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Author: Gregory Clay

Richard Nixon

Marvin Kalb, moderator of the anniversary panel and elite CBS News diplomatic correspondent in the 1960s and '70s, posed the question this way: “Why are we so fascinated with Richard Nixon --- even 40 years later?”

Perhaps it’s the negativity that the former president conjures up by the mere mention of his name. Perhaps it’s Nixon’s usage of the word “crook.” Perhaps it’s the audiotape recordings, especially the one that featured Nixon's revealing "smoking gun" strategy.

Kalb moderated a panel titled “40 Years Ago in News History: President Nixon Resigns” on Aug. 7 at a jam-packed NEWSEUM auditorium on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C.

On Aug. 9, 1974, at noon Eastern time, Richard M. Nixon became the first U.S. president to resign the office.

And 40 years later, Nixon remains one of the most intriguing --- some say infamous--- figures in world history.

The anecdotes from the NEWSEUM panel, featuring authors Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter, Kalb the moderator and journalist Carl Bernstein of Watergate scandal fame, illuminated a time when the American people were engrossed by a sordid scandal, mass mistrust and deep reflection during the early 1970s.

Such as:

The best description of the night came from Brinkley, noted presidential historian and co-author of the book, with Nichter, “The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972.” Brinkley summarized Nixon in two words --- “diabolical pragmatist.”

Perhaps Brinkley stated it best when he said, “It very well may be that Nixon was a good president but not a good man.”

And Nichter, a history professor at Texas A&M, articulated Nixon’s unique place in history, rhetorically asking, “In what box do you put President Nixon. No one else is in that box.”

Nixon also could be classified as a Republican with liberal tendencies: He created the Environmental Protection Agency, signed the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. With that you would have thought Nixon was a Great Society proponent under President Lyndon Johnson or a New Deal Democrat under President Franklin Roosevelt.

And though he detested black folk as the tapes show, Nixon led the charge for desegregated schools in the South. From a personal standpoint, after attending segregated schools for six consecutive years beginning at age 6, the public school system in my home county in North Carolina was first desegregated by government decree and en masse for the 1969-1970 school year.

That was my seventh year. I was 12 years old. The AFL’s underdog Kansas City Chiefs surprised the NFL’s powerful Minnesota Vikings, 23-7, in Super Bowl IV during that academic year.

Nixon’s administration also introduced a special labor initiative model, beginning in Philadelphia, that called for the hiring of black construction workers by contractors doing business with the federal government. Today, one would call that practice this: affirmative action. Therefore, one could call Nixon America's first affirmative action president.

That was Nixon’s first year in office after winning the 1968 election. And though Nixon was ardently anti-Semitic as evidence on the tapes shows, Nixon sent weapons and supplies in support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

The most amazing and strangest nugget from the Nixon tapes: That the disgraced former president didn’t realize girls used profane language.

Said Brinkley during the panel discussion following the playing of the "girls" audiotape for the NEWSEUM audience, “Richard Nixon could be a square --- almost puritanical and old-fashioned and out of touch. Do girls curse? Nixon seemed unaware about that.”

And, remember, Nixon had two daughters: Tricia and Julie.

Go figure.

Nixon somehow thought he could rationalize --- and justify --- the break-in into the Democratic national headquarters at its Watergate Building office as an issue of national security. That was the "gotcha" "smoking gun" tape against him.

On June 23, 1972, five months before the presidential election, Nixon is recorded saying his administration should halt the FBI's investigation into the Watergate break-in, claiming national security concerns. Remember, this was only six days after the break-in. That tape was a game-changer because it clearly established a timeline against Nixon --- that the president was aware of criminal behavior early on in the process. And it refuted Nixon's earlier and long-time denials of his involvement in the Watergate issue, rendering them a moot point. The bottom line: It made Nixon appear complicit in an elaborate conspiracy.

When the "smoking gun" tape was made public on Aug. 5, 1974 during the dramatic Watergate hearings, Nixon essentially was history. Even most Republicans in the House of Representatives and the Senate had turned against him.

But Nixon, who died in 1994, wanted the White House bugged for the sake of audiotaping --- and, ultimately, his legacy. That self-aggrandizing policy became his nadir.

Again, go figure. The lesson learned amid the chaos: Don't tape everything you say, even if you believe it's for the sake of posterity.

Nixon apparently had two labels for Gerald Ford: impeachment insurance and scatter-brain. Said Bernstein, “When Spiro Agnew resigned (in 1973), Gerald Ford became vice president. Nixon viewed Ford as impeachment insurance. He said they wouldn’t impeach him if they knew Gerald Ford would be president. Nixon often said Ford played (football) too many times without his helmet.”

Nixon’s obvious and incessant paranoia was a key issue for the panel on this night.

Said Brinkley, ”He was paranoid of George McGovern and Edmund Muskie (two Democratic challengers).”

That’s interesting since Nixon pummeled McGovern in the 1972 presidential election, winning 60 percent of the popular vote. He lost only Massachusetts and Washington D.C. on election night.

Said Bernstein, “Nixon undermined reporters through illegal wiretaps. When they say the cover-up was worse than the crime --- not a chance.”

Added Brinkley, “Nixon’s war on the press --- with Spiro Agnew --- was insane.”

And Nichter spoke of Nixon’s revenge toward previous presidents, saying, “Nixon wanted to release records about John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson that would make them look bad. He wanted Bay of Pigs records released because it would embarrass Kennedy.”

Bernstein spoke of how Nixon, the presidential candidate, sabotaged President Johnson’s peace talks with South Vietnam in 1968. Nixon essentially told the Vietnamese he would offer a better deal if he won the presidential election.

Nixon, according to the tapes, was obsessed by foreign policy, with little emphasis on domestic issues. Remember, he was the first president to visit China and Moscow --- accomplishing both seminal feats in 1972 during the Cold War era.

However, Nixon had ulterior motives, as Kalb explained, “He wanted to use China as a tool against Russia.”

Nixon’s foreign policy acumen and arrogant narcissism drove him to install secret microphones in the White House to produce the tapes. Said Brinkley on a public radio show before the NEWSEUM panel: “He thought it (taping) was going to be a historic document for his own edification, that he’d be able to write a multiple volume biography using tapes as grist. Keep in mind, Nixon didn’t see himself as merely a politician like Hubert Humphrey or George McGovern; he thought of himself as a statesperson on the level of Charles de Gaulle or Winston Churchill or Mao Tse-tung, that he was a major figure and that these tapes would be invaluable for his personal use. He’d also be able to double-check a record, if somebody took a swipe at Nixon, he’d be able to say that’s not what happened. I have a transcript of what happened.”

Several Republican leaders urged Nixon to burn the tapes. However, Nixon, ultimately was hoisted by his own petard as his master plan proved to expedite his downfall. His precious tapes not only displayed the accomplishments of Nixon but also placed a negative spotlight on the infamy of Nixon.

Watergate followed as did Nixon’s departure from the White House under a cloud of national shame.

Nixon’s deviousness and his out-of-bounds administration were instrumental in fueling much of what we feel about government today. Said Brinkley, “Nixon and Watergate began the great mistrust and cynicism of the government by Americans.”

As for Deep Throat, the infamous source of information for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in uncovering the layers of the Watergate scandal, Bernstein explained, “Deep Throat confirmed to us that we were doing things right. He confirmed things that we already knew.”

And the freedom of the press? After all, it’s called the NEWSEUM. Bernstein’s vivid recollection of a subpoena episode spoke volumes about the Washington Post: “One of the Washington Post’s security guards downstairs called me one day and said a man with a subpoena wanted to see me. They wanted to subpoena my notes. (Washington Post executive editor) Ben Bradlee said, ‘Bernstein, leave the building.’ Katharine Graham (publisher of the Washington Post) said, ‘Carl, those notes are not your notes; they are mine.’

“She said if anyone was going to jail over the notes, it would be her.”

That anecdote drew resounding applause from the packed NEWSEUM audience.


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