For my blog post today about Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990, I’ll quote something that Stephen Ambrose says on page 509. The context is David Frost’s 1977 interview of Richard Nixon. Frost is reading to Nixon statements that Nixon made as President in a conversation with John Dean, implying that Nixon was ordering hush money to be paid to Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt (see here for the YouTube video of Frost doing this). On page 509, Ambrose narrates:
“‘Let me stop you right there,’ Nixon cut in. ‘Right there….You were reading there out of context, out of order.’ He insisted that because he had refused to grant clemency, he was not submitting to blackmail. And he claimed that no money had been paid to Hunt ‘as a result of a direction given by the President for that purpose.’ The last clause stuck in his mind; he used it again thirteen years later, in his book In the Arena, when he wrote that his accusers never quoted his ‘that would be wrong’ statement about clemency, and ‘ignored the even more crucial fact that no payments were made as a result of that conversation.’ He did not deny that money was paid (within six hours, in fact) after his talk with Dean; he simply denied that it was paid as a result of that talk. In other words, Nixon told Dean to see to it that the money was paid, quick; Dean saw to it that the money was paid, quick; but the money was not paid ‘as a result of that conversation.'”
The passage from Nixon’s In the Arena that Ambrose is quoting is on page 34. There, Nixon states regarding Hunt:
“The most politically damaging myth was that I personally ordered the payment of money to Howard Hunt and the other original Watergate defendants to keep them silent. I did discuss this possibility during a meeting with John Dean and Bob Haldeman on March 21, 1973. In the tape recording of this meeting, it is clear that I considered paying the money. I should not have even considered this option, but the key facts were that I rejected offering clemency to the defendants as ‘wrong’ and at the end of the conversation ruled out any White House payment of money to the defendants. Moreover, those who made this accusation ignored the even more crucial fact that no payments were made as a result of that conversation.”
I’ve said before on this blog that I found Nixon’s side of the story on Watergate in his memoirs to be rather muddled. In my opinion, however, his side of the story in that one passage of In the Arena is crisp and succinct. Nixon is essentially arguing that, while he did consider paying hush money to E. Howard Hunt, he ultimately ruled it out, and the money that was paid to Hunt was not due to what Nixon said in the March 21, 1973 conversation.
Is Nixon correct on this? You can read the March 21, 1973 conversation here. I didn’t read the conversation from beginning to end, but I’ll leave it here for your and my reference. I read near the end, and I’m not clear whether or not Nixon ruled out payment of money to Hunt. (UPDATE: see here and here for Nixon’s response to Frost’s questions about the money.)
I have a hard time understanding the relevance of clemency to the discussion, but Nixon obviously did deem it to be quite significant in determining whether Nixon was blackmailed. Nixon said that Hunt was not blackmailing him because Nixon wasn’t granting Hunt clemency. I should also note that H.R. Haldeman (if I recall correctly) said that paying money to the defendants would not be obstructing justice, since they were pleading guilty anyway. But my understanding is that the whole idea behind paying the defendants money was to keep them quiet—-so that they wouldn’t bring down others in the Administration or hurl accusations at them. Is that obstructing justice, according to the law?