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Bombing for peace
January 1, 1973, 9:40 a.m.
"I saw him aging right before my eyes," Charles Colson, special counsel to the president, wrote of Richard Nixon as he appeared at the end of 1972. The year had promised in November to end on a high note for the White House. Not only had Nixon won reelection by a historic margin, but Henry Kissinger, national security advisor, had managed to negotiate a preliminary accord in the Vietnam War peace talks in Paris. At the time, Kissinger leaked news of the breakthrough to Max Frankel, senior editor at the New York Times, much to Nixon's dismay. When the accord fell apart a month later, Nixon felt the added pressure of public opinion to force the enemy to return to the talks, and he ordered massive bombing of North Vietnam to begin on December 18. Critics feared that the war had begun all over again, but when the North Vietnamese capitulated at the very end of the month, Nixon had the satisfaction of ending the so-called December bombing. Still exhausted from the pressure of the previous weeks, the president was in his office on New Year's morning, discussing with Colson the imminent departure of one of his more potent aides, Alexander Haig, soon to be named army vice chief of staff.
* * *
NIXON: Well, all in all, the New Year starts though — you know I was just thinking through the years — not that we wanted to go through the agony of these last — I mean, it was not easy, the Christmas bombing, so forth and so on. But in a way, perhaps it was a good thing. You know what I mean? To the benefit of everything.
COLSON: I think on this one, Mr. President, I watched the toll that it took on you, and it was tough.
NIXON: Oh, I am fine.
COLSON: No, I can tell. I can tell looking at your face, when the strain was as great as it was, but in the end, if Henry [Kissinger] works out the settlement now, it will clearly be your settlement. And it was not headed that way. It was just as well that we have had this little bit of slip. There has been a difference between the two. And, it was too much — Henry was getting too much — public —
NIXON: Yeah. There is another thing too that is happening. That happens, looking at it from another standpoint. The end of the war is on any basis now, that is halfway reasonable, our credibility in the world is enormously increased by this.
NIXON: They can squeal all they want, but boy, I'll tell you, when they squeal it just gives you a hell of a lot more respect among others.
COLSON: That's right.
NIXON: So we've done that. We haven't backed into it. We haven't been political about it. They realize they are dealing with a tough man, a strong man.
COLSON: When they accept that it goes a long way.
NIXON: Here is this country, it allowed the Left, the McGovernites, to force them instead of sort of sucking back, to get out on a limb again. And I think you can saw it off.
COLSON: I do, too.
NIXON: [unclear] intend to saw it off.
COLSON: I think there are some more other advantages. One, if the South Vietnamese squawk they will have less credibility now.
NIXON: That's right.
COLSON: Because everybody knows we did everything humanly possible and really put the North Vietnamese to the wall. And secondly, I think you have taken a hell of a toll on the North Vietnamese. [unclear] NBC, it was very interesting. I watched the network news last night and it is obvious what they had intended to do to us this weekend —
COLSON: — was just murder —
NIXON: [unclear] on the bombing. Sure.
COLSON: — and they had seven or eight minutes of Hanoi prisoner film footage, taken by a Japanese film company and distributed by the North Vietnamese — I mean propaganda film.
COLSON: But Jesus —
NIXON: And they ran it?
COLSON: Just leveled Hanoi. That was pretty devastating itself. They were showing civilian coffins.
COLSON: No, sir.
NIXON: You don't?
COLSON: No, not now that it is over. I think —
COLSON: I think they were just building up to it. I think the bastards were building up a nice crescendo to the return of the Congress and they would have —
COLSON: No, no. I think there was a beautifully orchestrated buildup coming, that New York Times piece yesterday, both NBC and CBS were playing it the same day.
NIXON: [unclear] maybe they were frustrated and upset by what happened. Don't you think so?
COLSON: I think you pulled the rug out from under them, totally. I think when they — I don't think they expected it. [unclear] take them by surprise.
NIXON: I think they expected a [bombing] pause, but they didn't expect — Haig expected they would stop. They didn't expect the North Vietnamese frankly to capitulate.
A call from the chief justice
January 2, 1973, 8:56 a.m.
Warren Burger, Nixon's surprise choice as chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1969, was in many ways a kindred spirit. Both men were born to families that struggled to remain in the middle class, Burger in Minnesota and Nixon in Southern California. Neither was the product of the Ivy League schooling that produced many presidents of their era and nearly all Supreme Court justices. Prospering even without personal popularity, both Nixon and Burger, conservative, highly ambitious Republicans, arrived in Washington during the World War II era. As 1973 began, Burger was considering one of the cases that would mark his court, Miller v. California, which simultaneously considered the definition and legality of pornography.
BURGER: Good morning, Mr. President.
NIXON: Well, I understood you called yesterday on the New Year and I should have called you.
BURGER: Well, not at all. Did we — I just wanted to —
NIXON: How are you feeling?
BURGER: Oh, just fine.
BURGER: You certainly look fit.
NIXON: Yeah, well, we got the — my gosh, did you go to the game by chance?
BURGER: No, no. I have been to the —
NIXON: I never go to those games. Because, I tell you why I don't is that whenever they are sellouts — I went to one, Oklahoma and — I mean, Texas and Arkansas about three years ago — and the problem was that it really causes such commotion because over a hundred people have to go when I go. Sixty press and forty Secret Service, well, that just takes a hundred seats away from people that just die —
BURGER: That takes some of the fun out of it.
NIXON: — and if you could see it on television. I went up to Camp David and I just saw it up there. I was working up there anyway.
BURGER: With the instant replay it is much better.
NIXON: It is the only way to see a game. Of course there is something to the excitement of hearing the audience.
BURGER: Well, I haven't gone to one for years. I spent yesterday just the way you did. I was down here at nine o'clock and worked all day.
NIXON: That's right.
BURGER: I even missed the game.
NIXON: This is the time to — actually in these periods like this when people are all gone, I am just — been in the office today and yesterday, and you can get a lot of the paperwork done that you just put aside and say, "I will do that when I get a few minutes." You know?
BURGER: I wanted to start the year with a clean empty box.
NIXON: I do it every time. My box is just as clean as it can be.
BURGER: I unfortunately didn't get out all my opinions, but I got all the little stuff out of the way. So now the decks are cleared for another session.
NIXON: Yeah, now you can — you get your mind clear so that you can make the big decisions.
BURGER: We will have one coming out pretty soon, too.
NIXON: Oh boy.
BURGER: I am struggling with this pornography thing. I don't know whether, I don't know how we are coming out. I am coming out hard on it.
NIXON: Good, good.
BURGER: Whether I get the support or not.
NIXON: You're right. Well, I feel terrible. Of course I am a square. I'm like Alan, I am a square on that. I mean a square in the sense that I read those cases when I did the Hill versus Time thing [Time, Inc. v. Hill, a 1967 freedom of the press case before the U.S. Supreme Court, for which Nixon argued the Hill side].
NIXON: And you know because it related to the whole freedom of the press thing, and let's face it, it's just gone overboard, that's all. It is always a question of balance. I mean, maybe you can — they go back to this sixteenth-century stuff and say, "What's wrong with that, that was great art?" Well, the stuff today is not great art. The stuff today, its purpose — what is that term that they have — you —
BURGER: Redeeming social purpose.
NIXON: Yeah, good God.
BURGER: One of the biggest frauds —
NIXON: Oh, that was a [Associate Justice William J.] Brennan opinion, wasn't it?
BURGER: I think so.
NIXON: Yeah, yeah.
BURGER: That was a phrase that emanated from some of the campuses in this period.
NIXON: Redeeming social purposes. [laughs] BURGER: It is, you know, all this means is that if they have one of the outrageous orgies then if they mention Vietnam, or the condition of the ghettos, it redeems the whole thing.
NIXON: Yeah, oh boy. Well, isn't that something. What else do you have? Do you have other decisions? Is the busing thing coming out?
BURGER: No, that is way down the road.
NIXON: That's good. The longer the better.
BURGER: The longer the better is right.
NIXON: Right. Maybe we can get some legislation passed and get that out of the way.
BURGER: We have got to — I think things are coming. I get impatient, but they are coming. And by the way, this young fellow, he is young now for you and me — by twelve years, [Associate Justice William] Rehnquist, he is a real star.
NIXON: Isn't that great?
BURGER: He has got guts.
NIXON: Well, we will try to give you, one day, if we ever get a chance, to try and get another one.
BURGER: Get another fellow.
NIXON: I don't — I have no ideas. I understand that they — you remember General MacArthur's famous statement when he spoke to the Congress? I would put it a little differently for Supreme Court justices. Supreme Court justices never die and they never fade away. Right? [laughs]
BURGER: [laughs] You got to get some young fellows up here, and not any more sixties. Like —
NIXON: You guys are all right. My guys in their sixties are great. The Burger, [Harry] Blackmun, [Lewis F.] Powell triumvirate, but I tell you — let me say, I agree. I think one of the problems in the Congress — I was looking over a list here of our Republicans and good God! I mean we have got people over seventy that I hadn't realized. I mean Les Arends, Bill Widnall, and so forth. They are too old. They are too old. You know what I mean?
BURGER: You can't keep —
NIXON: Not because — understand, up until — I think you could, frankly — in a court, you could serve till seventy-five, because there it is a different kind of thing.
BURGER: The pace is different.
NIXON: But at the Congress I think in the House and the Senate you should be out of there by seventy. You know, that's a murderous thing down there.
BURGER: That is the big reform that needs to be had over there. It is just getting some vigorous young guys in their forties.
NIXON: Nobody should run for the House if he's over forty, because he can't amount to anything. Run for the first time I mean, and nobody should run for the Senate if he is over fifty, for the first time.
NIXON: You see because you have to be in so you can serve for twenty years. I have been trying to preach this. George Bush is going to help a lot in that respect. He is a great choice for chairman.
BURGER: Well, he will be an attractive guy to attract candidates, the young —
NIXON: Yeah, you see we have Bush on that point. And [Bill] Brock is going to be the Senate campaign committee man. He is a young, vigorous fellow, and Bill — Bud Brown, you know, the son of —
NIXON: Clarence's son. Who is just bright as a tack. He is going to do the House job. He is — well, he is a big, smart, not nearly as abrasive as Clarence and almost as smart. So I think we will have a fine team getting candidates this time.
BURGER: Well, it is mighty nice of you to take the trouble to call back. We just wanted to leave our greetings —
NIXON: Well, we will see you on the inauguration. I mean, you are the guy who has to swear me in, you know?
BURGER: Yes, the vice president I talked to the other day. I guess that tradition has varied with the vice president.
BURGER: But he called me and asked me if I would do it, and I said yes and I will do two for the price of one!
NIXON: That's right. That's right.
BURGER: Well —
NIXON: Well, actually what happens is that in — the vice president actually normally does pick somebody else. I had [William F.] Knowland swear me in in '56. I don't know who did it the other time. I've forgotten. Knowland did it in '56, but it doesn't make — it's a matter of — it varies, and I think it is really neater to have you do both.
BURGER: Yes, it reduces one more body on the platform.
NIXON: That's right. That's right. [laughs] I hadn't thought of that, hadn't thought of that.
BURGER: Space is going to be a premium.
NIXON: That's right. Well, we will look forward to seeing you.
BURGER: We are looking forward to seeing you, too.
NIXON: One of the beauties of my oath, you know, it is very short. His is quite long. His is the same as the — you know the difference. Did you know there was a difference?
BURGER: Yeah, yes.
NIXON: His is that long one that you give to senators, but mine is very short. I just swear to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States.
BURGER: About seven lines long.
NIXON: Yeah. Even I can remember that. Okay.
BURGER: Good to talk to you.
"As long as that court proceeding is on, the Congress should keep its goddamn hands off."
January 8, 1973, 4:05 p.m.
On Monday, January 8, 1973, the Watergate scandal arrived in the most prominent venue to consider it up to that time. The U.S. District Court in Washington, Judge John J. Sirica presiding, heard the case of the five men arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters the previous June, along with two White House aides suspected of complicity: G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt. Sirica, a longtime Republican, didn't intimidate Nixon, however. He was far more concerned with plans then accelerating in Congress to broaden its initial, somewhat sporadic Watergate investigation, spearheaded by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA). As Nixon and his advisor Colson sorted through the powerful Washingtonians then reacting to the scandal, they focused on Martha Mitchell, wife of Attorney General John Mitchell and an infamous operator in her own right. They also discussed the lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, counsel to the Democratic National Committee and owner of the Washington Redskins football team. Nixon and Colson seemed confident in early January that the scandal could be contained, discounting the dogged determination of others to find out, as Sirica put it just before the trial began, "What did these men go into the headquarters for? What was their purpose? Who hired them to go in there?"
NIXON: Incidentally, Haldeman was telling — told me that apparently that Hunt is going to [unclear] now — very definitely. I think it's the right thing for him to do, Chuck.
COLSON: He's doing it on my urging.
NIXON: Well, I understand that Haldeman is after some kid they've got that — whether he was — quit because he wanted him to bug Gary Hart.
COLSON: Yeah, that's true. Yeah, he was the one that bugged McGovern headquarters. Yeah, I suspect so.
NIXON: But how could that be, for this reason: Watergate came before McGovern got off the ground and I didn't know why the hell we were bugging McGovern.
COLSON: Well, remember that was after the California primary.
NIXON: Watergate was?
Excerpted from "The Nixon Tapes: 1973"
Copyright © 2015 Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
Cast of Characters,
Abbreviations and Terms,
1973–1974 Timeline of Key Events,
Index of Subjects,
Index of Names,
Read More from Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter,
About the Editors,