Friday, May 27, 2011

My Visit to NixonLand, part 2

Click here for Part 1.

Joyner and I moved quickly through the next few rooms - a hallway full of souvenirs and a spacious tribute to Nixon’s domestic policies - so as to get a feel for the Watergate exhibit. We walked into a long, dimly-lit room (“the second-largest exhibit space in the museum”) with a rambling 12-part defense of Nixon’s actions, above which were a series of quotations from Nixon’s admirers and `enemies.’ The text defined Watergate as “a catchword for every misjudgment, miscalculation or crime, imagined or real, that had ever been contemplated by anyone even remotely connected with the Nixon administration.”

Nixon himself, it is conceded, says that he made inexcusable misjudgments - left unspecified - during the course of the affair. These little mistakes, though, were “ruthlessly exploited” by his opponents “as a way to further their own, purely political goals,” - in marked contrast, of course, to the lofty philosophical plane that Nixon operated on.

Throughout the text, in sections like “The Drumbeat Swells,” “The Fishing Expedition Continues,” and “Meanwhile, Beyond the Beltway,” it was implied that Nixon’s descent into the quagmire was caused by an overzealous press corps and a bunch of Kennedy liberals in the Special Prosecutor’s office. The press, inexplicably, focused an inordinate amount of attention on John Dean’s testimony that Nixon had obstructed justice, “when he was contradicted by every other witness before the committee.” As for Prosecutor Cox, he refused to accept a perfectly reasonable compromise whereby he could take the word of senile Dixiecrat John Stennis that there was nothing incriminatory on the subpoenaed tapes. Along with these feeble excuses, another familiar scapegoat was trotted out.

“Nixon was also concerned,” it ran, “ that his friend and former Attorney General John Mitchell, who was chairman of the campaign committee, might not have been minding the store, so burdened was he by the difficult troubles his wife, the colorful Martha Mitchell, was experiencing.”

“These people are shameless!” I exclaimed. “They’ve got a lot of nerve trying to pin this on Martha Mitchell after what they did to her.”

“Why, Mark,” asked John, egging me on, “what did they do to her?”

“Oh, kidnapped her, beat her, drugged her...”

“Why would they do that?”

“Well, she would call up reporters in the middle of the night and say things like `my husband and the President are doing terrible things, they’re mixed up with organized crime.’ She’d probably have a lot more interesting things to say about it, if she wasn’t dead.” Many of the tourists gawking at the Watergate display listened to this exchange with interest, though others sidled away as quickly as possible. My assertions, however, were completely beyond the pale for a pair of elderly Republican women.

“Oh, they think they know it all, but they don’t know anything,” sniffed one.

“But I’ve been studying the man for eight years,” I offered.

“Well, what have you read?”

“All of the relevant texts.”

“He has!” injected Joyner, but the ladies left us with a humph. Undaunted, we sat down to listen to the Watergate tapes at a comfortable display in the middle of the room. Unfortunately, we found that two of the three tapes to be included in the exhibit would not be installed for another couple of months. Later I would note with puzzlement that the two tapes, for April 21st and 22nd, 1973, were not included in my Presidential Transcripts paperback. I wondered what relevance these conversations would have to Nixon’s defense, coming just days after he had authorized paying a million dollars in hush money to E. Howard Hunt, tender of a closetful of fairly large skeletons. What it came down to, then, was that the sole Watergate tape available to visitors to the Nixon Library on opening day was the `Smoking Gun Tape’ of June 23, 1972. When the transcript was released, in August of 1974, it destroyed what little support Nixon had left, as it proved that he had been bald-facedly lying for the previous two years- to his wife and daughters, his befuddled lawyers, and the American people- when he claimed to be unaware of any attempts to cover up his Administration’s involvement with the Watergate break-in.

Neither John or I had ever heard the tape before, and we howled with laughter to hear Nixon mutter the familiar words, “Thank God it wasn’t Colson,” when informed of John Mitchell’s role in the affair. We glanced knowingly at each other as we heard Nixon tell his Chief of Staff Haldeman to get the CIA to derail the FBI’s investigation of Watergate “because it would open the whole, the whole Bay of Pigs thing...” - a reference, Haldeman later said, to the assassination of President Kennedy.

The obvious problem with the Nixon Library’s presentation of this crucial information was that it had been heavily and selectively edited. After each damning instance of obstruction of justice, the Smoking Gun Tape would stop, and a narrator would explain, in effect, that even though the President and his aide sound like a couple of gangsters, it not nearly as bad as it sounds, because they’re just exploring all of their options, or speaking hypothetically, or so on. Interspersed with the historic dialogue are what are purported to be excerpts from Nixon’s personal dictabelt diary from that evening, contradicting the impressions given by the Haldeman tape - though for some reason, the actual dictabelt is not used, and an actor reads us the words Nixon is alleged to have spoken that night.

Even more suspicious, as Joyner pointed out, is that one of the Smoking Gun excerpts is cut off in mid-sentence. After Nixon asks Haldeman, “Well, what the hell, did Mitchell know about this?”, he is informed, “I think so. I don’t think he knew the details, but I think he knew.” Nixon’s response to that, library visitors are told, was, “He didn’t know how it was going to be handled.” At this point an abrupt electronic click punctuates the statement. When we examined the full transcript the next day, we found that what Nixon actually said was, “He didn’t know how it was going to be handled though - with Dahlberg and the Texans and so forth? Well who was the asshole that did? Is it Liddy? Is that the fellow? He must be a little nuts!” Not only does the Yorba Linda version hide Nixon’s detailed knowledge of the matter, it turns a question about Mitchell’s knowledge into a flat statement of innocence on the part of Nixon’s longtime crony.

The glib narration also explains away Nixon’s worries over opening the “scab” of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, involving “those Cubans, Hunt, and a lot of hanky panky that we have nothing to do with ourselves.” In fact, Nixon was hip-deep in plans to assassinate Castro and invade Cuba before John F. Kennedy was ever elected President. Most of the men arrested at the Watergate were part of those operations. E. Howard Hunt and his cohort Frank Sturgis were members of the CIA/Mafia assassination squad Operation 40, and both men have been repeatedly linked to the plot that took JFK’s life in Dealy Plaza. Nixon’s skittishness over these matters is thus perfectly understandable, but library visitors are merely told, in a memorable turn of phrase, that the President was referring to policies that were “legitimate, but hard to explain.”

At this point, our incessant hoots of derision had attracted the attention of still more reporters. They took turns interviewing the two of us, trading places once they had finished. I gave a terse soundbite to a local radio station regarding Nixon’s financial ties to organized crime and expatriate Nazis. I doubt that the bit was ever aired, but the Los Angeles Times for the next day quoted me as saying,”I think it’s just an awful, grandiose spectacle. It’s a terrible waste of money to glorify this awful man.” The Times also carried a brief account of what happened next.

To be continued...

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