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Wed May 21, 2014
Politics

40 Years After Watergate, A Look Back At Nixon's Downfall

Originally published on Thu May 22, 2014 11:43 am

Forty years ago, in mid-May 1974, Elizabeth Drew, the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker, wrote this in her journal: "Rumors went around the Capitol today that the President was resigning."

The Capitol, she observed was "noisy and edgy .. and in the hothouse atmosphere, the rumors burst into full bloom."

By August 1974 the president in question, Richard Nixon, would resign rather than face a Senate impeachment trial.

Drew's Washington Journal, published later that year, recounted Nixon's demise. The book has now been reissued, with a new 10,000-word afterword. Drew tells NPR's Robert Siegel about Nixon's plans to rehabilitate his image and what the drama Frost/Nixon got wrong about the former president.


Interview Highlights

On Nixon's plan to restore his reputation — an operation code-named "Wizard"

I don't think there are very many people who could have taken the crushing blow that Richard Nixon took. He had spent so many years trying to be president, and he finally got there in 1968, and then [was] smashingly re-elected in 1972. And he was going to get back up and he was going to show 'em. So Wizard was [his plan to] get respect back, and the main idea was, do it through being a foreign policy guru.

On how Nixon, almost 20 years after he left office, got Bill Clinton to acknowledge his foreign policy credentials

Nixon wanted Clinton to call on him for advice on how to conduct foreign policy. Russia and China were really Nixon's big achievements: opening relations with China and achieving detente with Russia. And Clinton wasn't too eager to be calling on Nixon. So Nixon got word to Clinton through various channels: "Unless he calls me in for advice on how to deal with Boris Yeltsin at the upcoming summit in Vancouver, I will write an op-ed attacking his conduct to foreign policy."

So Clinton called him up — but that wasn't enough. So more pressure on Clinton. So finally he had him into the White House, but he managed to do it at night when the press wasn't around, no photographs could be taken. But that's how he operated. That was Nixon.

On a famous line from the play and film Frost/Nixon

"Nixon: It was a difficult time. I was caught up in a five-front war against a partisan media, a partisan House of Congress, a partisan Ervin committee. But, yes, I will admit there were times I did not fully meet that responsibility and I was involved in a cover-up, as you call it."

That was a lie. It didn't happen. What Nixon said was the opposite — they just left out some words. David Frost was pressing him to get a confession — by the way, this was all a commercial deal, you know. Nixon got paid a lot of money, $600,000, for agreeing to this, and ... he also was going to get a cut of the sales. So these men were in business together. But Nixon would go only so far. So what the line was: "You're wanting me to say that I was involved in a cover-up? No."

So they turned it upside down. And that was sort of the high drama point of the play and movie, and it didn't happen.

On how Richard Nixon's psychology helped create the scandal

The hatred and the resentment started when he was very young. And he was not in the right clubs in high school, and he was not likeable. ... It was a very odd personality to go into politics. He was awkward. In the end, the fact that he saw people as his enemies — which he'd been doing since he was a child — is what brought him down. But there's a lot of courage in there. The Wizard thing, the fact that he could pick himself up — there's a certain nobility in that.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Forty years ago, in mid-May 1974, Elizabeth Drew, the Washington correspondent of the New Yorker, wrote this in her journal: Rumors went around the Capitol today that the president was resigning. The Capitol, she observed, was noisy and edgy, and in the hothouse atmosphere, the rumors burst into full bloom. By August 1974, the president in question, Richard Nixon, would resign rather than face impeachment and a trial in the Senate. Elizabeth Drew's book, "Washington Journal," recounted Nixon's demise when it came out the following year. It's now been reissued with a new 10,000-word afterword. And Elizabeth Drew joins us now. Welcome to the program.

ELIZABETH DREW: I'm delighted to be back, Robert.

SIEGEL: One of the things that you write about in the afterword is Richard Nixon's plan to rehabilitate himself. Here he was, he had resigned from the presidency in disgrace and then came a plan, which you say was called Wizard. What was Wizard all about?

DREW: Wizard was how would Nixon get his reputation back. I don't think there are very many people who could have taken the crushing blow that Richard Nixon took. He had spent so many years trying to be president and he finally got there in 1968, and then smashingly reelected in 1972. So, Wizard was how do you get respect back, through being a foreign policy guru, that was the idea.

SIEGEL: He did this with very sharp elbows also. You describe a moment when Richard Nixon - by now almost 20 years out of the White House - manages to get Bill Clinton to acknowledge him, Nixon, as a great foreign policy thinker. What happened?

DREW: Nixon wanted Clinton to call on him for advice. Russia and China were really Nixon's big achievements: opening relations with China and achieving detente with Russia. And Clinton wasn't too eager to be calling on Nixon. So, Nixon got word to Clinton through various channels - unless he calls me in for advice on how to deal with Boris Yeltsin at the upcoming summit in Vancouver, I will write an op-ed attacking his conduct of foreign policy. So, Clinton called him up but that wasn't enough. And so more pressure on Clinton. And so finally he had him into the White House, but he managed to do it at night when, I don't know, the press wasn't around, no photographs could be taken. But that's how he operated. That was Nixon.

SIEGEL: Richard Nixon, I guess, like the English kings who get to be remembered the way that Shakespeare chose to remember them, has been preserved in drama and film in "Frost Nixon." And I want to play a line from the movie that, for you, the line that you remark upon in the afterword. Here is a bit of Frank Langella playing Richard Nixon in the David Frost interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

FRANK LANGELLA: (as Richard Nixon) It was a difficult time. I was caught up in a five-front war against a partisan media, a partisan House of Congress, a partisan Ervin committee. But, yes, I will admit there were times I did not fully meet that responsibility and I was involved in a cover-up, as you call it.

SIEGEL: I was involved in a cover-up, as you call it - you remark in the book and I've been through transcripts and videos of the original interview and the play. And while there's a lot of teary confession in there, he never says I was involved.

DREW: That was a lie. It didn't happen. What Nixon said was the opposite - they just left out some words. David Frost was pressing him to get a confession - by the way, this was all a commercial deal, you know. Nixon got paid a lot of money, $600,000, for agreeing to this, and the more - he also was going to get a cut of the sales. So, these men were in business together. But Nixon would go only so far. So, what the line was: You're wanting me to say that I was involved in a cover-up? No.

SIEGEL: No. You wanted me...

DREW: They turned it upside down. And that was sort of the high drama point of the play and movie, and it didn't happen.

SIEGEL: Ultimately, your explanation of what was going on during all that time, it's a very psychological explanation. It's about this strange man who was in the limelight from the late 1940s until the early 1970s, either reaching for power or holding it.

DREW: The hatred and the resentment started when he was very young. And he was not in the right clubs in high school and he was not likeable. And a very strange...

SIEGEL: The astonishing thing is he was president of the United States.

DREW: Well, I was going to say, it was a very odd personality to go into politics. He was awkward. In the end, the fact that he saw people as his enemies - which he'd been doing since he was a child - is what brought him down. But there's a lot of courage in there. I mean, the Wizard thing, the fact that he could pick himself up, there was a certain nobility in that.

SIEGEL: Elizabeth Drew, thanks a lot for talking with us.

DREW: Robert, it's always a pleasure.

SIEGEL: And we've been talking about the reissue, with a new afterward, of Elizabeth Drew's book, "Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon's Downfall." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.