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Further Release of Papers Shows a Beleaguered President : Nixon Files Shed New Light on Break-in

May 29, 1987|ROBERT L. JACKSON and PAUL HOUSTON | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — A 1971 memo from then-President Richard M. Nixon suggesting the need for more financial data on Democratic National Chairman Lawrence F. O'Brien, whose Watergate office was burglarized by Republican campaign operatives a year later, was among 490,000 pages of sensitive White House "special files" released Thursday.

The newly opened files, the third batch of Nixon-era materials to be made public by the National Archives since December, shed some new light on the June, 1972, Watergate break-in and the ensuing scandal that forced Nixon's resignation in August, 1974.

The papers also portrayed a beleaguered President who was sensitive to public criticism and who scrawled directions to his aides in the margins of daily news summaries and memos sent to him.

Blamed for Inflation

He reacted angrily to a White House news summary in March, 1973, reporting that the president of the American Bankers Assn., a traditionally Republican group, had said on television that Nixon was responsible for inflation's rising "in full flame again."

"See that Flanigan gives him a boot," Nixon wrote White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, referring to Peter Flanigan, a presidential aide who dealt with bankers. "Our friends are our major problem!"

In a similar vein, Nixon gave Haldeman instructions about O'Brien in a Jan. 14, 1971, memo.

"It would seem that the time is approaching when Larry O'Brien is held accountable for his retainer with Hughes," Nixon wrote, referring to a large contract that O'Brien, a Washington public relations consultant, had with the late billionaire Howard Hughes.

'Colson Should Check'

Referring to another presidential aide, Charles W. Colson, who later was convicted of Watergate-related crimes, the memo concluded: "Perhaps Colson should make a check on this."

The Senate Watergate Committee, although it never learned of that memo, suggested in its final report in July, 1974, that the purpose of the Watergate break-in may have been to obtain financial or other information about O'Brien for potential use in the 1972 presidential campaign.

The committee said White House aides were concerned, among other things, that O'Brien might hold financially embarrassing information about F. Donald Nixon, the President's brother, who once had received a business loan from Hughes in excess of $200,000.

The newly released files also demonstrated that Nixon and some of his aides seriously misjudged the Watergate scandal as a political problem in the 1974 congressional elections--but not as a criminal matter.

'A Partisan Issue'

In a January, 1974, memo from William E. Timmons, his congressional affairs director, Nixon was urged to impress upon Rep. John J. Rhodes (R-Ariz.) that "Watergate is a partisan issue. . . . The Democrats would very much like to use impeachment as an election theme this year."

Rhodes, then House minority leader, had scheduled a meeting with Nixon, and Timmons wanted Nixon to ask him: "Do our fellows recognize the Democrats are not just after the President, but are really trying to defeat them in November?"

In some of the new documents, Nixon addressed somewhat less weighty matters. In March, 1970, he asked White House aide Alexander P. Butterfield to give him a memo on "the best years for Bordeaux wine."

When Butterfield responded by listing five good years in the 1940s and 1950s, Nixon shot back in another memo: "We seem to have a big supply of '66. It is a very bad year. See if we can trade it in."

In a conversation with another aide in the Oval Office, according to another document, Nixon deadpanned: "You deserve a vacation--take a couple of hours off."

The papers also detail behind-the-scenes strategies aimed at winning congressional approval of Nixon's legislative program, including numerous efforts to butter up key Republicans and conservative Democrats.

Provided Full Script

In May, 1974, Timmons recommended that the President call Rep. Leslie C. Arends (R-Ill.) to congratulate him on the marriage of his daughter to a clergyman. Timmons provided a full script of "talking points" for Nixon to use, including the line, "You're not losing a daughter but gaining a son--and a churchman at that. You sure need spiritual guidance to help your golf game!"

The President sometimes rejected recommendations for such calls. On a 1972 memo suggesting that he telephone Sen. Wallace F. Bennett (R-Utah) to wish him a happy 74th birthday, Nixon scrawled this response to Haldeman: "No. I want wires or letters only on birthdays unless a special party is given & a call is urgently requested."

At least one memo, in 1971, showed the Machiavellian side of Nixon. A White House lobbyist reported that he was on the verge of lining up sufficient votes in the House Rules Committee to send an anti-busing bill to the floor. Although the Administration strongly backed the measure, Nixon wrote to John D. Ehrlichman, his domestic affairs adviser: "Maybe it is best not to get this. Then we will have the issue" to use against liberal Democrats who were trying to bottle up the bill.

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