WASHINGTON (AP) – President Nixon and his 1972 re-election campaign tried to tie Democrats to the mob, gay liberation and even slavery, according to newly released papers and tapes betraying bare-knuckle tactics from the dawn of the Watergate scandal.
Still, even as Nixon’s lieutenants explored every avenue for defeating Democrat George McGovern and nullifying critics of all stripes – “hit them” was a favorite phrase – the president brooded over his reputation as a hard man whose gentle side was not being seen by the public.
Nixon called that side of him “the whole warmth business.”
In 1970, he wrote an 11-page, single-spaced memo detailing his acts of kindness to staff and strangers and expressing regret that he was getting no credit for being “nicey-nice.”
And in the profanity-laced conversation for which he was known in private, Nixon complained bitterly about Democratic campaign hecklers who shouted down his speeches, in contrast to well-mannered Republicans.
“Our people,” he snapped, “are so (expletive) polite.”
Officials released 78,000 documents and 11½ hours of taped conversations from Nixon’s presidency as part of a transfer of control of the Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace from private interests to the federal government on Wednesday.
The new material shows a keen interest in tainting the Democratic ticket of George McGovern and running mate Sargent Shriver by any means possible, in the months leading up to Nixon’s landslide re-election and then to the Watergate revelations that consumed Nixon’s presidency in 1974.
The idea was to “move the negative on McGovern,” as aide Pat Buchanan put it. McGovern, who will be 85 this month, told AP on Wednesday the tactics were “another example of how the Nixon administration drifted away from both common sense and decency.” And he noted that Nixon seemed to take little satisfaction in the outcome.
“I think it’s rather sad that at the moment of Nixon’s greatest triumph, his victory over me in ’72, he seemed to be angry and resentful and peevish,” he said. “One would have thought that he would have been filled with joy and jubilation but apparently that isn’t the case.”
In one tactic, detailed in an August 1972 memo, an aide reports to chief of staff H.R. Haldeman on setting up an “apparatus” to comb through lists of McGovern’s staff and contributors for “left-wing mob connections.”
This was two months after the break-in at Democratic headquarters at the Watergate complex by burglars tied to Nixon’s re-election committee, and before the cover-up was fully exposed.
Another memo recommended looking for TV footage of an apparent Democratic debate over a “Gay Lib” plank in that party’s platform. Nixon aides salivated over the prospect of showing that to Middle America: “It would make excellent footage in a union hall during the campaign,” wrote political aide Gordon Strachan.
And Nixon aides worked assiduously to plant negative stories, including one alleging Shriver’s ancestors were slave-holders. An operative “is trying to get the story fed into certain segments of Black media and will give it to Black surrogates,” an aide told Chuck Colson, Nixon’s chief counsel.
Nixon aide Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later a Democratic senator, blasted White House and campaign colleagues for putting “intolerable” falsehoods in the president’s mouth.
“This demeans the Presidency and will mar his victory,” Moynihan said of unspecified errors that “riddled” Nixon’s speeches. “You should hit those speechwriters hard,” he told Haldeman.
Nixon’s insecurities only seemed deepened by the election results, despite winning every state except Massachusetts. He was obsessed with outperforming Lyndon Johnson, upset with the congressional results and eager to deflect the blame.
The GOP lost two Senate seats and only gained 12 in the House.
“The people that I saw we were running in some of the northern and western states – God, they seemed like a bunch of sad sacks,” he said in a phone call to Harry S. Dent, an architect of Nixon’s earlier Southern strategy, the day after the election. “We had a host of turkeys,” he said in an Oval Office meeting with Colson later in the day. “We didn’t carry Congress … they’re going to be out to slaughter us.”
“No, they are going to be afraid of you,” Colson replied. “If we do it right. Because you represent the new majority in the country.”
In other tapes and documents:
-An aide proposed to Attorney General John Mitchell in 1971 that John Kerry, then a prominent anti-war activist, be recruited as a Republican candidate. “He is a Yale graduate and is inclined toward the ‘establishment,”‘ Mitchell was told.
Kerry, a senator, was the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004. Mitchell took charge of Nixon’s re-election effort in 1972 and later spent 19 months in prison as a Watergate conspirator.
-Alexander P. Butterfield, the White House aide who would reveal the existence of a taping system in an explosive turn in the Watergate probe, wrote an exasperated memo about the care and feeding of Nixon’s dog, King Timahoe, in 1970.
“I think the miserable sessions I endured in Latin II as a high school sophomore were easier,” he groused to Haldeman after meeting Nixon’s valet to discuss “doggie affairs.”
In his 1970 memo to Haldeman on the subject of warmth, Nixon listed off page after page of his unappreciated “good deeds.”
“There are innumerable examples of warm items,” he wrote. Among them: calling people who are sick, writing to people who have fallen on hard times, visiting sick children, family parties for the poor, and much more.
“With regard to the whole warmth business, a very important point to underline is that we do not try to broker such items,” he wrote, meaning that the White House did not promote them, but rather hoped they would be “discovered.”
He just wished people knew that “this is a happy White House.”
The White House sounded none too happy in much of the material. Instead, all the president’s men seemed fearful, always watching their backs.
In September 1971, Colson wrote to Haldeman about a “hatchet column” he was trying to get killed in the press, based on a leaked memo Colson had written.
“What scares hell out of me is that there are a lot of other memos around here written by me, you and others that could blow us right out of the water,” he wrote.
“Perhaps some sleuthing should be done.”