There is a treasure trove of politics and insight into the workings (and dysfunction) of the White House during President Nixon’s’ tenure to be found within the thousands of hours of recorded tapes that made for headlines and controversy during the Watergate era. Many years ago C-SPAN had many of them posted online which proved to be fascinating for politicos and history buffs alike. This is as close as we will likely ever get to hear and feel the mood and tone of the inner thoughts of a working White House. I can not even begin to count the number of pots of coffee I have made and drank while listening to them and either enthralled with the historical drama–as in the case of the opening to China–or amused when Nixon chats with a senator about a birthday—or angry when Nixon opines on homosexuals. But over and over I am so pleased that no one ever destroyed the tapes.
The tapes, as I have often mentioned, are a gift that keeps on giving.
In an adaptation from their forthcoming book, Vanity Fair contributing editor Douglas Brinkley and historian Luke A. Nichter draw on 3,700 hours of President Nixon’s White House tapes to convey the inner workings of Nixon’s action-packed first term. Over the last several years, the tapes-many of which were muffled and, at times, indecipherable-have been cleaned up, pored over, and painstakingly transcribed. The result … includes conversations with Nixon’s national-security adviser Henry Kissinger, Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, and chief domestic aide John Ehrlichman [and] is a verbatim narrative of a pivotal period in Nixon’s presidency that portrays him as a geopolitical strategist, a crisis manager, and a duplicitous paranoid.”
These tapes will be scrutinized and poured over for decades to come as we tap more and more into the mindset and purpose of the actions and polices undertaken by the Nixon Administration.
In a separate conversation—with Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s chief domestic aide—the president noted that Kissinger, by inserting himself too often into Middle East policy, might be prompting perceptions of an administration bias toward Israel because of his Jewish heritage.
Nixon: In regard to Henry . . . apparently Newsweek has an article this week that talks about his religious background. . . .
Haldeman: That’s what I was saying, Jewish.
Nixon: Yeah. . . . He’s terribly upset. He feels now that he really ought to resign…. I said, “All right, look, I am just not going to talk about it now. We’ve got several very big things in the air. Laos, and the possibility of some deal with the Soviets, and SALT [a Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty]…. ”
What apparently set him all off on this: [the] State [Department] is in the process of preparing a paper on the Mideast [outside of his purview]. If only, God, if Henry could only get, even have that one issue, if he could have that not handled by himself! . . . Anybody who is Jewish cannot handle it. Even though Henry’s, I know, as fair as he can possibly be, he can’t help but be affected by it. You know, put yourself in his position. Good God! You know, his people were crucified over there. Jesus Christ! And five million of them, popped into bake ovens! What the hell does he feel about all this?
Haldeman: Well, what he ought to recognize is, even if he had no problems at all on it, it’s wrong for the country for American policy in the Middle East to be made by a Jew.
Nixon: That’s right.
Haldeman: And he ought to recognize that. Because then, if anything goes wrong—
Nixon: That’s right.
Haldeman: —they’re going to say it’s because a goddamn Jew did it rather than blame Americans.
Ehrlichman: We’ve just been through this on [government policies regarding] health.
Haldeman: Yeah. You, as a Christian Scientist, shouldn’t be making health decisions, either.
Ehrlichman: Well, that’s why I farmed it out.
At another juncture, Nixon and Kissinger, cautious about U.S. pronouncements that might upset their secret talks with the U.S.S.R., insisted on squelching official American criticism of Russia’s oppressive policies against Soviet Jews.
Kissinger: The State Department issued a terrific blast against the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union.
Nixon: Oh, why—didn’t we stop that? Goddamn, I thought we just had that little—
Kissinger: I had thought—I reaffirmed—I may ask you to sign—
Nixon: All right. I’ll sign a letter.
Kissinger: —that they—any statement concerning the Soviet Union for the next two months has to be cleared here no matter how trivial.
Nixon: I think you should get the memorandum to me . . . first thing in the morning, Henry. It’s so important. . . . I want no statement concerning the Soviet Union of any kind, public statements, to be made without clearance with me.
Haldeman: Unless somebody comes—
Kissinger: With all—you know, I’m Jewish myself, but who are we to complain about Soviet Jews? It’s none of our business. If they complain—if they made a public protest to us for the treatment of Negroes, we’d be—
Nixon: I know.
Kissinger: You know, it’s none of our business how they treat their people.