- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 5, 2004

My father once cautioned me never to write or otherwise record anything I wouldn’t want printed on Page One of a newspaper or played on a radio station no matter how small the circulation or low the wattage. It is sound advice numbers of government officials seem never to learn, probably because of the tug of historic immortality.

In 1973, at the height of his Watergate problems and a war that looked as though it might never end, Richard Nixon was apparently too drunk one evening to take a telephone call about Vietnam from British Prime Minister Edward Heath, according to recently released transcripts. These records have become the talk of this town, where periodically resurrecting the late president for yet another application of tar and feathers has become nearly a pastime.

Well, if Nixon were “loaded” — as described by his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, in the transcripts of Mr. Kissinger’s official telephone conversations between 1969 and 1974 — one can hardly blame him. In fact, it is a miracle he was ever sober as he watched his life crumble into disgrace over a stupid break-in he helped cover up.

Nixon’s penchant for profane invective and off-the-wall comments about nuking Capitol Hill (an idea that more than one president probably has entertained) and other extreme measures against his tormentors were regarded by his staff as merely “unwinding.” They have been documented ad nauseam in his own voice in the Oval Office tapings that contributed so mightily to his downfall. Yet there always seems to be some new, titillating revelation to command the attention of the national media and those historians who have spent the last 30 years since Nixon’s resignation seeking further evidence he really was the devil.

The latest disclosures actually reveal more about those around the star-crossed president than they add to the body of “holy cowisms” about Nixon personally. What they certify is that Mr. Kissinger was as devious a practitioner of power politics as many have charged. The transcripts, which Mr. Kissinger sought to have withheld until five years after his death (he was overruled in a legal action), reveal him telling the president one thing to his face while saying and doing quite another behind his back on more than one occasion.

In the midst of the Watergate problem, Mr. Kissinger even telephoned Katharine Graham, a leading Nixon antagonist whose newspaper, The Washington Post, was leading the inquiry into the scandal, to invite her to lunch, cautioning her, however, not to tell her reporters, because if his “leader” found out, Mr. Kissinger would be looking for a new job.

The growing unhappiness with the commander in chief doesn’t seem so surprising when one considers Mr. Kissinger and others around the beleaguered Nixon were trying to juggle their domestic- and foreign-policy responsibilities while dealing with a president increasingly distracted by the Watergate investigation. Some of the conversations make it clear not only was Mr. Kissinger becoming uneasy about Nixon’s mental state, but so was Kissinger deputy and later White House chief of staff Alexander Haig.

After Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in an episode immediately dubbed the “Saturday night massacre,” Mr. Kissinger complained privately about the decision to Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, but sought to assuage Nixon personally by telling him Attorney General Elliot Richardson had stabbed the president in the back.

The transcripts are valuable in as much as they redefine the historic perspective of those turbulent times. They clearly indicate contradictions to Mr. Kissinger’s claims, for instance, about America’s role in furthering a coup in Chile that overthrew the leftist regime of Salvador Allende. Mr. Kissinger has contended that the United States had nothing to do with it, but in the transcripts he tells Nixon that they had helped create an atmosphere conducive to the takeover.

It is always amazing that the most sensitive conversations get recorded or transcribed for posterity, causing all sorts of problems for those who survive their release.

The Nixon tapes brought down a presidency. The tapes of Lyndon Johnson’s Oval Office conversations have not added much luster to an administration that already was tarnished by Vietnam. While one can argue legitimately that history needs to be able to examine the intimate details of the daily life of a president and his staff, when taken out of context, the picture they present is frequently distorted.

These are human beings, after all, with all the frailties and insecurities and frustrations that implies. The things they say, although sometimes fascinating, should always be regarded with that understanding. As Mr. Haig told Mr. Kissinger when Mr. Kissinger worried about the “nuking” comment, it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. The president was just “unwinding.”

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide