Released tapes shed light on Nixon bid to dodge scandal

Late ex-US president suggested former aide avoid Watergate questions by asserting national security

Late former US president Richard Nixon with his wife Pat and daughter   Tricia, resigning  on August 9th, 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Photograph: Reuters

Late former US president Richard Nixon with his wife Pat and daughter Tricia, resigning on August 9th, 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Photograph: Reuters


Just hours after a national address promising “no whitewash” of Watergate, President Richard M Nixon privately urged his new attorney general not to appoint a special prosecutor and suggested a former aide avoid questions by asserting national security priorities.

A series of secret tapes released yesterday, the final ones to be made public, shed new light on Nixon’s efforts to staunch the mushrooming scandal in the spring of 1973.

On the same night he pushed out top aides and gave his first speech on the episode, Nixon stayed up late making and taking a series of phone calls that planted the seeds for further cover-up.

While he received supportive calls from the likes of Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Billy Graham, Nixon also made a point of talking with Elliot L Richardson, his choice to take over as attorney general. In the prime-time speech, Nixon told Americans that he had granted Richardson “the authority to name a special supervising prosecutor”. But now on the phone, he privately told Richardson not to do so.

“The one thing they’re going to be hitting you on is about the special prosecutor,” Nixon said. “The point is I’m not sure you should have one.”

Instead, Nixon said, Richardson should “assume responsibility for the investigation” himself.

He later talked to Charles W Colson, his former White House counsel, who assured Nixon he would not talk about the anti-leak plumbers operation - the infamous Democratic Party offices burglary at the centre of Watergate. “You say we were protecting the security of this country,” Nixon advised.

Richardson ultimately rebuffed Nixon’s recommendation and appointed Archibald Cox as special prosecutor, only to resign months later rather than follow the president’s subsequent order to fire Cox. Colson later pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and served seven months in prison.

The back-to-back phone calls on the night of April 30th, 1973, were among 340 hours of taped conversations released by the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum yesterday.

Forty years after Nixon turned off his secret recording system, the treasure trove of historic recordings has provided an unparalleled window into the workings of one of the nation’s most tumultuous presidencies.

Nixon’s tapes were the means of his undoing as they captured his involvement in the Watergate cover-up, but they have given historians a deeper understanding of triumphs such as the diplomatic opening to China as well as the darker side of the nation’s 37th president.

“Because of the tapes, the fiercely secretive Nixon has wound up running the most open White House in history,” said Gary J Bass, a Princeton scholar whose new book The Blood Telegram is based partly on the tapes.

‘Obscenity filled’

“You can listen in on top-secret, obscenity-filled, blunt conversations and reconstruct how Nixon’s decisions really got made in a way that’s totally unequalled for any other administration.”

Luke A Nichter, a Texas A&M University professor co-authoring a book on the tapes, said there would never be another release like this one. “The tapes show us the highs and lows of the Nixon White House, the achievements and a burgeoning sense of despair,” he said.

The final tapes cover conversations from April 9th to July 12th, 1973, after which the taping system was dismantled when a Nixon aide, Alexander Butterfield, disclosed its existence to Congress.

The tapes include conversations with Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger, Alexander M Haig jnr, Brent Scowcroft and George P Shultz, as well as world leaders like Willy Brandt of West Germany and Pierre Trudeau of Canada.

Nixon and his aides discussed the Vietnam peace settlement and the China opening. His session in June 1973 with Leonid Brezhnev in the Oval Office is the only Russian-US summit meeting ever recorded on a presidential taping system.

Once again, Nixon is at his most raw. Brandt, he told one cabinet officer, is “a jerk”. The Chinese, he said, are subtle, “not like the Russians, who of course slobber at flattery”. He confided in another discussion that he had a “bombshell” deal in the works with the Soviets to renounce nuclear weapons.

The phone calls after his April 1973 Watergate speech pull back the curtain further on Nixon’s handling of the affair. He had just forced HR Haldeman and John D Ehrlichman, his trusted aides, to resign, and fired his counsel, John W Dean III. Richard G Kleindienst stepped down as attorney general.

Eager for reaction to his speech, Nixon worked the phone in the Lincoln Sitting Room until nearly midnight, with his daughter Tricia Cox and his son-in-law David Eisenhower helping to screen and place calls. He thought Kissinger was “rather guarded”, but otherwise was heartened by effusive praise.

Graham, the preacher, told Nixon that it “was your finest hour” and reported that his wife thought the scandal was all “a communist plot”.

Bush, then the Republican Party chairman, expressed “great pride” in Nixon and dismissed media critics as “arrogant bastards”.

Before picking up the phone to talk with Reagan, then governor of California, Nixon could be heard muttering about him “running for president”. Reagan told him, “We’re still behind you out here, and I wanted you to know you’re in our prayers.”

Despite pushing him out, Nixon talked twice with Haldeman. Nixon was clearly pained about the loss of his two confidants, but also expressed irritation to others that they did not volunteer to resign on their own, a point he did not raise with Haldeman.

“Well, it’s a tough thing, Bob, for you and for John, the rest,” Nixon said. Then, with a string of expletives, he vowed “I’m never going to discuss this” issue again. “Never, never, never.”

New York Times