There is a crackle in the recording. And it’s easy to be distracted by the sound of the scratching of a pencil, a noise made by an obsequious aide furiously taking notes when he is not making self-serving or flattering interjections. But the man at the center of this conversation is unmistakable, for there is only one person in the history of humankind who might have said this:
“I had no knowledge of the goddamned break-in, that’s for sure, no knowledge of the goddamned cover-up. Oh no. No participation and no authorization or knowledge of the goddamn cover-up.”
That is the 37th president of the United States shortly after 8 in the morning on May 8, 1973.
The man had plenty to say. He luxuriated in his poll ratings. He took comfort in the country’s belief he still had plenty to accomplish as president. He pressed the logic of whether he ought to speak of a cover-up at all, because merely using the term might acknowledge there was a cover-up. In the same building a quarter-century later, a man also courting impeachment would employ similar presidential logic and wonder out loud about the meaning of the word “is.”
The other day the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum released the final batch of secretly recorded White House tapes, and as usual they are a treasure. In those tapes are a festival of unctuousness (Gov. Ronald Reagan consoling the Watergate-beleaguered Nixon, counseling, “This, too, shall pass,” which, of course, it did not) and unreality (“I won’t let you down,” Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson tells the president, before doing just that, resigning rather than firing Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox).
Even the most devoted Watergate buff — and here I plead guilty, for the whole affair is an irresistible combination of politics, crime, justice, villainy, heroism, greed, mendacity and tragedy, all played out in the high technology of the time (tapes) and the low technology of our time (actual printed newspapers) — can’t digest 340 hours of conversations at once.
But we know the broad contours of what is in all those tapes — the equivalent of 14 days’ worth of what presidential speechwriter William Safire might have called Nixon notions, nostrums and negativisms. We know the Watergate story, how it began (a third-rate burglary) and how it ended (the only presidential resignation in history), and in these times it is important to remember that none of it could have happened without a newspaper (The Washington Post).
So the value in these tapes isn’t in the broad but in the specific, not in the breathtaking size of this historical trove but in the tiny details in small bites of conversation. With that in mind, you might consider a few minutes of White House banter, chosen at random but revelatory precisely because of what transpired in the Oval Office on a day of neither infamy nor fame.
The morning session began with presidential press secretary Ronald Ziegler telling Nixon a new Harris Poll found that Americans, by a 77-13 margin, did not think the president should resign from office, adding that there was a strong undercurrent in the country to give the president the benefit of the doubt on Watergate.
And though the apparent agenda for this session was wide-ranging — White House staff matters, the possible resignation of Secretary of State William Rogers, the invitation by Hanoi to permit American families to visit burial sites in North Vietnam, the end of the protest and occupation at Wounded Knee in South Dakota — the conversation always returned to Watergate. It was like a magnet, drawing together all the metal filings (and all the material in various metal filing cabinets) in the conversation and in the room.
Indeed, this recording was made just as the balance of the president’s attention was shifting from the geopolitical to the purely legal, from statecraft to stalling and scrambling for survival.
It was less than a fortnight after Nixon asked for the resignations of his top aides, John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman, and fired his White House counsel, John Dean, hoping to create a firewall between him and those in legal jeopardy. He was without his closest confidantes and increasingly preoccupied with Watergate as his administration was collapsing around him.
But Nixon was determined that no White House slip-up suggest he might be implicated in a cover-up — or in the “dirty tricks” undertaken by Donald Segretti, a Nixon political operative whose ham-handed capers included writing phony letters on the letterhead of presidential contender Edmund Muskie that accused Democrats Henry Jackson and Hubert Humphrey of sexual misconduct.
Nixon’s comment: “I didn’t know about the goddamned tricks. No sir. I was miles away from the campaign tactics.”
Yes, but not miles away from the broader Watergate cover-up.
“What’s astounding about Nixon is the extent to which he refused to acknowledge his role — his leading role — in the cover-up,” Timothy Naftali, former director of the Nixon library, said in an interview. “He admitted making mistakes. He never presented himself as one of the architects of the cover-up. But the cover-up was brought to him every step of the way, and in some cases he offered ideas about how to strengthen it.”
Except for one.
Repeatedly that morning Ziegler and Nixon fussed over language that would keep the president far from accusations that he ordered, knew about or covered up evidence of the break-in at the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, reviled by the Nixon White House for releasing the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
Instead, Ziegler and Nixon reassured each other that the operation had been directed by Egil “Bud” Krogh, chief of the White House “Plumbers” operation. The president said: “I had no knowledge whatsoever of going out to Los Angeles” to break into the office of Dr. Lewis Fielding.
That’s true. The president approved of that undertaking but didn’t approve it, which is more than a nuance. Years later, only two weeks after his resignation, Nixon asked Krogh to refresh his memory on whether he had signed off on the Fielding operation. Krogh told him he hadn’t. Nixon said he would have if he had been asked.
“There was a certain consistency there,” Krogh, the architect of the plan, told me last week. “But he didn’t happen to approve that one. He couldn’t keep his break-ins straight.”
North Shore native David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.