Tricky Dick, we already knew ye

The release of the last 340 hours of the Nixon White House tapes adds little to what we know by now about the first American president to resign. Indeed, the final installment doesn't tell us much more than we should have known about him long before the first tapes were ever released.

Except for documenting his excessive use of profanity, his contempt for many political figures including those working for him, and his galloping personal insecurity, the real Richard Nixon was always there to be seen. His willingness to do whatever it took to achieve his political goals was apparent from his first runs for the House and the Senate.

In 1946, he irresponsibly played the anti-communist card in defeating Rep. Jerry Voorhis and did so again in 1950 in defeating Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas for U.S. Senate. He rode the same horse as Dwight Eisenhower's political hatchet man in the 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns. Thereafter, through his eventual presidential elections in 1968 and 1972, he spoke loftily of good intentions but specialized in tearing down his opponents while piously denying any such design.

In the end, the Watergate fiasco merely was an exclamation point to his negative and devious approach to political self-preservation throughout his career. At his funeral service in 1994, then President Bill Clinton eulogized that Nixon should not be judged "on anything less than his entire life and career." To that, close followers of his political behavior could only truthfully say, "Amen."

Reports on the last tapes focused mostly on Nixon's recorded exchanges with leading political figures of the time like Ronald Reagan and the senior George Bush, both eventual successors in the Oval Office. On the night of April 30, 1973, after Nixon had addressed the nation on television disclosing the firings of H.R. Haldeman and three other key aides, Reagan and Mr. Bush both called him.

Reagan, from California, empathized: "I know what this must have been in all those days and what you have been through. You can count on us, we're still behind you out here. I want you to know that you're in our prayers." Then he added: "This too shall pass." So much for Reagan's powers of clairvoyance.

Nixon himself, on June 21, 1972, had agreed, telling Haldeman that "I don't think you're going to see a great, great, great uproar in the country about the Republican Committee trying to bug the Democratic headquarters." And two days later, in dismissing the story: "Just say this is a sort of comedy of errors, bizarre." And on Aug. 1: "Let's just be fatalistic about the goddamn thing." Haldeman: "If it blows, it blows." Nixon: "And if if blows, it blows, and so what?"

Mr. Bush, who had to be dragged into taking the unhappy job of chairman of the Republican National Committee in this trying time, told Nixon he had watched the speech "with great pride." Eventually, Mr. Bush was among the first to tell Nixon the jig was up and he would be wise to resign.

Perhaps the most touching was the phone call from evangelist preacher Billy Graham, who is heard telling Nixon of his reaction to the president's critics: "I felt like slashing their throats." Then he added: "But anyway, God be with you."

One of the two primary journalistic architects of Nixon's downfall, Bob Woodward, liked thereafter to refer to the Nixon tapes with the old ad slogan: "The gift that keeps on giving." The tapes now stored at the National Records Archives Administration, and at the Nixon Library now run by it, no doubt still have other gems of that madcap time in American politics. They are still to be found by diligent scholars and reported, to the chagrin of diehard Nixon loyalists and the delight of others still "wallowing in Watergate," as it used to be said.

In all, the tapes seem destined to overwhelm such Nixon achievements as the historic "opening to China" and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, often cited even by inveterate Nixon-haters. Such is the price for presidents secretly taping conversations meant at the time to be private, which was also done by Democratic predecessors John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. They mostly had enough sense, though, to watch their tongues.

Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for the Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at

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