Sleepwalking In Nixon's Shadow

Stop me if you've heard this one before...

A Senator questioning a presidential aide in an open hearing: "This Administration has instituted an abusive policy of secrecy, aimed at protecting themselves from embarrassment and accountability."

A New York Times editorial from the same day, titled "Overprivileged Executive:" "The White House argues that its insistence on [executive] privilege.is protecting the presidency from inappropriate demands from Congress. But the reverse is true. This White House has repeatedly made clear that it does not respect Congress's constitutional role. If Congress backs down...it would be doing serious damage to the balance of powers."

1973 or 2007? If I told you it was the latter, would you believe it had ever happened before, the details slightly different but the issues and arguments exactly the same? And if it did, was it all a bad dream? Or have we just forgotten? An erasure, perhaps? A gap in our collective memory? History repeats itself, yes. Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it, sure. He who controls the past controls the future, of course. Despite having flowed from the pens of famous authors, these are by now cliches. But cliches acquire the title because the truths they point out are so obvious as to be commonplace, boring. So obvious, in fact, that they recede into nothingness over time. They are right in front of our eyes, yet we don't see them. What accounts for this? Merely a failure of memory, or something more sinister?

ERLICHMAN: We don't mind being called crooks, but not stupid crooks.
NIXON: That's right.
ERLICHMAN: [Laughter]
NIXON: We know we'll never convince them on our ... morality, but do they think we're that dumb?

-November 1, 1972 Executive Office Building meeting, Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes, Stanley I. Kutler, ed., 1997

"Forget the myths the media's created about the White House. The truth is, these aren't very bright guys, and things got out of hand."

—Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat, All the President's Men, Alan J. Pakula, 1976

In late November, 1973, as the Watergate scandal began to unravel in court and in the Senate, an 18 1/2-minute gap in the subpoenaed tape of a June 20, 1972, meeting between Nixon and his original chief-of-staff H.R. Haldeman was disclosed to Watergate trial judge John Sirica. Soon afterward, then chief-of-staff Al Haig cryptically explained in court that "some sinister force" had erased the tape. In ironic tribute, according to Woodward & Bernstein's The Final Days, a secretary in Nixon's speechwriting department taped a picture of Bela Lugosi to an office lampshade, under which she'd typed: "Sinister Force." Technical experts, no doubt armed with garlic and wolfsbane, later determined that the erasure was intentional, someone having recorded over the mystery segment up to five times to ensure its eternal silence.

In the intervening years, conjecture about the contents of the gap became a cottage industry for Nixon obsessives, trumped only by the search for the identity* now revealed, of Deep Throat. (Ironically, Haldeman correctly identified Deep Throat-without knowing the Washington Post's nickname for him—as Mark Felt, FBI Deputy Director, as early as October 19, 1972, telling Nixon that Felt was leaking internal details of the FBI's Watergate investigation to the press.) Haldeman's notes of the gap meeting, which provided Nixon with the story he stuck to until his death, mention keeping a lid on the FBI probe, liberal hypocrisy, and Nixon's request for a PR counterattack on illegal buggings by Democrats. Alexander Butterfield—the Deputy Assistant to the President who eventually revealed the existence of the secret White House taping system to the Senate Watergate Committee-maintained in a 1994 Harper's article that the gap must have included a discussion of Nixon's approval of the initial Watergate break-in/bugging, which occurred on May 28, three weeks before the burglars' arrest during their June 17th attempt to replace inadequate bugs and photograph more documents. Oliver Stone and the co-screenwriters of his undersung biopic Nixon speculated that the gap would have clarified Nixon's odd concern with "blowing the whole Bay of Pigs thing," a coded message he had his aides use on CIA Director Richard Helms to get him to turn off the FBI's Watergate investigation on national security grounds. Nixon's insinuation here was that, because the burglary team included £. Howard Hunt and his posse of anti-Castro Cubans, all of whom had been directly involved in the CIA's failed Bay of Pigs invasion, a full probe of Watergate would expose the earlier CIA-Mafia plots to assassinate Castro. As H.R. Haldeman mused in bis memoir The Ends of Power, Nixon may have believed that these plots, at the time among the Agency's most closely held secrets, caused the JFK assassination. Nixon and other staunch anti-communists of the period saw the assassination as blowback from CIA attempts on Castro's life and regime during the Kennedy administration.

Ultimately, it doesn' t much matter what was obscured by those multiple erasures. Nixon was justly driven from office through a Constitutional process and those involved in the scandal were convicted and sent to jail. What matters is America's post-Watergate political amnesia, a seemingly self-willed demagnetizing loop that resets itself in shorter increments over each passing decade. We're still falling for stupid crooks, not very bright guys who let things get out of hand (Iran-Contra, anyone? Iraq?). Haig's "sinister force" still haunts the White House, in the person of Dick Cheney, a former Nixon administration staffer who more recently earned the nickname Darth for his reference to going over to "the dark side" in the Bush administration's prosecution of the "war on terror." As the hidden hand behind our latest "imperial presidency" (as Nixon's was also called), Cheney shares Nixon's obsession with an unfettered executive branch, his penchant for secrecy, and, worst of all, his talent for and susceptibility to manufactured reality—a seamless veil of official lies self-justified by ideology, resentment, and an inflated sense of persecution by the "liberal elite." Among the parallels, mounting daily, between then and now, we find grim foreshadowing of the current regime in the form of...

...a prescient charter for Fox News...

NIXON (to Dean): The game—this game—is not played according to the rules. played according to the headlines. (March 7, 1973, Oval Office)

...semantic contortions worthy of Alberto Gonzales...

ERLICHMAN: I have been asked the applicability of executive privilege in the case of a White House staff member, past or present, charged with wrongdoing. NIXON: Charged with wrongdoing. Right. Charged—rather than wrongdoing-with illegal activities. I like that word. Wrongdoing is unethical. Illegal activities aren't legal, if you know what I mean. (March 29, 1973, BOB)

...all one needs to know about a iongshot 2008 presidential candidate, then a junior Senator from Tennessee, serving on the Senate Watergate Committee as a mole for the administration...

BUZHARDT: We've got a pretty good rapport with Fred Thompson...
NIXON: He isn't—he isn't very smart, is he?
BUZHARDT: Not extremely so, but—
NIXON: But he's friendly.
BUZHARDT: But he's friendly.
NIXON: Good. (June 6, 1973, OO)

...the use of executive privilege (argued by John Dean's former assistant Fred Fielding, no less) to protect activities that aren't legal, if you know what I mean...

NIXON (to Kissinger): As far as I'm concerned, so we'll have a Constitutional crisis. If we do, it'll be a goddamn ding-dong battle and we might, if we lose, I'll burn the papers. 'Cause I got them. That's the point, 'cause I would never turn those papers over to a court. Never give them to the Committee, you know that.... I said, oh no, your counsel isn't gonna paw through my papers. (July 12, 1973, 00)

...executive outrage at legislative strategies to force U.S. withdrawal from Iraq...

KISSINGER: ... I mean, on January 3rd, knowing I was going over for negotiations and [Senator Mike] Mansfield passed [legislation] that cut off funds [for] the war. That is immoral. (July 12, 1973, 00)

...and even an accurate character read—from one self-righteous bully to another—on our former Secretary of Torture, er, Defense...

It was a long, full day...no major problems except apparently Rumsfeld, who had his meeting with the P[resident] after a pre-meeting with E[rlichman], where he agreed that he should go on out to Illinois and run for the Senate, but then when he got in the meeting with the P, he said no, that just wouldn't do, that be had to have an Administration job for a year, which was a complete shock to the P and E, and typical Rumsfeld, rather slimy maneuver. (November 20, 1972, The Haldeman Diaries)

By the end of his life, Richard Nixon had successfully rehabilitated his image. Eulogies and mainstream media obits were fulsome in their praise of the "brilliant statesman" whose "difficulties" in office should not obscure his status as "the greatest president of the 20th century." Ronald Reagan has received an even shinier varnish, not only because his "difficulties" weren't as pervasive and widely exposed, but also because he was, if nothing else, far more mediagenic than the famously awkward, shifty-eyed Nixon. One can only imagine what our amnesiac nation will do with Bush/Cheney over time.

In an America of diminishing expectations, the saddest irony is that each of these presidents was worse than the last, yet each is granted greater absolution by our ever-contracting memory. "History will treat you far more kindly than your contemporaries," Kissinger allegedly told Nixon as he resigned the presidency. "Depends who writes the history books," Nixon curtly replied. As it turns out, who writes the history books is irrelevant, because people can't read with their eyes closed.

About This Story


  • Contributors: Andrew Hultkrans, Todd Houlette
  • Published Online: Jan 13, 2012
  • Print Publication Date: Jul 2008