Nixon’s extraordinary abuse of his new power started almost as soon as he had put away his Inaugural finery. In February 1969 he told his staff that he wanted private funds raised to establish an intelligence unit within the White House to carry out around-the-clock surveillance of political opponents. This led to the hiring of a group of fanatics, bums, fools, and losers—most of them paid for with private funds but run by White House aides and right out of the Executive Office Building, next door to the White House. Some were of Cuban origin and had participated in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba; to motivate them Nixon instructed that they be told that their mission was to root out Communists in the Democratic Party.
The following year Nixon signed off on a plan (the “Huston plan”) that included not just wiretaps also but break-ins and intercepting mail; the plan was so extreme that even the powerful FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, no civil libertarian, objected; though Nixon said that the plan had been rescinded parts of it were implemented. The list of “enemies” he ordered John Dean to draw up, was considered by many who were on it funny and even a point of pride, but it was a chilling exercise of power: the president used the levers of government, including the IRS, to audit and harass his opponents, a wide swath of people in public and private lives. Nixon was often heard on the tapes telling his aides he wanted them to “get the goods” on this or that perceived enemy. Edward Kennedy, presumably Nixon’s most powerful opponent for reelection, was put under twenty-four hour surveillance for a time by one of the clowns hired by the White House to carry out Nixon’s plan.
Nixon’s most serious problems arose out of his obsession about the leak of the Pentagon Papers, in 1971. This led—shortly after the Papers were first published in The New York Times—to the establishing, four days later, the White House “plumbers” office in the EOB. A sign saying PLUMBERS was on the door. But even before the plumbers office was fully set up Nixon’s aides implemented “Special Operation No. 1”: in a first step toward punishing the leaker, Daniel Ellsberg, the White House sanctioned the gravest offense—a break-in at the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in order to get the files of this particular patient. A raid of the office of the psychiatrist of a private citizen on the orders of the president of the United States. This clear flouting of the Fourth Amendment protection of private property from searches and seizures was the most disturbing act during this extraordinary period and it shook even conservative senators; Nixon knew that its discovery was the single greatest danger to him, and this was what he was so frantically trying to cover up.
The obsession over the leak of the Pentagon Papers also led to the mad suggestion by the president of the United States that the offices of the Brookings Institution be firebombed in order to get to the safes in the offices of former Kissinger aides, Leslie Gelb and Morton Halperin, who were suspected of keeping the drafts of some unpublished chapters of the Pentagon Papers. The president could be heard on the tapes instructing his aides: “Godammit. Get in there and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”
In this context the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office building on June 17, 1972 was almost routine. This one, when the burglars were caught, which started the unraveling of Nixon’s secret plots against his enemies, was actually the burglars’ fourth attempt: in the first attempt they faked a banquet to get into the building but ended up locked in a closet; the second time they couldn’t break the lock on the DNC office door; the third time, on Memorial Day, they got into the DNC office but put a bug on the wrong phone, so on they went back to fix it. Perhaps because breaking in had become so habitual they got sloppy and left the immortal piece of tape on a door.
In October 1973, Nixon rattled through a series of beheadings of those who got in the way of his desperate attempts to prevent the tapes into which he had sealed his own fate—as he was oddly aware—from being turned over to the prosecutors. He first ordered the attorney general, Elliott Richardson, to fire Archibald Cox, the Independent Prosecutor who had subpoenaed the tapes and got a court order that they must be released. Richardson, a Boston Brahmin, also refused and was fired by the president; the next in line, Bill Ruckelshaus, a popular environmentalist, also refused and was fired. Finally, the next in line, Robert Bork, agreed to fire Cox. The prosecutors’ staff was barricaded in their offices trying to protect their files from the FBI, who had surrounded them and told them they could not remove their papers. As the bulletins rolled in, one after another on that dark Saturday night, it felt as if we were living in a banana republic and now there were grounds for fearing a President who was irrational and out of control. There was a run on the bookstores to buy legal scholar Raoul Berger’s Impeachment: The Constitutional Problems (1969). No one knew how to impeach a president.
The atmosphere in Washington was unlike anything that had gone before or has happened since. We lived in fear. Knowing that the telephones of some of the presidents’ “enemies” were being tapped, we joked in our telephone conversations about our phones being bugged. (No Internet then, but just think of the Nixon people’s probable temptation to trace emails.) One Sunday morning when the newspaper delivery was late, a perfectly sane woman I knew said, “They’ve stopped the papers.” It got to the point where, near the end, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger felt compelled to send a memo to military commanders to obey no command that came from the White House to dispatch the troops to restore order.
This brings us to the strange character of Richard Nixon, probably the most peculiar person to serve as president of the United States. He was also an unlikely successful political figure. He didn’t particularly like people and few people liked him. He had very few friends, trusted almost no one. He was awkward in many ways, from his odd motions at times to his virtual inability to make small talk. Nixon’s confusion of opponents with enemies and his indulging his long nurtured grievances gave us a president who came to office filled with hatreds and was willing to use the instruments of government to “get” them. The president was a dangerous man.
But even then, we didn’t know just how dangerous were Nixon’s personality traits. Not until I was doing research for a book about him for the American Presidents series did it become clear that he was often drunk, barking out orders in after-midnight calls to his aides, his words slurred, and they would have to decide whether to carry them out. Worse still, on the advice of a wealthy backer who kept him stocked, Nixon began to take Dilantin, an anti-convulsive drug, on the grounds that it would lessen depression, though it had never been approved for that. Dilantin served to enhance the effects of too much alcohol: mental confusion, slurring of words, physical clumsiness. Often Nixon was holed up with his best and only close pal, Bebe Rebozo, outside the White House, in Key Biscayne or at Camp David. On the eve of the “incursion” into Cambodia, a disastrous spreading of the Vietnam War, the two men were at Camp David and one or the other would call Kissinger to make sure that the incursion went forward. “It’s your ass, Henry,” said one of them, their drunken voices hard to distinguish.