The image of Richard Nixon as a statesman widely consulted around the world has once more run up against the counter-image of vindictive and petty schemer. Newspapers and television broadcasts have rightly reported that the tapes just released by the National Archives do not contain any more proofs of guilt in the Watergate affair. But they contain something worse.
These tapes show that Mr. Nixon was prepared to go further and do things worse than anything that had occurred before in his administration. Sitting around with his fellow schemers, Mr. Nixon relishes ahead of time the free hand he will be given in his second administration.
Looking forward to victory in November 1972, Mr. Nixon says in September that he can at last get rid of all the bureaucrats who fTC inhibited him up to that point. He tells H. R. Haldeman: "We can leave the whole goddamn government empty, and we're going to."
He lets us know, in the tapes, what he considers bureaucratic obstruction. John Walters, the IRS commissioner, a Republican who had always supported Mr. Nixon, nonetheless refused to go along with uses of the IRS to spy on and punish Democrats. Mr. Nixon, in his macho frenzy, looks forward to the time when he can "kick Walters' ass out first and get a man in there."
Then there is the Justice Department. Even under Attorney General John Mitchell, that department was not compliant enough for Richard Nixon. He wants no one there enforcing the antitrust laws against corporations such as ITT, which had donated $400,000 to the Republican National Convention fund. Richard McLaren, of the antitrust division, was trying to enforce legislation given to the department by the Congress -- so Mr. Nixon is unforgiving to the man:
"There is not going to be any more antitrust actions as long as I'm in this chair. Goddamn it, we're going to stop it . . . I do not want McLaren to run around prosecuting people, raising hell about conglomerates, stirring things up . . . Get him out . . . He's out of the goddamn government."
And how will things operate once Mr. Nixon has purged the bureaucracy of anyone with the integrity to resist him? He and Mr. Haldeman consider hiring "eight thugs" from the Teamsters Union to go out and "knock the heads off" anti-war protesters.
As for using the IRS records against Democrats, Mr. Nixon says: "There are ways to do it. Goddamn it, sneak in, in the middle of the night." H. R. Haldeman agrees, but says there will have to be a cover-up even with compliant bureaucrats around, so that the matter will not look too partisan. The IRS should investigate some safe Republicans -- like Billy Graham -- just for appearances' sake.
The truly scary thing about Watergate is not what went on -- that Mr. Nixon's administration hired people to break into a psychiatrist's office, fake documents and harass political opponents. The scary thing is that Richard Nixon was looking forward to much more of the same in his last term, when his power would be greater, his apprehensions about re-election less, his accumulated grievances even more blatantly unleashed and reckless.
He could have said more accurately what Ronald Reagan did when he ran for re-election: "You ain't seen nothin' yet." The thing we should be grateful for is all the Watergates that never were (but almost were) because Richard Nixon was removed from office.
Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.