In a decade often accused of being anticlimactic, Watergate was the Seventies’ uncontested contribution to milestone history. There is nothing small, ephemeral, or, heaven knows, anticlimactic about the scandal that brought down President Nixon—and, with him, a whole post-war era of politics. This was high tragedy.
On this, the fortieth anniversary of the historic resignation, there is much chatter about those days. Some commentators attempt to place Nixon’s entire administration into a broad (you might say massive) historical context; others seek to titillate by exposing Nixon’s seemingly endless moments of pettiness and paranoia. With Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate, Ken Hughes, whom Bob Woodward calls “one of America’s foremost experts on secret presidential recordings,” turns to the White House tapes to offer a clear narrative about the pattern of covert activity that not only brought Nixon down but which reveals something essential about his character and why his acts still resonate so strongly.
strong>Ken Hughes, author of Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate, took part in a special event last night, hosted by the Washington Post, which included Elizabeth Drew and reunited Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. With the fortieth anniversary of the Nixon resignation rolling around this week, the panel revisited the heady days of the Watergate break-in and its following cover-up and also attempted to place those events in a contemporary context.
On a June afternoon in 1971, President Nixon and three of his top aides—H.R. Haldeman, Henry Kissinger, and John Erlichman—discussed the possibility of exposing Lyndon Johnson’s bombing halt of 1968 as a political ploy to help his own party’s candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. It’s one thing to accuse someone of something; what’s required is proof. The idea is floated that a file documenting this alleged abuse of power might exist at the Brookings Institute. Nixon promptly orders a break-in to retrieve the file. “Blow the safe and get it,” he says—not your typical Oval Office talk. As Ken Hughes shows in Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate, this conversation is fascinating in almost too many ways to count.
On November 2, 1968, President Johnson called Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen to say that he knew Nixon’s people were inserting themselves in the peace-talk process with the Vietnamese. Their message to South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu was to stay away from the peace talks—that they would get a better deal from Nixon further down the road, as he was sure to be elected. Do what you can to get them to back off, LBJ told Dirksen. If this activity, which he flatly characterized as “treason,” continued, LBJ threatened to go public with what he knew.
With the publication of Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate only a week away (7/29), author Ken Hughes is suddenly in great demand, so we appreciate his taking the time to answer a few questions about his book. Chasing Shadows shows how the covert activity that would eventually bring Nixon down had its roots in the 1968 presidential campaign, when the Republican nominee involved himself secretly in the Paris peace talks. One of the fascinating aspects of Hughes’s book is the interaction between Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, who was only months away from his self-imposed retirement. It is a complex—not to say controversial—story, and in the following interview Hughes sheds much light on these two master politicians and the remarkable events they were at the center of.
A week before the 1968 election, President Johnson called Senator Richard Russell. The conversation begins with personal anecdotes but LBJ then confides in Russell that Republican nominee for the presidency, Richard Nixon, is secretly interfering in the Paris Peace Talks. In Chasing Shadows, Ken Hughes shows how this episode reverberated through Nixon’s own administration and [...]