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Secret Tapes Listen in on Nixon Presidency Under Grips of Watergate Scandal

August 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Newly released audio recordings offer a look inside the Nixon presidency as the Watergate scandal was unfolding. In one excerpt, President Richard Nixon has just announced the resignation of his two top aides. Judy Woodruff talks to veteran journalist Marvin Kalb and Ken Hughes of the University of Virginia's Miller Center.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now to newly released audio recordings that give us insight into the Nixon presidency.

Over 300 hours of secret tapes recorded at the White House during the spring and summer of 1973 cover a tumultuous period, when revelations about the Watergate scandal were gripping the country.

On the night of April 30, 1973, President Nixon took a series of phone calls from supporters and advisers following a televised address in which he announced the resignation of his two top aides after they were implicated in the scandal.

Yesterday, we reported on the praise he received from a man who would follow him in office, Ronald Reagan.

He also got a congratulatory call from George H.W. Bush.

And here’s part of the call from the influential Southern Baptist evangelist Billy Graham:

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REV. BILLY GRAHAM, evangelist: I think this is your finest hour.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: that’s nice of you, Billy.

BILLY GRAHAM: Really, I wanted to reach through the TV screen and hug you.

RICHARD NIXON: It’s not easy.

BILLY GRAHAM: I thought you were just great, and everybody I’ve talked to feels the same way. And I…

RICHARD NIXON: You know, they all continue to slash away, so what the hell.

BILLY GRAHAM: Well, you know Ruth, she…

RICHARD NIXON: Excuse me. Excuse me to hell, but…

BILLY GRAHAM: Well, Ruth, she thinks it’s all a communist plot, left-wing and everything else.

RICHARD NIXON: It is. It is. It is. You know that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That same night, President Nixon spoke with Defense Secretary Elliot Richardson, whom he had just announced would become acting attorney general.

In the speech, Nixon — Mr. Nixon had said Richardson would have full authority to name a special prosecutor to investigate the Watergate affair, but, on the phone, there was a different message.

RICHARD NIXON: The one thing they’re going to be hitting you on is about the special prosecutor.

ELLIOT RICHARDSON, U.S. Defense Secretary: Yes. 

RICHARD NIXON: The point is, I’m not sure you should have one. I’m not sure but what you should say you assume the responsibility for the prosecution and maybe bring that nice fellow Hastings or whatever his name is, say he’s — but whatever you want.

ELLIOT RICHARDSON: Well, I’m thinking about it, and I met with Henry Petersen this afternoon.


ELLIOT RICHARDSON: And I talked with him about it, and I will think about it some more.

RICHARD NIXON: Do what you want, and I will back you to the hilt. I don’t give a damn what you do. I am for you. Do you understand? Get to the bottom of this son of a bitch.


JUDY WOODRUFF: A few weeks later, Richardson appointed law professor Archibald Cox to be special prosecutor.

Well, here now to help us understand some of the historical context, we turn to veteran journalist and author Marvin Kalb, who covered the Watergate scandal. He is a senior adviser at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. And Ken Hughes, he studies recordings from the Nixon presidency at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

MARVIN KALB, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marvin Kalb, let me start with you. This was a tough day for President Nixon. He had just asked his two top aides in the White House to leave, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. He had fired John Dean, who was his legal counsel. He had accepted the resignation of his attorney general. Then he went on television last — night. So, tell us — set the scene for us.

MARVIN KALB: Well, the amazing thing to me is that he finally at this point recognized that, from a political point of view, Watergate was a big scandal that could tear his presidency to pieces. 

The sad part about Richard Nixon, though, is even though he recognized that — and you would think at that point he would come to terms with it — he goes on air that night on April 30 and delivers a speech filled with one lie — forgive me — after another.

He would say, for example, that it was from a newspaper that he found out about Watergate. That’s nonsense. He would continue time and time again to mislead, even when he knew that the evidence was clearly in another direction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ken Hughes, so what’s the significance of these attaboy phone calls he was getting from almost everybody he talked to that night?

KEN HUGHES, University of Virginia: Judy, ordinarily, after President Nixon made a nationally televised address, he would do like a victory lap through his Rolodex with all his advisers praising him.

And he loved it. That’s — he wanted — he soaked all that up. But, on this night, he was in a very different mood, because while he was putting a brave face toward the public, privately, he recognized that, with Haldeman and Ehrlichman implicated in the Watergate investigation, all the bulkheads of the Titanic, save one, had been breached, and the next one that could be implicated was Nixon himself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in fact, he had a difficult conversation with Haldeman, with H.R. Haldeman, that day…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … where he was almost apologizing for asking him to resign.

MARVIN KALB: I had the impression, listening to that tape, that he might have had a drink or two before he did that conversation with Haldeman, and maybe even more than that.

He was apologizing, and, at the same time, he couldn’t quite come to grips with what it is that had happened. And I think he was engaged in a process of self-deception, as much as he was engaged in a process of deceiving the American people. He was a very smart man. He knew what was going on. And yet he couldn’t quite come to terms with it.

KEN HUGHES: That’s exactly right. One of the fascinating things — everybody always asks, why didn’t Richard Nixon burn the tapes?

Fascinating find in this latest round is that, shortly before he asked Haldeman and Ehrlichman to resign, he took Haldeman aside and said, those tapes, most of them are worth destroying. Some of them are worth keeping. Would you take care of that for me?

And Haldeman agreed at first. And if Haldeman had actually followed through on that, I think the history of Watergate would be entirely different and we’d be talking about H.R. Haldeman as the mastermind of Watergate, because without those tapes, we wouldn’t know what Nixon had done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What’s the significance, Marvin Kalb, of the conversation with Elliot Richardson, who he had just announced that day he was going to appoint as an acting attorney general?

MARVIN KALB: Well, again, I find that, when you read that, there’s a sadness that runs through that conversation, because he brings on Richardson because he really admired him. He respected him. He thought, this was a really honorable guy who was going to help me.

And then he says to him — first, he says to the American people, I think it’s a good idea to have a special prosecutor. Then he says to Richardson, well, you know, I don’t think it’s a very good idea. They’re going to press you to do this, but you really don’t have to.

What — who was he saying that to? He seems to be trying to say something to himself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much was he maneuvering behind the scenes to try to deal with everything? Was it just overwhelming…


KEN HUGHES: At this point — sorry.

At this point in his presidency, Watergate takes over. And it’s all maneuvering.


KEN HUGHES: And that Elliot Richardson phone call is setting up a colossal confrontation that will take place later that year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And yet we know — we know, Ken Hughes and Marvin Kalb, right around this same period, earlier this month, he had a conversation with his ambassador to China, David Bruce…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … about dealing with the Chinese.

And we have a very interesting — we’re going to — we’re going to quote because, actually, the audio from this conversation wasn’t very clear, but what President Nixon said to Ambassador Bruce.

He said: “We have got to get along with this one-fourth of all the people in the world, the ablest people in the world, in my opinion, potentially. We have got to get along, or not. It’s no problem for the next five years, but in the next 20 years, it’s a critical problem for our age.”

Ambassador Bruce said, “It has nothing to do.”

And President Nixon came back and said, “And the other thing is if you could constantly, of course, whenever you’re talking — they are very subtle, but — and are not like the Russians, who, of course, slobber at flattery and all that sort of thing.”

MARVIN KALB: He had so little respect, really, for the Russians, other than their military power, and he wanted and he did strike an arms control deal with them.

For the Chinese, he loved them. He was mesmerized by them, and talking so marvelously about Zhou Enlai, the premier of China, and how energetic he is and how brilliant he is and all that. He would never say that about a Russian leader.

But, to him, the game — the triangle between the U.S., China, and Russia was an essential piece of his diplomacy, and he really thought that, if he could persuade the two of them to come along with him, to show them how wonderful it would be to deal with the United States, he could get them to get us out of the Vietnam War. But the North Vietnamese wouldn’t play the game.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And there were a few things in — but, Ken, he is fascinating that he was saying in 1973, he said, it’s not important that the Chinese are the ablest people in five years, but in 20 years, it matters. 

KEN HUGHES: At the same time that he is involved in this very detailed cover-up of low crimes, he has a very panoramic view of the world and of history. And he has developed that his entire life, and that doesn’t go away, even as he is going down.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This — Ken Hughes, this is the last group of recordings we have from the Nixon presidency, because they stopped the recordings during this summer.


JUDY WOODRUFF: What is the significance? What does that mean we lose? What more is there to know about the Nixon presidency? Have these tapes all now been pored over?

KEN HUGHES: Well, they’re — the tapes haven’t all been pored over yet, but now they have finally been released, so we can do that.

But what it means for people who love the presidency and the history of the presidency is that we finally have this near perfect specimen that we can study. I mean, Nixon, unlike any of his predecessors, had the voice-activated tape recording system.

So, for two-and-a-half years, critical years in the country’s history, this tape recorder went on, and it kind of gives us this time machine that we can go back and see what really happened in one of the most fascinating presidencies that…

MARVIN KALB: Nixon respected history.

He looked at these tapes as a way of recording history. And he felt himself to be such a powerful figure in world history, that we owe it to the world, in a sense, to allow them to see what — every word, to hear every word that I’m saying. It’s so important.

He made a personal commitment to the Chinese. Commitment is a big word when the president uses it. And he said that he had made a commitment to the Chinese that, if they have a quarrel with the Russians, a war perhaps, the United States is going to be on China’s side.

That was a huge statement, a commitment of policy. And yet he felt he could do it without any kind of check on that because he was so much a figure of history. He saw himself as a big player.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, as Ken Hughes just said, all the while, he was dealing with this massive, growing scandal.


MARVIN KALB: Compartmentalization, I think they call it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Compartmentalization.

KEN HUGHES: That’s the word.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that what we are looking at?

KEN HUGHES: Yes, we are. There are different Nixons for every occasion.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s a remarkable — a remarkable set of tapes.

And this is — this is just part what was released from the Nixon Presidential Library.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Ken Hughes from the University of Virginia, Marvin Kalb, thank you both.

MARVIN KALB: Pleasure.

KEN HUGHES: Thank you, Judy.