With Nixon at risk, aides aimed to demonize Watergate prosecutor
Newly released records shed light on 2d term
WASHINGTON - When the Watergate scandal grew into a full-bore crisis, Richard Nixon’s aides hatched a plan to save his presidency: Convince lawmakers and the public that the Watergate prosecutor was a zealot holding a “pistol to the head’’ of the president. It didn’t work.
Memos and recordings released yesterday by the Nixon Presidential Library shed light on fateful moments of Nixon’s second term.
They also give insights into a well-known characteristic of Nixon and his aides - a hair-trigger sensitivity to political rivals and quick resort to machinations against them.
A 1972 meeting between Nixon and his chief of staff produced an informal directive to “destroy’’ the “pip-squeak’’ running for Democratic vice president, according to scribbled notes.
In a memo three years earlier, Nixon’s staff assistant describes placing the movements of the Kennedys under observation in Massachusetts after Edward M. Kennedy drove off a bridge in an accident that drowned his female companion.
The materials show Nixon as sharp-witted, crude, and sometimes surprisingly liberal.
In one letter, he solidly endorses the Equal Rights Amendment, saying that for 20 years “I have not altered my belief that equal rights for women warrant a constitutional guarantee.’’ The amendment failed.
Yet in a taped conversation with George H.W. Bush, then GOP chairman, he pitched the recruitment of pretty women in particular to run for the party, after two caught his eye in the South Carolina Legislature.
Watergate was a gathering drumbeat through it all. A nine-page handwritten note by Nixon domestic policy adviser Kenneth Cole reflects on the unfolding “Saturday night massacre,’’ when Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox and lost the two top Justice Department officials in October 1973.
Cox was pressing relentlessly for Nixon’s White House tape recordings as he investigated the president’s involvement in the Watergate coverup. Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William D. Ruckelshaus, balked at Nixon’s decision to fire Cox - and were removed.
Cole recommended demonizing the investigator - a tactic President Clinton and his aides would try in his own impeachment drama years later, against prosecutor Kenneth Starr.
“Cox wanted to keep this an unending crisis of the body politic,’’ Cole wrote, laying out an argument for Nixon partisans that would be called talking points today.