In Tricky Dickdom: An Ode to Presidential Badness

Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes , edited with an introduction by Stanley I. Kutler. The Free Press, 675 pages, $30.

Ah, take me back to those lusty days of yesteryear, just a quarter of a century ago, when we had a President in the White House who really knew how to fight -and who never hesitated to advocate the persecution of his enemies far beyond the boundaries of the law.

These tapes of conversations with Richard Nixon inside the White House between 1971 and 1973 “provide a massive, overwhelming record of Nixon’s involvement and his instigation of obstruction of justice and abuse of power,” writes Stanley I. Kutler, the E. Gordon Fox professor of American Institutions at the University of Wisconsin who fought for years for their release. They also “expose a level of culpability far greater than imagined 25 years ago.” Here we have in fine detail Nixon’s personal participation in the cover-up of the burglary of the Democratic National Committee-right from the start.

There’s no mystery at all why Nixon and his allies at the National Archives fought for two decades to keep these taped White House conversations secret; in one fell swoop, they destroy all of the former President’s elaborate attempts to rehabilitate himself after he was forced to resign to avoid a seemingly inevitable impeachment in 1974.

These conversations have all the muscularity missing today even from the private musings of modern politicians, all sadly sanitized by a nearly universal passion for political correctness. Blackmail, cover-up and virulent religious prejudice are all happily championed here with the passion of a bygone age.

The very first sentence of the book is a cheerful suggestion from Presidential aide Bob Haldeman that “you maybe can blackmail [Lyndon B.] Johnson on this stuff”-the Pentagon Papers, which The New York Times had begun to publish a few days earlier. When the President demands the relevant material, Henry Kissinger quickly chimes in, “Bob and I have been trying to put the damn thing together.” Haldeman says the incriminating documents might be in a safe at the Brookings Institution, spurring the President to urge the implementation of the notorious “Huston plan,” which advocated White House-sponsored domestic break-ins as part of domestic counter intelligence operations. “I want it implemented,” declared our Dick. “God damn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”

A couple of pages later, the President suggests, “Let’s have a little fun”-by declassifying documents about the bungled Bay of Pigs invasion during the Kennedy Administration-and then giving “our friends the stories that they would like to have.”

“I really need a son of a bitch like [Tom] Huston who will work his butt off and do it dishonorably,” says the President. “Who will know what he’s doing, and I want to know, too. And I’ll direct him myself. I know how to play this game, and we’re going to start playing it.” An hour later, Nixon is considering who should be his point man in Congress on such matters. “You need a guy in Congress,” he opines. “[Representative John] Rousselot [Republican of California] will be fine. He’s mean, tough, ruthless. He’ll lie, do anything. That’s what you need.”

This was precisely the mentality that helped to convince Nixon’s re-election committee chief, John Mitchell, to seek the services of such great Americans as E. Howard Hunt, who helped to execute the break-in of the headquarters of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex barely a year later.

But the strength of the President’s enthusiasm for what his spokesman derided as a “third-rate burglary” paled in comparison to the gusto with which he expressed his feelings toward one of America’s leading religious minorities. It turns out that Jews were one of his all-time favorite subjects. (Eighteen entries in the index!)

“Bob,” Nixon pleads in the fall of 1971, ” please get me the names of Jews, you know, the big Jewish contributors of the Democrats.… Could we please investigate some of the cocksuckers?” A page later, he explains, “You see, the I.R.S. is full of Jews.… I think that’s the reason they’re after [Billy] Graham, is the rich Jews.” And when Presidential aide John Ehrlichman mentions that Henry Kimelman is a contributor to Democratic Presidential candidate George McGovern, Nixon enthuses, “Scare the shit out of them. Now, there are some Jews with the Mafia that are involved in this all, too.” Earlier, Nixon urges the resuscitation of the House Committee on Un-American Activities to investigate leakers from the Administration. “You know what’s going to charge up an audience,” says the President. “Jesus Christ, they’ll be hanging from the rafters.… Going after all these Jews. Just find one that is a Jew, will you?”

Along the way, we learn of Henry Kissinger’s noble efforts to convince Howard Stein, a leading supporter of Eugene McCarthy in 1968, to finance a fourth-party run by McCarthy in 1972 to draw votes away from the Democratic nominee. The President is also enthusiastic about the abuse of the Internal Revenue Service. “Are we looking into [Democratic Presidential hopeful Edmund] Muskie’s return? … Who knows about the Kennedys? Shouldn’t they be investigated?” At another point in the same conversation, he declares, “we have the power, but are we using it to investigate contributors to Hubert Humphrey, contributors to Muskie, the Jews, you know, that are stealing every-.” There’s also a wonderfully creative proposal from Presidential aide Pat Buchanan (outlined by Haldeman) to funnel $5 million to another fourth-party ticket of Shirley Chisholm and Julian Bond, to draw black votes away from the Democratic nominee.

Nixon goes back and forth on the significance of the Watergate burglary, sometimes realizing that it’s going to do him in-”[a]nything as bizarre as this and interesting is going to be a national story”-then comforting himself with its seeming insignificance (“it is not one that is going to get people that goddamn excited … because they don’t give a shit about repression and bugging and all the rest.”)

All this from the man who engineered his election to the Presidency by making “law and order” a permanent part of our political lexicon. So the next time anyone suggests to you that the abuse of power in the Clinton Administration-or any other Administration of the last 50 years-is remotely comparable to the crimes collectively called Watergate, dispatch him immediately to the bookstore to purchase this fine new collection of Richard Nixon memorabilia. This was truly the golden age of political skulduggery, and no journalist alive back then is likely to live through anything quite so exciting in Washington again.