resign In a decade often accused of being anticlimactic, Watergate was the Seventies’ uncontested contribution to milestone history. There is nothing small, ephemeral, or, heaven knows, anticlimactic about the scandal that brought down President Nixon—and, with him, a whole post-war era of politics. This was high tragedy.
On this, the fortieth anniversary of the historic resignation, there is much chatter about those days. Some commentators attempt to place Nixon’s entire administration into a broad (you might say massive) historical context; others seek to titillate by exposing Nixon’s seemingly endless moments of pettiness and paranoia. With Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate, Ken Hughes, whom Bob Woodward calls “one of America’s foremost experts on secret presidential recordings,” turns to the White House tapes to offer a clear narrative about the pattern of covert activity that not only brought Nixon down but which reveals something essential about his character and why his acts still resonate so strongly.
The book’s powerful argument has been getting serious attention. The Washington Post calls it “the best account yet of Nixon’s devious interference with Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 Vietnam War negotiations, shows just how early Nixon’s dirty tricks began and just how deeply he was involved.” The Post has also published a piece by George Will that succinctly lays out Hughes’s case. Shelf Awareness, which describes Chasing Shadows as “full of fascinating scenes and candid conversations pulled verbatim from Nixon’s tapes” and “compelling as a novel,” has published a fascinating Q&A with Hughes. The Atlantic emphasizes the continually unfolding aspect if the Watergate saga: “Hughes shows that we still have much to learn by connecting the dots of Nixon’s angry venting and the shadowy world of national-security spying.” And as the New York Times noted, a recent Nixon event at which Hughes joined Carl Bernstein and Carl Woodward was so well attended, “the line stretched down the block.” A video clip from the event may be viewed here. More coverage may be found in Politico, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Yahoo News, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus.
As the chief consultant on the recent HBO documentary Nixon by Nixon, Hughes was interviewed by both Chris Matthews and Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC and by WNYC’s John Hockenberry.
And finally, for those wanting a test drive, the book has been excerpted in Salon and at ABC News.
Chasing Shadows is available now at bookstores everywhere.
10537428_745883098805464_4422625659831455735_n Ken Hughes, author of Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate, took part in a special event last night, hosted by the Washington Post, which included Elizabeth Drew and reunited Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. With the fortieth anniversary of the Nixon resignation rolling around this week, the panel revisited the heady days of the Watergate break-in and its following cover-up and also attempted to place those events in a contemporary context. C-Span will run the entire program next week, but until then the Post has already posted several clips online, and they make for pretty riveting viewing. The panel all rose to the occasion—this was no ceremonial gathering of famous faces, these people clearly wanted to talk.
The panel discusses where they were when Nixon finally stepped down, including Post publisher Katherine Graham’s decree that there be “no gloating”: WATCH.
Asked about Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon, the panel describes feeling at the time that it was the ultimate corruption, while in hindsight it seems like a courageous, necessary act: WATCH.
On the subject of the presidential tapes and their legacy, the discussion turns to the current lack of such documentation and its disturbing impact on transparency: WATCH.
nixon and aides On a June afternoon in 1971, President Nixon and three of his top aides—H.R. Haldeman, Henry Kissinger, and John Erlichman—discussed the possibility of exposing Lyndon Johnson’s bombing halt of 1968 as a political ploy to help his own party’s candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. It’s one thing to accuse someone of something; what’s required is proof. The idea is floated that a file documenting this alleged abuse of power might exist at the Brookings Institute. Nixon promptly orders a break-in to retrieve the file. “Blow the safe and get it,” he says—not your typical Oval Office talk.
As Ken Hughes shows in Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate, this conversation is fascinating in almost too many ways to count. Although it was Watergate, and its cover-up, that would finally bring Nixon down, the only break-in he ever ordered was this plan (eventually scrapped) to seize the file from Brookings. This is compelling evidence that Watergate was part of a pattern, not an aberration. Haldeman’s plan to blackmail LBJ was not only ethically dubious, but he was in fact wrong that Johnson’s motivation for the bombing halt was connected to the election. In an ironic twist, Nixon had a different reason for wanting to seize this file: he had secretly interfered in the Paris peace talks in 1968 and was afraid such a file would expose him. There’s a final irony: no such file existed.
You may read this rather stunning conversation below, or listen to it here.
Haldeman: The—you can maybe blackmail [Lyndon B.] Johnson on this stuff.
President Nixon: What?
Haldeman: You could blackmail Johnson on this stuff, and it might be worth doing.
President Nixon: How?
Haldeman: The bombing halt stuff is all in the same file. Or in some of the same hands.
President Nixon: Oh, how does that show—oh, I wondered, incidentally, if that’s—
Haldeman: It isn’t in this. It isn’t in these papers, but the whole bombing halt file . . .
President Nixon: Do we have it? I’ve asked for it. You said you didn’t have it, Henry.
Haldeman: We can’t find—
Henry A. Kissinger: We have nothing here, Mr. President.
President Nixon: Damn it, I asked for that, because I need it. [Unclear]—
Kissinger: Yeah, but Bob and I have been trying to put the damn thing together for three years.
Haldeman: We have a basic history of it—constructed on our own—but there is a file on it.
President Nixon: Where?
Haldeman: [Tom Charles] Huston swears to God there’s a file on it at Brookings.
Kissinger: I wouldn’t be surprised.
President Nixon: All right, all right, all right, you [unclear]—
Haldeman: In the hands of the same kind of [unclear]—
President Nixon: Bob—
Haldeman: The same people.
President Nixon: Bob, now, you remember Huston’s plan? Implement it.
Kissinger: But couldn’t we go over? Now, Brookings has no right to have [President Nixon attempts to interject] classified documents.
President Nixon: [Unclear.] I mean, I want it implemented on a thievery basis. Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.
Haldeman: They may very well have cleaned them by now, with this thing getting to—
Kissinger: No, I wouldn’t be surprised if Brookings had the file on the bombing halt.
Haldeman: My point is, Johnson knows that those files are around. He doesn’t know for sure that we don’t have them.
Kissinger: But what good will it do you, the bombing halt file?
Haldeman: The bombing halt—
President Nixon: To blackmail him.
Haldeman: The bombing halt—
President Nixon: Because he used the bombing halt for political purposes.
Haldeman: The bombing halt file would really kill Johnson.
Kissinger: Why do you think that? I mean, I didn’t see the whole file, but . . .
Haldeman: On the timing and strategy of how he pulled that?
President Nixon: I think it would hurt him.
Kissinger: Mis—well, I—[speaking over President Nixon] as you remember, I used to give you input—I used to—as you remember, I used to give you information about it at the time, so I have no—
President Nixon: I know.
Kissinger: I mean, about the timing.
Kissinger: But I, to the best of my knowledge, there was never any conversation in which they said we’ll hold it until the end of October. I wasn’t in on the discussions here. I just saw the instructions to [W. Averell] Harriman.
President Nixon: Well, anyway, why won’t Johnson have a press conference in your view?
Haldeman: Because he’s smart enough not to. From Johnson’s viewpoint, if he has a press conference, it does [unclear]—he will see exactly what we see, which is that the thing that that will accomplish is clearly put this as a battle of Lyndon Johnson’s credibility versus the world.
Ehrlichman: Be a lightning rod.
Chasing Shadows is available July 29.
lbj_rn On November 2, 1968, President Johnson called Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen to say that he knew Nixon’s people were inserting themselves in the peace-talk process with the Vietnamese. Their message to South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu was to stay away from the peace talks—that they would get a better deal from Nixon further down the road, as he was sure to be elected. Do what you can to get them to back off, LBJ told Dirksen. If this activity, which he flatly characterized as “treason,” continued, LBJ threatened to go public with what he knew.
The next day LBJ spoke with Nixon himself, but the conversation could not have been more different in tone. He begins by reiterating his three conditions for a bombing halt, before turning to the talk of interference in the peace talks. LBJ tells Nixon that the word has gone out that the South Vietnamese will be better off if they deal with the Republican nominee rather than the current administration. LBJ assures Nixon he knows Nixon had nothing to do with this. Nixon assures LBJ he didn’t. Both men are lying.
This fascinating conversation between two master politicians is a crucial moment in Ken Hughes’s Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate, an explosive new addition to presidential scholarship that will be published on July 29.You may read the transcript of the Johnson-Nixon exchange below or listen to the recorded conversation
LBJ: Now, the other day, we had talked to [Nguyen Van] Thieu on October the 13th, and stressed that we had to have these points, and he agreed. On October the 15th, we reviewed it with him again, and he bought a 36-hour period between stopping the bombing and the conference. On October the 23rd, he agreed to a three-day delay.
LBJ: On October the 28th, we agreed to the communiqué, that we would both make a joint announcement—
LBJ: —when and if we could clear it with them, get them signed on.
LBJ: Then the traffic goes out that Nixon will do better by you. Now, that goes to Thieu. I don’t—I didn’t say, as I said to you the other day, I didn’t say that it was with your knowledge. I hope it wasn’t.
Nixon: [laughing] Ah, no.
Nixon: Well, as a matter of fact, I’m not privy to the—what you were doing, of course, with this thing, but—
Nixon: The whole point is this. I think one thing we have to understand here is that, you know, and I know, that within the—there’s a hawk-dove complex out there as there is here, and that everybody’s been saying, “Well, now, after the election, what will happen?” And of course there is some thought that Hanoi would rather deal now than deal later.
LBJ: Oh, yes.
Nixon: They think Nixon will be tougher, and I understand that. And I think that’s one of the reasons you felt you had to go forward with the pause. But my point that I’m making is this: that my God, I would never do anything to encourage Hanoi—I mean, Saigon not to come to the table, because, basically, that was what you got out of your bombing pause, that, good God, we want them over in Paris. We’ve got to get them to Paris or you can’t have a peace.
LBJ: Well, I think if you take that position, you’re on very, very sound ground and—
Nixon: That’s what I said on—
LBJ: I think it’s very much in the interest of your—
Nixon: I said that the major thing that the President insisted upon and got was the right of Saigon to be at that conference table. [President Johnson attempts to interject.] And they must be at the conference table and I believe they should be, and then that’s why I said that—I just felt that I ought to emphasize it—I said that I know that nobody knows who’s going to win this, but if I do, I said, if I’m president-elect, I personally pledge to President Johnson I would do anything, and I want to amplify that by—emphasize it by saying that I will do—if he and Secretary [Dean] Rusk indicate that my presence in Paris or Saigon, and, incidentally, I want you to know I’ll do that. I’d go out there and talk to Thieu if it’s necessary.
LBJ: Well, I think that—I—
Nixon: [Unclear] or whatever you want. [Unclear]—
Chasing Shadows will be available july 29.