Nixon: The unexpurgated words of a President close to the edge

Recordings from the former US President's ill-fated second term reveal his private views on everything from abortion to the Jews and beautiful women
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The Independent US

Nixon addicts everywhere are not to be disturbed as they devour one more delicacy served up by the National Archives: 150 more hours of secretly taped conversations from the White House in early 1973 packed with fresh tidbits from the often angry synapses of the late, disgraced president's mind.

The latest instalment of Nixonalia, held back until now in part because the poor quality of the under-the-table recordings, is unlikely to change history's perception of the 37th president. Rather, it will re-enforce the national memory of a hard-boiled leader prone to blasphemy, bursts of impatience and views on modern society – notably here on abortion, Jews and women – that were, well, not quite modern.

It was a day after the Supreme Court legalised abortion in its Roe vs Wade ruling, and Mr Nixon wonders aloud about wisdom of the judgement with his senior aide Charles Colson. He worries that abortion "breaks the family" and its legalisation could encourage "permissiveness". On the other hand, he offers: "There are times when an abortion is necessary. I know that. When you have a black and a white. Or a rape."

As for women, it is a telephone conversation with George HW Bush, then chairman the Republican National Committee and a future president, that reveals Nixon grappling with the strange possibility – to him – that women might have a role in politics and even in bolstering the electoral chances of the party. It had occurred to him after a trip to South Carolina and to its state legislature.

"I noticed a couple of very attractive women, both of them Republicans, in the legislature," he told Mr Bush. "I want you to be sure to emphasise to our people, God, let's look for some... Understand, I don't do it because I'm for women, but... because I think maybe a woman might win some place where a man might not... So have you got that in mind?" Mr Bush said he had.

Hearing him now, Nixon is almost like the father or grandfather who said things in his day that now make you wince. Forgivable, except that he was the leader of the free world. More interesting is how far America has come in less than 40 years. A certain Barack Obama was already 11 when Nixon made the remark about abortion and mixed-race parents. Now it is he, whose mother was a white woman from Kansas and his father a Kenyan university student, who occupies the Oval Office.

Scholarship on Nixon is dominated by the manner of his leaving office – his resignation in the face of likely impeachment over the Watergate affair. Most tapes pertaining to the burglaries of the Democratic Party offices and the ensuing scandal were released long ago. Today, 2,371 hours of tapes from the Nixon White House are available for public perusal.

The National Archives, which took control of the tapes from the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, two years ago, expects to unveil about 700 more hours in the years to come. As well as the new voice tapes, 30,000 pages of documents were also made available on Tuesday.

The first rumblings of Watergate were happening as these new tapes were being made in January and February 1973, at the start of Nixon's second term. The period included the "Saturday Night Massacre", when Nixon orchestrated the firing of the independent counsel investigating the break-ins, Archibald Cox, which led to the resignation of Attorney General ElliottRichardson. Nixon received approving word from the then Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, saying it was "probably the best thing that ever happened".

But it might be discussions about Vietnam and how hard Nixon pushed a reluctant South into signing the 1973 peace treaty to end America's military involvement – and ultimately open the door to a takeover by the communist North – that will most interest political historians.

It is apparent that Nixon felt that the signing of the treaty and the imposition of "peace" on president Nguyen Van Thieu of the South would vindicate the pursuit of the war during his first term – an extension of the campaign that had been unpopular domestically and that had cost an additional 20,000 American lives. To make sure the South agreed, he threatened to cut off all US aid.

"Is that going too far?" Nixon, on 20 January 1973, is heard to ask the secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, who is in Paris negotiating the armistice text. "In other words, I don't know whether the threat goes too far or not, but I'd do any damn thing, that is, or to cut off his head if necessary."

Kenneth Hughes, an expert on Nixon at the Miller Centre of Public Affairs, said: "Nixon needed to conceal the failure of his strategy of Vietnamisation and negotiation. If people realised that he had added 20,000 additional American casualties to the war, and the communists were going to win anyway, then it would have proved his critics right that he should have ended the war at the start of his [first] term."

Nixon was exercised by the possibility that history might judge him harshly for the years of bombardment of the North. "Good God, when you think of what basically Eisenhower did in World War Two. I mean, he decimated cities... Not because he wanted to kill people, because he wanted to end the war. Why did Truman drop the atomic bomb? Not because he wanted to demolish cities, because he wanted to end the war. Why did Eisenhower bomb the... out of the cities of North Korea? That's what ended the war, you know."

Many of the conversations are less weighty, even gossipy. But therein springs the enduring fascination with the man they called Tricky Dicky. He is a still unfolding story that it seems America cannot ever quite put down, whether it emerges through the release of new White House tapes or is recreated in films like Peter Morgan's recent Frost/Nixon.

In this episode, for instance, he is heard expressing his distaste for Kissinger's courting of the media. Nixon famously hated publications like The New York Times. "What's the fascination Henry's got with that crowd?" he asks an aide. "He just can't stand being away from them."

At the time, he is discussing with Colson the kinds of people who were opposing him politically. "The blacks and the poor," Colson offers, and Nixon adds, "And the intellectuals." For good measure, Colson throws in, "the lavender shirt mob... the homos and the queers."

Jewish Americans and complaints that they had apparently been making about Christian evangelists come up in a phone call with the Reverend Billy Graham. Together, they agree that the Jews risk stoking a new wave of anti-Semitism if they persist. "What I really think is deep down in this country, there is a lot of anti-Semitism, and all this is going to do is stir it up," the president remarks, before going on: "It may be they have a death wish. You know that's been the problem with our Jewish friends for centuries."

Few Americans will be surprised by these new glimpses into the Nixon mind, except perhaps for the one, apparently off-the-cuff remark about mixed race babies and abortion. Over at the west coast blog site, Wonkette.com, they could only think of one suitable headline: "He wanted to abort Obama!"

The taped conversations: Inside the mind of the 37th President

On women

Richard Nixon: I noticed a couple of very attractive women, both of them Republicans, in the legislature I want you to be sure to emphasise to our people, God, let's look for some... Understand, I don't do it because I'm for women, but I'm doing it because I think maybe a woman might win someplace where a man might not... So have you got that in mind?

George H W Bush: I'll certainly keep it in mind.

Nixon: Boy, they were good lookin' and bright... and they're two of the best members of the House.

Bush: Well, that's terrific.

On abortion

Nixon: There are times when abortions are necessary – I know that... Suppose you have a black and a white.

Charles Colson, Aide: Or a rape.

Nixon: Or a rape... [Abortion] leads to permissiveness. It breaks a family.

On Vietnam

On bombing to end the war:

Nixon: Good God, when you think of what basically Eisenhower did in World War II – I mean, he decimated cities... Not because he wanted to kill people, because he wanted to end the war. Why did Truman drop the atomic bomb? Not because he wanted to demolish cities, because he wanted to end the war. Why did Eisenhower bomb the shit out of the cities of North Korea? That's what ended the war, you know.

On threatening South Vietnamese leader with a cut-off in aid over US exit strategy:

Henry Kissinger: What we should put in the letter from you is that you must have an answer from him by noon tomorrow whether, even though you have instructed me to seek that change, he will concur in letting us initial it...

Nixon: The congressional leaders... will move to cut off assistance. Is that going too far? In other words, I don't know whether the threat goes too far or not, but I'd do any damn thing, that is, or to cut off his head if necessary.

On anti-Semitism

Nixon: This anti-Semitism is stronger than we think. It's unfortunate, but this has happened to the Jews, it happened in Spain, it happened in Germany – now it's going to happen in America if these people don't start behaving... It may be they have a death wish, that's been the problem with our Jewish friends for centuries.

Billy Graham: Well, they've always been through the Bible at least. He has judged them from generation to generation and yet used them and they've kept their identity.

On opposition

Colson: It includes the blacks and the poor.

Nixon: And the intellectuals...

Colson: And the lavender shirt mob... the homos and the queers.

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