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Historian Discusses Book on President Nixon, Henry Kissinger

May 21, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: From Vietnam to the open-door policy with China, and of course Watergate, the tumultuous years of the Nixon White House had a profound effect on the modern presidency. But behind the scenes, it was the interaction between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser and secretary of state, that influenced much of the administration’s policy.

Not long ago, the National Archives released tens of thousands of pages of documents and hours of audiotapes related to these two public figures. In his new book, “Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power,” historian Robert Dallek takes advantage of this new material to explore their complex relationship. I recently talked with Dallek at his home in Washington.

So much has already been written about Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Why did you want to take another look at these men?

ROBERT DALLEK, Presidential Historian: Well, because, Judy, so much material has come to hand in the last three, four years and, in particular, 20,000 pages of Henry Kissinger’s telephone transcripts. They had been locked up in the Library of Congress by Kissinger until five years after he died, but he was pressured into opening them by the historical division of the State Department.

And so, in May of 2004, just three years ago, the material came to hand. And it’s a goldmine.

Of course, there’s always more Nixon tapes becoming available. People know all about the Watergate tapes. But, of course, there are 3,700 hours of Nixon tapes. And it’s all very revealing and allows you to get an inside glimpse of what’s happening at the White House and between these men. And I think it’s the most transparent presidential administration I’ve ever studied or that we’ve probably ever had.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which you say is ironic.

ROBERT DALLEK: It’s quite ironic, because, after all, Nixon and Kissinger were so secretive about what they were doing, the opening to China, relations with the Soviet Union, back-channel discussions, X-ing the State Department out of things, the shuttle diplomacy to the Middle East, the Vietnam negotiations. They were kept secret for quite a bit.

And here we are, 30-plus years later, and we have access to materials that give us a picture of Nixon and Kissinger and what they were doing.

Nixon and Kissenger's relationship

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why did you want to look at the two of them together and their relationship with each other?

ROBERT DALLEK: Because, Judy, I've never seen, in all my studies and reading about presidents and secretaries of state or national security advisers, foreign policymakers, I've never seen as significant a relationship between a president and an adviser as the one between Nixon and Kissinger.

In many respects, Kissinger became co-president, because, once Watergate came on, Nixon was, in many respects, a crippled president. And, of course, we had the terrible crisis over the Middle East, the Yom Kippur War in October of '73.

And at that point, Kissinger, in many respects, took over the running of foreign policy. And there are some very revealing telephone conversations in that material, telling us how Kissinger was taking over.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Saying that the president was not making decisions, important decisions, but that it was Kissinger instead?

ROBERT DALLEK: Saying things like, Brent Scowcroft calls Kissinger up, 7:55 in the evening, a week into the Yom Kippur War. He says the British prime minister wants to speak to the president in half an hour. And Kissinger said, "Brent, we can't do it. He's loaded." So Nixon is drunk. He can't come to the phone. Kissinger says, "Well, I'll speak to the prime minister, and the president will speak to him in the morning."

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about their relationship from the beginning of the Nixon administration, 1969, when Nixon took office?

ROBERT DALLEK: They were both highly intelligent men. Kissinger still is, of course, a brilliant man. And they did some wonderful things. The opening to China was a very thoughtful, wise foreign policy, it seems to me. Nixon was the architect of that, saying that you can't isolate a society of 800 million people forever.

But at the same time, there was a kind of manipulation, secretiveness, backstabbing, that undermined that administration. We asked the question, "Why was Nixon brought down?" And the obvious answer is Watergate. But I think it goes deeper than that.

I think it relates to the fact that this was an administration that was characterized by so much paranoia, so much manipulation and secretiveness, and backbiting. Kissinger would talk about -- rather, Nixon would talk about Kissinger and call him a psycho maniac. Kissinger at the same time talks about Nixon, calls him, behind his back, "our drunken friend, the maniac," you see.

They're just scathing with about each other, but they need each other. And Nixon, the deeper he gets into the Watergate crisis, the more difficult it is for him to oust Kissinger. He thought about it. He wasn't happy with him in many respects.

Kissinger after Nixon's resignation

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nixon comes out of this administration looking completely ruined, his character destroyed. He's left the presidency. He's forever besmirched. Henry Kissinger comes out of the administration widely admired. He goes on to become secretary of state under a new president.

ROBERT DALLEK: Right, under Ford.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How did that happen?


JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you explain that?

ROBERT DALLEK: Well, I think the country was so knocked back on its heels by the Watergate scandal and by the fact that, for the first time in the country's history, a president was compelled to resign. He would have been impeached. He would have been convicted and thrown out of office, and so he anticipates that by his resignation.

The country is locked in this Cold War. We feel that there is significant jeopardy to the national security and the country needs someone who is, in a sense, going to be the surrogate president, who's going to stand up and defend the national well-being. And Henry Kissinger, he understood that. He inherits that mantle.

You see in these telephone conversations how adept he was at ingratiating himself with the press, giving him tidbits, talking to them in ways that would allow them to get an inside glimpse of what was happening in the administration. So, in his own right, he was a brilliant politician and very adept at creating a constructive image and, also, of course, he was very effective in opening the door to China, they talked with the Soviet Union, and the shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East.

Book's conclusions

JUDY WOODRUFF: And did your personal view of these two men change in any way as a result of your research?

ROBERT DALLEK: Well, you know, Judy, I came away from the work on these two men with, I think, a greater compassion for Nixon. He suffered. The man was so insecure.

Funny anecdote. At the end of the visit to China in February 1972, the last night is spent in Shanghai in a fancy hotel. Nixon was drinking all afternoon, Mao ties, and he was pretty well-sloshed.

At 2:00 in the morning, he called Haldeman and Kissinger to his suite and he almost begs them to assure him that this is going to be a great success, that the press is not going to blight this achievement. And Kissinger writes later in his memoirs about this lonely, almost desperate man, and there's something very sad about him. So you can feel a certain compassion.

Kissinger, by contrast, I found -- I went in with greater admiration for him than I came out, because what I came to understand was how much of a manipulator he was.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ultimate lesson, though, from this book about power and the people at the pinnacle of power?

ROBERT DALLEK: The ultimate lesson is that we have to be cautious. The press plays, the media plays such an important role in our society, I believe, in defending and preserving our democratic institutions, because so many of these men who want to become president, who want to become secretary of state or gain power, you see, there is a ruthless edge, I think, to a lot of them, and that one has to be skeptical, cautious, hold them, in a sense, at arm's length. And the Congress needs to do a better job of checking executive power.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robert Dallek, the book is "Partners in Power: Nixon and Kissinger," thanks very much.