In my write-up today on volume 2 of Richard Nixon’s memoirs, I’ll talk about Watergate, and also the resignation of Spiro T. Agnew, who was Nixon’s first Vice-President.
1. For my first item, I’ll use as my starting-point the resignation of Nixon’s Attorney General, Elliott Richardson, who refused to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, in violation of President Nixon’s wishes. When the Assistant Attorney General refused to fire Cox and resigned, Solicitor General Robert Bork was next in line. Bork fired Cox. According to Nixon, Bork himself was against firing Cox, but Bork realized that he had a constitutional duty to follow President Nixon’s orders.
Nixon had a variety of problems with Cox. For one, Cox was a staunch Democrat and was anti-Nixon. Second, Cox’s investigation was not limited but could probe any activity in the 1972 Presidential election. And, third, Cox wanted for Nixon to turn over the Executive Branch’s tapes of Nixon’s meetings, and Cox did not accept a compromise in which the esteemed (in Washington, D.C.) John Stennis would listen to the tapes and summarize them for release, taking care not to divulge national security secrets. Nixon narrates that he (Nixon) was frustrated that Richardson would not fire Cox (and Nixon refers to Agnew’s claim that Richardson had presidential ambitions), contending that this had international implications: in a time when the Middle East was in turmoil, would the Soviets respect Nixon if he could not even get his own Attorney General to comply with his wishes?
Why was Nixon against releasing the tapes? Nixon narrates that he was actually contemplating destroying the tapes, except for the ones that pertained to national security. But Nixon decided against that because (according to him) the tapes refuted former White House counsel John Dean’s testimony, which Nixon says portrayed Nixon as one who was involved in a deliberate cover-up soon after the Watergate break-in, while attempting to distance Dean somewhat from the cover-up. Nixon equivocates about whether or not he (meaning Nixon) was technically involved—-Nixon seems to acknowledge that he was involved, on some level—-but Nixon believes that the tapes demonstrate that he was not as sinister as Dean was alleging. For example, on page 439, Nixon says that Dean testified that everyone from the beginning knew that Jeb Magruder was involved in the Watergate break-in and perjured himself, whereas (according to Nixon) the March 22 and March 26 tapes indicate that Dean himself was not sure of these things.
Okay, but that only makes me want to ask my question again: Why was Nixon against releasing the tapes? If they showed that Dean was lying, why didn’t Nixon want to release them? On page 453, Nixon quotes what President Andrew Jackson said when Congress requested “a White House staff document that had been read at a Cabinet meeting” (Nixon’s words): “As well might I be required to detail to the Senate the free and private conversations I have held with those officers on any subject related to their duties and my own.” Nixon’s desire to keep his private conversations private seems to be one reason that he did not want to release the tapes. But, second, Nixon in bringing up Andrew Jackson is saying that executive privilege is a tradition in the United States. Nixon earlier in this volume of his memoirs stresses the importance of the separation of powers. Nixon argues that Senator Sam Ervin, who was leading an investigation into Watergate, was actually a hypocrite on this. When Senator Mike Gravel (remember him from 2008?) read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record, Ervin argued in a friend-of-the-court brief to the Supreme Court that another branch of government could not compel someone from the legislative branch—-in this case, Gravel’s aide—-to divulge information. When Ervin asked Abe Fortas about a conversation that Fortas had with President Lyndon Johnson, Ervin then backed off, saying “I will not insist upon your answer because it is a prerogative of communications in the executive branch of the government” (Nixon’s quotation of Ervin on page 446). Yet, here Ervin was, demanding information from the executive branch. And Nixon narrates that he (meaning Nixon) was largely willing to comply, for he “waived all executive privilege and permitted members of the White House staff to submit to the Ervin panel’s questions” (page 445). Nixon did not want to release the tapes, however.
2. Nixon’s Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, was alleged to have accepted kickbacks in exchange for granting contracts to certain contractors. On page 478, Nixon relates Agnew’s side of the story:
“[Agnew] was particularly embittered by what he considered the hypocrisy of the members of Congress who had formerly served as governors. He repeated his belief that most of the governors in other states had followed practices such as those common in Maryland. He emphasized that he had always awarded contracts on the basis of merit, and he felt that the amounts he had received had been so small that no reasonable critic could claim that they could have influenced him to make a decision that contravened the public interest.”
As far as Nixon’s view of Agnew in this situation was concerned, Nixon narrates that the evidence against Agnew looked pretty bad for Agnew! Yet, Nixon presents himself as compassionate towards Agnew. It’s interesting, however, to read wikipedia’s article on Agnew, which states: “In 1980, Agnew published a memoir in which he implied that Nixon and his Chief of Staff, Alexander Haig, had planned to assassinate him if he refused to resign the Vice Presidency, and that Haig told him to ‘go quietly…or else’, the memoir’s title” (see here).
According to Nixon, finding Agnew’s replacement was a delicate political situation. The Democrats in Congress did not want someone with Presidential aspirations, Nixon narrates, since that person would have the advantage of incumbency in the 1976 Presidential election. That would exclude Ronald Reagan, Nelson Rockefeller, and John Connally. Nixon selected Gerald Ford. And, even then, Nixon says, Congress was holding up Ford’s confirmation when Nixon was not doing what it wanted.