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Days of Rage

Richard Nixon and the Pornography of Power

ABUSE OF POWER: The New Nixon Tapes.\o7 Edited and with an introduction and commentary by Stanley I. Kutler\f7 .\o7 The Free Press: 676 pp., $30\f7

November 09, 1997|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is the author of numerous books, including "America After Nixon." He is a Times contributing editor and was project consultant on the movie "Nixon."

Nixon was haunted by the phobias of small-town America toward the Eastern establishment, and his obsession seems to be rooted in the treatment accorded him back in the time of the Alger Hiss case. Hiss, a respected former State Department official, was a favorite of the establishment, and Nixon was forever stigmatized as having been an irrational McCarthyite because he had pushed for a congressional investigation into Hiss' actions. This perplexed him no end, for in Nixon's mind he had tried mightily to prove his worth to the same folks who attacked him. As vice president, he had done battle with Sen. Joseph McCarthy in defending then-President Dwight Eisenhower and, after losing races in 1960 for president and in 1962 for governor of California, Nixon relocated to a prestigious Manhattan law firm. During that period, he worked hard at becoming an accepted member of the establishment that he came to believe would never accept him.

Ironically, Nixon's great foreign policy achievement, the opening to China, had been inspired by a lengthy Council on Foreign Relations study project. And in his choices of William Rogers for secretary of state and Kissinger for national security advisor, he certainly picked well-known members of that establishment. But in his rambling conversations with trusted aides Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, Nixon revealed an abiding mistrust of those he presumed to be at the center of real power in America.

The odd thing revealed in these tapes is that even though Nixon was the president of the United States and reelected by a commanding majority, he was never secure in his ascension to power. So much so that he easily unraveled at the slightest presumed indignity or act of betrayal by those well-connected.

The most striking example of how that insecurity fed his paranoia was proved early in his administration, when Ellsberg turned over the secret Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. Even though Nixon well understood that the Pentagon Papers' history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam dealt with the record of Democrats, he nonetheless became convinced that the publication of the documents was intended as an attack on him. Indeed, what these tapes reveal is that the entire Watergate fiasco was the result of a preoccupation with Ellsberg and not with anything to be found at Democratic Party headquarters.

There is no evidence here that Nixon knew in advance of the Watergate break-in, although there is also no question that he was up to his eyeballs in the cover-up from the day the burglars were caught. But what fueled his paranoia was his awareness that he had authorized a break-in at the California office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist led by E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy and carried out by the same Cubans who broke into the Watergate Hotel. Nixon was well aware that at his instigation, those "plumbers," as they were called, had engaged in other bits of chicanery, including a nine-month surveillance of the private life of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Nothing was beneath Nixon; anything could be turned to advantage. When George Wallace was shot by Arthur Bremer, Nixon asked his trusted aide Charles Colson, "Is he [Bremer] a left winger, right winger?" and Colson replied, "Well, he's going to be a left winger by the time we get through." To which offer of deception Nixon answered, "Good. Keep at that, keep at that." Colson replies, "Yeah. I just wish that, God, that I'd thought sooner about planting a little literature out there." And the president of the United States just laughs and says, "Good."

It was Colson to whom Nixon turned to develop an enemies list of people to be "destroyed" as well as to build a counter-Washington establishment. Nixon instructs Haldeman to "Give Chuck [Colson] access to the IRS stuff . . . the FBI stuff. You let him go ruthless until you kill these people." Haldeman suggested that longtime Nixon aide Chotiner could do the job of building a "Nixon-Washington establishment," but Nixon, in a rambling response, rejects Chotiner: "Maybe he is not--Judaism. It's Jew." Haldeman agrees that Chotiner is not up to the task and Nixon adds "Yep, it's the Jew business." Colson is the guy because, as Nixon points out, he is possessed of a "killer instinct." Haldeman adds that, with that indispensable quality, Colson "can build himself into a damn good position as the kingpin of the power structure."

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