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White House Watch: Nixon Then and Now

A new book and news accounts from San Clemente depict Richard Nixon as he appeared to one of his White House writers before Watergate destroyed his presidency and as he is in exile and nearly total seclusion six months after his resignation. The book is William Safire's Before the Fall (Doubleday; $12.50). The occasion for the San Clemente reports is that the official period of transition from the presidency to pensioned retirement has ended and that, with its end, federal support drops at least until next June 30 to a level that in its paucity and stringency should satisfy the most virulent Nixon haters.

A composite of the San Clemente accounts runs as follows. Mr. Nixon is lonely, ill, frustrated, rambly and disjointed in much of his thoughts and talk. His phlebitis persists, so crippling his left leg that he risks falling if he tries to walk more than a few yards. He is deep in debt--for his oceanside estate; to the IRS for unpaid taxes; to his lawyers--and a publisher's advance for his intended book or books probably won't do much more than meet the expenses of research and writing assistance. A congressional statute and court and White House rulings that make him the first former President to be denied ownership and custody of the presidential papers and (alas for him) the presidential tapes accumulated during his tenure hamper his book project, embitter him and add to his conviction that he is being treated with unprecedented shabbiness.

At the end of the transition on February 9, his federally paid staff fell from about 12 to four: Rose Mary Woods, his long-time confidential secretary, at $36,000 a year, and three other secretaries whose salaries range from $15,059 to $18,061 a year. Prorated over the nearly five months between February 9 and the end of this fiscal year on June 30, the four salaries just about eat up the $45,000 allowed him for staff support and other expenses during that period. His pension of $55,000 for 11 months from last August 9 takes the rest of the $100,000 appropriated for his direct support. The General Services Administration assigns and pays an electrician and two laborers to care for office space on the Coast Guard base adjoining his San Clemente estate. Marjorie Acker, Miss Woods' secretary-assistant, who got $23,500 a year before she went off the federal payroll, is staying on as an "unpaid consultant." Dianne Sawyer, sometime assistant to sometime press secretary Ronald Ziegler, is staying a while as a volunteer. Frank Gannon, a researcher- writer who got a federal salary of $35,300 at the White House, goes on Mr. Nixon's private payroll. Ziegler is leaving, for an uncertain and possibly aborted try at lecturing. Two army Signal Corps telephone lines and a direct line from the White House switchboard in Washington to the San Clemente offices have been terminated. Things may look up at the start of the next fiscal year, but not much when the support is weighed against the expectations of a former President. The Ford administration recommends in its 1976 budget that Mr. Nixon be paid the pension of $60,000 per year provided by law and allowed the full $96,000 authorized for staff salaries. About $107,000 is recommended for other forms of support (including $55,000 for "rent, communications and utilities" that really goes to GSA rather than to Mr. Nixon for use and maintenance of the San Clemente office space). If Congress is as vengeful as it was when it appropriated $200,000 for the transition and first post-transition periods, it will provide something less than the recommended total of $263,000 for Nixon support in fiscal 1976.

There of course is an immense difference between the sodden gloom reported to prevail at San Clemente and the atmosphere described by William Safire in his "inside view of the pre-Watergate White House." But the difference is far from total. Safire, a former public relations man who was one of three chief speech writers at the White House until March 21,1973, when he prudently quit to write a column for The New York Times, asserts here and there in the prodigious 693 pages of Before the Fall that Richard Nixon was in the presidential years a chap of unappreciated humor, gentleness and pleasantry in his best moments. One of Safire's White House jobs, in fact, was to feed lightsome tidbits from the seemingly grim Nixon establishment to receptive reporters and columnists. He finds remarkably few such moments to recount and document in the book. One reason was that Mr. Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, between them smothered whatever tendency to pleasantry there was. Safire once suggested that somebody "with a light touch"--he had himself in mind--attend private presidential meetings and record examples of Richard Nixon being human. Haldeman grabbed and ruined the notion, organizing teams of "anecdotists" for assignment to the meetings. The result, according to Safire, was that a good idea was "crunched into a superorganized pulp." Haldeman is quoted saying of his role and of the President, "He doesn't want to organize, he wants to be organized." Safire says of Haldeman: "His job as chief of staff also included chief of public relations, keeper of the myth, expert on how to influence public opinion. He understood public relations to be the use of techniques to badger, bully, bribe, entice and persuade people to your 'side' . . . The President agreed . . . But the hard sell was not 'PR' ... As a professional PR man, Haldeman was merely a good ad man." Safire has good to say of Haldeman, particularly that he was Mr. Nixon's "guardian of open options, making certain that the President never received only one view on an issue." A surprising judgment is that John Ehrlichman, arrogant and narrow to the last in the general view, "matured and developed" into "a man of balance and compassion, the 'closet liberal' on many matters."

Safire was one of 13 officials whose home telephones were tapped, along with those of four journalists, in 1969-70, with the authority of the President and (in Safire's and most other cases) upon the orders of Henry Kissinger and his assistant. Colonel (later General) Alexander Haig. Safire acknowledges that the experience "colors what I write about Kissinger." He says that Kissinger and Haig lied to him when they first denied any knowledge that he'd been tapped and implies that they perjured themselves in their disclaimers under oath before congressional committees. One of Safire's best lines--unfortunately for the overall quality of his mammoth book, he is not very good at characterizing people--occurs in a reference to Kissinger's "ability to project childlike anguish at the reaction of others to actions he had recommended with cold precision."

The eavesdropping was in Safire's view a part and symptom of the malaise that led to Watergate. This malaise, according to Safire, was rooted in the President's hatred of the press. His conviction that "the press is the enemy," the consequent fear of leaks and the desire to prevent and punish leaks brought on the 1969-70 wiretaps, the attempt to steal Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatric records from his psychiatrist, and finally the Watergate burglary and bugging. Safire thought throughout his White House service that the President "was at bottom realistic about the adversary relation- ship" between him and the media. "I was wrong about that," Safire writes. He continues: "When Nixon said, 'the press is the enemy,' he was saying exactly what he meant: 'The press is the enemy' to be hated and beaten, and in that vein of vengeance ... lay Nixon's greatest personal and political weakness and the cause of his downfall." In a typical display of ambivalence, a quality that this reporter is in no position to deplore, Safire also writes: ". . . But judging Nixon only by his close-to- irrational animus to the press, or judging him only by the [White House tape] transcripts, is ... misleading. There is more to this many-faceted man than his worst side. The press that Nixon hated has often over-looked the sympathetic and even noble side of this President, for good reason--because it was faced with the most mean-spirited and ignoble side."

Safire refuses to discuss a telephone conversation that he had with Mr. Nixon in December, on the last day that changes in the text were possible, except to say that he picked up a few pieces of information. A paraphrased passage and a direct quotation near the end of the book read as if they came from this conversation or perhaps from previous talks with Mr. Nixon. The passage: "Why did Nixon permit the tapings of himself in the first place? Because he was convinced left-leaning historians would try to deny him his place in history; because he wanted to write memoirs better than Churchill's; and because he was sure he would have the same total control of his tapes as Kennedy and Johnson had of theirs. [A snide line, presumably reflecting Richard Nixon's snidery; Kennedy and Johnson did not tape on anywhere near the Nixon scale.] Why didn't he destroy them when Alex Butterfield revealed their existence to the Ervin committee? Because Nixon thought that such an act would make him look guilty, because he did not realize how bad the tapes' transcripts would appear in cold print, and because he was certain the wall of presidential privacy could not be breached ... To this day, Nixon cannot understand why he was pilloried for acts that he considers no different than those condoned by his predecessors . . . And the actual decision that brought him down--to use the CIA to block the FBI investigation of the Watergate breakin--was, he still feels, a legitimate act to prevent disclosure of related national security surveillances."

The quotation: "There may be some understanding and perspective some day," he told a friend as the year of his resignation drew to a close, "but it will take a long, long time. I'm a fatalist."

William Safire's judgment of his patron, friend and leader: "In time, the grisly deception will be seen in the light of great achievements, but those who invested their lives in the causes he shared will never forget that Nixon failed, not while daring greatly, but while lying meanly."