Friday, April 5, 2013

RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Volume 2: 20

My write-up today on volume 2 of Richard Nixon's memoirs will focus on Watergate-related issues.

Nixon talks about his White House's release of transcripts that his Administration made of tape-recordings of his private presidential meetings.  Nixon says that the transcripts, while accurately recording what he and others said, may have missed the sense behind what was said: "An observation can seem like an intention; an offhand comment appears deliberate and premeditated; a passing thought can strike the reader as a prescription for action" (page 570).  Nixon made a similar point earlier in this book: that he did not necessarily mean everything that he said.  Sometimes, he recounts, he was acting like a lawyer, playing devil's advocate while fishing for different ideas and exploring multiple angles.
Nixon also said that the transcripts shattered the views that many Americans held about the Presidency, for the transcripts highlighted how rough the political game could be, and how rough Nixon was willing to play it.  Nixon states on page 571:

"The American myth that Presidents are always presidential, that they sit in the Oval Office talking in lofty and quotable phrases, will probably never die...But the reality of politics and power in the White House is very different.  It is a rough game, and the men I have known who have made it there reflect the ability to play rough when necessary and come out on top.  There is noble talk in the Oval Office to be sure, high-minded and disinterested.  But there are also frustration, worry, anxiety, profanity, and, above all, raw pragmatism when it comes to politics and political survival."

As embarrassing as the transcripts were to Nixon, at least according to Nixon's narration, there were still accusations that the White House deliberately did not transcribe a particularly incriminating part of one of the tapes.  On this part of the tape, Nixon said that he differed from Dwight Eisenhower because he (Nixon) actually cared about his men, whereas Eisenhower only cared about himself coming out clean.  Nixon went on to tell his Attorney General, John Mitchell, that the men "could go before the Ervin Committee and 'stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover up, or anything else' if they thought they had to" (page 574).  This sounds like a cover-up and obstruction of justice!  But Nixon says that the tape goes on to record Nixon saying, "On the other hand, I would prefer...that you do it the other way."  Nixon's just considering his options, I guess!  At least that seems to be the picture that he's trying to paint. 

That part of the tape did not appear in the White House transcripts, but it was in the House Judiciary Committee's transcript of one of the tapes.  Nixon denies that the White House was trying to hide that part of the tape; rather, according to Nixon, the White House omitted that part because it was inaudible, whereas the House Judiciary Committee had the ability to amplify the volume and thus catch and transcribe what was said.  Nixon notes that the Special Prosecutor himself could not hear that particular part of the tape on his own copy.  Nixon also states: "It was utterly ridiculous to assume that we would have deliberately omitted a damaging section of a tape that we knew the Judiciary Committee already had in its possession" (page 574).

On my blog, I've discussed a couple of times Nixon's acknowledgement that he pressured the CIA to limit the FBI's investigation into Watergate.  At first, that sounded fishy to me, but then I read Nixon's account that he released a document saying that he did so for national security reasons.  That made a degree of sense to me, since one of the Watergate conspirators, E. Howard Hunt, had done tasks for the CIA, and so Nixon would logically want for the CIA to know that an FBI investigation into Watergate could uncover and publicize information on sensitive CIA activity and projects, information that the CIA would not desire to be released to the public, and thus the CIA would be acting wisely in limiting the investigation. 

In my latest reading, however, Nixon appears to backtrack from this story, somewhat.  Or, at least, Nixon has questions about his story.  On June 23, 1972, which was only a week after the Watergate break-in, H.R. Haldeman told Nixon that John Mitchell and John Dean contrived a plan to have the CIA restrict the FBI, so that the investigation would not go into areas that they did not "want it to go" (Nixon on page 576).  Haldeman was also telling Nixon that he (Haldeman) thought that John Mitchell, on some level, knew about the break-in, even if Mitchell wasn't fully aware of all of the details.  Nixon was puzzled as he listened to the tapes.  Nixon knew that, in a later conversation with Haldeman (in May 1973), both agreed that their motive in asking the CIA to limit the FBI's investigation was national security----so that the investigation would not "expose CIA operations" (Nixon on page 576).  Yet, the tape for June 23, 1972 seemed to imply that there was a broader agenda behind getting the CIA to restrain what the FBI was doing.  Nixon says on page 576: "Surely we could not have been so wrong as to have completely rationalized a national security concern where none existed.  I thought that perhaps there would be something else, something helpful on another tape."

Nixon did not release that tape, though he says that it's not because he thought it would be a "smoking gun" against him.  In retrospect, Nixon says that he should have gotten White House counsel Fred Buzhardt's assessment of the content of Nixon's June discussions with Haldeman, before releasing the tapes.  Instead, Nixon released the tapes after the Supreme Court ordered him to do so, which did not look good for him. 

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