I‘LL FOREVER BE SURPRISED by current day apologists of Richard Nixon, who are able (much like admirers of John Kennedy and Bill Clinton) to side-step quite a bit of nastiness to put forward the triumphs — in this case concerning China and the Soviet Union and the often cited “détente.” And indeed this was the chief tactic of Nixon himself, who discounted the Watergate disclosures and who preferred to talk instead about his efforts “to build peace in the world.”
This very phrase occurs in the latest and perhaps final installment of the Nixon tapes, seven hundred hours of remaining audio having been sequestered in the interest of national security. These recordings invite speculation — for me at least — on the final lessons of Watergate and the Nixon years arrived at by the future presidents Reagan and Bush, both of whom telephoned on 30 April 1973, the day of the President’s televised address admitting for the first time that at least some of the allegations concerning the break-in were true.
To appreciate the performance, consider the following from that speech:
Some people quite properly appalled at the abuses that occurred will say that Watergate demonstrates the bankruptcy of the American political system. I believe precisely the opposite is true. Watergate represented a series of illegal acts and bad judgments by a number of individuals. It was the system that has brought the facts to light, and that will bring those guilty to justice.
Nixon was of course about to be proven correct in this prediction, but not for lack of trying. This speech was delivered roughly in the middle of a two-year period during which he attempted, through bribery and other forms of scheming, either to stop the investigations or, failing this, to keep certain inconvenient facts from emerging.
To cite only one example of this broader campaign, recall the case of Nixon’s new attorney general, Elliot Richardson, whose appointment was also announced in the April speech. The replacement of Richard Kleindienst, Richardson in turn named Archibald Cox as special counsel for the Watergate investigation. Cox’s unrelenting pursuit of the now infamous tapes, whose existence was discovered in July of 1973, led Nixon to attempt the forced resignations of Richardson and Cox, to keep the formerly secret tapes from the public — or in other words, to promote “the bankruptcy of the American political system” he had earlier denied.
In this way it is possible to draw a straight line from the first Watergate speech to the eventual collapse of Nixon’s vulgar and increasingly desperate calculations, in early August of 1974 — a demise brought about by the aforementioned tapes themselves and by the workings of a system Nixon at all points had attempted to frustrate. In the meanwhile of April 1973, however, it was still possible for the President to believe that a dose of public relations and a changing of the subject could make everything right. And this is exactly the note that is struck, and which resonates, in the brief exchanges with California Governor Reagan and the Republican National Committee Chairman Bush.
Two years to the day of the Watergate speech, and the round of sympathetic calls which ensued, South Vietnam on 30 April 1975 would surrender and the failed and disgraceful Vietnam War would end. Watergate was merely the culmination of a political style already operative in 1968, when Nixon conspired behind the scenes (in this case successfully) to subvert the Vietnam peace negotiations and to deprive the Humphrey campaign of a potent achievement. The man who claimed to want to build peace in the world thereby had ensured the unnecessary lengthening of a war and the pointless deaths that necessarily followed.
As for Reagan and Bush, in the years ahead sympathy would produce symmetry. The illegal and subversive “diplomacy” and cynicism of 1968 onward would be mirrored in the Iran-Contra scandal, down to the blocking of investigation, the simultaneous acceptance and evasion of full responsibility, and the eventual pardoning of the guilty by the GOP’s presidential successor. Decades later, I listen to these brief and well-wishing telephone exchanges between kindred spirits and realize the jury is still out on the nature and scope of their damage to the American political system.