The voices of history

ANDREW PHILLIPS November 17 1997

The voices of history

ANDREW PHILLIPS November 17 1997

The voices of history





One thing about Richard Nixon: he never disappoints. Even in death, even a quarter century after his political disgrace, he still walks on the dark side of the American imagination. Here he is, in newly released tapes of his private White House conversations, raging against his enemies. It is late in the evening of April 27, 1973, and the Watergate scandal that will destroy his presidency a year later is worsening by the day. Even his dog gives the beleaguered president no comfort.

“King!” Nixon snaps. “God damn, get off me!” Then his press secretary, Ron Ziegler, gets the full force of his fury: “I’m the only one at the present time in this whole wide blinking world that can do a God damn thing, you know. Keep it from blowing up. . . . Look, if we went in with sackcloth and ashes and fired the whole White House staff. .. that isn’t going to satisfy these God damn cannibals. They’d still be after us. Who are they after?

They’re after me, the president.

They hate my guts.”

Nixon and his family fought in the courts for 22 years to keep the tapes secret. No wonder. Transcribed by historian Stanley Kutler and published as Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes, they show the onetime president at his worst—lying, devious, plotting revenge against enemies real and imagined. Nixon’s critics thought he was bad; now the record will show he was worse than even they imagined. And by a curious coincidence, the record of his self-destruction appears just as the taped conversations of two other presidents are published. In The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy navigates minute-by-minute through the world’s closest brush with nuclear holocaust. And Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes 1963-1964 shows Lyndon Johnson in some of his most com-

Newly released tapes from three presidents provide studies in power

pelling moments—cajoling and complaining as he guides the United States in the turbulent months following Kennedy’s assassination. Together, the three books form the most intimate look yet at the American presidency at the height of its power.

Call them the good, the bad and the ugly. History has been, on balance, kind to Kennedy, and the recordings of his meetings with his closest advisers throughout the 14 days of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 will only burnish his reputation. Some of his aides pushed him to invade Cuba or even to use nuclear weapons when Moscow stationed mis-

siles there. Kennedy got the weapons out, and avoided war. Nixon has had a rough time from the historians, and once again he comes out badly: his tapes show none of his statesmanship and much of his conniving. And Johnson emerges, at times, as a caricature of the ugly American. Here he is on the phone from the Oval Office to Joseph Haggar, chairman of a Texas clothing company, using the power of the presidency to order up half a dozen new pairs of pants: “I want them a half-inch larger in the waist than they were before— Another thing, the crotch, down where your nuts hang, is always a little too tight. Give me an

inch that I can let out there because they cut me. They’re just like riding a wire fence.” Haggar’s subdued response: “Yes, sir.” Kennedy comes across best in part because he had most control over how and where he was taped. He personally flicked the switch in the cabinet room near his office that turned the recorders on and off. Of all those who took part in the many hours of emergency meetings there during the Cuban missile crisis, only Kennedy and possibly his brother Robert, his attorney general, knew they were being taped. For two weeks in October, 1962, they met almost continually to figure out what to do about the Soviet missiles that American spy planes had located in Cuba. Should they attack? Invade? Or find a peaceful way to force the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, to back down?

Even at the time, the world had a good idea of how close it came to disaster. Children practised duck-and-cover manoeuvres in case the missiles started to fly. The Kennedy Tapes makes clear that those fears were indeed well-founded. Some of those around the president were pressing him to risk an all-out nuclear exchange rather than let the Soviets get the upper hand. Gen.

Kennedy wondered -p cities -Lj /nc ■ ■ 1 ' could be evacuated

Curtis LeMay, his Dr. Strangelovestyle air force chief, told him on Oct. 19: “I just don’t see any other solution except direct military intervention right now.” Richard Russell, an influential senator, advised: “The time is going to come, Mr. Presi-

dent, when we’re going to have to

take this step ... for the nuclear war.” Kennedy listened as civil defence experts dispassionately told him that 92 million Americans were vulnerable to nuclear attack, and that effective shelter was avail-

able for only 40 million. He wondered aloud whether targeted cities could be evacuated, and at one point asked: “What is it that we ought to do for the population in affected areas, in case the bombs go off? Is there something we can do?”

The crisis reached its climax on Saturday, Oct. 27, when an American U2 spy plane went missing over Cuba and a Soviet ship approached the American blockade line. Confrontation seemed imminent. The Kennedy Tapes show the president as a calm centre in the storm, refusing to allow himself to be panicked by advisers or by Khrushchev’s blustery letters (which one point denounced “the folly of degenerate imperialism”). Eventually, Kennedy and a handful of aides crowded around the cabinet table, debating phrase by phrase a last crucial message to Moscow. It worked: Khrushchev withdrew his missiles in return for a pledge that Cuba would not be invaded, and a secret understanding that Washington would remove its missiles from Turkey. Historians Ernest May and Philip Zelikow, who edited the transcripts, call those “the finest hours of John E Kennedy’s public life.”

Johnson also taped people without their knowledge—partly for posterity, partly to gain an edge on rivals by keeping a record of what they told him. Taking Charge details private phone calls between Johnson and everyone from cabinet officials and old cronies to his wife and ex-lovers. In public, Johnson tried to act in a way he imagined to be presidential, and managed only to be wooden. One-on-one, he was vulnerable, flirtatious, domineering and alarmingly frank. The tapes show that he agonized over the United States’ deepening involvement in Vietnam much more than was previously known. “I don’t think the people of the country know much about Vietnam, and I think they care a hell of a lot less,” he told a friendly senator in May, 1964. And they show that from the moment Kennedy was shot, Johnson suspected a wider conspiracy even as he assured Americans that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone. He thought Cu-

ba’s Fidel Castro might be behind the assassination. But he worried that if Americans blamed the Communists for Kennedy’s death, they might demand retaliation, “kicking us into a war that can kill 40 million Americans in an hour.”

Johnson could be astonishingly petty. Aside from leaning on a fellowTexan to make sure his pants fit, the tapes show he also employed the prestige of the White House to get free Christmas hairdos for his wife and

daughters. “I’m a poor man____I just have to

live off a paycheque and I’m in debt,” he told a New York City hairdresser who immediately flew to Washington to offer his services gratis. (At the time, notes Michael Beschloss, the historian who edited the tapes, Johnson was worth at least $10 million.) He could also be self-pitying. As the Democrats gathered for their convention in August, 1964, Johnson secretly drafted a statement saying he would not accept his party’s nomination and moaned to his press secretary, George Reedy, about all the criticism he was getting: “I know that a man ought to have the hide of a rhinoceros to be in this job. But I don’t.... I’m not seeking happiness. I’m just seeking a little comfort once in a while.” Johnson, of course, never really intended to quit; he just enjoyed feeling sorry for himself.

No one, though, could match Nixon in the depths of his personal torment. The transcripts in Abuse of Power come from 201 hours of newly released tapes, which are additional to the ones that helped to force Nixon’s resignation in August, 1974. They show that he started to cover up the breakin by White House operatives at Democratic party headquarters in the Watergate apartment complex almost as soon as it took place on June 17, 1972. Watergate, Nixon told his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, four days later, “is not one that’s going to get people that God damn excited ... because they don’t give a [expletive] about repression and bugging and all the rest.”

And while money in politics may be a perennial theme in Washington, the alleged wrongdoings of Bill Clinton and his fellow

Democrats pale in comparison to what Nixon was up to. He kept a slush fund in the White House to pay for undercover operations; the tapes show he liked to keep large amounts of cash from wealthy contributors lying around in boxes. On July 25, 1972, Haldeman told the president they had $300,000 on hand, to which Nixon replied: “That isn’t a hell of a lot.” As Watergate deepened, he began to lie to his own aides, as well as to the public. Forced to fire Haldeman and others, he made Alexander Haig his chief of staff in May, 1973, and maintained

that he was blameless in Watergate. “Believe me,” he told Haig, “I knew nothing about it, no God damn thing.”

Together, the three sets of tapes offer the closest look ever at how power is exercised at the highest level. It is also almost certainly the last such glimpse the world will have. When Nixon was forced to release tapes of some of his Watergate conversations, it destroyed his presidency. His successors learned their lesson. Nixon’s recording system was removed when he was, and no president since has made systematic recordings for fear they could be used against him. The chill goes much further. Officials in Washington are loath to keep diaries or even detailed memos in case they are subpoenaed by zealous investigators looking for wrong-doing.

The result, notes Beschloss, is that future historians trying to reconstruct the 1980s and ’90s will find their task much more difficult. “It’s a horror show for historians,” he says. “People are afraid to keep diaries. They don’t write letters or memos to each other. We’ll never learn what really goes on in private any more.” It may turn out, in the end, that it was the men who occupied the presidency when it was most powerful and most secretive who left the most complete record of their time. □