unending crisis of the body politic,” Cole wrote, laying out an argument for Nixon partisans that would be called talking points today.
“Cox threw down the gauntlet — at a time when we don’t need some 4th Branch of gov’t telling P to go to hell.”
In his shorthand, he called the president “P” and Richardson “ELR.” The memo was dated Oct. 21, 1973, the day after the notorious Saturday.
Under the headline “Game Plan,” Cole laid out a strategy for the beleaguered Republican president to reach out to conservative Southern Democrats as well as supportive GOP lawmakers to try to dampen sentiment for impeachment.
They would be told Cox had a “pistol to the head of P — he was extorted.”
Nixon aides also would argue that inquiries would ultimately exonerate him and Congress should not do anything rash: “Wait til you see the product — all will be revealed — let’s wait til then.”
He said of Richardson: “ELR wondered how he could be Cox’s executioner.”
Some 30,000 pages of documents were opened to the public at the National Archives in College Park, Md., and the Nixon library in Yorba Linda, Calif., part of a long unfolding and staggered declassification of papers and tapes from the Nixon years. The archives administers the library.
In addition, the library posted more than 150 hours of tape recordings online. The tapes cover January and February 1973, spanning Nixon’s second inauguration, the peace deal with Hanoi, and the trial and conviction of burglars whose break-in at Democratic headquarters at the Watergate complex precipitated the cover-up that wrecked Nixon’s presidency. He resigned in August 1974 under threat of being forced out by Congress.
After the conviction of the burglars, “Watergate begins to take a small but accelerating day-to-day role in policymaking at the White House, a role that reached crisis by April 1973,” said Nichter, a Texas A&M University scholar whose Web site www.nixontapes.org specializes in the tape recordings.
Also in the files:
• Papers from H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, include notes from his July 25, 1972, meeting with the president. They talked about Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, the Democratic vice presidential pick, and Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s vice president, in the lead-up to the presidential election that year.
“Destroy Egltn — the pipsqueak that he is,” Haldeman wrote in shorthand, reflecting Nixon’s wishes. Eagleton was soon gone from the ticket after his treatment for mental illness was disclosed.
The orders on “how to handle Agnew,” whom Nixon didn’t like: Have him campaign in small Southern states, “not build him up.” “No impt duties.” “Shldn’t have played tennis Sat AM.”
• An “exclusively eyes only” memo about a July 1973 meeting between Kissinger and Iran’s U.S.-backed dictator, Shah Reza Pahlavi.
Kissinger asked the shah to help arm and defend Pakistan. He said the U.S. was constrained on that front. “If we were to do more, it would create a major domestic problem for us,” he said. “The Indians would raise a big uproar. Our intellectuals have a love affair with India. Our policy is to encourage the Chinese to the maximum to put arms into Pakistan. I believe they have done well to date.”
More than 2,200 hours of taped conversations have come out since the first release in 1980; many more are still to come. From 1971 to 1973, Nixon secretly recorded 3,700 hours of his phone calls and meetings, Nichter said.
Associated Press writers Ann Sanner, Natasha Metzler and Christine Simmons contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Tapes and selected documents: http://www.nixonlibrary.gov
Published in The Messenger 6.24.09