WASHINGTON -- President Nixon, concerned by mounting anti-Vietnam War protests, talked with his top aide at a 1971 Oval Office meeting about using Teamster "thugs" to break up the demonstrations and beat protesters, newly released Watergate tapes disclose.
"They've got guys who'll go in and knock their heads off," Nixon told H.R. Haldeman, who was thenchief of staff on May 5, 1971 -- only two days after Washington police, backed by federal troops, used tear gas and mass arrests to thwart protesters who had threatened to close down the federal government.
"Sure. Murderers. Guys that really, you know, that's what they really do," Haldeman responded on the tape, which was among 47 1/2 hours of White House conversations released yesterday by the National Archives. The tapes had been subpoenaed by the Watergate special prosecutor in 1973 and 1974, but were not among those played at the Watergate coverup trial or at congressional inquiries.
Transcripts of the tapes offer a stark counterpoint to recent efforts by Nixon to rehabilitate his reputation through foreign policy counsel, writing and public appearances.
Nixon, in another conversation, agrees with an aide's disdainful description of George Bush, who was chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1973 when the Watergate coverup began to unravel, as "Mr. Clean."
In a conversation with John D. Ehrlichman, his domestic affairs adviser, Nixon says that he told Bush, "that's a stupid thing to do" when he learned that Bush had allowed a committee aide involved in questionable political activities to confess his misdeeds to federal prosecutors.
"Bush, I suppose, is in the school of people who let everybody go (to the prosecutors)," Nixon told Ehrlichman.
"Mr. Clean," Ehrlichman observed.
"Yeah," Nixon said.
In the 1971 conversation about enlisting Teamsters to assist in putting down the Washington demonstrations, Haldeman tells the president: "I think that they can get away with this -- do it with the Teamsters. Just ask them to dig up those, their eight thugs."
After Nixon signals his approval with a "yeah," Haldeman says that it could be arranged by just calling "uh, what's his name."
"Fitzsimmons," Nixon replies, referring to Frank E. Fitzsimmons, who was then Teamsters president.
Earlier in the conversation, Nixon expressed anger over criticism from a columnist and asked Haldeman about the possibility of a congressional resolution praising the president's stance on the demonstrators.
In another touch of irony, Nixon told Haldeman on April 25, 1973, "I always wondered about the taping equipment, but I'm damn glad we have it, aren't you?"