Thursday, June 30, 2011

June 30, 1971

I think the most interesting part of this is the cast of characters in the room: The president is talking to Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman again -- but also Attorney General John Mitchell, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger (again), Press Secretary Ron Ziegler, and Secretary of Defense Mel Laird. Needless to say, none of them seem to have pointed out that the president was proposing crimes, or even quietly resigned.

(By the way, I'll try to be consistent here; regular ellipses are from the transcript provided in Stanley Kutler, ed., Abuse of Power; I'm using bracketed ellipsese (i.e. [...]) when I'm skipping over things. Also, I'll provide a link if it's from a web source, usually the Miller Center. Emphasis here from Kutler).

President Richard Nixon:  They [Brookings] have lot of material...I want Brookings, I want them just to break in and take it out. Do you understand?
Haldeman: Yeah. But you have to have somebody to do it.
President Nixon: That's what I'm talking about. Don't discuss it here. You talk to [E. Howard] Hunt. I want the break-in. Hell, they do that. You're to break into the place, rifle the files, and bring them in.
Haldeman: I don't have any problem with breaking in. It's a Defense Department approved security --
President Nixon: Just go in and take it. Go in around 8:00 or 9:00 o'clock.
Haldeman: Make an inspection of the safe.
President Nixon: That's right. You go in to inspect the safe. I mean, clean it up.

Part of what's going on here that's terribly important is that the FBI isn't willing to do the things that the president wants; see this conversation between President Nixon and Attorney General Mitchell the previous day. As I've written, one way to understand Watergate is through the general notion of the weakness, not the strength, of the presidency. Nixon is supposedly at the top of the executive branch, but he can't get people in the various departments and agencies to do what he wants because they generally won't follow orders from the president -- that's not actually how the presidency works. It's not just illegal or unethical stuff; Nixon and his National Security Advisor Kissinger are busy running foreign policy without letting the State Department know what they're doing.So that's what's going on here: since the FBI won't do what the president wants, he's going to do it himself. That is, he's going to do it from within the White House. And in this one, we get the name of one of the people who is going to do what the FBI won't do, E. Howard Hunt.


  1. I've just gone back and read your post from 2010 about the Emperial Presidency and what struck me was one of your commenter's points about legislators being beholden to the President's fate. This, actually, seems quite important to me. Running a disinformation campaign about perceived enemies out of the White House is one thing, but using pretzel logic to define "hostilities" is another. With little to no possibility of rebuke from large numbers of your own party in the legislature on certain issues strikes me as being problematic. I agree with you that the embrace of "non-partisanship" is, well, silly. But,I have to say that the values of partisanship can have their limits, it seems.

  2. A question and a comment. The question is, what do you think was in the 18 1/2 - minute gap? Probably some reference to Nixon himself having approved the Watergate break-in? The guy obviously had nothing against break-ins.

    The comment has to do with presidents' weakness. I think that's a hugely important point, and an excellent counterinuitive explanation of Watergate. It was striking to me, in researching fictional images of presidents, that the '60s and '70s saw so much attention to this problem. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it was a leading theme in political science literature (among many others, Neustadt's Presidential Power, which he said in a later edition was really about presidential weakness), as well as in memoirs of people close to presidents (Hughes / Eisenhower, Sorenson / Kennedy, Reedy / LBJ; in fact, it shows up in LBJ's own memoir), AND also in the fictions I was studying, which feature any number of weakened, beleaguered, entrapped, or physically impaired presidents (among my favorites: Peter Sellers' President "Merkin Muffley" in Dr. Strangelove, and also Seven Days in May, where Fredric March looks frighteningly small and old compared to the demagogic general played by Burt Lancaster in his prime).

    Granted, a fiction writer is trying to tell a good story, and that means the forces pitted against each other have to be reasonably evenly matched -- which means that if one main character is The Most Powerful Person on Earth, it's important that s/he also be weak or potentially a victim in some way. But it seems like the question was also somehow in the Zeitgeist in that era -- maybe due to the Cold War? I know that one analysis you see from political scientists of the time is that the demands on the office, by the late 20th century, had simply outgrown its capabilities.

  3. The 18 1/2 minute gap? There just are a lot of possibilities. It could be prior knowledge of Watergate. It could be the Ellsberg break-in. It could be something relatively mild, such as plotting of the Watergate cover-up -- in other words, something that was on other tapes, as well. Or it could be something entirely different, some plot or even crime which really was successfully covered up.

    I really don't have any best guess.


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