We know what happened in the spring of 1972: Five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters, were caught and arrested, and triggered the slow-dripping scandal that became known as Watergate.
But a full understanding of President Richard Nixon wouldn’t be possible without the events that came before Watergate, when the stress of the presidency—the anti-Vietnam demonstrations, the secret bombing and invasion of Cambodia, the deaths of four student protesters at Kent State, became too much. He was agitated, drinking, paranoid about the press—and in one memorable pre-dawn excursion, exited the White House without his aides, driven by a mix of memory and pain, to try and connect with demonstrators on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. When his frantic staff at last caught up with him, he treated them to breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel.
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This chapter of the Nixon presidency is the story of how his tragic flaws caught up with him, of how he cracked in the crucible of the presidency. With foreign and domestic crises tearing the country apart, the always-distrustful, unstable, insecure president started going after his enemies.
The flag-draped caskets kept coming home. Opponents of the Vietnam War organized huge, nation-wide demonstrations in the fall of 1969—the Moratorium and the Mobilization—leaving Nixon’s White House in a state of siege.
Then, in March 1970, the pro-Western leaders of the Cambodian military staged a coup, overthrowing the neutralist Prince Sihanouk and prompting the North Vietnamese and the homegrown Communist Khmer Rouge to march upon Phnom Penh. Events drew Nixon into crisis mode. That spring would produce some of the most emotionally charged and dramatic moments of his presidency.
He was finding enemies everywhere: among liberals, the bureaucracy, on Capitol Hill and in the press. “We can have peace. We can have prosperity. We can have all the blacks screwing the whites,” and still not get credit from the liberal establishment, he would complain, in comments captured on his secret White House taping system. His orders sometimes sounded like the mutterings of a paranoid. “The press is the enemy,” he would tell his staff, and ordered aides to comb through the microfilm at the D.C. public library and compile every article by columnist Drew Pearson, dating back to 1946, that mentioned his name.
Work was Nixon’s medication. So was risk. The arduous quest for the presidency and the all-consuming exercise of its powers furnished relief. “He had no personal ability to get control,” his television adviser, Roger Ailes, recalled. “He was to live in a drama—in a Western: Nixon against the world.” Another aide, years later, came to the conclusion that Nixon sought crises like a gambler craves the game.
“He needed to tempt self-destruction,” said Monica Crowley. “He courted controversy intentionally … the thrill was in those few breathtaking moments when the dice were in the air.”
“Was Nixon paranoid? Yes,” said aide Dwight Chapin. “But he also had the right to be.”
In April 1970, an oxygen tank on the Apollo 13 spacecraft exploded, putting the lives of three astronauts in jeopardy. The country and its president faced a week of anxiousness and worry: Would those brave men suffocate in space, as Earth listened in on their deaths? Nixon was as tense as anyone and, relieved when the heroes returned safely, ordered celebratory drinks. By 3 p.m. the commander in chief, Haldeman noted, was hammered and snoring.
It was during that week, on a trip to Hawaii to welcome the heroic astronauts home, that a briefing from his Pacific commanders persuaded Nixon that he needed to take forceful action to save Cambodia from falling to the Communists. He would have to expand a war he had promised to end. The president seemed “overwrought” and “increasingly agitated,” National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger recorded in his memoirs, but Nixon’s reasoning was sound. If the Communists seized the rest of Indochina, South Vietnam appeared doomed, and there would be no peace with honor.
“Do you think there’s a prayer for Vietnamization if Cambodia is taken over?” Kissinger asked Secretary of State William Rogers, using the term that described the transfer of combat responsibility from the United States to the South Vietnamese.
“Yes,” said Rogers. It would be a setback, but the South could survive.
“You’re entitled to your opinion,” Kissinger told him.
The initial plan was for the South Vietnamese Army, supported by U.S. artillery and aircraft, to go into Cambodia and attack the North Vietnamese military headquarters and ordnance depots at a salient called the Parrot’s Beak. At a meeting of NSC officials, Vice President Spiro Agnew recommended that the administration stop “pussyfooting,” and Nixon, not to be outdone at manly chest-beating, expanded the scope of the invasion. He proposed to double the mission, adding 30,000 American troops to cross the border and sweep through a second Communist sanctuary known as the Fishhook. He fortified his nerves with viewings of the motion picture Patton and cocktail cruises on the White House yacht Sequoia with his family, his best friend Bebe Rebozo and aides. On May 1, as the boat approached Mount Vernon, Nixon punched the air and told an aide that he wanted the national anthem “blasted out.” He and Bebe, his wife Pat and his daughter Julie, along with her husband David Eisenhower, stood at attention in the bow while a recording of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played. “It was a lonely time for him,” his military aide, Jack Brennan, remembered. “I had never seen him appear so physically exhausted.”
Nixon was raging, hanging up on aides and increasingly huddling in his hideaway office in the Executive Office Building, “reflecting, resenting, collecting his thoughts and his anger,” Kissinger would recall.
“Don’t worry about divisiveness—having drawn the sword, don’t take it out—stick it in hard,” Nixon told his staff. He was ready to do full battle with his political enemies over his plans for Southeast Asia. “Hit them in the gut.”
The Cambodian incursion was marginally successful, in that it disrupted the Communist command, bought Nixon more time, and demonstrated that the South Vietnamese could put up a fight. The incursion secured the border for most of 1971.
The gains, however, were not commensurate with the cost. The purpose of the mission was not, as many in the peace movement charged, to open a new front, escalate the fighting, and involve all of Southeast Asia in the conflagration. Quite the opposite: The offensive was limited in scope and designed to provide time and cover for Vietnamization. But it looked like Tricky Dick was expanding the conflict—after promising the country he would wind it down. His April 30 speech announcing the incursion was not so calm and reasoned as the silent majority address; he looked tense and had to pause to wipe the sweat from his upper lip. “If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world,” he said.
Drafted with the help of the pugnacious Pat Buchanan, Nixon’s speech was deceptive (falsely claiming that the United States had always “scrupulously” respected Cambodian neutrality) and gratuitously confrontational. So was the president’s comment, recorded by the press as he left the Pentagon the next day, that college students who opposed the war were pampered and ungrateful “bums.” It reflected his lifelong prejudice against the sons and daughters of the Ivy League but was difficult to apply to the hundreds of demonstrations that had erupted throughout the country, at institutions like Notre Dame, the University of Virginia or Kent State—an Ohio university with a student body drawn from the working and middle class. During a weekend of unrest at the college, in which arsonists torched the ROTC building, Governor James Rhodes dispatched the Ohio National Guard to restore order, with live ammunition and predictable results. On May 4, the raw, tired, taunted guardsmen fired into a crowd of protesters. Four students died, nine were wounded. Several were just spectators; others had been walking to class.
Nixon was stunned. “I could not get the photographs out of my mind,” he recalled in his memoirs. “I could not help thinking about the families, suddenly receiving the news that their children were dead.”
“I thought of my own daughters … of their learning to talk and to walk, and their first birthdays, and the trips we took together, going to the ballgame … and to the circus … getting them through the teenage years, getting them through college and then—whoosh—all gone.”
But publicly, his response was unyielding, even cruel. “When dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy,” the White House statement said.
Nixon’s pose crumbled in the face of the resultant, “profoundly unnerving” uproar, Kissinger recalled. Across the nation, higher education ground to a halt, as campus after campus suspended classes or was closed by student strikes. Three members of Nixon’s NSC staff resigned. The atmosphere was “absolutely poisonous,” aide William Smyser recalled. “We were not only fighting the North Vietnamese, we were fighting the Americans.”
Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had all suffered moments when the stupefying strain in their lives—the knowledge that a blunder could leave hundreds of millions dead, and civilization in radioactive ruin—led them to episodes of rage or sorrow, use of drugs or alcohol, stress-induced illness, or bizarre behavior. The spring of 1970 saw Nixon’s visit to that sort of Gethsemane.
It was a “paradox,” Nixon adviser Leonard Garment said. When wounded, Nixon was both strengthened—in that he drew renewed confidence from surviving—and weakened, in that he just could not forgive, or forget, or bring a halt to his self-destructive gnashing. “This man had real demons,” Gerald Ford remembered.
On the night of May 8, Nixon held a prime-time press conference, assuring Americans that the U.S. forces in Cambodia would withdraw soon and that he would keep his promise to bring home another 150,000 troops from Southeast Asia. In the Parrot’s Beak and the Fishhook, “we have bought at least six months, and probably eight months of time,” he said. Afterward, wired from the performance, and “agitated and uneasy” from the week’s events, he worked the telephone long past midnight, consulting with aides, advisers and reporters. He was facing an emotional crisis as real as that confronting the country. Unable to sleep, he put Rachmaninoff on the stereo and awakened his valet, Manolo Sanchez.
Sometime after 4 a.m., he decided to show Sanchez the glories of the Lincoln Memorial at night.
“Searchlight is on the lawn!” a White House guard reported, using the president’s Secret Service code name. (Nixon would later recall with satisfaction, “I’ve never seen the Secret Service quite so petrified with apprehension.”) Nixon, Sanchez and the presidential physician, Dr. Walter Tkach, got in a car and left the White House. A few minutes behind them, in a second auto, was the frantic Egil Krogh, the White House aide who was on duty that night.
At the time, the Lincoln Memorial steps, rising above the Mall, were a rendezvous for students assembling for the day’s demonstrations. “Perhaps the major contribution I could make to them was to try to lift them a bit out of the miserable intellectual wasteland in which they now wander aimlessly,” Nixon told his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman later that week. Some of the students gathered round, and he awkwardly tried to connect. His feelings surfaced in zoetropic flashes. Peace and war were on his mind that night, the lesions of his childhood, his beloved mother and her recent death.
“My goals in Vietnam were the same as theirs—to stop the killing and end the war,” he would remember. He spoke about his own generation, about Munich and Chamberlain and Churchill, and the need to deal with Russia and open China. “It was not just a drop by … he had no talking points,” Krogh recalled. “His manner was intense—trying to reach out into them, to communicate with them. I’ve never seen him do it like this before. … He was trying to empathize with them as best he could.”
“I hope you realize that we are willing to die for what we believe in,” one student demonstrator told the president.
Of course, Nixon responded. “Many of us when we were your age were also willing to die for what we believed in,” he said. “The point is, we are trying to build a world in which you will not have to die for what you believe in.”
Trying to “draw them out,” Nixon asked about their college football teams and spoke of his own days at Whittier College; about surfing, the environment, the plight of the American Indians and the rewards of traveling through Europe and Asia. It was important to understand, he said, that amid the material comforts of life, it is “the elements of the spirit that really matter."
Streaks of rose above the Capitol signaled the approach of day. As he returned to his limousine, Nixon ran across Bob Moustakas, a tall and portly bearded longhair from Detroit who, by self-admission, was not looking his best after a long drive to Washington, in which mood-altering substances were consumed. Moustakas had a camera, and Nixon called on Tkach to take their picture. The mood was not hostile, Moustakas later recalled, but it was stilted—like that of a high school party, in which the host’s parents came down to the basement rec room to make small talk. As they posed and chatted, Nixon assessed Moustakas, and told him how, in China, the children were culled at an early age and sent off on different tracks, toward professional, academic or manual labors. The system was flawed, Nixon said, for it missed “late bloomers.” Then he patted Moustakas on the back, as if to say, there is hope for you yet.
The failure of the Lincoln Memorial visit was “a great shame,” said John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s assistant for domestic affairs, because “that was an opportunity for some reconciliation that didn’t take place.” Nixon and the students “just never reached each other.”
Nixon was not finished roaming. To the Capitol they drove, where he tried to show Sanchez the Senate and his old vice-presidential office and, finding the doors locked, settled on taking him into the House chamber and ushering him up to the rostrum, to stand where the Speaker wields the gavel and deliver a speech that Nixon applauded. In Statuary Hall, as the president made his way back to the car, a cleaning lady caught his attention and asked him to sign her Bible. He did so and urged her to read it faithfully. “Most of us don’t read it enough,” he said. And then, holding her hand, he stammered with some emotion, “You know, my mother was a saint. She died two years ago. She was a saint. You be a saint too.”
Frenzied aides, who had rushed into town from their homes in the suburbs (“Weirdest day so far,” Haldeman confided to his diary), caught up to Nixon at the Capitol. He decided to take them to breakfast. To the Mayflower, he told his driver. The presidential entourage arrived at the hotel restaurant, sat down, and gave their orders to the startled waitresses. Nixon remembered how, as a young politician in the 1950s, he liked their corned beef hash and eggs. Finally, with morning well under way, and groups of demonstrators tromping the streets, Haldeman and Krogh persuaded Nixon, with more than a little difficulty, that it was not safe to walk back to the White House. He got back in the car, passed through a ring of buses parked end to end around the mansion grounds, and the gates of “this great white jail,” as President Harry Truman called it, shut behind him.
“I am concerned about his condition,” Haldeman confided to his diary. “The decision, the speech, the aftermath killings, riots, press, etc.; the press conference, the student confrontation have all taken their toll, and he has had very little sleep for a long time and his judgment, temper and mood suffer badly. … He’s still riding on the crisis wave, but the letdown is near at hand and will be huge.”
Kissinger was worried as well. “He was prepared to make decisions without illusion. Once convinced, he went ruthlessly and courageously to the heart of the matter,” the national security adviser recalled, “but each controversial decision drove him deeper into his all-enveloping solitude.”
Nixon was known to overindulge in alcohol, a habit that seemed to grow worse that spring. “I don’t think that it should be exaggerated,” said Winston Lord, an NSC aide. “However, there is no question that he had a problem.”
“He never could handle liquor,” his former press secretary Jim Bassett said, “and you had to be very careful with him about that.” On several occasions—the Apollo 13 drama, a banquet in China, an evening during the Yom Kippur War, a flight back from Denver—his aides reported that he drank to excess. Nixon’s daughter Julie and friend Billy Graham both acknowledged it after his presidency.
Ehrlichman, after watching a sodden Nixon make a clumsy pass at a young lady in 1964, had made him promise to lay off the stuff before agreeing to work for him. Garment remembered instances during the 1968 campaign when his exhausted friend—after a drink or a sleeping pill or both—would call him late at night and ramble on and on until Morpheus claimed him in midconversation. After one such phone call, in which Nixon passed into slumber, an inexperienced, panicky Charles Colson, Republican operative and special counsel to the president, called Manolo Sanchez, thinking the president had a stroke or a heart attack. Nixon apologized the next day; sleeping pills and jet lag had caught up with him, he said.
A beer and a sleeping pill, and Nixon began to mumble, Speechwriter Ray Price recalled. Two drinks and “his voice would become slurred,” said another Nixon speechwriter, William Safire. “He would reminisce … open himself up.” On a private jet to Florida during the 1968 campaign, Nixon had downed a quick scotch or two and began to cry as he spoke to his aides of his parents, Frank and Hannah, and Arthur and Harold, the two brothers who died in their youth. “People don’t know me,” he pitiably told his staff.
Three drinks? “He couldn’t handle it,” said veteran California strategist Stu Spencer. “He really got paranoid when he got three drinks in him. There are things I’m not even going to discuss that were said, but they were the result of drinking. He could not handle drink.” His White House tapes capture the tinkling of ice cubes on several occasions in which Nixon, coming down from the high of a nationally televised address or a prime-time press conference, starts slurring his words while polling friends and advisers on his performance. “When I talked to the president he was loaded,” Kissinger told a colleague, explaining why Nixon could not take a phone call from the British prime minister during a Mideast crisis.
Insomnia was a long-standing problem. Nixon augmented his prescription sleeping pills with Dilantin, an anti-seizure drug recommended by a friend, the businessman Jack Dreyfus, who championed the drug for an unintended use: to combat depression. The slurring of speech was one potential side effect.
Nixon “took all those sleeping pills that would give him a low in the morning and a high in the evening,” said his spiritual counselor, Billy Graham. The president’s failures could be blamed on “sleeping pills and demons,” said Graham. “All through history, drugs and demons have gone together. … They just let a demon-power come in and play over him.”
“Looped,” Ehrlichman wrote in his diary after visiting with Nixon the night of the president’s speech on Cambodia.
As the midterm elections of 1970 approached, Nixon faced an unforgiving calculus. For Vietnamization to succeed, he had to stave off the Communists, but every action he took to do so—bombarding Laos, invading Cambodia, bombing sites in southern North Vietnam—stirred the fears of the public back home, lacing steel through the backbones of the antiwar members of Congress.
From government infiltration and intimidation, changes in the draft laws, internal bickering or simple exhaustion, the peace movement sagged after the deaths at Kent State. But the uproar over the Cambodian incursion had heartened the opposition on Capitol Hill, and by a 57–38 vote, the Senate approved a measure introduced by Senators Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho, and John Sherman Cooper, a Republican of Kentucky, prohibiting U.S. military action in, and aid to, Cambodia after June 30.
The House refused to go along, and the Senate soundly rejected another amendment (offered by Senator George McGovern, the Democrat from South Dakota, and Republican Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon) to cut off funding for all military action in Southeast Asia. But the hourglass had been turned. It was only a matter of time before the rebels in Congress succeeded. “The president’s personal relations with Congress have deteriorated gravely,” White House aide Bryce Harlow warned. Hanoi took heart.
Identifying enemies, and offering battle, were among those things that Nixon did best. The events of the spring of 1970 left him feeling beleaguered. The face he showed to his foes, for the rest of his presidency, would be one long contorted snarl.
In 1969, Nixon had dispatched Agnew to lambaste the network news executives (“a small and unelected elite”) and American intellectuals who opposed the war. The vice president had urged Americans to “separate them from our society with no more regret than we should feel over discarding rotten apples.” Now Agnew took to the stump again, railing against Nixon’s critics (“nattering nabobs of negativism”) and liberals (“radic-libs”) and stoking the nascent culture wars. “How do you fathom the thinking of those who work themselves into a lather over an alleged shortage of nutriments in Wheaties,” Agnew asked, “but who cannot get exercised at all over a flood of hard-core pornography?”
“Dividing the American people has been my main contribution to the national political scene,” Agnew would come to boast. “I not only plead guilty to this charge, but I am somewhat flattered by it.”
Buchanan wrote a 13-page memo to Nixon, urging him to engage in “heated political warfare, of not cooling off our supporters but of stirring the fires” as they were now “in a contest over the soul of the country” with their liberal enemies in Congress, the press and the universities. “It will be their kind of society or ours; we will prevail or they shall prevail.”
And another aide, Michael Balzano, urged the president to transmit the following message to disgruntled white voters: “Today, racial minorities are saying that you can’t make it in America. What they really mean is that they refuse to start at the bottom of the ladder the way you did. They want to surpass you … [and] they want it handed to them. … You worked the menial jobs to get where you are – let them do it too.” Balzono knew what he was proposing—an intentional rending of American society along racial lines, for political profit. “CAUTION – DANGER,” he wrote. “With respect to the calculated polarization described in this paper, ABSOLUTE SECRECY CANNOT BE OVERSTATED” or “there would be no way of calculating the damage to the Administration.” The capitalization was his.
White House aide Tom Huston drafted an organizational plan for government intelligence agencies, to improve upon the performance of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who was deemed too timid in his dotage to adequately suppress the radicals. The “Huston plan,” as it became known, explicitly authorized wiretapping, clandestine mail openings and break-ins, and acknowledged that such measures were illegal. Nixon approved it.
After several hundred construction workers went on a rampage in downtown Manhattan, beating antiwar protesters and other young people on what came to be known as “Bloody Friday,” the White House helped organize hard-hat demonstrations. A hundred thousand marched in New York. Nixon welcomed a group to Washington, and accepted a helmet of his own. The offensive continued through the fall election, as Nixon joined Agnew on the stump, and the two of them blistered the Democrats for encouraging a climate of riot and disorder.
On October 29 the president himself was the target of a rowdy demonstration in San Jose. He and Haldeman were hoping to turn such an incident into an evocative confrontation (“If anybody so much as brushes against Mrs. Agnew, tell her to fall down,” Nixon told his aides. “If the vice president were slightly roughed up by those thugs, nothing better could happen for our cause.” ), and the president climbed atop his limo to defy the rock-throwing protesters. He followed that performance with an ill-tempered speech from a poorly lit airport hangar in Phoenix that his aides chose to televise as the Republican curtain-closer for the fall campaign:
Let’s recognize these people for what they are. They are not romantic revolutionaries. They are the same thugs and hoodlums that have always plagued the good people. …
For too long, and this needs to be said and said now and here, the strength of freedom in our society has been eroded by a creeping permissiveness in our legislatures, in our courts, in our family life, and in our colleges and universities.
For too long, we have appeased aggression here at home, and, as with all appeasement, the result has been more aggression and more violence. The time has come to draw the line.
Nixon looked awful—too “hot” and mean for television—and Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, responding with calm dignity from his homey living room Down East, made a far better impression for the Democrats, becoming an instant front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination in 1972.
The Election Day results were mixed, but Nixon’s foes on Capitol Hill were emboldened. In March 1971 the Democratic caucus in the House went on record, demanding a “date certain” for withdrawal from Vietnam. William Timmons, the White House congressional liaison, warned the president that it was just a matter of time before Congress cut off funding. The loss of leverage “will murder us with the North Vietnamese,” Kissinger noted.
And in the early months of 1971, Nixon approved the installation of a secret White House tape-recording system to memorialize his decision-making process for posterity. It quickly captured the president ordering his aides to target Muskie, Ted Kennedy and other Democratic rivals, Jews, liberal donors, journalists, and media organizations for harassment, sabotage and electronic surveillance. “Politics over the next two years is not a question of bringing in the blacks, and liberal senators, and making them feel that they are ‘wanted,’ ” Nixon told Haldeman. “It is going to be cold steel.”
This article has been excerpted from Richard Nixon: The Life, which will be published this week by Doubleday.