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Nixon Tapes: Open to the Public

January 2, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Now, three perspectives on these latest Nixon tapes. John Ehrlichman was President Nixon’s chief domestic adviser from 1969 to 1973. He was convicted for his role in the Watergate cover-up. He’s now a writer in Atlanta and currently working on a documentary film about Watergate. Monica Crowley was a foreign policy aide to the former President in the final years before his death. She’s the author of “Nixon Off the Record: His Candid Commentary on People and Politics.” And Tom Wicker covered the Nixon White House for the New York Times. He’s the author of “One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream.” Welcome all of you. John Ehrlichman, starting with you, what is–you’ve been actually sitting and listening to these tapes at the National Archives. What is most striking or revealing to you from what you’ve heard so far?

JOHN EHRLICHMAN, Former Nixon Aide: (Atlanta) Well, I think the lack of context. The archivist has snipped little tiny segments, in some cases six or eight seconds, and you don’t know what was said before or after. And it’s tough on a listener.

MARGARET WARNER: And why is that? Explain to our viewers why there are just these short little segments.

JOHN EHRLICHMAN: Well, it’s not for–I think there could be a lot more context given. What they’ve done is try and select out the things that embodied abuses of government power under their regulations, and that’s what they’re giving you.

MARGARET WARNER: That was part of the agreement, I gather, or the conditions under which these were released?

JOHN EHRLICHMAN: I guess this settlement, but they really don’t give you enough to go on in some cases.

MARGARET WARNER: Tom Wicker, what is striking to you about what you’ve read about what’s in these tapes?

TOM WICKER, Journalist, Author: (New York) Well, first, I agree with John that it’s very difficult to put those into context, but secondly, when I was doing research for my book, I was told by many people who knew Mr. Nixon very well, including, I think, John Ehrlichman, that he had a habit of one might say popping off, i.e., saying, do this, and I don’t want any argument, find that fellah today, and I don’t want any argument. And then they, knowing that, that he did that, they wouldn’t do anything about it, and then the next day he’d forgotten. Now I’m not saying that these remarks that we have just heard were like that, but it seems to me some of them could have been, and if we don’t know any more than what we heard, why it’s possible to make that judgment.

MARGARET WARNER: Monica Crowley, does the President Nixon you’ve read about in these tapes, how does that compare with the Richard Nixon you knew in the final years of his life?

MONICA CROWLEY, Former Nixon Aide: (New York) Well, let me start by saying that I think that once politicians leave the arena and have no intention of ever going back, most go through a transformation. Their political characters often change. In Nixon’s case it changed but not by much. You know, every so often when the National Archives releases more hours of Nixon’s taped conversations, we are treated to isolated conversations from the early 1970′s and fragmented, out-of-context comments, like the ones that you treated us to before.

Apart from the fact that there’s no evidence that Nixon knew about or ordered the break-in that did occur, Watergate, there’s no evidence that any of these other so-called orders were carried out, and that’s because they weren’t orders at all. I think all presidents say things in the heat of disappointment, frustration, anger, even fatigue, that they never intend to have acted upon. And Nixon’s rantings have become a lightning rod for criticism because we can hear his but we can’t hear those of other Presidents.

In my experience now–I worked with President Nixon during the last four years of his life, so he was no longer in power and had no intention of going back, but I did have some similar experiences with him where he did, in fact, as Tom says, pop off. On one occasion when he was extremely frustrated that President Bush had not taken his advice to increase substantially the amount of aid given to the democratic forces in Russia, he once ordered me to call Gen. Brent Scowcroft, Bush’s national security adviser, and inform him that Nixon would never again furnish any advice to President Bush on anything. Now, knowing that–that Nixon was just reacting to Bush’s refusal to consult with him or to act on his advice, I did not execute the order. And Nixon never followed up. And as I’m sure Mr. Ehrlichman will attest, Nixon always followed up on orders that he wanted executed.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. John Ehrlichman, let’s go to the conversation that we just heard about and were slightly discussing, which is the orders to break into Brookings Institution. Now, did that come as a surprise to you to hear this on the tape? Why was it never carried out?

JOHN EHRLICHMAN: Well, it wasn’t ever carried out because I shot it down. I didn’t know that he had instructed–I got wind of this. We happened to be at San Clemente at the time. And John Dean flew out to tell me about it. I tracked down who had followed up–who was proposing to do this thing and I told ‘em to stop. It sounded ridiculous to me. So that was the end of it.

MARGARET WARNER: Give us a little context, if you would, why–I mean, the Pentagon Papers had already been–were being published by the New York Times. Why did the President want Brookings burglarized?

JOHN EHRLICHMAN: The setting is that there were, I think, thirty or thirty-five sets of these Pentagon Papers, very top secret stuff, highly classified. And it was evident that some of them had gotten out of the government’s possession. Daniel Elsberg had stolen several sets and had turned them over to newspapers and foreign embassies and what not. And the President was extremely upset about the breach of security. Now, listening to these tapes, you see a side of Richard Nixon that was very interesting to me. He says, in effect, this man is another Alger Hiss. He says, Alger Hiss gave me a mighty boost in my political career and Daniel Elsberg can do the same.

MARGARET WARNER: Alger Hiss being a State Department employee who was accused of being a spy for the Soviets, and Richard Nixon had made his early career in Congress on prosecuting him.

JOHN EHRLICHMAN: That’s right. And he saw Elsberg as another jet-assisted take-off. He was coming up toward re-election, and he said this. You can hear him on the tape say as much. I’m going to destroy this man in the press.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, explain one other thing to me and to our viewers. Why–you say you countermanded this order when it sort of moved down the food chain and you finally heard about it about Brookings, but why is no one on the tape heard saying, you know, Mr. President, that’s illegal? I mean, Henry Kissinger, the national security adviser, supposedly was in the room, the attorney general, the defense secretary.

JOHN EHRLICHMAN: Yeah. That’s a very curious audience for this kind of rhetoric. You’d have to ask Henry why he didn’t object. I think Henry and I agree that there were many times that you simply did not call Richard Nixon in a situation like that if you wanted to continue to do business with him. He could freeze you out. So they were being very politic, I guess, and letting him spout off. That was the Queen of Hearts syndrome, we called it, “off with their heads.” The next day he would say, what did you ever do about that? And you’d say, well, I haven’t gotten around to that yet. He’d say, good, I’ve thought about it, and I’d just as soon we’ll put that off to another time.

MARGARET WARNER: Tom Wicker, do you–being a student of these years in the Nixon White House, do you think, though, that a conversation like that, that the President would have had with his aides, ordering the burglary somewhere else, has any other significance–I mean, do you think it could have had any–I’m not asking you to speculate here–I guess I am–but I’m just asking you, do you think it’s insignificant or significant in any way?

TOM WICKER: No. I think it’s significant, even if, as we speculated here in this conversation, it was just a pop-off, or something of that sort. Even so, I think to think in those terms or even possible–or to speak in those terms, and I suppose he forgot that the tape recorder was going, so I wouldn’t put that into it–but I think it shows something about an attitude that, generally speaking, we wouldn’t like in anybody that we knew, and certainly we wouldn’t want to see in a President. I think Richard Nixon in many ways–although I don’t claim to have known him very well or to have understood him, but I think he clearly was a man of some considerable insecurities and some–some internal angers. And I think these comments reflect that, and they’re not very pleasant to hear.

MARGARET WARNER: John Ehrlichman, do you think that it would have created any kind of atmosphere in which other people at the White House thought this should be the kind of behavior that the President would condone when it came to dealing with political opponents?

JOHN EHRLICHMAN: I don’t know that there’s any basis for that. You can’t extrapolate from what you hear on these tapes to Watergate, for instance. I just don’t think there’s any relationship. But it–it certainly showed the sensitivity that the President had toward national security breaches. That’s not the only one. We had leaks all the time, and some of them very serious, that cost lives. And he was very sensitive to that. And his reaction in some cases was pretty extreme.

MARGARET WARNER: Monica Crowley, what are your thoughts on this particular conversation?

MONICA CROWLEY: Well, I think it’s interesting that, as I’ve said before, we can hear Nixon’s comments but we can’t hear those of other Presidents. And I think it would be very interesting, for example, to hear behind-the-scenes conversations of the Kennedy White House on any number of issues, or behind the scenes at the Lyndon Johnson White House talking about the failures of Vietnam with great frustration. As we know, Lyndon Johnson was a very earthy man as well, who perceived a lot of enemies out there, or, you know, behind-the-scenes conversations in the Reagan White House and Iran-Contra, or in the Clinton White House on Filegate or Travelgate or any number of other issues that have cropped up there. So I think you know we are left to hear these tapes, despite the fact that all other Presidents, despite dubious behavior and congressional investigations, have been able to keep their conversations private. And that’s why it seemed so shocking to us to hear Nixon’s comments.

MARGARET WARNER: John Ehrlichman, let me ask you about one other thing that we heard or in Kwame’s report we read, and that was–and this is where I think “you” were asked to do something, which was to investigate major Jewish donors–no, you weren’t–one account said you were in the room; another one said it wasn’t. What was his–why was it major Jewish donors to the party that he was most concerned about?

JOHN EHRLICHMAN: Well, it was probably Tuesday. On Wednesday it was major Italian donors to the Democrats, and on Friday, it would be black contributors. He was constantly in the re-examination process, what’s happening on the other side, what are they doing, who’s contributing to them, what success are they having in their fund-raising, and he was always looking for more information. He broke it down along ethnic lines. He broke it down along socioeconomic lines. I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on the fact that he was talking about Jewish people in this particular segment.

MARGARET WARNER: Tom Wicker, briefly before we go, what impact, if any, do you think these tapes are going to have on the Nixon reputation? Do you think it changes it in any way?

TOM WICKER: Well, I don’t think it changes it very much, but I think it will certainly reinforce the view of a lot of people that this was an evil man because the tapes just taken in the way that we hear them or the way that we read them in the newspaper, all we know is here’s a man who ordered a burglary and so forth. And I think it will confirm many people in their dark view of Mr. Nixon.

MARGARET WARNER: John Ehrlichman, briefly on that point, impact on his reputation.

JOHN EHRLICHMAN: Well, I’ve said for some time that his rehabilitation after he resigned was extraordinary. He had Ms. Crowley to help him. But that lurking, hanging over his head were these tapes that sooner or later were going to come out and give him a lot of trouble.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you–

JOHN EHRLICHMAN: There are other tapes that are going to give him trouble on other bases.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And I’m sure we’ll be back to discuss them. Thanks very much, all three of you.