Author Archives: Matthew Dickinson

A Switch in Time: How Nixon Might Have Survived Watergate

On Jan. 27, 1969, less than a week into the Nixon presidency, Nixon’s chief of staff H. R. Haldeman relayed the following request from President Nixon to White House aide and former Time magazine executive editor James Keogh: “The President is most anxious to bring in an official White House historian to make sure that we maintain on a current basis an accurate record of the work of this administration.” Nixon even had a person in mind for the position: Professor Ernest May, a historian at Harvard University who had served on the Lindsay transition task force. More generally, Nixon sought someone “who has outstanding intellectual ability to analyze everything as it is happening in historical perspective and keep an accurate record… .” Here is the full memo from Haldeman to Keogh.

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On February 10, evidently after canvassing various White House aides regarding Nixon’s proposal, Keogh responded with a four-page memo to the President that began, “There are some serious questions involved in the recruitment of a White House historian. The first is the ultimate: Should there be a staff historian, as such, in the White House?” Would the President want an outsider sitting in during key meetings? Keogh’s answer, shown here at the bottom of the first page of his memo, was: “I would say he should not, for his presence surely would tend to inhibit what the President and others might say and do. And so the historian’s presence could have a negative effect not only on the Presidency but also on history.”

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In addition to inhibiting conversation, Keogh warned that “any established historian that we might bring on would have very definite ideas about his own freedom of point of view.” That might mean a desire to prove “his credentials to his colleagues in the profession by being critical even if that meant doing so only for the sake of being critical.” Keogh also warned that “Loyalty is another problem” – someone who initially expressed support for the President might, over time and in reaction to events, change his views.

In seekng a “court historian” Nixon may have had in mind some counterpart to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the Harvard historian who served on JFK’s White House staff, and who used his position to write A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, a not uncritical but generally quite positive account of JFK’s presidency. But Keogh had other examples in mind, telling Nixon: “The recent track record on all this is not encouraging. Eric Goldman, professor of history at Princeton, was brought into the White House by Lyndon Johnson. He has just produced the Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson, which can only be described as an anti-Johnson book.”

Keogh noted that he had discussed Nixon’s request with his immediate team of White House aides: “The consensus in this group is that this Administration should not bring in a historian as such. This position is based on the feeling that the risks are too high and the potential for positive results too low.” Rather than a court historian, Keogh suggested instead that aides be assigned to keep detailed notes of meetings, “recording the color, the tone, the asides for the general Administration record.” For more intimate conferences with the President “I see only one process. The people involved should as often as possible record their own impressions… .This also suggests that the President himself should, as often as possible, dictate his own thoughts and impressions… on tape or on paper…and on some kind of more or less regular schedule.”

We now know, of course, that Nixon did Keogh one better. In 1971, so as to provide a more accurate history of his administration’s proceedings, he had a secret taping system installed in the Oval Office, the Old Executive Office Building, the Cabinet Room and at Camp David. Conversations were recorded via this voice-activated system for more than two years, starting on February 16, 1971 through July 18, 1973. It was these tapes, particularly this so-called “smoking gun” tape dating from June 23, 1972, that provided clear proof that Nixon obstructed justice by trying to impede the investigation into the Watergate break in.

When a unanimous Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that Nixon must hand over the tapes to an independent prosecutor, and the transcripts of the tapes were made public, Nixon lost any hope of surviving the Watergate scandal. Forty years ago today, he officially resigned the presidency. It is tempting, of course, to surmise that if only Nixon had appointed a court historian, he might not have also seen the need to install a taping system. But that is probably not the case. From the moment they take office, all presidents, and their immediate advisers, are aware that they are making history and they understandably want to insure an accurate record of the events in which they participate.  But meeting notes can only go so far toward providing that record.  For this reason Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson all secretly recorded some White House conversations. Kennedy did so despite the presence of Schlesinger, Jr., as his White House “court historian”.

But these previous recording systems differed from Nixon’s in one key respect: they had to be manually activated by the President. This meant that they were forced to exercise a bit more discretion than Nixon did when deciding what to record for posterity.  Had Nixon been forced to activate his recording devices, he might never have decided to essentially tape himself admitting to crimes.  But in his memoirs Nixon defends the decision to install a voice activated machine: “I thought that recording only selected conversations would completely undercut the purpose of having the taping system; if our tapes were going to be an objective record of my presidency, they could not have such an obviously self-serving bias. I did not want to have to calculate whom or what or when I would tape.”  Alas for the future of his presidency, Nixon was initially “conscious of the taping, but before long I accepted it as part of the surroundings.”

“From the very beginning,” Nixon writes in his memoirs, “I had decided that my administration would be the best chronicled in history.”  Little did he know how prescient that statement was.  No subsequent president has, to my knowledge, kept any recording system in their White House, and for good reason. And, with the advent of e-mail, even the paper documentary trail is a less reliable history of a president’s time in office (although there are safeguards in place that are intended to preserve electronic messages as part of an administration’s presidential records).  Had Nixon been less conscious of the need to accurately record the events of presidency, he might have emulated his predecessors and utilized a manually-activated recording device.  But he did not.

For want of a switch, he lost the presidency.

The Real Lesson of Watergate

Beginning today, I’ll be posting at U.S. News & World Report’s online site once a week (typically on Friday) under the editorial direction of my former Middlebury student Rob Schlesinger and his team.  Since they prefer that I not crosspost their material here, I’ll link directly to the U.S. News site – you can read my full post there, but I still invite comments on particular posts here.

Today’s U.S. News post, not surprisingly, tries to correct misperceptions regarding the root cause of the Watergate scandal:

Tomorrow I’ll be back here with another trip to the archives – this one from the Nixon presidency, so keep this site bookmarked.


Why Political “Corruption” Is Good

In his column in today’s New York Times, Thomas Edsall makes the case for what he calls “good corruption.” His essential point is that effective government is often weakened by reforms that make it harder for politicians to make the compromises necessary to strike political deals and build voting coalitions. As he writes, “The best politicians are sensitive to the relative importance of moral considerations as they shift from the public arena to the back room, aware that ultimate judgment of what they have done will be based more on what they produce than how they produce it.”

One need not adopt Edsall’s juxtaposition of “good” with “corruption” to appreciate his broader argument. It is one that political scientists have been making for some time, particularly in efforts to explain the growing partisan polarization within our governing institutions. They have documented a series of well-meaning reforms that have collectively made American institutions and processes far less insular, and much more open to direct popular participation during the last four decades. These include an increase in presidential primaries, more open committee meetings and recorded votes in Congress, expanded rules of standing and a more activist judiciary, and technological advances that have made it easier to gauge public opinion and reach out to prospective supporters, to name only the most prominent. In each case supporters hoped that these reforms would make politics both more transparent and more accessible. But, in a classic illustration of Dickinson’s Third Rule of Politics – “for every intended benefit of a political reform, there is likely to be an unintended cost” – the cumulative impact of these reforms has arguably made American politics less representative. The reason is that most members of the public are not very interested in politics on a daily basis. As a result, a more open political process tends to reward the most politically active, who typically possess more ideologically coherent and extreme views, and thus are less likely to support the “good corruption” that Edsall favors. When one is doing God’s work, as most issue activists and ideological purists believe they are, compromise with the opposition is the road to damnation.

To drive home his point, Edsall points to two reforms that he argues have reduced the ability of political leaders to forge the compromises necessary to govern effectively. The first is the elimination in 2010 of congressional earmarks – those legislative directives to fund specific projects that helped grease the wheels of the lawmaking process. In a rare instance of bipartisan compromise, House Republicans worked with President Obama to remove these side payments from the legislative process. The idea was to end the wasteful (and corrupt?) practice that led party leaders to trade tax-subsidized projects for legislators’ votes. However, with earmarks eliminated, Edsall argues, party leaders have one less source of leverage with which to forge coalitions. Edsall’s point is driven home in Robert Draper’s wonderful When the Tea Party Came to Town, in which Draper recounts a conversation between House Speaker John Boehner and his veteran House colleague Ralph Hall during a particularly tough vote: “It’s not like the old days, Ralph”, Boehner lamented. “Without the earmarks to offer, it’s hard to herd the cats.”

Edsall’s second example is campaign finance reform. Here he is particularly critical of three recent Court cases – Citizens United v. F.E.C., McCutcheon v. F.E.C. and v. F.E.C. – that he argues have collectively reinforced “the public’s view that government is run for the benefit of powerful special interests.” Here, however, I think Edsall’s example works against his broader argument. The fact is that public suspicion of the role of money in politics predates these recent court rulings – indeed, that suspicion helped fuel previous campaign reform efforts, such as the McCain-Feingold bipartisan campaign reform act of 2002. However, in a sterling illustration of Dickinson’s Second Law – “money always finds its way to candidates” – the biggest impact of campaign finance reform dating back to the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act, (as amended in 1974) has not been to reduce the amount of campaign contributions to candidates or the importance of money in campaigns more generally. Rather, the general impact has been to shift how money gets to candidates while simultaneously forcing those running for office to spend more time fundraising. The early evidence is that the three most recent court decisions Edsall cites have not necessarily increased the importance of money so much as altered the way it flows from contributors to candidates. In contrast to Edsall, I believe it is this combination of repeated efforts to limit the impact of money on elections juxtaposed against the reality that candidates spend an increasing amount of time fundraising that fuels public cynicism toward campaign finance reform. Indeed, one could argue that for all its faults (and they were significant), the pre-1971 era of campaign finance at least exhibited something of the “good corruption” that Edsall believes exerts a salutary impact on government in other contexts.

My point is not to advocate a return to the pre-1974 era when presidents shook down companies that were doing business with government. Rather, it is to express general agreement with Edsall’s broader point (if not all his specific examples), which is that reforms that make it harder to engage in the vote trading and compromise necessary to cut deals may not, despite reformers’ best intentions, have a salutary impact on our political system. Instead, increased transparency and more participatory institutions and processes can make it harder to govern. In short, if we want politicians to get things done, we may need to relax our zealous efforts to take politics out of the political process by, for example, persisting in thinking we can eliminate the role of money in campaigns. And rather than condemn our elected leaders for sacrificing principle on the altar of political pragmatism, Edsall suggests we instead take a look at our own behavior in the context of his proposal: “Political morality in this context becomes something far less rigid and rule-bound than many in the public conceive it to be – even though, in their own lives, most people act more like politicians than they would like to think.” Politicians are not angels – and neither are we.

Why Brennan Stays

Finally, there is something liberals and conservatives can agree on: CIA director John Brennan must go. So why is he still in office? Even more puzzling – why did the President go out of his way during last Friday’s press conference to state that Brennan has “his full confidence”? Of course, it is possible that Obama has just given Brennan the equivalent of the sports team’s owner’s public “vote of confidence” in the manager which is often a prelude to firing the unfortunate soul, but for now Brennan has the president’s public backing, and that does not sit well with some members of the Senate, never mind pundits on the Left and the Right.

The controversy regarding Brennan centers in part on the recent finding by an internal CIA Inspector General that five CIA employees improperly accessed a Senate Intelligence committee file pertaining to the committee’s investigation, using classified material, into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. The disclosure came after Brennan had publicly denied allegations that CIA officials had accessed the files, saying, “As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into, you know, Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth.”  That turns out not to be true.

In the wake of the IG’s disclosure that the hacking did occur, Brennan has reportedly apologized to committee members. His  apology, however, did not mollify everyone; at least two senators on the committee – Democrats Mark Udall and Martin Heinrich – have called for Brennan’s resignation, a call echoed by Republican Senator Rand Paul. Paul, you may remember, spent nearly 13 hours filibustering on the Senate floor last year in an unsuccessful effort to block Brennan’s nomination as CIA director.

To Brennan’s critics, the CIA director either authorized his agency to spy on the Senate committee, or he did not know the spying was occurring on his own watch. In either case, they argue, he deserves to be fired. Conspicuously, however, Senate Intelligence committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein reportedly described Brennan’s apology, along with commissioning the internal review, as a “good first step” – hardly the sign of a person looking for Brennan’s scalp. This conciliatory tone stands in sharp contrast to her words last March, of course, when Feinstein took to the Senate floor to accuse the CIA of possibly violating the law and the Constitution by monitoring her staff’s computers. Of course, Feinstein may be saving her ammunition pending her own further investigation into the incident, but for now her reticence to call for Brennan’s resignation sends an important signal.

When the news broke regarding the CIA spying, I received several emails from long-time readers arguing that Brennan’s admission gave Obama an opportunity to show some long-needed decisiveness. By firing his CIA director, Obama would put away lingering doubts that he has the political backbone to make politically difficult choices while at the same time reining in an agency that seems to act without much accountability to elected officials. In my initial response, I expressed skepticism that Obama would act decisively and fire Brennan. Shortly thereafter the President expressed his full confidence in his embattled director.

Why hasn’t Obama fired Brennan?  In my view it is because the President does not perceive it to be in his interest to do so. Remember, Brennan, the former White House terrorist “czar”, was the President’s hand-picked replacement for David Petraeus when Petraeus resigned over revelations that he had an extra-marital affair. Indeed, Obama nominated Brennan over safer and perhaps better qualified candidates such as Mike Morell, a career agency analyst and acting director after Petraeus’ resignation, and he did so even though Brennan was a controversial pick to some because of his role in developing the nation’s drone program – that partly prompted the Rand filibuster – and because critics viewed him as a defender of enhanced interrogation techniques.

Despite the controversy, Obama chose Brennan, I think, because after spending much of his first term in office mediating disputes between CIA director Leon Panetta and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, Obama undoubtedly realized that the DNI has no real operational clout, and that if he wants to ride herd on the intelligence process, he needed his own person at the CIA. This is not unusual – presidents often move White House political loyalists into executive leadership positions during their second term as a way to gain greater access, if not control, over important agencies. Bush the Younger did this when he transferred his national security adviser Condi Rice from the White House to head the State Department after he won reelection. Once ensconced at the top of the bureaucratic hierarchy, it usually takes a lot to force a president to replace a political loyalist.  Keep in mind as well that there is always some political cost to removing officials, not least because it focuses media attention away from the issues Obama wants covered as the midterm elections loom.

Moreover, Brennan’s critics view this incident from a different perspective than does Obama. They see the CIA accessing the Senate files in constitutional terms, as both a violation of the separation of powers and further indication that the CIA is a lawless agency accountable to no one. But it is not at all clear to me that Obama agrees with or is bothered by either charge. From his perspective, having a politically loyal man head the CIA is worth a few ruffled feathers in the Senate and among the civil libertarian crowd.

Note that it is not necessary to fall back on theories of blackmail to understand Obama’s reluctance to fire Brennan – his actions are consistent with his behavior in the national security realm since the day he took office. Although many on the Left fervently hoped that Obama would bring the anti-terrorist national security apparatus established during the Bush administration to heel, he has instead left it largely intact, and in some instances, as with drone strikes, expanded its reach. The reason, as I’ve discussed before, is that Obama feels his constitutional imperative to protect the nation’s security in the age of terror no less acutely than did Bush. From all accounts, Brennan plays an integral role in that fight. That combination of shared experience, personal loyalty and institutional access would be hard to replace. Moreover, as I’ve noted many times, Obama is at heart a centrist and a pragmatist who has shown no proclivity to push principle at the expense of practical politics. That is just not his way.

Yes, I understand that many on the Left and the Right see the CIA’s action as an egregious breach of civil liberties and constitutional prerogatives. But their ire is misdirected. If they want Brennan fired, they need to direct their protests at Congress. Unless Obama calculates that the political cost of Brennan remaining as CIA director outweighs the benefits of having his hand-picked man heading that agency, Brennan will likely stay.

UPDATE 12:10 p.m. :  Jonathan Bernstein beat me to the punch with this post yesterday, but he comes to a similar conclusion – that Obama is trying to strengthen ties with the intelligence community:

UPDATE 5:30 p.m: More evidence that Obama sees the CIA spy case as predominantly a national security issue as opposed to a constitutional or civil liberties problem: his administration has heavily redacted, for security reasons, the Senate Intelligence Committee report documenting the CIA detention and interrogation program. (This was the report that prompted the CIA to access Senate files.)  Feinstein is evidently not happy and wants Obama to reduce the number of redactions.  See:

Bush on Bush, and the Best Presidential Memoir Never Written

The news that George W. Bush has written a book about his 90-year old father,  former president George. H. W. Bush, set off the usual partisan-based reaction among some in the punditocracy. But I, for one, look forward to reading it, not least because one could argue – as I did here – that the elder Bush is the best president never to win reelection. Moreover, it will be interesting to see whether Bush 43 addresses some of the policy differences between them, most notably how each approached the problem of removing Saddam Hussein from office.

It is worth noting that both Bush’s wrote memoirs. The elder’s, co-written with his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft is, as one might expect from the title A World Transformed, focused on the major foreign policy decisions of his administration. The excerpts from Bush’s diary that he includes in the text provide a wonderful contemporaneous view of his thoughts as he confronted a serious of significant foreign policy crisis, including the end of the Cold War and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait*. Bush’s ability to put together both an international coalition to oppose Hussein as well as persuading a much divided Congress to authorize military action remains one of the great leadership feats in presidential annals. The memoir is a great reminder that history is lived by the participants looking forward under conditions of great uncertainty, but it is judged by us with the benefit of hindsight.

The son’s memoirs, Decision Points,  in contrast, looks at a series of critical decision, both domestic and in foreign policy, that helped define his presidency. What struck me about 43’s memoir is how candid he is about the mistakes he made, including the slow response to Katrina and the decision to pursue social security reform ahead of immigration. Interestingly, Bush begins his memoirs by describing his decision to quit drinking – an interesting choice considering the magnitude of the other key events that he addresses later in the book. (The other important fact I learned is that 43 inherited his habit of bestowing nicknames on people from his father who most notably labeled his wife “the silver fox”.)

Hearing about Bush’s latest writing venture got me thinking about the best presidential memoirs I’ve read. In my view one of the most underrated is Calvin Coolidge’s The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge, written in sparing yet often quite evocative prose. Here is Coolidge’s description of his reaction to the death of his son, who died of blood poisoning while Coolidge was in the White House. “When he went, the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him. The ways of Providence are often beyond our understanding. It seemed to me that the world had need of the work that it was probable he could do. I do not know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House.”

Among the more recent presidents, Reagan’s An American Life exudes a sunny optimism that is especially poignant given his subsequent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.  Although he manages to faithfully address the major events of his life, including his presidency, his account never really penetrates deeply enough to help readers understand the inner Reagan nor the degree to which he was fully in charge of his presidency. Clinton’s My Life, at nearly 1,000 pages, is far too long and self-indulgent, as befitting a man of such enormous appetites, and can only be read in small doses.  Richard Nixon spent much of his post-presidential years writing a series of books designed, in part, to rehabilitate his public image. In this vein, his memoirs, RN The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, are good at bringing us inside his thought process during the Watergate scandal, but he never seems willing to fully address his culpability nor the enormity of the scandal. The book begins, however, with one of the best lines to open any presidential memoir: “I was born in a house my father built.”

For me, however, the best presidential memoir is Ulysses Simpson Grant’s Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant which, unfortunately, does not cover his years as president. Written as he was dying of throat cancer, his account of his life up to the presidency reads much as he conducted his military command: meticulous, plain-spoken, brutally honest and uncompromising in its opinions. I will never forget Grant’s description of his approach to battle during his first regimental command: “As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we would see Harris’ camp [Harris was commanding the enemy forces] and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything then to have been back in Illinois, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on.” It seems to me that this passage captures what drives most soldiers to fight rather than to run from combat – a lack of moral courage. As it turns out, Grant arrives at the expected battlefield only to find that Harris has pulled back his troops. Grant writes: “I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. The lesson was valuable.” From that point on, Grant says, he “never experienced trepidation upon confronting the enemy, though I always felt more or less anxiety.”

The best presidential memoirs, it seems to me, accomplish two objectives. First, they recreate as faithfully as possible the critical events of the president’s time in office as he saw them as they were occurring. What was his explanation for the course of events? What options or responses did he consider? We want to see events from his vantage point in real time, rather than have him rationalize decisions after the fact. But a good memoir should also reveal something about the essence of the president as a person – those experiences and beliefs that provide insight regarding how and why he responded to the pressures of occupying the presidential office. In this regard, how presidents choose to tell their life story, including the events they decide are important for readers to understand, are often quite revealing. The best memoirs don’t defend a president or his presidency – they help us understand both.

* An earlier version of this post said that Hussein invaded Iraq. He invaded Kuwait, of course.  I’ve made the correction.