By Robert Parry
- The Clinton Scandals: Nixon Returns
The White House tape capturing President Nixon's anti-Semitic order to have the Internal Revenue Service investigate "big Jewish contributors" to the Democrats may be an historic embarrassment. But the tape also underscores a weakness in Bill Clinton's ongoing strategy of seeking a bipartisan partnership with Republicans.
Indeed, amid the furor over Clinton's "renting out" the Lincoln Bedroom to fat-cat contributors, it might also be noted that Bill Clinton was the president who opened the White House front door again to Nixon, a Machiavellian pol who wrote the book on raising dirty campaign money. As the "big Jewish contributors" quote also shows, Nixon knew how to play rough in destroying the other side's financial base.
But Clinton apparently glimpsed a political opportunity in trying to befriend Nixon. As Monica Crowley reported in her book, Nixon Off the Record, Clinton called Nixon repeatedly seeking advice on everything from foreign policy to time scheduling. The first contact -- a 40-minute conversation -- was made on March 2, 1993, barely a month after Clinton entered the White House "and their unexpectedly close relationship was born," wrote Crowley, a personal aide to Nixon who recorded many of the ex-president's commentaries in his final years.
After the first call, Nixon sounded genuinely touched that Clinton had reached out. "He was very respectful but with no sickening bullshit," Nixon told Crowley. "It was the best conversation with a president I've had since I was president."
Though the immediate reason for the call was to discuss political developments in Russia, Nixon described how personal Clinton's conversation was. "He said that he gets up at six, jogs, has breakfast with Chelsea and sees her to school, and gets to bed around eleven," Nixon recounted to Crowley. "He [Clinton] wanted to know if that were typical. It was great to hear him ask that because I used to observe Eisenhower's schedule for that same reason. When you are in that job, you want to know that even your schedule is right."
Six days later, Nixon traveled to Washington for an announced public meeting with Clinton in the White House, an honor that Nixon had not received from Clinton's Republican predecessors who snuck Nixon in the back door for unannounced private meetings. Again, Nixon seemed sincerely moved by Clinton's comraderie.
"Clinton is very earthy," Nixon told Crowley. "He cursed -- 'asshole,' 'son of a bitch,' 'bastard' -- you know. He's a very straightforward conversationalist." Nixon also acknowledged, in an edgy tone, that the formal White House meeting with Clinton "was more than either Reagan or Bush ever gave me."
But typical of Nixon, he was soon scheming to undo the Democratic president who had reached out to him. Nixon exploited his personal knowledge of Clinton to offer back-channel political advice to Sen. Bob Dole, whom Nixon correctly considered to be the likely Republican nominee in 1996. Nixon also privately hoped that the Clintons' troubled Whitewater investment would turn into a second Watergate that would humiliate both Clinton and his wife -- and somehow settle an old score Nixon felt toward Democrats and anti-war demonstrators.
In one such comment on April 13, 1994, four days before the stroke that led to his death, Nixon called Crowley and chortled about the surging Whitewater scandal. "Clinton should pay the price," Nixon declared. "Our people shouldn't let this issue go down. They mustn't let it sink." Nixon said he had even called Dole to make sure that aggressive questioners were put on the Whitewater committee.
Later that month, at Nixon's funeral, Clinton paid tribute to the Republican president. "May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close," Clinton wished.
But in the succeeding months, the Republican strategy of pummelling Clinton over Whitewater and other personal indiscretions dominated the headlines. Clinton was driven deep into debt over lawyer fees and was left little choice but to seek hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to save his political life. Not surprisingly, that heavy fundraising has now merged into the larger flow of "Clinton scandals."
Meanwhile, speaking from White House tapes recently released by the National Archives, Nixon offers a more astute explanation of how real hardball operatives play the money game. "Please, get me the names of the Jews," Nixon told his chief of staff, H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, in a tape dated Sept. 13, 1971. "You know, the big Jewish contributors to the Democrats. ...Could you please investigate some of the [expletives]."
A day later, Nixon again demanded action from Haldeman and another aide, Charles W. Colson: "What about the rich Jews? The IRS is full of Jews." Then following up on Haldeman's suggestion that "we ought to ... get a zealot who dislikes those people," Nixon added, "Go after them like a son of a bitch."
Later, Nixon broadened the strategy to go after other Democratic donors. "What in the name of God are we doing on this score?" Nixon asked on Aug. 3, 1972. "Are we looking over McGovern's financial contributors? Are we looking over the financial contributors to the Democratic National Committee? ... Is the Justice Department checking? ...We have all this power and we're not using it. Now what the Christ is the matter?"
The tapes were, in many ways, a painful reminder to the nation about how far Nixon would go in abusing his presidential power and destroying perceived enemies. They echoed Haldeman's candid account of Nixon's White House ravings in The Haldeman Diaries, published in 1994.
By June 23, 1971, Haldeman wrote that Nixon was already plotting to turn the IRS on his opponents. "Now that we have our man in the IRS, [Nixon] wants to pull the Clark Clifford file and also all the top supporters of the doves, the full list with a full field audit, and see what we can make of it on analysis," Haldeman wrote.
Nixon's political schemes sometimes crossed into the personally bizarre, such as his suggestions for undermining the popularity of musicals such as Hair in which some of the singers perform in the nude. "P[resident] had me in quite a while ... wanting to take stronger action on obscenity," Haldeman wrote on March 28, 1969. "Decided he'd go to a play in New York where they take off clothes and get up and walk out, to dramatize his feeling." Like many of Nixon's ideas, the president never actually carried out this protest.
During a candle-lit anti-war march on Nov. 14, 1969, Haldeman wrote that Nixon stormed into John Ehrlichman's White House office with another idea. "Had helpful ideas," Haldeman wrote drolly, "like using helicopters to blow their candles out."
Other times, Nixon zeroed in on specific people who had somehow offended him. On July 25, 1970, angered by some reporting by NBC anchorman Chet Huntley, Nixon told Haldeman that it is "important to destroy him for effect on all other commentators." When Rep. Hale Boggs called for the resignation of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Nixon summoned Haldeman on April 5, 1971, and "made the point ... that we should attack Boggs on his drunkenness and try to destroy him."
On June 21, 1972, four days after the Watergate break-in, the pugnacious Nixon showed no remorse and instead urged his troops to go on the offensive. "He thinks Dole ought to attack [DNC chairman Larry] O'Brien for his malicious libeling and guilt by association of the White House and the P[resident]."
Nixon also kept in mind the intrinsic links connecting money, perception and politics. On Feb. 9, 1973, Nixon "got into Watergate strategy," Haldeman wrote. "He wants to get our people to put out that foreign or Communist money came in in support of the [anti-war] demonstrations in the campaign, tie all the '72 demonstrators to McGovern and thus the Democrats as part of the peace movement."
But at all times, Nixon remained a hard-nosed politician who has imbued that trait in the modern Republican Party. On April 22, 1973, with Haldeman facing mounting Watergate pressures which would soon lead to his resignation, Nixon offered his embattled aide some quintessential Nixonian advice: "Just remember you're doing the right thing," Nixon counseled. "That's what I used to think when I killed some innocent children in Hanoi."
As Crowley's book underscores, Nixon changed little in the years after his 1974 resignation. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that he mellowed and grew more philosophical, Nixon actually grew more bitter. Behind the scenes, Nixon continued to advise Republican leaders how best to "get" the Democrats.
Many of Nixon's most controversial strategies became pillars of the 12-year Reagan-Bush reign and of the new GOP majorities in Congress. The so-called "southern strategy" successfully used racial code words to rally white Southerners to the Republican banner. Today, the South is nearly as solid a GOP stronghold as it once was Democratic. Nixon's slash-and-burn campaign style was the model that Lee Atwater adopted to guarantee George Bush's election in 1988. That approach also guides Republican efforts to destroy Clinton today.
Ironically, even as Clinton thought he was extending a bipartisan hand of friendship to the ex-president, Nixon was secretly scheming how to exploit Clinton's troubles over Whitewater and use the new scandal somehow to negate Nixon's own disgrace over Watergate.
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