By Seth Studer
The story broke in August. I was working on an academic article about Richard Nixon in post-Watergate American culture (forthcoming). When not working not working on the article, I actively avoided Nixon-related stories in the news media and on the Internet: not an easy feat in August 2014, the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s resignation. Then again, it was a little easier than I would have liked. The stories, like coverage of the JFK assassination’s fiftieth anniversary the year before, were pretty scarce and uneven. Inevitable, I suppose. In two years, Hillary Clinton (nominee presumptive) will cast a ballot for herself as president of the United States. What a dim memory her husband’s impeachment seems already. Ex-senators Trent Lott and Tom Daschle recently visited South Dakota State University, where I teach, to wax poetic about the post-ideological, post-historical nineties: a time when, to hear them tell it, the two great American parties apparently worked together in constant harmony, tossing aside profligate “political differences” for the good of God and country. One recalls the many obituaries of Ronald Reagan that read as if Tip O’Neill and the Gipper played “government” each day before retiring together to a pub in the evening to share pints and sing Irish drinking songs. Our national history is like an elementary school recess period; we will not allow anything vaguely resembling a row on the playground.
And so intelligent Americans consistently misremember, or are compelled to misremember, events the nineties and eighties: events that they witnessed firsthand. How much dimmer Watergate must seem to those who lived through it. My mother watched the hearings as a junior high student while earning babysitting money; tough times, stagflation. I recently quizzed her on the names “John Dean” and “Sam Ervin,” which elicited vague recognition but no concrete memory of the basic contours of the only scandal to prompt an American president to resign. The players themselves did little better. During the first week of August 2014, Bob Woodward and Carl Berstein appeared on NPR, the CBC, and the BBC, describing the events of 1973-1974 – and their role in those events – less convincingly and with less interesting conclusions than they had at the time. PBS News Hour managed to assemble a nice roundtable featuring Timothy Naftali (Nixon aficionado and NYU professor), Beverley Gage (the best historian of post-1945 America working today, currently at Yale), Pat Buchanan (Pat Buchanan), and Luke Nichter, a Nixon scholar and professor at Texas A&M – Central Texas whose July 29 2014 book The Nixon Tapes provides one of the most thorough single-volume accounts of the 37th president’s self-recordings. The main topic: who remembers Watergate? What was the big deal? Nixon wasn’t such a bad guy after all, right?
Journalist Ken Hughes’s Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate was published the same day as Nichter’s volume. A few weeks later, after journalists and Nixon buffs ruminated and digested Hughes and Nichter’s work, stories began to pop up across the Internet highlighting new revelations from the transcripts. In particular, a revelation from Hughes provoked strong reactions. Salon featured a dramatic excerpt from Chasing Shadows, featuring a scene that prompted George Will to accuse Nixon of treason. These stories did not receive much fanfare, but the headlines were sensational. New Watergate bombshell! The scandal behind the scandal! Nixon guilty of treason! Even George Will admits it! For most intelligent Americans, the story had all the impact of a new Bee Gees single. But for those who, like me, think and talk and read and write about Richard Milhous Nixon with an almost neurological compulsion, something exciting had happened.
Here’s the short version. One of Hughes’s transcripts (July 15 1971) features Nixon explicitly ordering a break-in at the Brookings Institute. This is notable for one major reason and a couple minor ones. Major: it’s the only time on the tapes we hear Nixon directly order a break-in. Minor: breaking into Brookings is a pretty big deal, and explicitly ordering such a break-in directly is a pretty big deal, especially for Nixon, a master of suggestion and the subtle cue. But there were few obvious reasons for Nixon to give such an order in 1971; the Watergate break-in seems rational by comparison (Democratic National Committee, election year, etc.). One is forced to assume that Brookings had something that Nixon wanted very badly, although Nixon does not quite say.
Hughes argues that this transcript represents the genesis of the plumbers/Watergate/resignation. We are unlikely to find another such explicit order to break into an august enemy think tank; this seems to represent the moment when things went a little crazy for Nixon. Most coverage of Hughes’s book focused on this sensational thesis, that the Brookings affair wrought Watergate.
The evidence against the thesis is very strong: the origins of the Nixon administration’s culture of surveillance are far too numerous and diffuse to reduce to a single event. But even for Hughes (who at times seems to use the word “Watergate” simply to attract a general audience – and why not?), the fact of Nixon ordering a break-in is less compelling than the fact of Nixon ordering this break-in. The ostensible purpose was to blackmail former president Lyndon B. Johnson with documents, located at the Brookings Institute, that revealed Johnson’s plan to broker a surprise Vietnam peace settlement by October 1968. Peace in Vietnam would have significantly boosted Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s chances of succeeding Johnson. Proof of such chicanery would have given Nixon political leverage over Johnson. But, as Hughes writes, Nixon’s staff (including Henry Kissinger, who participated in the fun) doubted that Nixon’s burglars would find anything useful at Brookings. And why would Nixon want leverage over an unpopular ex-president?
From Chasing Shadows:
At that point, Nixon just wanted the former president to hold a press conference denouncing the leak of the Pentagon Papers—not much of a motive to commit a felony. … [And the] potential downside was enormous—impeachment, conviction, prison, disgrace—and the upside was questionable at best. If Nixon were the kind of president to conduct criminal fishing expeditions for dirt on his predecessors, his tapes would be littered with break-in orders. But Brookings is the only one.
There is a rational explanation. Nixon did have reason to believe that the bombing halt file contained politically explosive information—not about his predecessor, but about himself.
The reason, Hughes argues, is that Nixon hoped to obtain documents implicating himself in the failure of the 1968 Paris Peace Talks. Allegations that Nixon had sabotaged the peace process would emerge and grow in the decades after Watergate.
George Will’s review of Chasing Shadows shifted the focus from Hughes’s thesis to his data, new data which, Will argued, implicated Nixon in “treason” (Will’s word choice received more attention than his argument). While other journalists focused on Hughes’s link between the new data to Watergate – his attempt to carve a “Rosebud” out of a few seconds of tape – Wills argued that the real story had been missed. Hughes provides very strong, if very indirect, evidence of what we already almost knew about Paris 1968: that, to bolster his chances of becoming president, Nixon sabotaged the 1968 Paris Peace Talks that would have almost certainly ended the Vietnam War by early 1969. All the other “White House horrors” – Watergate, ratfucking, domestic espionage, “the Canuck letter,” even Allende – pale in comparison to this.
According to both Hughes and Will, Nixon gave an irrational order: break into Brookings and steal documents. Why? To blackmail Johnson? The risk was too great, and they might not even find the documents they wanted. There must be another, more rational reason. According to Hughes, Nixon must have been looking for files implicating himself in sabotage, files that he could obtain by no other means, files that his enemies at Brookings might have possessed: “Ordering the Brookings break-in wasn’t a matter of opportunism or poor presidential impulse control. As far as Nixon knew, it was a matter of survival.” This reasoning (in short, that Nixon would not have behaved irrationally) was strong enough to convince Will to charge a Republican president with treason.
I disagree not with Will’s conclusions, nor even with his reasoning (though depending on Nixon to make rational decisions is frequently a losing game), but with his confidence in this new evidence to make the case for treason.
All responsible historians and Nixon buffs know that Nixon betrayed Johnson and sabotaged the Peace Talks; we also know that Nixon ordered a break-in at the Brookings Institute. The question has always been how well we know. How much data to we possess? How much must we rely on reasonable inference? Who said what, when, where, and why? We already knew that Lyndon B. Johnson probably had direct evidence of Nixon’s involvement – but Johnson’s evidence has never been recovered, and Nixon denied any involvement in the Peace Talks to Johnson’s face. So when a Nixon scholar claims to have evidence of the 1968 sabotage, it’s a big deal. Thanks to Hughes, we have some new data. Nixon ordered the Brookings job. We know no that with 100% certainty. We always suspected, but now we know. But we can still only infer, with great confidence (approaching knowledge), that he sabotaged the 1968 Paris Peace Talks. Such great confidence that I’m willing to say “I know.”
But Hughes hasn’t found the smoking gun that Will and others are made it out to be. Will’s article and Hughes book are both padded with backstory and dot-connecting that aren’t derived directly from the tapes or from the public record.
Hughes would argue that the 1968 sabotage was Nixon’s greatest secret, that he built a citadel of surveillance and paranoia around himself in order to protect that secret, and that Watergate must necessarily be understood as an outcome of this secrecy. I agree that Nixon’s sabotage of the Paris Peace Talks were probably his greatest secret – but we have not heard Nixon himself admit that. That’s the nature of secrets and the nature of Nixon. And Nixon is nothing if not resistance to simple casual analyses. One simply cannot imagine a Nixon White House sans paranoia and plumbers, with or without the Peace Talks scandal, just as one cannot imagine Nixon as a consistent ideologue or as a good friend or as a convincingly honest man.
We will probably never get that piece of hard evidence – the fact in a pumpkin patch, the smoking datum – that proves Nixon intentionally sabotaged the 1968 Paris Peace Talks and deliberately extended the Vietnam War until October 1972 for political purposes. We don’t need such concrete evidence, really – the historical evidence against Nixon is about as strong as historical evidence gets. In lieu of a taped confession, we must content ourselves with reasonable inference based on hard data. And Hughes’s transcript is one more very hard datum to add to the pile, shedding a little more light on Nixon’s most heinous crime; undue focus on Watergate and the plumbers distracts from the fact that Nixon committed his most evil act before he was even president. We should be interested in the 1968 Paris Talks not because they led to Watergate and resignation. We should be interested because they represent a devastating lost opportunity to end the wickedest war in American history.