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None of these theories solves the mystery of Nixon the man. We are obliged to consider seriously, the more so in the light of the new evidence of the tapes, whether the root explanation is that the White House in 1969 became occupied by a psychopath, possibly a schizophrenic. Several of the transcripts reveal “P” playing twin roles, one moment Richard Nixon (Mr. Hyde) and another the President of the United States (Dr. Jekyll).
According to reports from Washington, the tapes themselves reveal the contrast of tone and voice in which he acts out this split personality. Washington has long been rife with rumor concerning the President’s mental health, some of it well authenticated from within the administration. Certainly his observable behavior has often been strange, to say the least, although paranoia and manic-depression, too easily mistaken for schizophrenia (a rare complaint), are conditions frequently to be found in the wielders of great power.
In the streets of Paris after Pompidou’s funeral, the President appeared seriously disturbed — “This is a great day for France.” He revealed a morbid concern for his health in a speech to members of the White House staff last summer after his discharge from the hospital where he was treated for what was officially diagnosed as viral pneumonia. He pledged himself to disobey the advice of his doctors to ease up:
I just want you to know what my answer to them was and what my answer to you is. No one in this great office at this time in the world’s history can slow down. This office requires a President who will work right up to the hilt all the time. That is what I have been doing. That is what I am going to continue to do….I know many will say, “But then you will risk your health.” Well, the health of the man is not nearly as important as the health of the nation and the health of the world.
There is the famous incident at the height of the Cambodian crisis. At 4:55 A.M. on May 9, 1970, Nixon crept out of the White House, accompanied by his valet, Manolo Sanchez, and three Secret Service agents. He headed to the Lincoln Memorial, where he discussed football with a handful of demonstrators. Then he took Sanchez on a personal sunrise tour of the deserted Capitol. At the House of Representatives, he was met by H. R. Haldeman, Ron Ziegler, and Dwight Chapin. The President climbed onto the dais, sat down, and simply stared out at the empty chamber.
For me, the most striking insight into the President’s mentality came last year during his short-lived and inevitably doomed Operation Candor. In Memphis, Tennessee, he met behind closed doors with Republican governors who were desperate for reassurance that it was his intention to have out the truth.
“Mr. President, are there any more bombshells in the wings?” he was asked. He replied that there were none. The next day, back in Washington, Judge Sirica was informed that eighteen and a half minutes of a crucial tape recording had been mysteriously obliterated. Later testimony in the court allowed no doubt that the President was aware of this, and aware that it would have to be revealed to the court, when he gave the governors the assurance they asked for in Memphis.
This was not the behavior of a politician. A politician, surely, would have said to them: “I know this is going to look bad for me, but I want you to know about it now and to know that it was an accident, and that no one in the White House deliberately erased that tape.” A politician would have tried to defuse the bombshell in the wings.
Nixon instead behaved like a child denying that a vase has been broken while the pieces are lying on the floor in the next room, bound to be discovered. Either he had become utterly reckless, no longer concerned with his credibility, or he was unable to connect with reality.
How are we to explain the tapes — not their contents but their very existence? They are the central mystery of the man and his Presidency.
Richard Nixon will go down as the first President of the United States, indeed so far as we know the first leader in the history of the world, to have bugged himself. The system, which would pick up any sounds of conversation in the President’s offices, including the lowest tones, was automatically activated by voice. The President retained no manual control over its operation. (Although he retained no mechanical control over the system he could, of course, at any time order its suspension. We now have reason to believe he sometimes did. This could explain the missing tapes, but it makes even more remarkable the recording of conversations such as that of March 21, 1973, in which the commission of crimes was, at very least, contemplated. )
Other Presidents had made use of tape recordings, but none, so far as we know, had so violated their own privacy. That Nixon may have wanted to get the goods on his colleagues. friend and foe alike (“Nobody is a friend of ours. Let’s face it,” he said to John Dean), does not explain why by his choice of system he should entrap himself. All he needed was a button under his desk, as L.B.J. had.
Nor does the official explanation that they were installed to record events for posterity, for the Nixon library, wash. Were the tapes to be deposited in the Nixon library with their expletives undeleted? Was posterity to be shown a Nixon totally different from the image projected to the public in his lifetime?
Nixon was not corrupted by power; he corrupted power. A powerful Presidency doesn’t have to produce a crook any more than a strong man has to be a thug.
Richard Nixon was not inevitable. Watergate was not decreed by the Vietnam war, nor by the civil war at home: Hubert Humphrey could have been elected President in 1968 and very nearly was. Nixon very nearly won in 1960, and at that time there was no war, no social disorder. McCarthyism rose and fell under Truman and Eisenhower, militarism and obsessive concern with national security grew under subsequent Presidents; but there were no Watergates.
Nixon’s Presidency is the projection of his personality. Lacking any firm commitment or ideological belief, he made do with the traditional, fundamentalist values of his Middle American background which he expounded in public. The force of his destructive personality is evil, but happily his exercise of power has been inept and lacking in direction, mistaking appearance for substance, concerned more with petty vendetta than with wide-scale repression.
As Haldeman lamented: “We are so (adjective deleted) square that we get caught at everything.” A PR man does not have the makings of an effective tyrant. Watergate was entirely characteristic of Nixon’s Presidency — dishonest, disgraceful, inept.
“How could it have happened?” It happened because the American people elected Nixon to be President, an unfortunate choice. But how were they to know that he might be a psychopath?
“Who is to blame?” Nixon is to blame — Nixon’s the one.
Peter Jenkins, a former Washington correspondent, is now a London-based columnist for “The Guardian.”