It could have come straight out of Oliver Stone’s screenplay of Nixon. “ Never forget,” rasped the 37th president to his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. “The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The Establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. The professors are the enemy. Write that on the blackboard 100 times.”
It has become a fixed point on the holiday calendar, an annual treat that combines nostalgia with nausea, what Nixon’s investigative assassin Carl Bernstein describes as “the gift that keeps on giving.” A smoldering new batch of White House tapes has been released featuring, in his own words, the unadorned paranoia and melodramatic egotism of Richard Nixon, the president we love to hate.
It is his opponents in the press rather than the American people, still less the Vietnamese, that concern Nixon. “This should have some effect on our brethren in the press, shouldn’t it?” he asks Kissinger.
This year, the new Nixon tapes act as a trailer for the upcoming movie Frost/Nixon, in which Frank Langella follows in Anthony Hopkins’ shoes and adopts the complex, crippled character of the most enigmatic yet transparent president America has ever endured.
The latest tape dump catches a particular moment—the decision to bomb the North Vietnamese back to the peace conference table in Paris over Christmas 1972. While there are few new nuggets of fact to excite historians, there is the forbidden pleasure of eavesdropping on the frozen, scratchy, echoing voices caught in candid conversation by the White House’s primitive automatic bugging system, which rough recorded for posterity at Nixon’s insistence all conversations and phone calls in and out of the Oval Office.
In November 1972, Nixon had just been elected president by the largest margin in American history, an overwhelming majority of the popular vote, 47 million to George McGovern’s 29, and 49 states out of 50 in the electoral college. (The holdout was Maine.)
Yet within just a few weeks of this ringing personal endorsement, Nixon was again wrestling with his demons, and the Black Dog of pessimism and depression had once more consumed him. Around the edges of hearing reports about the Christmas bombing campaign, which drove the North Vietnamese to resume the negotiations led by Kissinger to end the Vietnam War, Nixon can be heard snarling at his perceived enemies in “the Establishment.”
Kissinger tells Nixon that a New York friend, a prominent Democrat, was going to write an open letter to the president. “Protesting?” asks Nixon, before he answers his own question, “Of course.”
Kissinger, who hung up on his friend after blaming Democrats like him for starting the war and then preventing Nixon from ending it, bemoans “that New York establishment...”
“They’re done. They’re done,” interjects Nixon, as if his recent landslide had not merely defeated but liquidated his opponents. More interested in the public relations problem of how best to present the bombings to the people and how to stop the resumed peace talks from interfering with his inauguration than the details of the diplomatic process, Nixon cannot get the press off his mind.
Although Kissinger had worked for him as national security adviser for the prior four years, Nixon still feels his unlikely close confidant has not gotten the message. “Never forget,” he tells Dr. K., quite without humor, “the press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The Establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. The professors are the enemy. Write that on the blackboard 100 times.”
When Kissinger, trying to lighten the moment, mentions that he, too, is a professor, Nixon steamrollers right over him. When it comes to fighting “the enemy,” there is no time for levity.
Having invited a storm of press criticism for ordering the bombing of Hanoi and other North Vietnamese population centers over Christmas 1972, Kissinger calls Nixon to tell him the Vietnamese are ready to return to the Paris talks.
Again it is his opponents in the press rather than the American people, still less the Vietnamese, that concern Nixon. “This should have some effect on our brethren in the press, shouldn’t it?” he asks Kissinger. Then he speculates over whether the weekly news magazines will have time enough to get the news in their pre-inauguration editions.
Kissinger, at his oleaginous best, tries to reassure Nixon that, whatever the press says, the bombing achieved its intention. “This is another spectacular for you, Mr. President,” says Kissinger. “It took terrific courage to do it.”
Still, Nixon is in no mood to be flattered. “Well, I don’t know about that,” he says, “but it pricked the boil, didn’t it?”
Ever the lawyer, the president reveals a mastery of detail. In answer to press condemnation of the gigantic scale of the bombing of Vietnam, Nixon defends his decision to use B-52s Stratofortresses.
Kissinger: “Anything else would have been worse in the long run.” Nixon: “We couldn’t do it with anything but B52s because, goddamit, there’s nothing else that can fly at this time of the year.”
Kissinger goes into reassurance overdrive. “Within 10 days you got these guys back to the table, which no other method could have done,” he said. “I think they are finally on their knees.”
More than 30 years after driving Nixon out of the White House, Watergate sleuth Carl Bernstein still cannot credit how his subject remained so blithely self-centered. “There’s nothing on these tapes in which the president of the United States talks about what’s good for the country,” he told Joe Scarborough on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “It’s always about his enemies and what’s good for Nixon.”
But if Nixon continues to send a shiver down the spine from beyond the grave, his vindictive intuition was wrong about at least one thing. “Remember,” he tells Kissinger in the newly released tapes, “we are going to outlive our enemies.” After spending the last 20 years of his life trying to restore his battered reputation, Nixon died on April 22, 1994.
Listen to the Nixon Tapes.
Nicholas Wapshott is a senior editor at The Daily Beast.