“I love you, as you know,” says Richard Nixon. “Like my brother.”
The 37th president is bidding farewell to chief of staff Bob Haldeman in an unexpectedly intimate phone call that, half a century later, lingers in the air like a ghost.
Donald Trump had tweets but Nixon had tapes: 3,700 hours of them, secretly recorded by a White House system the East German Stasi might have envied. The conversations were released between 2007 and 2013, an eavesdropping opportunity never likely to be repeated.
They have proved a goldmine for Michael Dobbs, a British-born author and journalist whose elegantly written book, King Richard – Nixon and Watergate: An American Tragedy, zooms in on the hundred days that followed Nixon’s second inauguration and led to his downfall.
The narrative follows Nixon from room to room, day by day, sometimes minute by minute. It tells how the tapes capture ice cubes tinkling in a glass, Nixon’s voice softening when his 24-year-old daughter Julie calls and, as the world knows, some bilious rants about the media as the Watergate scandal deepens.
Why did this famously secretive president leave such an incriminating trace? Nixon never intended for the tapes, made between February 1971 and July 1973, to become public. But he did have an eye on posterity.
“It’s a bit like Churchill said: ‘History will be kind to me because I intend to write it myself,’” says Dobbs, 70.
“That was Nixon’s idea as well. This is one difference from Trump: [Nixon] really had studied history in some depth, and compared himself to people like Churchill and De Gaulle. He wanted to write memoirs that would justify his place in history and particularly undercut any attempts by uppity aides like [Henry] Kissinger to claim all the credit for his foreign policy initiatives.
The tapes force a writer to step into his shoes and to see events from his point of view so you see him destroy himself
“So he never imagined that the tapes would become public. He thought they were just going to be his private property that he could draw on for writing his memoirs. Of course, he didn’t really understand that just to go back and listen to these tapes, he’d have to spend his entire retirement trying to decipher them. The tapes became completely out of control in the end.”
Lyndon Johnson recorded about 800 hours of phone calls but Nixon took it to a whole new level. Dobbs says: “The difference with Nixon was that he was so ham-fisted and a bit of a klutz that he didn’t know how to turn tape recorders on and off so they invented a system which turned out to be completely diabolic: it would just turn on by itself. It recorded absolutely everything without any sort of input from him, which is what really did him in in the end.”
Sometimes Nixon could forget the tapes were running as he and his aides plotted dirty tricks, unleashed crude diatribes or made racist asides. In one, Haldeman suggests that the White House counsel, John Dean, must have been taking out “all his frustrations in just pure, raw, animal, unadulterated sex”.
Nixon’s Trump-like loathing of the media includes a boast that he “really stuck ’em in the groin”. It also crops up in a conversation with his special counsel, Chuck Colson, on the eve of his inauguration. Dobbs says: “He’s about to give this speech and he’s gloating with Colson, his hatchet man, about how he’s going to stick it to the Washington Post and drive the Post’s share price down. He generally calls the reporters ‘the bastards’.”
At this point, Nixon was riding high after a thumping election victory and with a near-70% approval rating. The break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex, seven months prior, was seemingly behind him despite the efforts of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
“But then, within just a few weeks and months, the whole thing has completely unravelled and you have all these people within the White House at each other’s throats and, as Nixon says, ‘pissing on each other’ and eventually pissing on the president. So it’s an amazing three-month period in which probably one of the most disciplined White House operations in history completely falls apart.”
By July 1973, some of Nixon’s advisers were pleading with him to destroy the tapes lest they reveal his part in the Watergate cover-up. He felt they would strengthen his defence. He was wrong.
The supreme court ordered the release of a “smoking gun tape” confirming Dean’s testimony that Nixon told aides to order the CIA to shut down the FBI investigation into the burglary. Nixon lost the confidence of fellow Republicans and was forced to resign in August 1974, before he could be impeached.
Dobbs reflects: “At a certain point, it becomes Dean’s word against Nixon’s word. There wasn’t sufficient evidence to impeach the president at that point. The only reason that he was forced to resign was because the tapes started coming out and that went all the way to the supreme court. Without the tapes, there would not have been a sufficient basis to force Nixon out of office.”
And yet, as Dobbs listened, he also found the tapes that ruined Nixon’s reputation in the moment could yet provide a measure of redemption.
“What they do is to force a writer to step into his shoes and to see events from his point of view so you see him destroy himself and destroy his presidency and the pain and agony that he feels.
“Unless you’re an absolute dyed-in-the-wool Nixon hater, you have to feel some sympathy for the man, not because you approve of what he did, but just on a personal level.”
The president’s conversations with his daughters help humanise him.
“You can relate to him the way he talks to Julie, particularly if you’ve listened to the previous tape of him talking to Haldeman. Suddenly he’s switching from being an irascible president who’s barking orders at people to being a loving father.”
Then there is that wistful call with Haldeman, who knew the president better than anyone.
“Nixon never invited him to a family meal, never shook hands with him, and then suddenly here is Nixon saying, ‘I love you like my brother.’ If you know the background of Nixon’s two brothers dying from tuberculosis when he was a young man, it’s extraordinary.”
Dobbs wrote the book during Trump’s scandal-peppered, twice-impeached, one-term presidency. Parallels with Nixon were inescapable: the exploitation of racial resentment, the whipping up of the “silent majority”, the hostility towards the press and east coast elites. But he believes there are key differences too.
“Nixon is a much more substantive, serious person than Trump and he had a real sophisticated understanding of history and foreign policy. We don’t know how Trump is going to be treated by historians, 40, 50 years later, but I find Nixon a more empathetic character than Trump.
“To some extent, Nixon has succeeded in rehabilitating himself, or at least we have a more nuanced picture of Nixon now. I’m not sure that Trump is going to be rehabilitated, at least among historians.”
The author, a dual British-American citizen who has worked for the Guardian and Washington Post, continues: “One distinguishing thing between the two of them is the whole claim that the election was rigged and stolen from Trump. Although Nixon did have a lot of grudges about particularly the 1960 election and felt the Kennedys had stolen it from him, he did not go public with that and he did not try to dispute it in any serious way.
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“He accepted it because he thought that was one rule of the game. Trump completely threw that rule of the game overboard. Nixon is within the mainstream American presidents. Trump is outside the mainstream.”
It remains to be seen whether historians will regard Trump as a Shakespearean figure or conclude he was simply not that psychologically interesting. Dobbs believes Nixon, who rose from poverty to the presidency only to endure catastrophe, does meet the King Lear standard. Along with its theatrical title, the book is divided into four “acts” and has a list of “dramatic personae”.
“To call him a Shakespearean tragic hero does not mean that you approve of him or you like him,” Dobbs says. “It means that you’re just struck by this fall from grace and you’ve become aware of the suffering involved. I was more interested in telling the story than to pass judgment.”
Exit, pursued by a tape recorder.