Richard Nixon: Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.By definition.
Exactly, exactly. If the president, for example, approves something because of the national security, or in this case because of a threat to internal peace and order of significant magnitude, then the president’s decision in that instance is one that enables those who carry it out, to carry it out without violating a law. Otherwise they’re in an impossible position.
The point is: the dividing line is the president’s judgment?
Yes, and, so that one does not get the impression that a president can run amok in this country and get away with it, we have to have in mind that a president has to come up before the electorate. We also have to have in mind that a president has to get appropriations from the Congress. We have to have in mind, for example, that as far as the CIA’s covert operations are concerned, as far as the FBI’s covert operations are concerned, through the years, they have been disclosed on a very, very limited basis to trusted members of Congress.
Speaking of the presidency, you stated: «It’s quite obvious that there are certain inherently government activities, which, if undertaken by the sovereign in protection of the interests of the nation’s security, are lawful, but which if undertaken by private persons, are not.» What, at root, did you have in mind there?
Well, what I had in mind I think was perhaps much better stated by Lincoln during the war between the States. Lincoln said, and I think I can remember the quote almost exactly: «Actions which otherwise would be unconstitutional, could become lawful if undertaken for the purpose of preserving the constitution and the nation.»
Now that’s the kind of action I’m referring to. Of course in Lincoln’s case it was the survival of the Union in wartime, it’s the defense of the nation and, who knows, perhaps the survival of the nation.
But there is no comparison, is there, between the situation you faced and the situation Lincoln faced?
This nation was torn apart in an ideological way by the war in Vietnam, as much as the civil war tore apart the nation when Lincoln was president. Now it’s true that we didn’t have the north and the south …
But when you said, as you said when we were talking about the Huston Plan, «If the president orders it, that makes it legal», is there anything in the constitution or the bill of rights that suggests the president is that much of a sovereign, that far above the law?
No, there isn’t. There’s nothing specific that the constitution contemplates. I haven’t read every word, every jot and every tittle, but I do know that it has been argued that, as far as a president is concerned, that in wartime, a president does have certain extraordinary powers which would make acts that would otherwise be unlawful, lawful if undertaken for the purpose of preserving the nation and the constitution, which is essential for the rights we’re all talking about.
My reading of the transcript of the tapes tells me, trying to read them in an open-minded way, that the writing, not just between the lines, but on so many of the lines, is very, very clear — that you were in fact, endorsing at least the short-term solution of paying this sum of money to buy time. That would be my reading of it. But the other point to be said is: here’s [John] Dean [White House Counsel] talking about this hush money, for [one of the Watergate burglars, E Howard] Hunt, talking about blackmail and all of that. I would say that you endorsed or ratified it. But let’s leave that on one side …
I didn’t endorse or ratify it.
Why didn’t you stop it?
Because at that point I had no knowledge of the fact that it was going to be paid.
What I don’t understand about March 21 is that I still don’t know why you didn’t pick up the phone and tell the cops. You had found out about the things that [HR «Bob»] Haldeman [White House Chief of Staff] and [John] Erlichman [Nixon’s chief domestic advisor] had done but there is no evidence anywhere of a rebuke. But only of scenarios and excuses etc. Nowhere do you say we must get this information direct to whomever: the head of the justice department criminal investigation or whatever. And nowhere do you say to Haldeman and Erlichman «This is disgraceful conduct».
Well, could I take my time now to address that question. I think it will be very useful to you to know what I was going through. It wasn’t a very easy time. Here was the situation I was faced with: Who’s going to talk to these men [Erlichman and Haldeman]? What can we do about it? Well, first let me say that I didn’t have anyone who could talk to them but me. It took me two weeks to work it out, tortuous long sessions, hours and hours of talks with them, which they resisted — we don’t need to go through all that agony. And I remember the day at Camp David when they came up. Haldeman came in first. He said, «I disagree with your decision totally». He said, «I think it’s going to eventually … you’re going to live to regret it, but I will.» Erlichman then came in. I knew that Erlichman was bitter because he felt very strongly that he shouldn’t resign. Although he had even indicated that perhaps Haldeman should go and he should stay.
I said, «You know, John [Erlichman], when I went to bed last night I hoped, I almost prayed, that I wouldn’t wake up this morning.» Well, it was an emotional moment; I think there were tears in our eyes, both of us. He said, «Don’t say that.» We went back in, and they agreed to leave. It was late, but I did it. I cut off one arm and then cut off the other.
Now, I can be faulted; I recognise it. Maybe I defended them too long, maybe I tried to help them too much, but I was concerned about them, I was concerned about their families. I felt that they, and their hearts felt that they, were not guilty. I felt they ought to have a chance at least to prove that they were not guilty. And I didn’t want to be in the position of just sawing them off in that way.
And I suppose you could sum it all up the way one of your British prime ministers summed it up, Gladstone, when he said that the first requirement for a prime minister is to be a good butcher. Well, I think, as far as summary of Watergate is concerned, I did some of the big things rather well. I screwed up terribly on what was a little thing and became a big thing, but I will have to admit I wasn’t a good butcher.
You have explained how you have got caught up in this thing, you’ve explained your motives: I don’t want to quibble about any of that. But just coming to the substance: would you go further than «mistakes» — the word that seems not enough for people?
What word would you suggest?
My goodness, that’s a … I think that there are three things, since you asked me. I would like to hear you say … I think the American people would like to hear you say … One is: there was probably more than mistakes; there was wrongdoing, whether it was a crime or not; yes it may have been a crime too. Second: I did — and I’m saying this without questioning the motives — I did abuse the power I had as president, or not fulfil the totality of the oath of office. And third: I put the American people through two years of needless agony and I apologise for that. And I say that you’ve explained your motives, I think those are the categories. And I know how difficult it is for anyone, and most of all you, but I think that people need to hear it and I think unless you say it you are going to be haunted by it for the rest of your life.
I well remember when I let Haldeman and Erlichman know that they were to resign, that I had Ray Price [Nixon’s speechwriter] bring in the final draft of the speech that I was to make the next night and I said to him, «Ray, if you think I ought to resign, put that in too, because I feel responsible.» Even though I did not feel that I had engaged in these activities consciously in so far as the knowledge of, or participation in, the break-in, the approval of hush-money, the approval of clemency etc, there are various charges that have been made. Well, he didn’t put it in, and I must say that at that time I seriously considered whether I shouldn’t resign, but on the other hand I feel that I owe it to history, to point out that from that time on April 30, until I resigned on August 9, I did some things that were good for this country. We had the second and third summits. I think one of the major reasons I stayed in office, was my concern about keeping the China initiative, the Soviet initiative, the Vietnam fragile peace agreement and then an added dividend, the first breakthrough in moving toward — not love, but at least not war — in the Middle East. And, coming back to the whole point of whether I should have resigned then and how I feel now, let me say I didn’t make mistakes in just this period; I think some of my mistakes that I regret most deeply came with the statements that I made afterwards. Some of those statements were misleading. I noticed, for example, the managing editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, wrote, a couple, three months ago, as far as his newspaper was concerned: «We don’t print the truth; we print what we know, we print what people tell us and this means that we print lies.»
I would say that the statements that I made afterwards were, on the big issues, true — that I was not involved in the matters that I have spoken about; not involved in the break in; that I did not engage in, and participate in, or approve the payment of money, or the authorisation of clemency, which of course were the essential elements of the cover-up — that was true. But, the statements were misleading in that enormous political attack I was under: it was a five-front war with a fifth column. I had a partisan senate committee staff, we had a partisan special prosecutors staff, we had a partisan media, we had a partisan judiciary committee staff, and a fifth column. Now under these circumstances, my reactions and some of these statements, from press conferences and so forth after that, I want to say right here and now, I said things that were not true. Most of them were fundamentally true on the big issues, but without going as far as I should have gone and saying perhaps that I had considered other things, but not done them. And for all those things I have a very deep regret.
You got caught up in something and it snowballed?
It snowballed, and it was my fault. I’m not blaming anybody else. I’m simply saying to you that as far as I’m concerned, I not only regret it. I indicated my own beliefs in this matter when I resigned. People didn’t think it was enough to admit mistakes; fine. If they want me to get down and grovel on the floor; no, never. Because I don’t believe I should. On the other hand there are some friends who say, «just face ’em down. There’s a conspiracy to get you.» There may have been. I don’t know what the CIA had to do. Some of their shenanigans have yet to be told, according to a book I read recently. I don’t know what was going on in some Republican, some Democratic circles as far as the so-called impeachment lobby was concerned. However, I don’t go with the idea that there … that what brought me down was a coup, a conspiracy etc. I brought myself down. I gave them a sword, and they stuck it in and they twisted it with relish. And I guess if I had been in their position, I’d have done the same thing.
Could you just say, with conviction, I mean not because I want you to say it, that you did do some covering up. We’re not talking legalistically now; I just want the facts. You did do some covering up. There was some time when you were overwhelmed by your loyalties or whatever else, you protected your friends, or maybe yourself. In fact you were, to put it at its most simple, part of a cover-up at times.
No, I again respectfully will not quibble with you about the use of the terms. However, before using the term I think it’s very important for me to make clear what I did not do and what I did do and then I will answer your question quite directly. I did not in the first place commit the crime of obstruction of justice, because I did not have the motive required for the commission of that crime.
We disagree on that.
I did not commit, in my view, an impeachable offence. Now, the House has ruled overwhelmingly that I did. Of course, that was only an indictment, and it would have to be tried in the Senate. I might have won, I might have lost. But even if I had won in the Senate by a vote or two, I would have been crippled. And in any event, for six months the country couldn’t afford having the president in the dock in the United States Senate. And there can never be an impeachment in the future in this country without a president voluntarily impeaching himself. I have impeached myself. That speaks for itself.
How do you mean «I have impeached myself»?
By resigning. That was a voluntary impeachment. Now, what does that mean in terms of whether I … you’re wanting me to say that I participated in an illegal cover-up. No. Now when you come to the period, and this is the critical period, when you come to the period of March 21 on, when Dean gave his legal opinion, that certain things, actions taken by, Haldeman, Erlichman, [attorney general John] Mitchell et cetera, and even by himself amounted to illegal coverups and so forth, then I was in a very different position. And during that period, I will admit, that I started acting as lawyer for their defence. I will admit, that acting as lawyer for their defence, I was not prosecuting the case. I will admit that during that period, rather than acting primarily in my role as the chief law enforcement officer of the United States of America, or at least with the responsibility of law enforcement, because the attorney general is the chief law enforcement officer, but as the one with the chief responsibility for seeing that the laws of the United States are enforced, that I did not meet that responsibility. And to the extent that I did not meet that responsibility, to the extent that within the law, and in some cases going right to the edge of the law in trying to advise Erlichman and Haldeman and all the rest in how best to present their cases, because I thought that they were legally innocent, that I came to the edge. And under the circumstances I would have to say that a reasonable person could call that a cover-up. I didn’t think of it as a cover-up. I didn’t intend it to cover-up.
Let me say, if I intended to cover-up, believe me, I’d have done it. You know how I could have done it so easy? I could have done it immediately after the election simply by giving clemency to everybody. And the whole thing would have gone away. I couldn’t do that because I said clemency was wrong. But now we come down to the key point and let me answer it in my own way about how I feel about the American people. I mean about whether I should have resigned earlier or what I should say to them now. Well, that forces me to rationalise now and give you a carefully prepared and cropped statement. I didn’t expect this question, frankly though, so I’m not going to give you that. But I can tell you this …
Nor did I.
I can tell you this. I think I said it all in one of those moments that you’re not thinking sometimes you say the things that are really in your heart. When you’re thinking in advance and you say things that are, you know, tailored to the audience. I had a lot of difficult meetings in those last days and the most difficult one, the only one where I broke into tears, frankly except for that very brief session with Erlichman up at Camp David, that was the first time I cried since Eisenhower died. I met with all of my key supporters just the halfhour before going on television. For 25 minutes we all sat around the Oval Office, men that I had come to Congress with, Democrats and Republicans, about half and half. Wonderful men. And at the very end, after saying thank you for all your support during these tough years, thank you particularly for what you have done to help us end the draft, bring home the POWs, have a chance for building a generation of peace, which I could see the dream I had possibly being shattered, and thank you for your friendship, little acts of friendship over the years, you sort of remember with a birthday card and all the rest. Then suddenly you haven’t got much more to say and half the people around the table were crying. And I just can’t stand seeing somebody else cry. And that ended it for me. And I just, well, I must say I sort of cracked up. Started to cry, pushed my chair back.
And then I blurted it out. And I said, «I’m sorry. I just hope I haven’t let you down.» Well, when I said: «I just hope I haven’t let you down,» that said it all. I had: I let down my friends, I let down the country, I let down our system of government and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but will think it is all too corrupt and the rest. Most of all I let down an opportunity I would have had for two and a half more years to proceed on great projects and programmes for building a lasting peace. Which has been my dream, as you know since our first interview in 1968 before I had any, when I thought I might win that year. I didn’t tell you I thought I might not win that year, but I wasn’t sure. Yep, I let the American people down. And I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life. My political life is over. I will never yet, and never again, have an opportunity to serve in any official position. Maybe I can give a little advice from time to time. And so I can only say that in answer to your question that while technically I did not commit a crime, an impeachable offence — these are legalisms. As far as the handling of this matter is concerned, it was so botched up, I made so many bad judgments. The worst ones mistakes of the heart rather than mistakes of the head, as I pointed out, but let me say a man in that top judge job, he’s got to have a heart, but his head must always rule his heart.
· Copyright Sir David Paradine Frost. Reproduced with permission.