Making a drama out of a crisis: Nixon's last stand

In 1977 the disgraced US president tried to revive his career by talking to David Frost. As a new play based on those interviews opens, the Washington veteran Fred Emery relives the scandal that tore the US apart
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Indy Politics

It is 30 years since the 1976 presidential election which Gerry Ford lost partly because he had pardoned Richard Nixon for his Watergate crimes. Also 30 years since David Frost began taping 26 hours of interviews with Nixon, the first since his resignation on 9 August 1974. The blurb for the new play based on them, Nixon/ Frost, at the Donmar Warehouse in London, asks: "Could this British talkshow host be the one to elicit an apology from the man who committed one of the biggest felonies in American political history?"

Apology? That is still in dispute. And still fascinates.

Watergate was the mother of all political scandals because, through television and Nixon's own secret tape-recordings, we could follow it to its climax and know so much more about it than any previous intrigue.

In May 1977, huge global audiences were drawn to Frost's four 90-minute programmes. The American public was most interested in whether the disgraced President could bring himself to own up to his lead role in the scandal. Inevitably, this devious man was to disappoint them. The interviews were the first of Nixon's many attempts at re-falsification of his history in self-justification. But it failed abysmally. Following the broadcast of the interviews, the pollsters Gallup found that nearly three-quarters of US viewers believed him guilty of obstruction of justice, and nearly as many thought he had lied during the interviews.

Did he apologise? People feuded over it afterwards. Nixon's contrition centred on what was already a famous episode in the Oval Office, when he had met and wept with his rump of congressional supporters in the half hour before he went on TV to resign. In Frost's confessional it came out as: "Well, when I said 'I just hope I haven't let you down' that said it all. I had. I let down my friends, I let down the country. I let down our system of government... Yes, I-I-I let the American people down, and I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my political life."

Of course, he went to his grave in 1994 denying he had done anything illegal but this firming up of the mere "hope I haven't let you down?" was farther than he had gone before or would go later in his books. His further claim to Frost, with both men near tears, "I made so many bad judgements, the worst ones mistakes of the heart rather than the head ..." probably accounted for Nixon's net gain in sympathy. Gallup found 44 per cent of US viewers more sympathetic towards him than before.

The journalistic reception for this broadcasting coup was somewhat less than Frost's advance men had been expecting. In pre-Murdoch America, all the major US networks refused to touch the programmes, and Frost was forced to hawk them to independent stations, and foreign outlets, including the BBC.

Some observers in America thought that Frost was not up to countering some of Nixon's most brazen revisions. Still, the interviews did produce some memorable quotes. "I gave them a sword and they stuck it in," Nixon said of his self-destruction, adding, of his opponents, as only he could, "And, I guess, if I'd been in their position, I'd have done the same thing." And utterly characteristic of his whole defence of presidential misconduct was his retort to Frost about criminal distinctions: "When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal."

That doctrine got its comeuppance at Watergate, a complex of offices, hotels and flats inWashington DC. On the night of 17 June 1972, in mid-presidential campaign, five men in the pay of the Nixon re-election committee were arrested by police inside the Democratic National Committee offices. They were caught tapping the telephones of Lawrence O'Brien, DNC chairman and a Nixon bugbear since Kennedy days. One of the men had an office at the White House. The President and his men publicly pooh-poohed it as a "third rate burglary", but an immediate cover-up was ordered to confine the case to those arrested. Why? Why didn't the President try stating "these men were acting without my knowledge"?

The answer was he couldn't, because - though the public took some time to find out - the men arrested were the same the President had secretly authorised a year earlier as his private police, known as the "plumbers" (to plug media leaks), who set about all manner of illegal break-ins and surveillance of his enemies. Nixon went outside the state organs, the FBI and the CIA, because their directors would not go along with a programme of illicit activities advocated to the President by the White House aide Tom Huston. "You remember Huston's plan? Implement it," Nixon says at a meeting with top aides Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Henry Kissinger. "Now Brookings has no right to have classified documents," says Kissinger. "Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it," explodes Nixon. This chilling tape, dated one year before Watergate, was released by the National Archives only in 1996. The president who denied to Frost, and everyone else, authorising the Watergate break-in, clearly had no qualms about authorising an illegal entry and blowing open the safe at the Brookings Institution think-tank in search of documents to embarrass the Democrats. To have admitted as much in mid-election campaign was unthinkable to Nixon, who, though well ahead of the Democratic front runner George McGovern, was paranoid about facing Edward Kennedy. So he set about thwarting the criminal investigation, and paying hush money to those arrested. Amazingly, it worked.

That November Nixon was overwhelmingly re-elected, in spite of the reports in the Washington Post by Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Through Woodward's top source at the FBI, deputy director Mark Felt, only last year unveiled as "Deep Throat" (first visualised in the 1975 film All the President's Men), the two reporters "followed the money trail", establishing that the funding of the break-in, and other dirty tricks, had come from Nixon campaign coffers. Most of the press looked the other way, the Los Angeles Times and CBS News on election eve being notable exceptions. No matter, it was a Nixon landslide.

Democrats, however, controlled both houses of Congress, and decided to hold committee hearings into campaign practices. We now know this alarmed Nixon and his cover-up team. Another threat was the Watergate criminal trial, which through perjury kept the lid on the original accused but left the judge suspicious and threatening punitive sentences.

At the White House, unaccountably, in spring 1973, the hush-money payments were getting too big to handle and the President was secretly promising to raise a further million, when the cover-up broke open, through squealing. One of those convicted, phone-tapper James McCord, responded to the judge's threats with a letter stating that others were involved.

The White House panicked. Nixon, Ehrlichman and Haldeman decided they needed a scapegoat, and they selected the President's counsel who had been handling the cover-up and the hush money, John Dean. No fool, he joined the squealers. The high days of Watergate blossomed. Gripping televised hearings of the Senate committee chaired by Senator Sam Ervin, which in the US drove the morning soaps off air, accompanied the cascade of events.

First were the April 1973 resignations of Ehrlichman, Haldeman, Dean and the attorney general Richard Kleindienst. We now know that even Nixon considered resigning, a year before he did so. A Watergate Special Prosecutor, with his own force, was appointed by a new attorney general, Elliot Richardson.

In May, Dean was the star witness at the Senate hearings, displaying a photographic memory for dates and conversations with the President. The Nixon lawyers rubbished Dean, giving the committee a suspiciously detailed listing of meetings and what was said. Was this, investigators wondered, and as Dean suggested, based on a White House taping system? They decided to ask Alexander Butterfield, who ran the President's office. "I'm sorry you fellows asked me that," said the former Eagle Scout, "but yes, there was." The President taped almost everything.

This was the bombshell that blew open the conspiracy. Immediately, the committee subpoenaed tapes as evidence and so did the prosecutor. Nixon refused, claiming they were executive privilege material.

Why did he not destroy the tapes? His own versions differ. In an interview segment not broadcast, he told Frost he knew that destroying evidence would make him look guilty. But the tapes reveal Nixon and Haldeman scheming to use excerpts to exonerate themselves, and Haldeman tried it before the Senate, resulting in his perjury conviction. In his memoirs RN, Nixon adds: "I was prepared to believe that others, even people close to me, would turn against me just as Dean had done, and in that case the tapes would give me at least some protection." Instead they brought him down.

Nixon's year-long last-ditch battle had many amazing episodes. First his Vice President, Spiro Agnew, had to resign over charges of taking bribes in his White House office. Then Nixon tried to counterattack when a court ordered that tapes of possible criminal conversations had to be handed to the prosecutor. He offered to have an aged senator review the tapes. When the prosecutor refused, he ordered him fired. The "Saturday night massacre" ensued.

That Saturday in October, Attorney General Richardson resigned rather than fire the prosecutor. So did his deputy William Ruckelshaus. Their number three, Robert Bork, did the President's bidding. A firestorm of protest erupted. The next Monday the Congress began considering impeachment as tens of thousands of people sent messages demanding it. Nixon gave in, and surrendered the first tapes to court.

Looking back, it is amazing he lasted so long. The new prosecutor pressed on, demanding more tapes. Charges were brought by a grand jury against Nixon's henchmen, with the President named a co-conspirator in the indictment. One crucial tape was found to have an 18-minute gap due to repeated erasures, another sensational affair, never settled, with Nixon the prime suspect.

With the court and congressional demands incessant, Nixon's last throw was the release of telephone book-sized transcripts of his taped conversations. It too backfired. There were too many excisions, and "expletive deleted" went into the language where the President had removed his mostly mild swearwords.

By summer of 1974 the die was cast. Dramatic televised impeachment hearings produced a 27-11 bipartisan vote to recommend Nixon's trial in the Senate. Then the Supreme Court ruled that the last tapes Nixon had been holding on to must be handed over. They included the "smoking gun" tape where Nixon ordered his men to have the CIA and the FBI prevent the break-in investigation going where they did not want. Within days Nixon's support shrank to estimates of seven in the Senate, where he needed 34 to survive conviction (and loss of pension). Saying "I'm not a quitter," he quit on 9 August, and a month later accepted a pardon for "all offences he committed or may have committed against the United States" - a clemency he denied Haldeman and Ehrlichman before leaving office.

Reform of campaign finance laws followed, but loopholes are still found. Could the uncovering of such a scandal happen now? I think so. Despite initial media deference to Bush because of 9/11, the investigative switches have been turned on again. But in congress it would require bipartisanship to unseat a sitting president, as at Watergate, and that is not yet in sight.

Fred Emery was 'The Times's' Chief Washington Correspondent 1970-77; he wrote the 1994 book 'Watergate: the corruption and fall of Richard Nixon', and is the man behind the 1994 BBC/Discovery series 'Watergate' which won an Emmy

'Frost/Nixon' runs from 10 Aug to 7 Oct. Visit donmarwarehouse.com

FROST BITE: In defence of the indefensible

The following is an excerpt from the Nixon interviews, broadcast in the US on 19 May, 1977:

FROST: So what, in a sense, you're saying is that there are certain situations, and the Huston Plan or that part of it was one of them, where the president can decide that it's in the best interests of the nation or something, and do something illegal.

NIXON: Well, when the president does it that means that it is not illegal.

FROST: By definition.

NIXON: Exactly. Exactly. If the president, for example, approves something because of the national security, or in this case because of a threat to internal peace and order of significant magnitude, then the president's decision in that instance is one that enables those who carry it out, to carry it out without violating a law. Otherwise they're in an impossible position.

FROST: So that, in other words, really you were saying in that answer, really, between the burglary and murder, again, there's no subtle way to say that there was murder of a dissenter in this country because I don't know any evidence to that effect at all. But, the point is: just the dividing line, is that in fact, the dividing line is the president's judgement?

NIXON: Yes, and the dividing line and, just so that one does not get the impression that a president can run amok and get away with it, we have to have in mind that a president has to come up before the electorate. We also have to have in mind, that a president has to get appropriations from the Congress. We have to have in mind, for example, that as far as the CIA's covert operations are concerned, as far as the FBI's covert operations are concerned, through the years, they have been disclosed on a very, very limited basis to trusted members of Congress. I don't know whether it can be done today or not.

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