For my blog post today on Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990, I’ll talk about a statement that President Richard Nixon made in a March 21, 1973 meeting, which was recorded on tape. Nixon was discussing the option of clemency for the Watergate defendants, and he concluded by saying, “No, it’s wrong, that’s for sure.”
Nixon would appeal to that line to argue that he did not support clemency for the Watergate defendants. But there are different interpretations about what Nixon meant by “wrong”. Nixon insisted that he meant that offering clemency would be morally wrong. But Ambrose’s impression after listening to the tape over two dozen times is that it’s ambiguous what exactly Nixon meant. Did Nixon mean that it would be politically wrong to grant clemency to the defendants? That it would be wrong to grant the clemency prior to the 1974 elections—-since Nixon right before his statement that granting clemency would be “wrong” said that he could not deliver on clemency until the 1974 elections were over, and maybe not even at that time? Was Nixon saying that granting clemency was wrong because he recalled that he was being taped, and he wanted a record that he had said clemency for the defendants was wrong to save his own skin?
Nixon acknowledged that one could interpret the conversation in different ways, but he said that “I know what I meant, and I know also what I did” (page 307 of Ambrose).
I think of the concept of “deconstructionism”, which says that language is ambiguous. Indeed, it can be, for words can have different meanings, but also the manner in which they are used can be subject to interpretation. Moreover, it can be a challenge at the outset to come up with the right words to describe reality accurately. There are lawyers who take advantage of that. Remember when Bill Clinton talked about the meaning of the word “is”?
I wouldn’t say that language is always ambiguous, though. Some things on the Nixon tapes were subject to interpretation. But my understanding is that there were parts that were particularly incriminating. That tells me that there are times when there are right and wrong interpretations.
Incidentally, Ambrose goes on to say what Nixon did, as opposed to what Nixon said: “he ordered [John] Dean to get the money to [Watergate conspirator E. Howard] Hunt; he did not grant clemency.”