John Taylor: 30 Years After Watergate -- What We Need to Remember

Roundup: Talking About History

John Taylor, executive director of the NIxon Foundation (March 29, 2004), at a conference held in memory of Watergate at the Lou Frey Institute of Politics & Government at the University of Central Florida in Orlando:

Our gathering this week is timely indeed – and not just because of the approaching anniversary of the end of the Nixon Administration.

During the recent Presidential primary season, it sometimes felt like 1972 all over again.

Nearly ten years after President Nixon's death, Howard Dean denounced President Nixon's so-called Southern Strategy – which was a little ironic, since Gov. Dean had himself said he wanted the votes of guys with Confederate flags on their windshields.

John Kerry told audiences at his rallies that he was proud of having stood up to Richard Nixon over Vietnam.

President Bush was questioned about his service in the National Guard during the Nixon Administration.

We rely on gatherings such as this one, among many other devices, to remind ourselves of events that otherwise would begin to slip behind the veil of memory.

But we evidently don't need reminding when it comes to Richard Nixon and the dramatic events of his Presidency.

In politics – in culture – in our spiritual and family lives – we tend to revisit our foundational stories, sometimes because of their power to inspire us, and sometimes because of the pain they embody.

Over the next two days, we will be preoccupied with the trauma of Watergate.

But I would suggest that when we think about the Nixon years, the subject that really bedevils us – that haunts our politics – that even influences the way leaders make decisions about war and peace in the age of terrorism – that subject is not Watergate but rather the war in Vietnam.

In a quarter-century working for the former President and his library, I've had my share of conversations and debates about Richard Nixon. Many have begun with Watergate. Most get around eventually to Vietnam.

When President Nixon ordered bombing raids and incursions into Cambodia in 1969 and 1970, was he invading a peaceful, neutral country -- or was he saving lives by taking the battle into sanctuaries the North Vietnamese were using to launch attacks on our troops and allies in South Vietnam?

When he ordered B-52s to attack targets into North Vietnam in December 1972, was it the act of a “maddened tyrant,” as his critics said – or a lonely but necessary step to break the will of the leaders in Hanoi and bring our prisoners of war home?

After President Nixon brought an end to U.S. involvement in Vietnam with the Paris Peace Accords, did Saigon fall 27 months later because of the superiority and skill of the North Vietnamese -- because history was on the side of that crushing, neo-Stalinist regime -- or because the Congress of the United States let South Vietnam run out of bullets?

Was Daniel Ellsberg -- the Vietnam war architect-turned-antiwar activist who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press -- was he a hero, or a rogue?

Did the United States have interests and obligations in Vietnam, or did it not?

These questions are still lively and painful -- especially for anyone whose life and family were touched by the war. They will not be resolved by us this week.

Some of us may even be saying to ourselves that this is not a conference about Vietnam, but a conference about Watergate.

I do suggest that because the war begat the scandal – because Watergate grew out of America's argument with itself about Vietnam – history should weigh the two subjects side by side.

I also suggest that Richard Nixon's standing in history is held hostage to the simmering tension of these same unresolved questions.

As for the specific links between Vietnam and Watergate, they are innumerable.

On a purely practical level, there would have been no one to break into Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate if the Nixon White House had not created the so-called Plumbers unit to investigate the largest wartime national security leak in human history – the Pentagon Papers.

And when President Nixon angrily ordered his aides in June 1971 to blow the safe at the Brookings Institution to find out if officials there were involved in the Pentagon Papers leak, it was the anger of a commander-in-chief during wartime.

It is of course hard for most of us to understand what it is like to be responsible for the lives of troops under our command.

Today President Bush must bear the burden, along with their families, of losing 560 courageous Americans in Iraq in a little over a year.

At the height of the Vietnam war in May 1969, that many young Americans died in four and a half weeks.

Regarding the Brookings Institution, President Nixon's anger passed. No one blew its safe. But because President Nixon's passion was preserved on tape, the historical Nixon is still called to account for his anger.

I sometimes wonder how FDR might have felt in a similar moment. Think, for instance, about the siege of Corregidor in the Philippines during World War II, when Roosevelt thought he was about to lose Douglas MacArthur and had no way to stop it.

What if, at that time, one of his aides told him that a War Department aide-turned-pacifist had given some pre-war Japanese cables to the press to try to weaken the case for the war in the Pacific?

Would Roosevelt have gotten angry? We may imagine so. Would history have forgiven him his anger? We hope so.

Yet history tends not to lump Richard Nixon with FDR, Abraham Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson.

Our young people are not taught automatically to think of him as a wartime commander-in-chief.

When schoolchildren come to the Nixon Library, I often ask them for the first word that comes into their head about President Nixon. They almost always say Watergate.

I respond with carefully studied patience. “That's okay, kids,” I say. “What's the second word that comes into your heads?”

If there is a second word, it is almost never Vietnam.

And yet when I ask them how many of their families were touched by the war, usually a quarter of them raise their hands. When they learn that President Nixon may have commanded their fathers or mothers -- their uncles or grandfathers -- they seem to regard the displays in our museum with more alert eyes.

Of course by the time President Nixon inherited the Vietnam War, the elite consensus about the war's aims and prospects had eroded.

No one who thought the war illegitimate or illegal was likely to afford Richard Nixon the latitude that most war Presidents had enjoyed.

By the same token, President Nixon's conceptions of his responsibilities -- and of the resources available to his office -- were not influenced by others' judgment that the war had been a bad idea.

This disconnect between the President and his critics over his war powers – rooted in a disconnect over the morality of the war – helps explain why the aspect of the President's Watergate defense that was rooted in national security was not persuasive and eventually become the focal point of ridicule.

Let me be clear. I would not ask history to excuse everything – or indeed to excuse anything – that President Nixon did or said purely on the basis that he was a war President.

I merely hope history will remember that he was a war President.

I hope history will construe his passions as being legitimately rooted in his profound sense of obligation to our troops and our nation's security and standing in the world.

I hope history will understand that his critics in the Congress were subject to passions of their own that were also rooted in their beliefs about the war and America's role in the world.

I hope history will see that some in Congress pursued Richard Nixon with the same determination and even enthusiasm as Bill Clinton's Republican critics exhibited when he was impeached.

So I do hope that the historical Nixon remains a work in progress. Perhaps that is just a friend's wishful thinking.

Yet as the 2004 campaign amply demonstrates and our two days together likely will as well, Richard Nixon continues to provoke strenuous debate.

He liked to say that in politics, the one thing worse than being wrong was being dull.

About a politician who has been gone these ten years, he might say that the one thing worse than being controversial is being forgotten.

The Frey Institute deserves thanks and praise for convening this conference dedicated to the proposition that history still has work to do.

And yet one senses in some quarters the desire to pronounce a premature judgment by associating Richard Nixon directly with Watergate's two most fateful acts.

On top of the scandal – the cover-up – the tapes -- President Nixon's humiliating resignation, some seem intent on finding some proof that he ordered or knew in advance of two burglaries: In June 1972 at the Watergate, and in September 1971 at the Los Angeles office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist, Lewis Fielding.

Lacking proof, some writers and journalists proclaim that he must have known about them. Such was the combative mentality of the Nixon White House. Such is the combative mentality of some Nixon historians.

The first of these break-ins, at Dr. Fielding's office, was authorized by domestic policy aide John Ehrlichman, who did not inform the President except to say that an operation had been aborted in Los Angeles. So far, there is no proof that President Nixon learned that it had occurred until the spring of 1973.

This is a vital point, since the President allegedly covered up Watergate to keep the FBI from learning of the Plumbers's prior illegal activities. But if he didn't know about any illegal activities when the cover-up began, his own account becomes entirely defensible.

As for the Watergate break-in itself, until last year, no one had reliably accused President Nixon of ordering it. Then PBS broadcast a documentary in which campaign aide Jeb Magruder said that he overheard President Nixon authorize the break-in during a telephone conversation with John Mitchell when Mitchell and Magruder were together in Florida in March 1972.

Magruder's account contradicted his earlier writings and statements. Fred LaRue, another campaign aide, was in the meeting, and he says it didn't happen. Most important, the White House tapes and logs show that President Nixon made no such phone call.

The PBS producers did not seek out Fred LaRue to try to confirm Magruder's story. If they were aware that the tapes contradicted it as well, they did not say so in the broadcast.

Your keynote speaker this evening, Bob Woodward, calls the Nixon White House tapes the gift that keeps on giving.

It is unfortunate that PBS failed to give President Nixon the gift of the benefit of the doubt by telling its viewers that the tapes contradicted Magruder's momentous charge.

PBS was perhaps too eager to show that it had unearthed Watergate's Holy Grail -- that it had finally proven President Nixon's original sin.

Was Watergate indeed merely the result of Richard Nixon's nature?

Or was it the culmination of a national argument about war and peace as pained and poisoned as any that had occurred in our country since the Civil War?

Richard Nixon believed vital American interests were at stake in Indochina. He also hoped that the United States would give the people of Vietnam and Cambodia the chance to live in freedom. He chose to remain in Vietnam when it would have been politically wiser to withdraw.

George W. Bush believes vital American interests are at stake in Iraq. He also hopes that the United States will have given the people of Iraq the chance to live in freedom. He chose to spearhead an invasion of Iraq that it would have been politically wiser to avoid.

In 2004, we once again find ourselves divided over a controversial military intervention – divided Democrat vs. Republican, blue vs. red, multilateralist vs. unilateralist, hawk vs. dove. Already the rhetoric is heated, even caustic.

There is almost no doubt that history will judge President Bush largely on his decision to go to war in Iraq, just as President Nixon is symbolically associated with America's devastating defeat in Vietnam.

At no time since President Nixon's resignation does it seem more advisable to study Watergate with an eye to understanding how policy differences can become political, personal, and ultimately poisonous. Let us bear that in mind in our two days together -- and in the months leading up to the November election.

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h a - 1/9/2006

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