Nixon’s last 17 days in office: Desperate search for a way out
Richard Milhous Nixon’s final presidential crisis was thrust upon him by the Supreme Court’s ruling that he could no longer lawfully withhold 64 disputed White House tapes from the Watergate prosecutors. Here, reconstructed from the accounts of those who saw him at close range, is the story of those last 17 days.
By Lou Cannon, The Washington Post
WASHINGTON – Richard M. Nixon was alone in his office across the parking lot from his San Clemente villa at 8:45 am July 24 when Alexander M. Haig, Jr. brought him the telecopied message from Washington informing him the Supreme Court had ruled against him. It would be a warm day, although it was not yet, and an aide who saw Mr. Nixon soon afterward remembers he was perspiring.
What he said to Haig is not recorded. But those who were around the Western White House in the tense, fretful hours after the decision that ordered Mr. Nixon to turn over the tapes to Watergate prosecutors, have a memory of numbing depression, of a dawning realization that the President who had survived so much in two years of Watergate would now no longer be able to survive at all.
“It was a hell of a jolt for all of us,” recalls Haig, who, a few days later, would become the architect of the transition to Gerald R. Ford.
No one knew better than Mr. Nixon that the die had been cast against him by the court’s decision. Though he would become vague and unapproachable on several instances in the few days still left to him in the presidency, he functioned with his self-celebrated coolness in the immediate aftermath of the ruling.
“There may be some problem with the June 23 tape, Fred,” Mr. Nixon reportedly told White House special counsel J. Fred Buzhardt in a telephone call soon after the court’s ruling.
It has a considerable understatement. Buzhardt, who already had been reviewing the tape for possible problems, quickly located the damaging passages in which Mr. Nixon and former White House Chief of Staff H. R. (Bob) Haldeman discussed their plans for diverting the FBI from its Watergate investigation. Buzhardt concluded, as would others in the White House after him, that the conversation was too damaging for Mr. Nixon to survive.
Back in San Clemente, Mr. Nixon secluded himself as he always had done in hours of crisis. He talked with Haig and with Watergate defense attorney James D. St. Clair as reporters waited and waited for some statement from the White House. As five, six, eight hours went by, the belief grew that Mr. Nixon was considering defiance of the Supreme Court.
Though the White House always has denied that Mr. Nixon did, in fact, advocate defiance of the Supreme Court. an associate who saw the President shortly before the court ruling formed the impression he was seriously considering this course. This associate recalled Mr. Nixon expressed the opinion the decision might not be unanimous. He left the conversation in the President’s sunlit San Clemente office believing Mr. Nixon might choose to ignore the decision of a narrowly-divided court.
Watergate: Resignation mentioned
It is now known Mr. Nixon was urged that day by one of his own high-ranking aides to consider resignation as an alternative to bowing to the court’s decision.
This suggestion came from William Timmons, the chief White House congressional liaison, in a telephone call to Haig the same day as the court’s decision.
Timmons, who had kept closer watch than anyone else in the White House on the steady deterioration in the Republican ranks within the House Judiciary Committee, suggested Mr. Nixon resign rather than comply. in quitting. Timmons suggested, Mr. Nixon could say he didn’t want to take any action that would set a precedent for weakening the independence and authority of the President’s office.
Haig relayed the suggestion without endorsing it, but found it difficult to get the President to lay out any overall strategic course of action.
Once deciding that he would comply with the high court’s ruling, Mr. Nixon lapsed into an emotional denunciation of his “enemies” in the Congress and the media. He also reportedly used expletive-deleted language to describe Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, his once-supportive appointee and now the author of the crushing decision against him. He just could not believe, an associate recalled, that the court’s ruling had been unanimous.
During the four hot, cloudless days remaining to him at San Clemente, Mr. Nixon alternately was depressed by the consequences of that court ruling and hopeful that he could somehow survive. On two occasions Haig found it difficult to talk to Mr. Nixon about the subject at all. On another, Mr. Nixon brought up the issue to a visitor, then changed the subject before his listener could respond.
These were the days when the tide was turning against Mr. Nixon in the House Judiciary Committee. Almost daily denunciations of this committee came from the White House spokesmen, including press secretary Ronald L. Ziegler’s description of the committee as “a kangaroo court.” But it was evident to Republicans outside the inner circle that several GOP congressmen were prepared to break ranks and vote for impeachment.
Across the country, the televised public hearings were creating a deep impression. On July 27, the day before Mr. Nixon left San Clemente to return to Washington, the committee voted 27 to 11 to impeach the President on the first count — that he had unlawfully obstructed the investigation of the Watergate break-in. Ziegler greeted the news of the committee’s impeachment vote in these presidentially-approved words:
“The President remains confident the full House will recognize there simply is not the evidence to support this or any other article of impeachment, and will not vote to impeach. He is confident because he knows he has committed no impeachable offense.”
These concluding words would become Mr. Nixon’s persistent refrain and his swan song. Even after he resigned, even after he accepted a pardon for any offenses he committed or may have committed against the United States, Mr. Nixon continued to insist the crimes which led to his impeachment and to his being named an unindicted co-conspirator by the Watergate grand jury were not impeachable offenses and would not have resulted in the impeachment of any other president.
Aides who were able to talk to him about it in the final weeks of his presidency became convinced that Mr. Nixon, even while admitting his offenses, had completely persuaded himself they were not legitimate grounds for impeachment.
This refusal to face reality cost Mr. Nixon dearly in the weeks ahead. He would be up one day, hopeful that he could defeat impeachment, and down the next. One aide says he failed to “function coherently,” to see what was happening to him. His unreality was fueled by optimistic reports from Ziegler, who publicly and privately insisted impeachment would be beaten. Some aides saw Ziegler as the victim of his own propaganda.
President Nixon “has the confidence that in the long run, the matter will resolve itself,” Ziegler told reporters on the plane back to Washington from San Clemente. “He has the tremendous capacity to control his emotions and to sustain himself under two years of attack.”
Other more knowledgeable White House aides already had concluded that Mr. Nixon could not survive. Buzhardt had passed on the information about the June 23 tape to Haig, St. Clair and counselor Dean Burch, the men who were to have the most to do with Mr. Nixon’s ultimate decision to step down.
The Washington to which Mr. Nixon returned on July 28 was anticipating his impeachment and trial in the Senate, if not his resignation. This also was the expectation among the White House staff, where Timmons had devised a last-ditch strategy which reflected both cleverness and desperation.
Timmons believed it would be possible on the House floor to reduce the second article of impeachment, charging Mr. Nixon with abuses of power, to a censure motion. In return for this reduction, the White House would signal Republican House members that they would be free to vote for the first article of impeachment, which Timmons believed the President could win on the merits in the Senate trial. But Timmons’ anti-impeachment strategy was stalled by his inability to get what he called a “damage assessment” on the contents of the June 23 tapes.
The Nixon White House always had operated in watertight compartments in which the President’s strategy was not revealed, even to high-ranking aides, except on a “need-to-know” basis. Now, suddenly, that “need to know” seemed universal within the White House.
Asked to see
Haig, under pressure from the legislative unit for the “damage assessment,” and St. Clair, uncertain about his next legal steps in a defense that was rapidly becoming discredited, both asked to see transcripts of the June 23, 1972 tape. The transcripts immediately were prepared on their orders and reviewed by both men on Wednesday, July 31.
The resignation of the President now appeared inevitable to both men. St. Clair, a lawyer, tried to limit himself narrowly to impeachment issues. He proceeded on the premise that the new information would be made available and that the only question was of how to do it. Haig, a military man, was carried along by the flow of events and became an architect of resignation without making a specific, conscious decision that Mr. Nixon must go.
What Haig did, rather than counsel resignation, was to act as the midwife for an action that came to be both natural and inevitable. Using the considerable resources of his gatekeeper office in the White House, Haig embarked on a series of actions that ultimately would demonstrate to Mr. Nixon that he had no choice but to yield up the presidency.
One of the first of these actions was to solicit the views on Thursday, Aug. 1, of Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi, one of the Democrats presumed most favorable to Mr. Nixon’s cause. Eastland told him bluntly he thought Mr. Nixon would be convicted in the Senate.
Armed with this information, Haig then set up a meeting for himself and St. Clair with Republican Rep. Charles Wiggins of California for Friday. Both Haig and St. Clair had been impressed by Wiggins, who had proven to be Mr. Nixon’s most articulate defender on the House Judiciary Committee. The meeting in Haig’s office was the first time Haig and Wiggins had met.
Wiggins, who had based his defense of Mr. Nixon on precisely the absence of the specific evidence that the June 23 tape provided, could scarcely believe the transcript that Haig and St. Clair put before him.
Watergate: Heard three times
In mounting agitation, but with a lawyer’s thoroughness, he read the June 23 transcript a second time and then a third. He told Haig and St. Clair that the Republicans who had stuck with Mr. Nixon had “really been led down the garden path.” Then he informed the two men that Mr. Nixon had the alternative of either withholding the information and pleading the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination or turning over the incriminating material to the House Judiciary Committee.
Wiggins’ response armed Haig and St. Clair with all the ammunition they needed. For all practical purposes, the offending material now was public, although Wiggins agreed not to say anything until the following Monday. He returned to his office in anger and frustration and began discarding the report he had been preparing in the President’s defense.
Haig moved quickly. Soon after the Wiggins meeting, he phoned Sen. Robert P. Griffin of Michigan, the minority whip in the Senate and one of Vice President Ford’s closest friends. He told Griffin about the tape and about what Wiggins had said.
Griffin mulled over the new development on a flight home that day to Traverse City, Mich. He recalls he spent a sleepless night. The next morning, he telephoned Ford and dictated a letter to his Washington office for immediate delivery to the White House.
The Griffin letter was a masterstroke. It was also illustrative of the way in which both Haig and St. Clair maneuvered in the final days to produce a result that no one overly advocated. Written in terse, commanding language, the Griffin letter informed Mr. Nixon he had barely enough votes to survive in the Senate. Griffin told the President the Senate would subpoena the tapes which the court had ordered him to turn over to the prosecutors and that he would be in contempt if he refused.
“If you should defy such a subpoena, I shall regard that as an impeachable offense and shall vote accordingly,” Griffin wrote.
The letter was particularly compelling because Griffin wrote it as if he knew nothing of the contents of the June 23 tape. Mr. Nixon had not been told that Griffin knew. And he now was being informed by one of the best vote counters in Congress that he had scant chance to survive, even without any more damaging evidence coming to light.
On his mind
Resignation already was very much on the President’s mind – and on Haig’s. On Aug. 1, the day before he broke the bad news to Wiggins, Haig asked top speechwriter Ray Price to begin work “on a contingency basis” on a speech that could be used for a presidential resignation. Unlike the Griffin call, this notification was given with the President’s permission, although some aides believe that Haig stressed the “contingency” aspect in his talk with Mr. Nixon.
Mr. Nixon was now disconsolate, distraught and under pressure from all sides. His family and longtime secretary, Rose Mary Woods, wanted him to stay on and fight. So did Ziegler, communications director Ken W. Clawson and Bruce Herschensohn, his coordinator with anti-impeachment groups around the country.
The President responded to the conflicting pressures with a talk that ranged from a quiet and almost fateful acceptance of what was happening to long discourses on what he regarded as the trivial nature of the case against him. “I’m not a quitter,” he would say emotionally in the midst of an otherwise dispassionate discussion of the evidence.
Haig was reluctant to advocate resignation directly. Instead, he focused the discussion on how the new evidence against the President was to be released.
This discussion began in the White House on Saturday afternoon and moved, like a sort of floating dice game, to Camp David on Sunday. Assembled there with the President were Haig, St. Clair, Ziegler, Price and speechwriter Patrick J. Buchanan.
Mr. Nixon holed up in Aspen Cabin while his aides assembled in nearby Laurel Cabin to draft the statement that would accompany the release of the June 23 tape the following day. Buchanan said it was hopeless and counseled resignation. He was supported by St. Clair. Haig and Ziegler alternated in taking drafts of the statement and other memos to Mr. Nixon. Once, when Haig relayed the view that some of his aides thought he should resign, Mr. Nixon replied, “I wish you hadn’t said that.”
Mr. Nixon, his family and his aides returned to Washington Sunday night by helicopter without agreeing on a final text.
The statement, as completed Monday and approved by the President, accurately reflected the dualism of Mr. Nixon’s own frame of mind. On the one hand, the statement admitted – far more candidly that Mr. Nixon would when he accepted a pardon five weeks later that he had kept information from those who were arguing his case.
In language drafted by Price, the President conceded that “portions of the tapes of those June 23 conversations are at variance with my previous statements.” It was as close to an admission of guilt in the Watergate cover-up as Mr. Nixon would come.
Haig had been busy in the meantime. He had followed up his call to Griffin by telephoning House Minority Leader John J. Rhodes of Arizona and advising him not to hold scheduled press conference on Monday at which Rhodes was supposed to announce his position on impeachment. Rhodes, already at home with a bad cold, developed a convenient case of laryngitis.
Vice President Ford also was informed at Haig’s instruction, at first through a White House aide who called Walter F. Mote on the Ford staff and told him that “things have completely unraveled.” The aide said that Mr. Nixon would have something definitive to say early in the week.
The same man called Mote on Monday morning to tell him that the President would make a statement that evening that would be a bombshell.
“What do you mean?” Mote asked.
“I mean boom-boom, a bombshell,” the aide replied.
By now, the pressures that had pushed Mr. Nixon to the brink of resignation were carrying him over the cliff. Attempts to orchestrate, to plan, to formulate and control events had lost their meaning.
Timmons, Clawson and Buchanan read the offending transcript for the first time in Haig’s office on Monday morning, and all of them realized that the President was finished. On Capitol Hill, Griffin called for resignation. Burch and Timmons arranged a meeting through House Whip Leslie Arends (R-Ill.) with the 10 Judiciary Committee members who had gone down the line with the President.
Wiggins had kept his secret through the weekend, although he had tried to share it with Vice President Ford. Driving to his second-floor office in the Cannon House Office Building on Sunday, Wiggins heard a radio broadcast in which Mr. Ford was quoted defending Mr. Nixon.
He heard a similar newscast on Monday morning and wondered whether Mr. Ford had been informed. He tried to place a call to Robert T. Hartmann, the Vice President’s top aide, but received no answer, and was unable to persuade White House operators to locate him.
Still didn’t know
Then Wiggins called Rhodes to tell him what he knew and learned that Haig had already succeeded in getting through to him. But Rhodes still did not know the full story. He learned it at his Northwest Washington home Monday when he was visited by Burch and Buzhardt. With them was Republican National Chairman George Bush, who also was hearing the complete story for the first time.
Meanwhile, Timmons and St. Clair were briefing the Judiciary Committee loyalists in Arends’ office. All but two of them were able to attend, and they were outraged by the disclosure. Despite their anger, they did not direct their feelings at St. Clair. He, too, said Rep. David Dennis of Indiana, had “been led down the primrose path.”
Wiggins, trying not to cry, went on television and read a statement saying that the evidence was sufficient to justify a single count of impeachment. All the other Republican loyalists on Judiciary followed suit. Rhodes recovered his voice and joined the impeachment chorus. From Republican officeholders and party officials across the nation came calls for resignation.
Within the White House, Haig tried to bolster a now dispirited staff. Realizing the shock impact that the new disclosure would have, he called a meeting in the conference room of the Executive Office Building that was attended by 150 staff members.
“You may feel depressed or outraged by this, but we must all keep going for the good of the nation,” he concluded. “And I also hope you would do it for the President, too.”
Many of the staff members who attended that meeting leaped to their feet and cheered Haig. Others left with tears in their eyes or heads downcast, recognizing as they had never recognized before that the end to the Nixon presidency was in sight.
Only Mr. Nixon wavered in this recognition. Shaken and drawn, he went with his family aboard the presidential yacht, Sequoia, where only a few weeks before he had entertained congressman he was trying to influence against impeachment.
Now, Mr. Nixon’s family made a last stand, trying to convince him that he must stay in office and fight to the end.
The family effort bore temporary fruit, to the consternation of Nixon aides and Republican congressmen who saw resignation as inevitable and didn’t want the agony prolonged. On Tuesday, the President asked for a specific assessment of his Senate chances from Timmons, and told Timmons to check specifically on five senators. Then he met with the Cabinet in an effort to demonstrate one last time that he was still capable of governing the nation.
Watergate: Curious meeting
“It was a most curious meeting,” one of the participants recalled. “Nixon assembled the Cabinet not to ask for advice but to announce a decision that he would not resign.
“He had a sort of eerie calm about him. The mood in the room was one of considerable disbelief. Because if you had any realism about what was happening, you knew the place was about to fall down, and he was sitting there calmly and serenely and vowing to stay on. You began to wonder if he knew something you didn’t know if he had some secret weapon that he hadn’t disclosed yet.” (Continued)