The historical reckoning of most modern presidents goes through several seasons, but it’s been a long, cold winter for Richard Nixon. During the 40 years since he left office, his legacy has been defined solely by the Watergate scandal that led to his resignation.
The same Oval Office recordings that were so crucial in establishing Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate cover-up, says historian Douglas Brinkley, are beginning to thaw his reputation on matters of foreign policy. Brinkley is co-editor with Luke Nichter of The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972, the first of an ambitious two-volume collection of Nixon’s Oval Office recordings published just ahead of this week’s 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation from office on August 9, 1974.
Brinkley, who has written books about Teddy Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter, and edited The Reagan Diaries, talked to The Daily Beast about what the Nixon tapes will mean for historians’ assessments of the 37th president.
How does a president’s legacy usually change over 30 or 40 years?
Because we have a 25-year Freedom of Information Act rule, which simply means you start getting more documentation from a president about 25 years after they leave office, you start getting upward revision of presidents. We beat up on them when they’re in office, but 25 years later most of them look a little better.
Certainly, we have had an upward revisionism of Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan. As we speak, I think another one is taking place for Lyndon Johnson with his civil rights work. And George Herbert Walker Bush for smoothly overseeing the end of the Cold War. So there tends to be this upward revision.
What has the trajectory of Nixon’s legacy been?
Nixon is a flatline, and it’s a low flatline. He’s unable to get out of the basement of presidents because of these tapes. There’s too much incendiary material in them to start building a true revisionist movement—meaning an anti-Semitic slur, a putdown of all people with dark skin. These types of comments coming from the White House, from the Oval Office, it takes your breath away. In some ways, it’s very raw and disturbing.
If you stop for a minute and just realize that’s “tough talk” and just try to follow the line of thought of what Nixon is doing, he becomes a very significant president. After all, the 1972 breakthrough with China is a huge moment. His astute detente diplomacy with the Soviet Union, trying to make the world a safer place, gets high marks.
On domestic affairs, it’s Nixon who creates the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, the Environmental Protection Agency. In many ways, Nixon was our last New Deal president. He believed in the fact that the federal government could make your life better for you. This 40 years of Nixon’s resignation is really the beginning of Nixon’s revisionism, and it may help him move forward a few notches on the history ladder, but it’s still a lot of black eyes he gets because there’s always something new and incriminating being uttered on the tapes.
What were the significant records, memoirs, and other reveals that preceded this book?
Steve Ambrose did a really solid three-volume history of Nixon for Simon & Schuster, and it’s pretty much timeline history. It’s become a great source. It sort of lays it all on the line what happened during Nixon’s life. There’s been some attempts to understand Nixon as a young man. Roger Morris has done a biography on Nixon’s early years in California, and you see how that state affected his personality and his political beliefs.
In more recent times, we have had some interesting books. Jeffrey Frank wrote a fine book about the Nixon and Eisenhower relationship which shows Nixon to be doing more during the Ike period when he was vice president than we had previously known. There’s always books coming out. Kissinger’s memoirs are so voluminous and detailed that scholars always turn to Kissinger’s side of things. Margaret Macmillan did a book on Nixon and Mao that’s really stupendous.
There’s a massive amount of protest literature about Nixon ranging from books about how he blew it in Cambodia and Laos in the ’70s to a whole cottage industry of books on Watergate. The best scholarship on Watergate has been done by a man named Stanley Kutler at the University of Wisconsin at Madison; his book Abuse of Power has thus far been the great Watergate book because he was using raw tapes in that book to tell us about the fall of Nixon.
Would you say on the balance that the Nixon tapes raise his stock as a foreign policy president?
I think the tapes on foreign policy show just how it was Nixon’s foreign policy and not Kissinger’s. How totally in command he was on things. How he was hoping to do a grand Wilsonian realignment of great powers. And the idea was that in the 21st century that there would be two superpowers—the United States and China—and how everything was connected. All roads led to Beijing. The things he was doing in Vietnam—not withdrawing [troops] early or doing a bombing campaign—all had a connection to his China policy. He needed to prove to China that we were tough and that we wouldn’t abandon allies. Even though we may recognize China, we may not abandon Taiwan.
The tapes show the elaborate thinking of Nixon, which makes him in some ways as a geo-strategist a hardcore realist, look fairly impressive. But then you get to the cold, callous view of the world—a guy who didn’t care enough about human rights—and it becomes disturbing. His utter hatred of the people of India, his mocking of folks in poverty around the world, his lack of sympathy of the downtrodden—that side makes him not a heroic figure. It very well may be that Nixon was a good president but not a good man.
One of the things you wrote in The Nixon Tapes is that Nixon wanted to record his Oval Office conversations because he saw himself as a foreign policy statesman for the ages and recording everything was the best way to document what he was going to do. Is that pretty accurate?
Oh, exactly. Perfectly said. Remember, he not only won in 1968, but in 1972 he won in the largest landslide in American history—just slaughtered George McGovern. So there’s a moment at the end of 1972 when he says someone should write a book about this. He just had an extraordinary year. The Apollo program had been going well, man had been going to the moon, we had just recognized China and had the great breakthrough, he had created a whole new environmental movement in America, he had quelled civil rights unrest that had been plaguing the ’60s, on and on.
He just said, “I’m on the way to being one of the giants in American history.” And so the taping continues into ’73, and of course the seeds of his destruction are in those tapes. That’s what rips him from the heart of power during Watergate.
If you come forward from Nixon, we don’t know that any subsequent presidents actually taped significant portions of what was spoken from the Oval Office. Is that right?
Right. This was voice-activated Nixon. This is technology that wasn’t even used at the time. There’s limited taping by FDR, Kennedy, Johnson—usually on the phone or on a specific meeting like the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nixon bugged everything. He’s taping his telephone in the Oval Office. He’s taping the sitting area in the Oval Office. He’s bugging Camp David. He’s got everything wired, so his voice is being picked up constantly.
One of the challenges that Luke Nichter and I had was deciphering the tapes. Not the ones on the telephone; those are clear. But when you get the ones where they are talking and the microphone is in a potted plant on a shelf nearby, it was hard to get the voice. But with new technology, we were able to do it very accurately.
We know Clinton did interviews with Taylor Branch. Did other presidents subsequent to Nixon keep extensive contemporaneous records?
I edited Ronald Reagan’s diaries. Reagan kept a daily diary. Almost every single day he wrote something in it, and it served his legacy well. It became a No. 1 [best-seller], and it’s footnoted by all scholars of Reagan’s times because it shows you his basic thoughts of the day. But Nixon was going for the gold; he was going to get everything. Part of it was that he was dirt poor. We forget what it was like in Yorba Linda, California, and what his childhood was like.
Nixon thought when he left office that these tapes were going to be his golden egg—that it would take care of Pat and be a retirement. Not just selling the tapes but having them to mine for his memoirs, other foreign affairs books he wanted to write. Let’s say you said Nixon did something; Nixon could have gone back, had it indexed, and proved what he wanted, and proved scholars or journalists wrong. It was a huge controlling factor to control the tapes. He thought he’d be able to keep them forever and be able to work his way through them all, maybe with some paid help, and then control the tapes and erase parts of them that he didn’t like or didn’t want history to have. And of course, as we know, he never got the luxury of doing that.
Nixon thought this was going to be his 10-volume opus.
I think he thought he could do like Winston Churchill did on The Second World War. [Churchill wrote a six-volume history of World War II called The Second World War.] He admired Churchill’s books so much, and he thought he could do a multiple-volume history about the Cold War and the grand realignment he was overseeing.