Marx had Bismark in mind when described the “shallowness characteristic of all successful statesmen,” but he may as well have been looking ahead to Richard Nixon. Today the Nixon Library has released a new batch of White House tapes and for my money the thrill is not in listening to the obvious moments of Nixon in Crisis, but those quiet, downtime chats with his toadies. For, legally speaking, even the mildest tapes were hostile witnesses that sealed Nixon's doom.
These newest recordings can be heard by driving down Imperial Highway to the Nixon LIbrary in Yorba Linda, or downloaded at home for your listening pleasure. They represent 198 hours of tapes made in secret in the White House, in the Old Executive Office Building and at Camp David, and cover November and December, 1972.
Tape 33-2, for example, finds White House chief counsel Chuck Colson sycophantically telling Nixon, on the eve of his landslide victory over George McGovern, how much the country loves him. The insecure president, however, is all too aware of the truth and sounds incapable of savoring his imminent triumph. Instead, he's obsessed with McGov's quip to a heckler to “Kiss my ass,” whereupon Colson dutifully trumpets the amount of negative press the crack has provoked. (“His kids all talk that way,” Nixon confides about the Democratic candidate.)
There are also glimpses of a country tentatively hopeful of emerging from recession (“The market could break 1000,” Colson marvels) and of the first implementations of the divisive strategy that would eventually turn Republicans into the New York Yankees of presidential campaign winners, but at the cost of turning American against American — a fact made crystal clear when the two men gloat over a series of “ball-busting” anti-busing ads run on Michigan TV.
Again, what's almost as melancholy is Nixon's disbelief that Americans are about to hand him a huge popular and electoral victory. When Colson reports that the latest Lou Harris poll has Nixon up by a whopping 28 percent margin, all the president can do is ask, almost to himself, “You don't really believe that, do you?”
Perhaps the reason for his suspicion is revealed in his next question, about Harris' poll: “What does he say about Watergate?” Ah, but that's for another tape.
Tape image from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum