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President Nixon approves the “Huston Plan” for greatly expanding domestic intelligence-gathering by the FBI, CIA and other agencies. Four days later he rescinds his approval. (Washington Post 2008) Nixon aide Tom Charles Huston comes up with the plan, which involves authorizing the CIA, FBI, NSA, and military intelligence agencies to escalate their electronic surveillance of “domestic security threats” in the face of supposed threats from Communist-led youth agitators and antiwar groups (see June 5, 1970). The plan would also authorize the surreptitious reading of private mail, lift restrictions against surreptitious entries or break-ins to gather information, plant informants on college campuses, and create a new, White House-based “Interagency Group on Domestic Intelligence and Internal Security.” Huston’s Top Secret memo warns that parts of the plan are “clearly illegal.” Nixon approves the plan, but rejects one element—that he personally authorize any break-ins. Nixon orders that all information and operations to be undertaken under the new plan be channeled through his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, with Nixon deliberately being left out of the loop. The first operations to be undertaken are using the Internal Revenue Service to harass left-wing think tanks and charitable organizations such as the Brookings Institution and the Ford Foundation. Huston writes that “[m]aking sensitive political inquiries at the IRS is about as safe a procedure as trusting a whore,” since the administration has no “reliable political friends at IRS.” He adds, “We won’t be in control of the government and in a position of effective leverage until such time as we have complete and total control of the top three slots of the IRS.” Huston suggests breaking into the Brookings Institute to find “the classified material which they have stashed over there,” adding: “There are a number of ways we could handle this. There are risks in all of them, of course; but there are also risks in allowing a government-in-exile to grow increasingly arrogant and powerful as each day goes by.” (Reeves 2001, pp. 235-236) In 2007, author James Reston Jr. will call the Huston plan “arguably the most anti-democratic document in American history… a blueprint to undermine the fundamental right of dissent and free speech in America.” (Reston 2007, pp. 102)
White House counsel John Dean meets with President Nixon’s personal lawyer, Herbert Kalmbach, in Lafayette Park near the White House. Away from possible eavedropping, Dean tells Kalmbach that his job is to secretly raise money for the Watergate defendants (see June 20-21, 1972). The money is to be delivered by former New York policeman and Nixon campaign operative Tony Ulasewicz (see March 20, 1971). Kalmbach checks into a room at the Statler Hilton, where campaign finance chairman Maurice Stans gives him a briefcase containing $70,000 in $100 bills. (Reeves 2001, pp. 572) Kalmbach will distrubute $187,000 in “hush money” to the burglars over the next three months; after that, the distribution will be handled by former Mitchell aide Frederick LaRue, who will hand out another $230,000. Nixon will claim he knew nothing of this until informed by White House counsel John Dean in March 1973 (see March 21, 1973), but author James Reston, Jr will later write that Kalmbach’s involvement is “strong circumstantial” evidence “that Nixon must have known about the process from the beginning. Had the president’s lawyer been caught at this task, it would have associated the president with the break-in in the summer of 1972, and no one but Nixon would logically have authorized such a risky procedure.” (Reston 2007, pp. 34)
President Nixon and his senior political aide, Charles Colson, discuss the Watergate conspiracy and how the White House should handle it. Nixon says, “A cover-up is the main ingredient.” Colson agrees, “That’s the problem.” Nixon continues: “That’s where we gotta cut our losses. My losses are to be cut. The president’s losses got to be cut on the cover-up deal.” Nixon will not admit to knowing anything about a cover-up until March 23, when he will claim to have been told for the first time about a cover-up by White House counsel John Dean (see March 21, 1973). Author James Reston Jr. calls this conversation, and that of the day before (see February 13, 1973), examples of Nixon and his aides’ “very good gangster talk,” and writes that “there could not be more classic evidence of the president wriggling, maneuvering, scheming to escape the reach of the law.” (Reston 2007, pp. 43-44) Nixon is not so worried about his former campaign chairman, John Mitchell. He “has a great stone face” and a “convenient memory,” he and Colson agree. Colson is fairly sure if burglar E. Howard Hunt begins talking to the Watergate prosecutors, he will “limit the losses,” but neither are fully convinced of Hunt’s commitment to silence. (Reston 2007, pp. 199-200)
On his final working day in office, President Nixon instructs the National Archives to keep his presidential papers sealed until January 1, 1985. Nixon has already bestowed a great number of papers, documents, and other materials to the Archives (and taken a controversial $432,000 tax deduction for the gift), but before today they had been slated to be released to public view at the end of his presidency—effectively August 10, 1974. Author James Reston Jr. will write, somewhat sardonically: “What presence of mind! Here was a president about to resign in disgrace and humiliation, who was cool enough to concern himself with frustrating the work of historians who would want to analyze him.” (Reston 2007, pp. 61-62)
British interviewer and entertainer David Frost makes a deal with former President Richard Nixon to undertake 24 hours of interviews on a wide range of topics, with six hours each on foreign policy, domestic affairs, Watergate, and a loosely defined “Nixon the Man” interview. Frost intends that the centerpiece of the interviews to be the Watergate session. Nixon agrees to a free, unfettered set of interviews in return for over a million dollars in appearance fees. (Reston 2007, pp. 13-17) (Other sources say that Nixon will be paid $600,000 plus 20% of the profits from the broadcast, which are expected to top $2 million.)
Frost Seen as Unlikely Interviewer - There is also considerable skepticism about the choice of Frost as an interviewer; he is better known as a high-living entertainer who likes to hobnob with celebrities rather than as a tough interrogator. His primary experience with politics is his hosting of the BBC’s celebrated 1960s satirical show That Was the Week That Was. Frost outbid NBC for the rights to interview Nixon, and after all three American television networks refuse to air the shows, Frost has to cobble together an ad hoc group of about 140 television stations to broadcast the interviews. Frost will recall in 2007, “We were told, ‘Half the companies you’re approaching would never have anything to do with Nixon when he was president, and the other half are trying to make people forget that they did.’” (Time 5/9/1977; Segal 4/30/2007) Interestingly, when the Nixon team began negotiating for the interviews in July 1975, they made a point of not wanting any “real” investigative journalists to conduct the interviews—in fact, they considered offering the interviews to American television talk show host Merv Griffin. (Time 5/9/1977) The interviews are to be done in segments, three sessions a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, for two weeks in the spring of 1977. (National Public Radio 6/17/2002)
Nixon Team Wants Focus Away from Watergate - While Nixon agrees that six hours of interviews will be on the topic of Watergate, his team wants to define “Watergate” as almost anything and everything negative about the Nixon presidency—not just the burglary and the cover-up, but abuses of power at the IRS, CIA, and FBI, Nixon’s tax problems, the Ellsberg break-in (see September 9, 1971), disputed real estate sales, the sale of ambassadorships (see March-April 1972), the enemies list (see June 27, 1973), and the Huston Plan (see July 14, 1970). The hope is that Frost’s focus will become diluted and fail to focus on the Watergate conspiracy itself. The hope will not be fulfilled (see April 13-15, 1977).
Frost's Investigative Team - Frost begins hiring a team of investigators and experts to prepare him for the interviews, including author and journalist James Reston Jr. (Time 5/9/1977) , a self-described “radical” who had worked to win amnesty for US citizens who had avoided the draft, and views Nixon as a contemptible figure who, despite his resignation (see August 8, 1974), remains “uncontrite and unconvicted.” (Dallek 7/22/2007) Other members of Frost’s research team are Washington journalist and lawyer Robert Zelnick, freelance writer Phil Stanford, and London TV news executive John Birt, who will produce the interviews. Zelnick will play Nixon in the briefing sessions, going so far as mimicking Nixon’s mannerisms and hand gestures. For his part, Nixon had almost completed his own meticulous research of his presidency for his upcoming memoirs, and is quite conversant with his facts and defense strategies. Nixon’s team of aides includes his former White House military aide Colonel Jack Brennan, chief researcher Ken Khachigian, former speechwriter Ray Price, former press assistant (and future television reporter) Diane Sawyer, and former aide Richard Moore. (Time 5/9/1977)
Nixon's Perceived 'Sweetheart Deal' - In his 2007 book on the interviews, The Conviction of Richard Nixon (written largely in 1977 but unpublished for thirty years), Reston will write that Nixon surely “saw the enterprise as a sweetheart deal. He stood to make a lot of money and to rehabilitate his reputation.” Nixon harbors hopes that he can make a political comeback of one sort or another, and apparently intends to use Frost—best known for conducting “softball” interviews with celebrities and world leaders alike—as his “springboard” to re-enter public service. But, as Reston later observes, Nixon will underestimate the researchers’ efforts, and Frost’s own skill as a television interviewer. (Reston 2007, pp. 13-17, 84) Time will describe Nixon in the interviews as “painful and poignant, sometimes illuminating, usually self-serving.” (Time 5/9/1977)
The research team for David Frost, in the midst of marathon interviews with former President Richard Nixon (see Early 1976), has a week to prepare for the upcoming four-hour interview sessions on Watergate (see April 6, 1977).
Countering the 'Other Presidents Did It, Too' Defense - Researcher James Reston Jr. tackles Frost’s possible response to what Reston feels will be Nixon’s last line of defense: that what he did was simply another instance in a long line of presidential misconduct. “Nixon nearly persuaded the American people that political crime was normal,” investigative reporter Jack Anderson had told Nixon biographer Fawn Brodie, a line that haunts Reston. Brodie gives Reston a study commissioned by the House Judiciary Committee (see February 6, 1974) and authored primarily by eminent Yale historian C. Vann Woodward, a study examining the history of presidential misdeeds from George Washington through Nixon. The study was never used. Brodie says that Frost should quote the following from Woodward’s introduction to Nixon: “Heretofore, no president has been proved to be the chief coordinator of the crime and misdemeanor charged against his own administration as a deliberate course of conduct or plan. Heretofore, no president has been held to be the chief personal beneficiary of misconduct in his administration or of measures taken to destroy or cover up evidence of it. Heretofore, the malfeasance and misdemeanor have had no confessed ideological purposes, no constitutionally subversive ends. Heretofore, no president has been accused of extensively subverting and secretly using established government agencies to defame or discredit political opponents and critics, to obstruct justice, to conceal misconduct and protect criminals, or to deprive citizens of their rights and liberties. Heretofore, no president had been accused of creating secret investigative units to engage in covert and unlawful activities against private citizens and their rights.” Frost will ultimately not use the quote, but the quote helps Reston and the other researchers steer their course in preparing Frost’s line of questioning.
Frost Better Prepared - As for Frost, he is much more prepared for his interrogation of Nixon than he has been in earlier sessions, prepped for discussing the details of legalities such as obstruction of justice, corrupt endeavor, and foreseeable consequence. Nixon undoubtedly thwarted justice from being served, and Frost intends to confront him with that charge. Reston worries that the interview will become mired in legalities to the point where only lawyers will gain any substantive information from the session. (Reston 2007, pp. 112-114)
The research staff for British interviewer David Frost, preparing for his upcoming interviews with former President Richard Nixon (see Early 1976), finds transcripts of two conversations between Nixon and his then-aide Charles Colson from February 1973 (see February 13, 1973 and February 14, 1973) in a batch of documents surrounding the prosecution of the Watergate burglars (see January 1, 1975). Former Watergate prosecutors Richard Ben-Veniste and George Frampton, informally advising the Frost research team, are both keenly interested in the transcripts. “You’ve got something no one else has,” Frampton says. “These transcripts must have been placed in the official exhibit by a clerical error.” The two explain the significance of the conversations between Nixon and Colson: they place Nixon directly in the plot to cover up the Watergate conspiracy six weeks before Nixon says he first learned of it. Frampton shows researcher James Reston Jr. just how he would have used the conversations against Nixon in court, while Ben-Veniste instructs Reston on how Frost should interrogate Nixon as a hostile witness. Frost should ask something like, “Is it still your position, Mr. Nixon, that between 21 March and 30 April, 1973, you acted to stop the cover-up and prosecute the guilty?” When Nixon answers yes, Frost should follow, “But in fact, as late as 16 April, 1973, you were working out ‘scenarios’ with Ehrlichman and Haldeman to make John Dean the Watergate scapegoat, weren’t you?” Other questions to ask include, “By what right were you offering campaign money for the defense of your associates who were charged in a criminal conspiracy?” and “Isn’t it really true that you never made any effort before 21 March to learn the details of a criminal activity that you knew was going on all around you?” (Reston 2007, pp. 50-51)
Former President Richard Nixon meets with his interviewer, David Frost, for the first of several lengthy interviews (see Early 1976). The interviews take place in a private residence in Monarch Bay, California, close to Nixon’s home in San Clemente. One of Frost’s researchers, author James Reston Jr., is worried that Frost is not prepared enough for the interview. The interview is, in Reston’s words, a rather “free-form exercise in bitterness and schmaltz.”
Blaming Associates, Justifying Actions, Telling Lies - Nixon blames then-chief of staff H. R. Haldeman for not destroying the infamous White House tapes (see July 13-16, 1973), recalls weeping with then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger over his resignation, and blames his defense counsel for letting him down during his impeachment hearings (see February 6, 1974). His famously crude language is no worse than the barracks-room speech of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, he asserts. Frost shows a film of Nixon’s farewell address to the nation (see August 8, 1974), and observes that Nixon must have seen this film many times. Never, Nixon says, and goes on to claim that he has never listened to or watched any of his speeches, and furthermore had never even practiced any of his speeches before delivering them. It is an astonishing claim from a modern politician, one of what Nixon biographer Fawn Brodie calls “Unnecessary Nixon Lies.” (Reston 2007, pp. 81-91) (In a 1974 article for Harper’s, Geoffrey Stokes wrote that, according to analysis of transcripts of Nixon’s infamous Watergate tape recordings by a Cornell University professor, Nixon spent nearly a third of his time practicing both private and public statements, speeches, and even casual conversations.) (Stokes 10/1974)
Nixon Too Slippery for Frost? - During the viewing of the tape, Nixon’s commentary reveals what Reston calls Nixon’s “vanity and insecurity, the preoccupation with appearance within a denial of it.” After the viewing, Nixon artfully dodges Frost’s attempt to pin him down on how history will remember him, listing a raft of foreign and domestic achievements and barely mentioning the crimes committed by his administration. “What history will say about this administration will depend on who writes the history,” he says, and recalls British prime minister Winston Churchill’s assertion that history would “treat him well… [b]ecause I intend to write it.”
Reactions - The reactions of the Frost team to the first interview are mixed. Reston is pleased, feeling that Nixon made some telling personal observations and recollections, but others worried that Frost’s soft questioning had allowed Nixon to dominate the session and either evade or filibuster the tougher questions. Frost must assert control of the interviews, team members assert, must learn to cut Nixon off before he can waste time with a pointless anecdote. Frost must rein in Nixon when he goes off on a tangent. As Reston writes, “The solution was to keep the subject close to the nub of fact, leaving him no room for diversion or maneuver.” (Reston 2007, pp. 81-91)
Interviewer David Frost has a difficult time with his subject, former President Richard Nixon, in the day’s early questioning (see April 6, 1977). Frost attempts to recoup with a line of questioning suggested by his adviser James Reston, Jr., one used in the trial of former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman (see January 1, 1975). Were there no limits to what a president can do, even if the president wants to do something plainly illegal? he asks. Could he do anything despite the law? Burglary? Forgery? Even murder? “If the president does it, that means it’s not illegal,” Nixon retorts. “Never had his imperialism been so baldly stated,” Reston will later reflect. Frost asks if the dividing line between, for example, a police burglary and the murder of an antiwar protester is only the president’s judgment? Nixon agrees, and adds: “There’s nothing specific that the Constitution contemplates in that respect. I haven’t read every word, every jot and every tittle, but I do know this: That it has been, however, argued that as far as a president is concerned, that in war time, a president does have certain extraordinary powers which would make acts that would otherwise be unlawful, lawful if undertaken for the purpose of preserving the nation and the Constitution, which is essential for the rights we’re all talking about.” (Time 5/30/1977; Reston 2007, pp. 102-105; Landmark Cases 8/28/2007)
Former President Richard Nixon, generally acknowledged as having bested his interviewer David Frost in the first rounds of a set of interviews (see April 6, 1977), now defends his support for the infamous Huston Plan, admitted by the plan’s author himself to be illegal in its breathtaking contempt for civil liberties and the rule of Constitutional law. Former Watergate prosecutor Philip Lacovara had told Frost’s aide James Reston Jr. that it was surprising Huston was not taken out and shot. Reston will later write acidly: “Not only was Tom Charles Huston not taken out and shot, the plan was calmly considered and signed by Nixon, and was in force for a week, until J. Edgar Hoover objected on territorial rather than philosophical grounds (see July 26-27, 1970). Only then was approval rescinded (although many felt it remained in effect under the code name COINTELPRO).” Reston will write that during this interview, Nixon paints a picture of an America engulfed in armed insurrection, a portrait so convincing that the Huston Plan actually seems a rational response. Frost fails to press the point that the antiwar protests were largely nonviolent and not a threat to national security. (Reston 2007, pp. 102-105) Frost does ask that if this was indeed so vital to national security, why not ask Congress to make such acts legal? “In theory,” Nixon replies, “this would be perfect, but in practice, it won’t work.” It would merely alert the targeted dissenters and raise a public outcry. (Time 5/30/1977) This part of the interview sessions will be aired on May 19, 1977. (Landmark Cases 8/28/2007)
After 14 hours (of the allotted 24) of the Nixon/Frost interviews (see Early 1976), most of the Frost research team feels that former President Richard Nixon has gotten the best of interviewer David Frost. Nixon has largely been allowed to expound at length on his many self-proclaimed triumphs in foreign policy until the last few sessions, and except for brief moments where Frost tried to corner Nixon over his Vietnam and Cambodia policies, Nixon has escaped with his reputation not only untarnished, but likely even somewhat burnished.
Frost Enabling Nixon's Resurrection? - After the day’s interview (see April 6, 1977), many on Frost’s research team lambast him for not pressing the point that Nixon’s arguments contravene almost everything the US stands for. (One television technician wisecracks after the first round of interviews, “If he keeps talking like that, I may vote for him.”) Team member Robert Zelnick tells Frost, “You sound like two old chums, sitting around a pork barrel, talking about a bowling game, rather than about the incredible divisiveness that Nixon himself deliberately caused.” Frost defends himself by saying that Nixon “admitted what we wanted him to,” but Zelnick retorts: “But how is the audience to know? You have to state the opposite view.” Frost’s producer John Birt adds: “Sniping at him is not good enough anymore. The absurdity of his position must be underlined. If you don’t respond to the absurdity, then it appears as if you not only accept his view, but endorse it.” Frost’s afternoon session with Nixon is more challenging, and later some observers categorize the Huston Plan interview as, in the words of author James Reston Jr., “the most damaging period in all the Nixon interviews” (see April 6, 1977).
Intensive Preparation - But Frost’s team is not satisfied. With a week’s break before the next interview, the team decides to push Frost to prepare more intensively for the upcoming Watergate interview sessions. Reston will later note that the Watergate sessions “had to be solid gold. Otherwise the series was dead—commercially as well as substantively. Did Frost realize the jeopardy we were in now? Worse than that: if Nixon’s guilt and his authoritarian impulses were not clearly demonstrated, Frost would take an equivalent position in the history of television to that of Nixon in the history of politics. The epitaph would read, He paid $1 million for Nixon’s resurrection.” (Time 5/30/1977; Reston 2007, pp. 102-105)
Former President Richard Nixon, generally acknowledged as having bested his interviewer David Frost in the first rounds of interviews (see April 6, 1977), now defends his support for the infamous Huston Plan, admitted by the plan’s author himself to be illegal in its breathtaking contempt for civil liberties and the rule of Constitutional law. Former Watergate prosecutor Philip Lacovara had told Frost’s aide James Reston Jr. that it was surprising Huston was not taken out and shot. Reston will write acidly: “Not only was Tom Charles Huston not taken out and shot, the plan was calmly considered and signed by Nixon, and was in force for a week, until J. Edgar Hoover objected on territorial rather than philosophical grounds (see July 26-27, 1970). Only then was approval rescinded (although many felt it remained in effect under the code name COINTELPRO).” Reston will write that, during this interview, Nixon paints a picture of an America engulfed in armed insurrection, a portrait so convincing that the Huston Plan actually seems a rational response. Frost fails to press the point that the antiwar protests were largely nonviolent and not a threat to national security. (Reston 2007, pp. 102-105) Frost does ask that if this was indeed so vital to national security, why not ask Congress to make such acts legal? “In theory,” Nixon replies, “this would be perfect, but in practice, it won’t work.” It would merely alert the targeted dissenters and raise a public outcry. (Time 5/30/1977) This part of the interview sessions will be aired on May 19, 1977. (Landmark Cases 8/28/2007)
David Frost, the British interviewer conducting a series of interviews with former President Richard Nixon (see Early 1976), spends four hours over three days hammering at Nixon over his involvement in the Watergate conspiracy (see April 13, 1977. April 13, 1977, April 13, 1977, April 15, 1977, and April 15, 1977). His first question is, “With the perspective of three years now, do you feel that you ever obstructed justice or were part of a conspiracy to obstruct justice?”
Wrestling with Proteus - James Reston, Jr., part of Frost’s research team, later notes that the four hours of interviews as edited for later broadcast becomes what “has been called a television epic. It had all the elements of high drama (and occasional high comedy). The tension started high and built towards an almost unbearable, climactic breaking point. It pitted a feisty, beautifully informed inquisitor (see April 7-12, 1976), playing his surprise cards and rehearsed lines masterfully, aware, finally, of his duty as a surrogate prosecutor, aware of the imperative to prove the guilt that all assumed, creatively using the ploys of judicious contempt and reverse patronizing and deadly humor to reduce his intimidating adversary to apology and mawkishness.” Reston finally comes to believe what he has been saying for weeks, that Frost is “the best man in the world for this ultimate task, far better than any American journalist on the scene.” Frost wrestles with Nixon, the “virtuoso of deception” whom he compares to the shape-changing Greek god Proteus, and ultimately pins him down. (Encyclopedia Mythica 4/10/2001; Reston 2007, pp. 116-118)
Opening Arguments - Nixon dodges the opening question and tries to redefine “Watergate” as just about every illegal, immoral, or questionable action he had performed as president. “Watergate means all of the charges that were thrown at me during the period before I left the presidency,” Nixon says. But instead of accepting Nixon’s definition and spending four hours touching on the surface of each allegation—mentioning it, letting Nixon deny or evade the charges, then moving on, as most American journalists might well have done—Frost homes in on the Watergate conspiracy itself. When Frost begins listing the crimes and unethical actions committed by Nixon’s underlings, Nixon turns to obfuscation: “You have lumped together a number of charges, and I can’t vouch for the accuracy of them.” (Reston later writes, “So facts became charges” in Nixon’s characterization of events.) Nixon asks for Frost’s sources for each charge, but Frost refuses to respond to the question. (Reston 2007, pp. 116-118)
In his Watergate interview with former President Richard Nixon (see Early 1976 and April 13-15, 1977), David Frost continues from his earlier questioning about Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate conspiracy (see April 13, 1977) to the events of March 21, 1973 (see March 21, 1973). Now that Nixon’s status as a co-conspirator from the outset has been established, Frost wants to know why Nixon claims not to have known about the illegal aspects of the cover-up, or about the blackmail demands of Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt, until this date. Nixon is cautious, claiming only that he learned of Hunt’s blackmail demands on March 21, and refusing to acknowledge that he knew anything about the $400,000 in payouts during the eight months preceding (see June 20-21, 1972).
Springing the Trap - Frost circles back, hoping for a flat confirmation: “So March 21 was the first day you learned about an illegal cover-up?” Nixon carefully says that March 21 was the day he learned of the “full import” of the cover-up, only having heard “smatterings” beforehand and being reassured by then-White House counsel John Dean that no White House personnel were involved. Frost springs his trap: “In that case, why did you say in such strong terms to [White House aide Charles] Colson on February 14, more than a month before, ‘The cover-up is the main ingredient, that’s where we gotta cut our losses. My losses are to be cut. The president’s losses got to be cut on the cover-up deal’” (see February 14, 1973). Nixon’s face betrays his shock. “Why did I say that?” he asks rhetorically, trying to gather himself. He fishes around for excuses, quickly settling on media reports at the time that tossed around charges of conspiracies, “hush money” payouts, and promises of executive clemency. That’s all he was referring to in the February 14 conversation, he says: the cover-up itself had to be avoided at all costs. Frost researcher James Reston, Jr. later writes, “It was an exquisite lie, a superb time warp.”
Error Goes Unnoticed - Only later do Reston and other research team members realize that no such stories had appeared in the media by February 14; in fact, allegations of a cover-up never made it into print until after burglar James McCord wrote his letter to Judge John Sirica on March 19 warning the judge of involvement of “higher-ups” in a conspiracy of silence (see March 19-23, 1973). No one had written publicly of any executive clemency deals until the subject was broached during the Senate Watergate investigative hearings (see February 7, 1973). But few of the millions who will see the interview will have the grasp of the chronology of events necessary to realize the extent of Nixon’s dishonesty.
Second Colson Bombshell - Frost reminds Nixon of his conversation with Colson of February 13 (see February 13, 1973), the day before, when they had discussed which Nixon official will have to take the fall for Watergate. Former campaign director John Mitchell couldn’t do it, the conversation went, but Nixon wants to know about Mitchell’s former deputy, Jeb Magruder. “He’s perjured himself, hasn’t he?” Nixon asked Colson. Frost asks Nixon, “So you knew about Magruder’s perjury as early as February the thirteenth?” Nixon bobs and weaves, talking about events from the year before, how Mitchell and Colson hated each other, how Colson and Ehrlichman hated each other. Frost brings Nixon back on point by reading another quote from the February 13 conversation, where Nixon says that “the problem” will come up if “one of the seven [indicted Watergate burglars] begins to talk…” Frost asks, “Now, in that remark, it seems to be that someone running the cover-up couldn’t have expressed it more clearly than that, could he?” Frost wants to know precisely what the phrase “one of the seven begins to talk” means. Nixon argues, but Frost refuses to be distracted. How can it mean anything else except “some sort of conspiracy to stop Hunt from talking about something damaging?” Frost asks. Nixon retorts, “You could state your conclusion, and I’ve stated my views.”
Nixon's Own Words Prove Knowledge, Complicity - Frost proceeds to pepper Nixon with his own quotes proving his knowledge and complicity, nine of them, a barrage that leaves Nixon nearly breathless. Nixon finally accuses Frost of taking his words out of context. Frost’s final quote is from an April 21 meeting where Nixon told aides John Dean and H. R. Haldeman, “Christ, just turn over any cash we got.” (Reston 2007, pp. 126-134) After the taping, Nixon asks his aides about the Colson transcripts: “What was that tape? I’m sure I never heard that tape before. Find out about that tape.” (Time 5/9/1977)
In his first interview session with former President Richard Nixon about Watergate (see April 13-15, 1977), David Frost moves from the erased Watergate tape (see November 21, 1973) to Nixon’s damning conversation with Charles Colson about “stonewalling” the Watergate investigation. This time around, Frost is far more prepared and ready to deal with Nixon’s tactics of obfuscation and misdirection than in earlier interviews (see April 6, 1977).
Surprise Information - Nixon is unaware that Frost knows about his conversation that same day with Colson (see June 20, 1972). Along with what is known about his conversation with Haldeman, the Colson conversation puts Nixon squarely in the midst of the conspiracy at its outset. More important than Frost’s command of the facts is Frost’s springing of a “surprise card” (Frost researcher James Reston Jr.‘s words) on Nixon at the beginning of the Watergate sessions. Nixon obviously must contend with the questions of what else Frost knows, and how he would ask about it. As Frost details excerpts from the Colson conversation, about “stonewalling” and “hav[ing] our people delay, avoiding depositions,” Reston watches Nixon on the monitor. Reston will later recall: “His jawline seemed to elongate. The corners of his mouth turned down. His eyes seemed more liquid. One could almost see the complicated dials in his head turning feverishly. It was a marvelously expressive face. The range of movement both within the contours of the visage and with the hands was enormous.” Frost concludes with the question, “Now, somewhere you were pretty well informed by this conversation, weren’t you?” After some fumbling and half-hearted admissions of some knowledge, Nixon begins justifying his actions in the conspiracy: “My motive was not to cover up a criminal action, but to be sure that as any slip over—or should I say slop over, a better word—any slop over in a way that would damage innocent people or blow it into political proportions.” (Reston 2007, pp. 124-126)
Pinning Nixon down on CIA Interference - Frost asks about the conversations of June 23 (see June 23, 1972), when Nixon told his aides to have the CIA interfere with the FBI’s investigation of the burglary. Nixon tries dodging the point, emphasizing how busy he was with other matters that day and quibbling about the definition of the phrase “cover-up,” but finally says that he had no criminal motive in ordering the CIA to stop the FBI from investigating the matter of the Mexican checks found in Watergate burglar Bernard Barker’s bank accounts. He was merely engaged in political containment, he says, and besides, two weeks later, the FBI traced the checks to a Mexican bank anyway (see Before April 7, 1972 and August 1-2, 1972). Nixon emphasizes his instructions to then-FBI director L. Patrick Gray to move forward on the investigation (see July 6, 1972). (Later, Nixon staff member Jack Brennan will admit that they had almost convinced Nixon to admit to the illegality of the June 23 orders, but Nixon had demurred.)
'You Joined a Conspiracy that You Never Left' - It now falls to Frost to confront Nixon with the strictures of the law and the evidence that he had broken those laws. Frost says, “But surely, in all you’ve just said, you have proved exactly that that was the case, that there was a cover-up of criminal activity because you’ve already said, and the record shows you knew, that Hunt and Liddy [E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, the leaders of Nixon’s “Plumbers”] were involved… you knew that, in fact, criminals would be protected.” Nixon protests, “Now just a moment,” but Frost says, “Period.” Frost lectures Nixon on obstruction of justice, saying: “The law states that when intent and foreseeable consequences are sufficient, motive is completely irrelevant.… If I try to rob a bank and fail, that’s no defense. I still tried to rob a bank. I would say you tried to obstruct justice and succeeded in that period” between June 23 and July 6. Nixon retorts that he does not believe Frost knows much about the details of the obstruction of justice statutes, but fails to move Frost, who has been carefully instructed in the obstruction statutes all week. Frost eventually says: “Now, after the Gray conversation, the cover-up went on. You would say that you were not aware of it. I was arguing that you were part of it as a result of the June 23 conversation.” Nixon repeats, “You’re gonna say that I was a part of it as a result of the June 23 conversation?” Reston later writes, “It was a crucial moment, a moment that took considerable courage for David Frost.” Frost replies: “Yes.… I would have said that you joined a conspiracy that you never left.” “Then we totally disagree on that,” Nixon retorts. Reston later writes: “No journalist in America, I concluded, would have had the courage of Frost in that vital moment. But therein lay the failing of American journalism. For Frost here was an advocate. He was far beyond the narrow American definition of ‘objective journalism.’” (Time 5/9/1977; Reston 2007, pp. 124-126)
In his first interview session with former President Richard Nixon about Watergate (see April 13-15, 1977), David Frost asks about what then-chief of staff H. R. Haldeman knew on June 20, 1972 (see June 20, 1972), when he and Nixon discussed Watergate in the conversation that would later be erased from Nixon’s secret recordings (see November 21, 1973).
Avoiding Questions - Nixon tries to accuse Frost of putting words in his mouth; Frost refuses to be baited. Nixon then uses diversion, addressing not the June 20 conversation, but instead spinning out a discourse focusing on his lack of advance knowledge of the break-in and accusing the media of pinning unwarranted blame on him. Frost lets him speak, then focuses again on the conversation: “So we come back to, what did Haldeman tell you during the eighteen-and-a-half minute gap?” Nixon dodges the known material in that conversation—the suggested “public relations offensive” to evade criticism and investigation of the burglary, and instead says that he and Haldeman were worried that the Democrats had bugged the Executive Office Building.
Questions about Stennis's Hearing - He tries to segue into a digression about charges of Democratic eavesdropping from the 1950s, but Frost pulls him back, and asks why he offered to allow only one senator, Mississippi Democrat John Stennis (see October 19, 1973), to hear the tapes. Stennis was “alas, partially deaf and very old.” Frost notes that the sound quality of the tapes was often poor, and adds, “If you and [Nixon’s personal secretary] Rose Mary Woods could not hear them clearly, Senator Stennis was not an ideal choice.” Nixon tries to turn Frost’s question into a challenge to Stennis’s intellect and even his integrity, but Frost repeats: “His hearing is crucial. You’ve just said so.” Nixon retorts that he has never noticed a problem with Stennis’s hearing, and even if Stennis had hearing problems, “[a]fter all, there’s an invention called hearing aids…” Frost is clearly enjoying Nixon’s marked discomfiture, but is unaware that he is making a gaffe of his own: Stennis has, by all accounts, perfectly good hearing. However, Nixon knows nothing of Frost’s error, and writhes under Frost’s relentless questioning about Stennis’s alleged inability to adequately hear everything on the tapes. (Frost’s gaffe will not be noticed at the time and will first be revealed in James Reston Jr.‘s 2007 book on the interviews, The Conviction of Richard Nixon.)
Who Erased the Tape? - Frost focuses on the question of who exactly erased the June 20 tape. It has been determined that only three people could have possibly erased the tape: Stephen Bull, Nixon’s assistant; Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s secretary; and Nixon himself. No one was ever indicted for the crime of destruction of evidence because Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski was unable to determine who of the three might have actually performed the erasure. Nixon tells Frost that it could have been rogue Secret Service agents who erased the tape, but that charge falls flat under its own weight of implausibility. Bull had offered to take a lie detector test in denying that he erased the tape. And if Woods had erased the tape, it would have undoubtedly been by accident. The tape was subjected to at least five separate manual erasures, making an accidental erasure unlikely at best. That leaves Nixon as the most likely suspect. Nixon refuses to admit to erasing anything, and Frost says, “So you’re asking us to take an awful lot on trust, aren’t you?”
Avoiding Perjury Charges - After further dodging and weaving, Nixon finally falls back on a legal reason why he won’t answer the question: he had already testified under oath to a grand jury that he had not erased the tape; that Woods most likely erased the tape by accident. Being pardoned for his crimes during his presidency by Gerald Ford (see September 8, 1974) wouldn’t cover his lying under oath after his resignation, he says, and he isn’t going to give a jury a chance to charge him with perjury. (Reston 2007, pp. 118-122)
Interview Airs in May - This interview will air on US television stations on May 4, 1977. (Television News Archive 5/4/1977)
Former President Richard Nixon is nearly 20 minutes late for his second Watergate interview with David Frost (see April 13-15, 1977 and April 13, 1977). Neither Frost nor his team of researchers realize how rattled Nixon is from the last session. Frost begins the interview by asking about the so-called “Dean report” (see March 20, 1973), the results of John Dean’s “internal investigation” of the Watergate conspiracy. Dean’s report would have served two purposes: it would hopefully have removed suspicion from any White House officials as to their involvement in the conspiracy, and, if it was ever pulled apart and shown to be a compendium of lies and evasion, would have pointed to Dean as the central figure in the conspiracy. Dean never wrote the report, but instead became a witness for the prosecution (see April 6-20, 1973. June 3, 1973, and June 25-29, 1973). Since Dean never wrote the report, Frost asks Nixon why he told the deputy attorney general, Henry Peterson, that there was indeed such a report (Nixon had called it “accurate but not full”). Astonishingly, Nixon asserts that Dean did write the report, and that it indeed showed no “vulnerability or criminality on the part of the president… so let’s not get away from that fact.” Frost sees Nixon’s vulnerability. Frost asks when he read the report. Caught, Nixon backs off of his assertion, saying that he “just heard that ah… that he had written a report… ah… the… that… ah… he… ah… ah, considered it to be inadequate.” Frost researcher James Reston, Jr. later writes, “[Nixon] was firmly skewered. His face showed it. His gibberish confirmed it.”
Ehrlichman's Report - Frost moves on to another report on Watergate by former aide John Ehrlichman, the so-called “modified, limited hangout,” and the offer of $200,000 in cash to Ehrlichman and fellow aide H. R. Haldeman for their legal fees. Nixon had told the nation that Ehrlichman would produce an informative and factual report on Watergate, even though he knew by then that Ehrlichman was himself heavily involved in the conspiracy (see August 15, 1973). “That’s like asking Al Capone for an independent investigation of organized crime in Chicago,” Frost observes. “How could one of the prime suspects, even if he was the Pope, conduct an independent inquiry?” Instead of answering the question, Nixon ducks into obfuscation about what exactly constitutes a “prime suspect.”
Nixon Begins to Crack - Reston later writes that, looking back on the interview, it is at this point that Nixon begins to “crack” in earnest. Frost has cast serious doubts on Nixon’s veracity and used Nixon’s own words and actions to demonstrate his culpability. Now Frost asks a broader question: “I still don’t know why you didn’t pick up the phone and tell the cops. When you found out the things that Haldeman and Ehrlichman had done, there is no evidence anywhere of a rebuke, but only of scenarios and excuses.” Nixon responds with what Reston calls a long, “disjointed peroration… about Richard the Isolated and Richard the Victimized… Nixon was desperate to move from fact to sentiment.” But Nixon is not merely rambling. Woven throughout are mentions of the guilt of the various White House officials (but always others, never Nixon’s own guilt), apology, mistakes and misjudgments. Clearly he is hoping that he can paint himself as a sympathetic figure, victimized by fate, bad fortune, and the ill will of his enemies. (Haldeman is so outraged by this stretch that he will soon announce his intention to tell everything in a book—see February 1978; Ehrlichman will call it a “smarmy, maudlin rationalization that will be tested and found false.”) Nixon says he merely “screwed up terribly in what was a little thing [that] became a big thing.”
Crossroads - Frost tries to ease an admission of complicity from Nixon—perhaps if hammering him with facts won’t work, appealing to Nixon’s sentimentality will. “Why not go a little farther?” Frost asks. “That word mistake is a trigger word with people. Would you say to clear the air that, for whatever motives, however waylaid by emotion or whatever you were waylaid by, you were part of a cover-up?” Nixon refuses. Behind the cameras, Nixon staffer Jack Brennan holds up a legal pad with the message “LET’S TALK” (or perhaps “LET HIM TALK”—Reston’s memory is unclear on this point). Either way, Frost decides to take a short break. Brennan hustles Reston into a room, closes the door, and says, “You’ve brought him to the toughest moment of his life. He wants to be forthcoming, but you’ve got to give him a chance.” He wouldn’t confess to being part of a criminal conspiracy, and he wouldn’t admit to committing an impeachable offense. Nixon’s staff has been arguing for days that Nixon should admit to something, but Brennan and Reston cannot agree as to what. Reston later writes that Nixon is at a personal crossroads: “Could he admit his demonstrated guilt, express contrition, and apologize? Two years of national agony were reduced to the human moment. Could he conquer his pride and his conceit? Now we were into Greek theater.” When the interview resumes, Nixon briefly reminisces about his brother Arthur, who died from meningitis at age seven. Was Frost using the story of his brother to open Nixon up? “We’re at an extraordinary moment,” Frost says, and dramatically tosses his clipboard onto the coffee table separating the two men. “Would you do what the American people yearn to hear—not because they yearn to hear it, but just to tell all—to level? You’ve explained how you got caught up in this thing. You’ve explained your motives. I don’t want to quibble about any of that. Coming down to sheer substance, would you go further?” Nixon responds, “Well, what would you express?” Reston will later write, “Every American journalist I have ever known would shrivel at this plea for help, hiding with terror behind the pose of the uninvolved, ‘objective’ interviewer. The question was worthy of Socrates: Frost must lead Nixon to truth and enlightenment.” Frost gropes about a bit, then lists the categories of wrongdoing. First, there were more than mere mistakes. “There was wrongdoing, whether it was a crime or not. Yes, it may have been a crime, too. Two, the power of the presidency was abused. The oath of office was not fulfilled. And three, the American people were put through two years of agony, and… I think the American people need to hear it. I think that unless you say it, you’re going to be haunted for the rest of your life…”
Apology and Admission - Nixon’s response is typically long, prefaced with a rambling discussion of his instructions to speechwriter Ray Price to include his own name with those of Haldeman’s and Ehrlichman’s in the speech announcing their resignations “if you think I ought to” (see April 29, 1973), a litany of all the good things he did while president, and a short, bitter diatribe against those who had sought to bring him down. He never committed a crime, he insists, because he lacked the motive for the commission of a crime.
Terrible Mistakes - But all this is prelude. Nixon shifts to the core of the issue: he had made terrible mistakes not worthy of the presidency. He had violated his own standards of excellence. He deliberately misled the American people about Watergate, he admits, and now he regrets his actions. His statements were not true because they did not go as far as they should have, and “for all of those things I have a deep regret… I don’t go with the idea that what brought me down was a coup, a conspiracy. I gave ‘em the sword. They stuck it in and twisted it with relish. I guess if I’d been in their position, I’d’a done the same thing.” Nixon will not, or perhaps cannot, plainly admit that he broke the law in working to conceal the facts surrounding Watergate, but he does admit that after March 21, 1973, he failed to carry out his duties as president and went to “the edge of the law.… That I came to the edge, I would have to say that a reasonable person could call that a cover-up.” Reston notes that Nixon has just admitted to a standard of guilt high enough for a civil court if not a criminal court. But Nixon isn’t done. (Reston 2007, pp. 137-155)
Calls Resigning a 'Voluntary Impeachment' - “I did not commit, in my view, an impeachable offense,” he says. “Now, the House has ruled overwhelmingly that I did. Of course, that was only an indictment, and it would have to be tried in the Senate. I might have won, I might have lost. But even if I had won in the Senate by a vote or two, I would have been crippled. And in any event, for six months the country couldn’t afford having the president in the dock in the United States Senate. And there can never be an impeachment in the future in this country without a president voluntarily impeaching himself. I have impeached myself. That speaks for itself.” Resigning the presidency (see August 8, 1974), he says, was a “voluntary impeachment.” (Guardian 9/7/2007)
Reactions - Frost and his researchers are stunned at Nixon’s statements, as will the millions be who watch the interview when it is broadcast. (Reston 2007, pp. 137-155) In 2002, Frost will recall, “I sensed at that moment he was most the vulnerable he’d ever be, ever again. It seemed like an almost constitutional moment with his vulnerability at that point.… I hadn’t expected him to go as far as that, frankly. I thought he would have stonewalled more at the last stage. I think that was probably one of the reasons why it was something of a catharsis for the American people at that time that he had finally faced up to these issues, not in a court of law, which a lot of people would have loved to have seen him in a court of law, but that wasn’t going to happen. So—he’d been pardoned. But faced up in a forum where he was clearly not in control and I think that’s why it had the impact it did, probably.” (National Public Radio 6/17/2002) Not everyone is impressed with Nixon’s mea culpa; the Washington Post, for one, writes, “He went no further than he did in his resignation speech two and a half years ago,” in a story co-written by Watergate investigative reporter Bob Woodward. (Segal 4/30/2007) This interview will air on US television on May 26, 1977. (Steele 5/27/1977)
Following his revelatory apology and roundabout admission of guilt in his interview with David Frost (see April 15, 1977), Richard Nixon says that everything has come together to one single, inescapable conclusion. “I let the American people down, and I have to carry that burden with me the rest of my life. My political life is over. I will never yet and never again have an opportunity to serve in any official capacity.” James Reston, Jr, a member of Frost’s research team, later writes that this admission is “the final success of David Frost’s interviews. The danger that this encounter would lead to Nixon’s rehabilitation (see April 6, 1977) had been smothered. His political and personal corruption had been demonstrated. His personality had been exposed. With recognition, with acknowledgment, with acceptance of his guilt, he was a different man now.” As recently as three weeks earlier, he had spoken confidently of his intention to return to public life. That would never happen now.
Anti-Climax - In a scripted television drama, Nixon’s cathartic admission of guilt would have been the final scene. In reality, Nixon and Frost have another twenty minutes of interview time. True to form, as Reston will write, “Not a minute after he accepted responsibility for his own actions, his natural venality asserted itself.” Nixon revisits his claims of persecution by implacably hateful political enemies, and of his own victimization. He even drags Martha Mitchell (see June 22-25, 1972), the recently deceased wife of former campaign chairman John Mitchell, in to share in the blame—according to Nixon, because Mrs. Mitchell was “emotionally disturbed,” she distracted her husband at key times during the Nixon re-election campaign and therefore she is a root cause of the Watergate conspiracy. Reston will call this accusation “tasteless and lowbrow… ghoulish [and] revolting.” (After this story appears in the press, Mrs. Mitchell’s home town of Little Rock, Arkansas, decides to erect a monument of her as a heroine of Watergate.) The interview ends on a final macabre moment, with Frost delicately asking if Nixon had ever considered suicide. “I’m not the suicidal type,” he replies. “I really ought to be. If [I were], I’d have to be like a cat, I’d’a committed suicide a dozen times.” (Reston 2007, pp. 158-160)
Rehabilitation? - Nixon biographer Conrad Black writes in 2007 that Nixon’s strategy was to rehabilitate himself by admitting his mistakes while refusing to admit to any criminal behavior: “He also knew, but Frost did not, that the first stage in his planned moral renaissance was to resist precisely the desire Frost expressed: that he confess wrongdoing so he could be forgiven. Nixon did not want to be forgiven; he wanted the country to agonize over whether it had unfairly treated him. Apologizing and being forgiven was the easy way out for America, but Nixon wasn’t interested in providing an effortless exit from the moral dilemma he posed to his countrymen.” (Black 9/7/2007) After the interviews, Frost will say that he does not believe Nixon wanted to use the interviews as a way to re-enter public life. (Steele 5/27/1977)
James Reston Jr., a member of David Frost’s research team for the famous Nixon-Frost interviews (see Early 1976), publishes his book, The Conviction of Richard Nixon, about those debates and their echoes in the actions of the Bush administration. Reston writes that “it might be argued that the post-September 11 domestic abuses find their origin in Watergate. In 1977 the commentators were shocked when Nixon said about his burglaries and wiretaps, ‘If the president does it, that means it’s not illegal’ (see April 6, 1977).… These brazen words… come eerily down to us through the tunnel of the last thirty years.”
Presidential Immunity - Reston writes: “In the area of criminal activity, Nixon argues, the president is immune. He can eavesdrop; he can cover up; he can approve burglaries; he can bend government agencies like the CIA and the FBI to his own political purposes. He can do so in the name of ‘national security’ and ‘executive privilege.’ And when these acts are exposed, he can call them ‘mistakes’ or ‘stupid things’ or ‘pipsqueak’ matters. In the 21st century, Nixon’s principle has been extended to authorizing torture, setting up secret prisons around the world, and ignoring the requirement for search warrants. A president can scrap the Geneva Convention and misuse the Defense Department and lie about the intelligence analyses. He is above the law. This is especially so when the nation is mired in an unpopular war, when the country is divided, when mass protests are in the streets of America, and an American president is pilloried around the world. If Nixon’s words resonate today, so also does the word Watergate.”
Echoes of Nixon and Watergate - Reston continues: “Again the nation is in a failing, elective war. A Nixon successor is again charged with abuse of power in covering up and distorting crucial facts as he dragged the country, under false pretenses, into war. Again secrecy reigns in the White House, and the argument is made that national security trumps all.… In 2007 the issue has returned with a vengeance. And one can become almost wistful in realizing that the period after Watergate brought an era of reform. A campaign finance law was passed; Congress reasserted its control over intelligence activities; and moral codes were enunciated for public officials. National security, the New York Times editorialized after the interviews, was no longer ‘the magic incantation’ that automatically paralyzed inquiry. After September 11, the incantation became magic again. And so, people have asked, after the Bush presidency, who will be his David Frost? It is hard to imagine that there will be one.” (Reston 2007, pp. 9-10, 180)
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