Probably every journalistic wretch in the business has by now tried his or her hand at shoving a ‘gate’ suffix onto the end of some dingy piece of chicanery. There have, admittedly, been a few quite funny examples of the genre. ‘Tailgate’ wasn’t bad for the pants-down episode in which Senators were found to be fornicating with the boy and girl pages who take messages through the marbled halls. ‘Koreagate’, on the other hand, was a lame effort to define the Washington influence-peddling of the arms-dealer Tongsun Park. The brittle and amoral wits of the new Post-Modern New Republic actually ran a competition to summarise the bewildering complexity of the Iran-Contra affair, and got gates galore. Since Oliver North and John Poindexter had communicated their fell designs through a system called the Prof computer, and since the thing hinged so much on transfers of hot and dirty money, I myself proudly came up with ‘Profligate’ which, though it won me no prizes, did get briefly adopted by the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
The man who started this frivolous auction was William Safire, former speechwriter to Richard Nixon and now columnist for the New York Times. He it was who, during the dismal days of the Jimmy Carter Presidency, came up with ‘Koreagate’, ‘Peanutgate’, ‘Billygate’ and – his own favourite, concerning some fiddle of government expenses – ‘Double Billingsgate’. In an interview with Eric Alterman for the latter’s excellent book Sound and Fury, about the pundit class in Washington, Safire conceded that ‘yes, psychologically, he may have been seeking to minimise the relative importance of the crimes committed by his former boss, with this silliness.’ So now I’ve stopped ‘gating’ and will never try it again, however tempting the locution. As both these books in quite different ways remind us, Watergate was no mere smash-and-grab on public funds, and no paltry revelation of lousy morals among the morality-preaching classes. It was, at least until we learned of the Iran-Contra business, the most systematic attempt to convert the United States from a democratic republic into a junta with a civilian façade. Since it takes the part for the whole, and summarises the whole tapestry by the single thread by which it was unpicked, even the name ‘Watergate’ has become inadequate. Yet if one black nightwatchman had not noticed signs of forcible entry in that hideous condo on the Potomac (where the hapless Democrats had so typically sited their campaign HQ), and had not decided to raise the alarm, it is terrifying to think how ignorant we would now be of the uses of power, and even more terrifying to reflect on the uses that power would have made – nearly did make – of our ignorance.
For a week or two in the spring of this year, it seemed that Nixon’s death might kill off the entire subject. There is a whole American political vernacular, now quite highly evolved, that exists to serve the higher purposes of euphemism and amnesia. You can always tell that the moment for this has arrived when politicians and editorialists (and, at least for the past half-century, the Reverend Billy Graham) start deploying phrases like ‘the healing process’. Let us, they intone, put the past behind us and look to the future. Let us move the country forward and bind up the wounds. Of course, the same politician or cleric or editorialist is capable of saying, sometimes on the very same day and usually as if it were being said for the very first time, that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.
Bill Clinton’s eulogy at Nixon’s graveside was the most sickly and lenient of his performances thus far; not exempting the one in which he welcomed Italy’s fascisti back into the democratic fold on the eve of the D-Day commemoration, for all the world as if the Mussolini question was Italy’s internal affair. Standing next to Reagan, Bush, Carter and Ford, Clinton reached as high as a cornball can reach. He began by recalling that Nixon’s father had ‘built’ his own house (actually sending off by mail-order to a pre-fabricator back East and putting up a featureless dwelling in the groves of California):
Today, we can look back at this little house and still imagine the young boy sitting by the window of the attic he shared with his three brothers, looking out to a world he could then himself only imagine ... When he became President, he took on challenges here at home on matters from cancer research to environmental protection, putting the power of the Federal Government where Republicans and Democrats had neglected to put it in the past – in foreign policy.
Eh? No, I’m quoting the President correctly, non sequiturs and all. And the speech was a hit, because it employed words like ‘challenge’ (a sure-fire term) a lot. Did Truman and Eisenhower neglect foreign policy? First I’d heard of it. Never mind – onward and upward. We come to the bump in the road where Nixon has to resign or go to jail, and Clinton is ready: ‘Oh yes, he knew great controversy amid defeat as well as victory. He made mistakes and they, like his accomplishments, are part of his life and record. But the enduring lesson of Richard Nixon is that he never gave up being part of the action and passion of his times.’
As Dr Johnson correctly and humanely observed, a man is not under oath when delivering a funeral oration. But as Kissinger himself brushed away a tear, this ceremony took on more the aspect of a Central Committee interment, where black limousines and dark-spectacled bodyguards wait to hustle the nomenklatura through the crowd after a feast of lies (and, perhaps, after the grudging admission that ‘mistakes were made.’) Mix this with Washingtonian orotundity and sententiousness (‘his times’ instead of ‘his time’ is a customary clue) and you have in effect a gang of overcoated politicos, standing round a hole full of carrion, and telling the citizens that they don’t appreciate the sacrifices made by the leadership.
Clinton gave one hostage to fortune in this otherwise anodyne and self-serving address, which too obviously identified with a man of obscure – not to say shady – background who had lifelong problems with the press. Speaking of ‘family, friends and nation’ (who wrote that?), Clinton addressed the Nixon kin and declaimed: ‘To them let us say, may the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.’
Clinton won general applause from the political class for this exercise in big-hearted ‘bipartisan’ spirit, and it’s not all that difficult to see why. If Richard Nixon can be rehabilitated and have all his crimes reduced to peccadilloes by the forgiving optic of the long view, then all political offences past and future can also be subjected to the solvent effect of moral and historical relativism. Yet at the back of many minds was the fact that, on the day he was speaking, President Clinton faced a special prosecutor of his own. And so did his wife, for her eager collusion in the making of Arkansas into a banana republic. Two decades previously, Ms Hillary Rodham had been a junior aide to the Senate Watergate Committee as it readied, very cumbrously and reluctantly, the articles of impeachment against Nixon. Her boss at the time had been Bernard Nussbaum, one of many ambitious attorneys to get a head start from that investigation. Mr Nussbaum had just been forced to resign as White House counsel, for his apparent role in muddying the inquiry into the death of Vince Foster. Thus, while a generalised amnesty for all crimes committed in office might have a short-term marginal utility for all serving politicians, it did look a touch obvious in point of immediate self-service. And the apparently noble injunction – to consider an ex-President as a whole man, take him in the round, take him for all in all – could rebound horribly if it meant raking up things that the country was supposed to have forgotten or forgiven.
Within a fortnight, the Haldeman diaries made their appearance and insisted on every page that Richard Nixon indeed should not be judged ‘on anything less than his entire life and career’. This journal, written in real time by one who was uniquely intimate with Nixon, put a rapid end to the period of uncritical mourning that Clinton had so moistly proposed. Unveiled by Haldeman’s dull but precise prose was a President who spun out and manipulated the agony of Vietnam in order to prolong the political life of himself and Henry Kissinger; who preached and practised the dirtiest kinds of anti-semitism; who schemed to move the segregationist mobs into his own ‘law and order’ column; who suborned perjury and bribery and blackmail as a matter of routine. None of the defectors from the Nixon camp, many of whom wrote revealing but sickly memoirs of their own rebirth, and none of the Nixon-hating chroniclers, has come close to the etching of thuggery and corruption, in its larger and its smaller dimensions, than has Haldeman by the mere device of keeping accurate notes.
When reading Haldeman, it is good to have Emery’s book to hand. Even the stoutest Watergate buff can lose hold of the cast-list, and of course Haldeman assumes day-to-day knowledge, so a compendium of the Nixon gang from Abplanalp to Ziegler, and complete with Rebozos and Liddys, is of the essence. But it’s a shame that Emery repeats what is emerging as a revisionist conventional wisdom about Nixon: ‘In the extraordinarily tense climate of war and superpower crises, Richard Nixon was a bold and far-thinking President. He ended America’s role in the Vietnam War, reopened American relationships with China, laid the foundations for détente with Russia, and planted the seeds for a Middle East settlement.’ This comes close to the view, offered us back in 1974 by Mr Emery’s editor at the Times, that Nixon was too important to the ‘free world’ to be immolated by mere journalists and Congressmen. While Emery is not a Moggist-Levinist in the classic sense, he does keep saying things like: ‘Ironically, the cover-up was probably unnecessary: the opposition candidate had so little support that Nixon, fresh from foreign-policy triumphs, could probably have made a clean breast of Watergate and still been re-elected.’ If there is an irony here, it comes at the expense of those who promulgate the false dichotomy between Nixon the foreign-policy maestro and Nixon the employer of regrettable sharp practices on the domestic front.
What we call ‘Watergate’ was the belated and in some ways accidental revenge for a whole series of foreign policy crimes and blunders. The Committee to Re-Elect the President, or CREEP, was the repository of an entire anthology of guilty knowledge about the Nixon regime’s underhand relationships with foreign dictators, and of a trove of money that had been skimmed, extorted or simply donated as a consequence of such connections. Moreover, the burglars and buggers of CREEP came by their skills and tactics as a direct result of Nixon’s (and Kissinger’s) obsessive paranoia about leaks and disclosures on the Vietnam front. Vietnam is the crucial example (as Haldeman demonstrates in a way that will confound all future revisionists) but let’s not overlook some of the others. In return for a promiscuous and disastrous policy of loading the Shah of Iran with every weapon he could demand, the Nixonites reaped huge contributions from the ‘defence’ industries that filled the Persian maw. Large kick-backs came from the Marcos family in the Philippines, in exchange for the support given to their disgusting regency. One of the scandals that actually ran in parallel with Watergate – the fetidly warm connection between the Republican National Committee and the lobbyists of the ITT corporation – was an aspect of Nixon’s vicious policy of destabilisation in Chile, in which that great corporation played quite a part. From the military despotism then ruling in Athens had come a large tranche of off-the-record money, actually laundered through the Central Intelligence Agency and probably given to secure the position of the asinine and sinister Greek-American Spiro Agnew (another Safire client) on the GOP ticket. Any one of these disclosures might have put Nixon behind bars as early as 1972.
Then consider the burglary team itself. Largely made up of Cubans of the extreme Miami right wing, and commanded by the most depraved elements of the spook class, it was in and of itself a ‘blowback’ from years of covert foreign policy, deriving from before the Bay of Pigs. (Cuba is the subject under discussion, interestingly and maddeningly enough, just before the notorious 18 ½-minute gap on the Presidential tape recordings.) We do not know to this day what the burglars and buggers in the Watergate were looking for, but we do know that their ‘hush money’ was solicited by the President from an agent of the Greek dictatorship, and we have been told by one of their organisers that they were looking, not for dirt on the Democrats, but for dirt the Democrats might have on the Republicans. The choice of such a heavily ‘foreign policy’ and covert action team thus becomes suggestive in itself.
‘Without the Vietnam War there would have been no Watergate,’ as Haldeman put it many years ago. In his diaries, which touch on many of the skulduggeries listed above, he re-establishes the centrality of the war. (So in a way does Fred Emery, though he doesn’t allow it to disturb his imaginative thesis that Nixon metamorphosed into a better and more serious person when his policies crossed the borders of the United States.) As the release of the Pentagon Papers demonstrated, the entire Vietnam enterprise was dependent on a systematic deceit of Congress and the press. Not all of that can be blamed on the Republicans – indeed it’s an open secret that Vietnam was in many ways the liberals’ war. However, it was the political crisis created by the war that gave Nixon his chance for power in 1968, and it was the political crisis occasioned by his own manipulation of the war that gave rise to Watergate.
In the autumn of 1968, as had long been suspected and as was finally confirmed by Clark Clifford in Counsel to the President in 1991, Nixon set up a ‘back-channel’ in order to subvert Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey. By the simple expedient of going behind the Administration’s back, and of promising the South Vietnamese junta a better deal from an incoming Republican administration, Nixon and his advisers were able to get the South Vietnamese to withdraw from the proposed Paris peace conference, and thus to rip out the main plank of the Democratic re-election platform on the eve of poll. Clifford describes this illegal and possibly treasonous secret diplomacy in some detail in his book. The detail derives from the delicate fact that the White House put Nixon and his collaborators – such as the notorious Anna Chennault of the China lobby – under electronic surveillance. This was done legally, and the Cabinet even considered making the findings public before concluding that the shock to public opinion (resulting both from the treason and the bugging) would be too great. Nixon narrowly won the election and five years later, after an additional twenty thousand or so American casualties, abandoned Vietnam on much the same terms as Humphrey had proposed to do. (Don’t even think about what happened to the Vietnamese and Cambodians in the meantime.)
This appalling story has been surfacing in bits and pieces over the intervening years, but Haldeman has some really tantalising nuggets of indirect confirmation. On 8 January 1973, he records:
John Dean called to report on the Watergate trials, says that if we can prove in any way by hard evidence that our [campaign] plane was bugged in ’68, he thinks that we could use that as a basis to say we’re going to force Congress to go back and investigate ’68 as well as ’72 and thus turn them off.
On 11 January, Nixon himself approached Haldeman:
On the Watergate question, he wanted me to talk to Mitchell and have him find out from De Loach if the guy who did the bugging on us in ’68 is still at the FBI, and then Gray should nail him with a lie detector and get it settled, which would give us the evidence we need. He also thinks I ought to move with George Christian – get LBJ to use his influence to turn off the Hill investigation with Califano, Hubert and so on. Later in the day, he decided that wasn’t such a good idea, and told me not to do it, which I fortunately hadn’t done.
Mitchell was then Attorney-General, De Loach was an FBI agent, Gray was Director of the FBI and George Christian was Lyndon Johnson’s former press secretary, then working for an outfit calling itself Democrats for Nixon. The Chief himself is referred to throughout the diaries as ‘the P’. A day later:
The P also got back on the Watergate thing today, making the point that I should talk to Connally about Johnson bugging process to get his judgment as to how to handle it ... I talked to Mitchell on the phone on this subject and he said De Loach had told him that he was up to date on the thing because he had a call from Texas. A Star reporter was making an inquiry in the last week or so, and LBJ got very hot and called Deke [De Loach] and said to him that if the Nixon people are going to play with this, that he would release (deleted material – national Security) saying that our side was asking that certain things be done. By our side, I assume he means the Nixon campaign organisation. De Loach took this as a direct threat from Johnson.
In his preface to the Diaries, Stephen Ambrose rightly says that this Nixonite approach to LBJ in 1973 was ‘prospective blackmail’. He also notes that the italic deletion cited above is ‘the only place in the book where an example is given of a deletion by the National Security Council during the Carter administration ... What Johnson had on Nixon I suppose we will never know.’
On the contrary, Johnson’s counter-blackmail can only have been one (or perhaps both) of two gambits. It was not for nothing that Nixon decided that bringing up 1968 ‘wasn’t such a good idea’. Johnson could have revealed the private and crooked diplomacy of the Republicans over Vietnam. Or he could have disclosed what he also knew about the illegal money from the Greek junta. A Greek opposition journalist named Elias Demetracopoulos had given cast-iron evidence to Larry O’Brien, the head of the Democratic National Committee, and O’Brien had briefed LBJ on the matter in 1968. It had been decided not to make use of the findings – probably because they would reveal too much about the workings of the CIA. Robert Dallek, Johnson’s biographer, also thinks that internecine Democratic jealousies may have been involved: LBJ’s failure to pursue the lead Demetracopoulos gave Larry O’Brien ‘speaks volumes about his reluctance to help Humphrey defeat Nixon’. But none of this would have applied to a Johnson threatened with blackmail in 1973. In what was almost the last act of his life – he died just after Nixon’s second inauguration – he blackmailed right back. The Haldeman book, in other words, teaches us about more than just Nixon.
Fred Emery’s researches have also unearthed the fact that Nixon justly feared any inquiry into the ‘Plumbers’ and their dirty tricks, and not merely because of the link to the burglary. It would rapidly have emerged, for instance, that Nixon was personally involved in a clever forgery of purported Kennedy White House cables. These claimed to show that JFK had helped plan the assassination of the South Vietnamese client Ngo Dinh Diem. That pesky Vietnam War again. How it does keep cropping up. A full list of all ‘the White House horrors’ would have led to impeachment anyway, so Nixon probably did well in resigning over what could be made to look like an isolated example. He cut the Establishment’s losses as well as his own by this course.
Before we leave Vietnam, we must quickly note the revelation by Haldeman that Nixon and Kissinger ‘timed’ the war to suit their own sordid domestic needs. For example, on 15 December 1970:
K came in and the discussion covered some of the general thinking about Vietnam and the P’s big peace plan for next year, which K later told me he does not favour. He thinks that any pullout next year would be a serious mistake because the adverse reaction to it could set in well before the ’72 elections. He favours, instead, a continued winding-down and then a pullout right at the fall of ’72 so that if any bad results follow they will be too late to affect the election.
A week later, Nixon is recorded coming round to that tactic and in more or less those words. ‘Winding down’, in the context, is only a sanitised way of saying ‘protracting for electoral purposes’. Haldeman’s widow has recently told us that Henry Kissinger was much opposed to the release of the Diaries, and it takes no great intuition to understand why. The revelation of Kissinger’s endless petulance, status-seeking and office-jostling with Secretary of State Rogers (which has occupied the gossipy American reviewers to the general exclusion of the ghastly documentation above) is also worth a peek.
Where does this leave the claim that Nixon successfully ‘disengaged’ from Vietnam? It leaves it in the dust, on the skip, in the crapper and down the chute. That’s where it leaves it. Much the same applies to unexamined claims that Nixon was bold in China and Russia. He lifted a ban that he had himself imposed on relations with China, so that there is something servile and masochistic about the think-tankers who display their awed gratitude for his statesmanship. He made the dash to Beijing partly to cover his disgustingly orchestrated retreat from Vietnam, and as a quid pro quo he supported China’s ally Pakistan in the attempted destruction of Bangladesh. The aspect of China policy which represents the Nixon-Kissinger legacy is to be found today in the constipated silence with which official America treats the subject of the Tiananmen revolt – the crushing of which was supported by both men at the time. As for détente with the Soviet Union, it may be true that Nixon made some intelligent super-power moves – the evidence of Haldeman and many others is that he liked people like Brezhnev and relished the company of such tough guys – but to the end he insisted that Gorbachev was nothing but a smiling face trying to undo Western vigilance and solidarity, and his last public act was a visit to Moscow, earlier this year, in which he outraged even Yeltsin by calling first on the fascist demagogue Vladimir Zhirinovsky. If only our Tory historians and journalists would judge Nixon’s reputation by his actions rather than his actions by his reputation. (Though one can appreciate their reluctance. What if the same standard came to be applied to them?)
Thus the Haldeman remark about the connection between Vietnam and Watergate is true in both the large and the little senses. He meant it to mean the formation of a black-bag team within the state, who began wiretapping dissenters in the Defence and State Departments and in the press, and in the process debauched the rule of law and forced an intervention from Congress and the courts. That’s the little sense. The larger sense is the one which demonstrates that the ‘good on foreign, shaky on domestic’ distinction is entirely false and that, in the words of the anti-war protesters, the war had come home.
I wrote earlier that Nixon was given to uttering and practising the dirtiest kinds of anti-semitism, by which I don’t mean to imply that there are any clean kinds. But the virulent paranoia of the Nixon White House is probably best summarised in his attitude to Jews. He was convinced that the chosen were working against him, from within and from without. ‘Aren’t the Chicago Seven all Jews?’ he once angrily demanded to know about the leadership of the anti-war movement. The P ‘really raged again against American Jews’, minutes Haldeman for 26 February 1970, adding that a little later ‘there was considerable discussion of the terrible problem arising from the total Jewish domination of the media and agreement that this is something that will have to be dealt with.’
Musing on the words of his favourite confessor, the Reverend Billy, Nixon confided to Haldeman: ‘Graham has the strong feeling that the Bible says that there are satanic Jews, and that’s where our problem arises.’ As the Watergate net was tightening, he spoke of leaks to Jewish journalists being inspired by ‘our Jewish friends – even on our White House staff’. House Jew Henry Kissinger, asked to comment on this last month, said rather feebly that he knew of no action taken by Nixon to materialise these wild claims, and thereby suggested that it was all a harmless blowing-off of steam. But Nixon did ask Fred Malek of the White House to draw up a list of Jews employed by the Department of Labour. He wanted a purge, because he was sure that a semitic cabal was making the unemployment figures look bad for him. Malek duly supplied the list. No mention was made of any of this, in a country that is obsessed by anti-semitism and the Holocaust, during the Nixon obsequies. But, as one turns these and other pages of the Haldeman and Emery books, one is irresistibly reminded of the private style of a Mafia capo: foul-mouthed, philistine, conspiratorial, violent, and happiest when appealing to the cheapest and lowest of his subordinates. ‘Something that will have to be dealt with ...’
Parts of Haldeman are pure gold because it becomes clear that with a bit of himself he resented the assumption that he, too, was a squalid underling. In October 1972:
We then went into dinner in the outer office. The P told Manolo to bring the good wine, his ’57 Lafite-Rothschild, or whatever it is, to be served to everyone. Usually it’s just served to the P and the rest of us have some California Beaulieu Vineyard stuff.
Well, well, well. Does one detect the stirrings of resentment? During the Christmas holiday that same year, while B-52s were ravaging North Vietnam in yet another face-saving exercise, the P
was disturbed by a wire story covering the number of people who were having to give up Christmas with their families in order to service the P while he’s in Florida. As a result of this, the P saying that he’ll probably return to Washington on Christmas evening, which would be bad news.
This valet still thought enough of his master to go to jail for him and be ignored when he came out, so it would not be fair to write down his contemporary misgivings and occasional rancour as anything other than sincere.
Best of all in a way is the stuff on law and order. Nixon adored thuggery and had a vicarious admiration for those who could practise it without the trammel of law. He used Teamster Union goon squads to bust up peaceful anti-war demonstrations, talking approvingly of cracking heads and kicking ass. On 9 December 1971, Haldeman drily minutes: ‘On an unrelated matter the P apparently met with the Attorney-General yesterday and agreed to pardon Hoffa.’ Unrelated? Better still:
We had a little flap with the Director of the National Institutes of Mental Health, who apparently said the other day that he thought marijuana offences should be handled like traffic violations. This sent the P right up the wall, and he’s told E to get the guy fired, which it turns out we’re glad to do because he’s been causing some other problems and shows clear signs of disloyalty. So John’s moving ahead on that.
This must have been at about the time that Nixon met Elvis Presley and, sure that it would give him a boost with the bewildering ‘younger generation’, deputised him with a special badge as an agent in the ‘war on drugs’. That ‘war’, another thanks-a-lot Nixonian initiative, is now busily corroding the police and justice systems, and stuffing the jails with perpetrators of victimless crimes.
One mutinous cartoon of the Nixon funeral, entitled simply ‘Legacy’, had a row of living ex-Presidents standing with think-bubbles over their heads. Gerald Ford is saying that without Nixon he would never have been President. Jimmy Carter is saying that without Ford (and the pardon of Nixon) he would never have been President. Reagan is saying that without Jimmy Carter he could never have hoped to be President. The Bush and Clinton sequiturs in this gallery are too obvious to bear repetition. The taint of the pardon, which was the last exercise in the extended cover-up, has descended to our own day. The press and Congress, both of which fought hard to avoid convicting Nixon while he was alive and kicking, have ever since been extremely careful to avoid the charge of partisanship or over-zealousness that they did so little to deserve in the first place. Post-Watergate morality is broader, more cynical, more tolerant. It is openly said, and perhaps correctly, that the system could not stand another shock of that magnitude, and that it is essential to maintain public confidence in the Presidency. On this calculus, the rehabilitation of Nixon is an overdue apology from society to a leader it never appreciated. How shrewd of him, then, never to have offered a single word of apology on his own account.
Bipartisanship in America thus resolves itself into a mutual assured destruction, where each party apparat has enough on the other to keep serious quarrels of principle in a rarified universe that is ‘above politics’. A case in point is Bill Clinton’s grievance against the media for ‘dragging up’ his Arkansas connections. Since the evidence of these connections was available during the Presidential election, when they didn’t come up, there is some justice to the charge that they are being resurrected. But if you ever wonder why the Republicans would have been slow to mention Clinton’s entanglement in Savings and Loan, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International and the means by which political war-chests are actually filled, you have a glimpse of the way the mutual assured destruction system works in practice.
Watergate was a raising of the curtain on the world of illicit campaign finance, of covert action as a political principle, of the power of organised crime, of the consequences of imperial brutality and of the annexation of national police and bureaucratic agencies to the ends of domestic power. The sight was so alarming that many in the polis successfully demanded that the curtain be rung down again. So read these books and weep.