In the spring of 1973, as Watergate heated up in earnest, Bob Bartley of The Wall Street Journal asked his editorial-page staff if any of us still thought President Nixon innocent. No one spoke, so I said I still didn't have enough information to be entirely persuaded of his guilt. Bartley then asked if I would play devil's advocate, studying the case as it unfolded, defending Nixon for as long as I could. Bob was already half-persuaded, but wanted to give Nixon the benefit of the doubt before he joined the growing calls for his resignation or impeachment. In the year that followed, I spent countless hours studying the case, reading and re-reading the tape transcripts until I practically had them memorized. My aim was to put myself into Nixon's shoes, to see if a credible rationale could be developed to explain his behavior as the cover-up unfolded around him at the White House and Justice Department. Again and again, I fended off arguments raised against Nixon, which meant that the Journal was nearly the last newspaper to throw in the towel. It did so when the so-called "smoking gun" tape was disclosed, when I was on a reporting trip in Washington.
I never did throw in the towel, believing to this day that Nixon was not a participant in the cover-up, that he would have beaten the charges against him in a Senate impeachment trial. The case against Nixon rested on the word of the White House counsel, John Dean, whose testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee was so methodical, so precise, so persuasive, that when he concluded, the Gallup Poll found only 17% of the nation believed Nixon's denials. On July 11, 1973, I wrote "One of the 17% Defends Mr. Nixon," for the Journal's editorial page. Having pondered the discrepancies far into the night for weeks, the following had occurred to me: "These impressions and recollections on Mr. Dean's part are nevertheless damaging to the President if we are willing to place a higher degree of faith in Mr. Dean's memory than in Mr. Nixon's veracity. Yet if what Mr. Dean remembers discussing with Mr. Nixon on March 13 actually was part of the March 21 conversation, there is no irresolvable conflict between the two."
In 1974, after the tapes had been released, it was clear I had been right. In "John Dean's Continuing Imprint," May 20, 1974, I wrote: "It now turns out that most of what Mr. Dean testified as occurring on Sept. 15 or Feb. 28 or March 13 actually happened on March 21. Whether this was done willfully by Mr. Dean or was simply a matter of his memory playing tricks on him while he was under pressure is not important to Mr. Nixon's defense. What is important to the President is the public's realization that at no time up to and including the famous meeting of March 21 did John Dean reveal to the President the genuine criminal liabilities of John Dean." What the tapes showed is Nixon learning of the cover-up long after the public heard from a persuasive Dean that he had so informed the President. By this time, though, the national consensus had hardened, the cries for Nixon's resignation so shrill that I couldn't even get Republican friends to sit still to hear my convoluted arguments on his behalf.
Into this charged atmosphere, the "smoking gun" tape of June 23, 1972 dropped like a bolt of lightning. It was actually nothing of the sort. It involved a Nixon conversation that took place six days after the Watergate break-in, when Nixon still had not the slightest idea what was going on and was led to think that the break-in was tied to a CIA covert operation with links to Cuba, which he would legitimately wish to conceal. ("You open that scab," he told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, "there's a hell of a lot of things and that we just feel that it would be very detrimental to have this thing go any further. This involves those Cubans, Hunt, and a lot of hanky-panky that we have nothing to do with ourselves. Well, what the hell, did Mitchell know about this thing to any much of a degree?").
This had as much weight as a straw, but it was the last straw, and broke the President's back. I'd heard about it from Charles DiBona of the American Petroleum Institute, with whom I was having dinner at Jean Pierre's on K Street in the Capital, he just having heard a radio account. After dinner, when I read an account in the Washington Star, I knew any attempt on my part to continue an elaborate, complex defense of Nixon was hopeless. He would have to do this himself, painstakingly, in the Senate trial. Meanwhile, his ability to function as President had snapped. I decided not even to call the office for a few days, until Bartley had written his Nixon-Must-Go editorial. As I recall, the Indianapolis Star was the only metropolitan newspaper in the country that had not joined the call. With almost no political support left, Nixon knew a year-long trial was an impossible burden for the country to bear. U.S. troops were dying in Vietnam, the Soviet Union was at the peak of its influence in the Third World, and the U.S. economy was a mess. Beaten to a pulp, he had no choice other than resignation.
This is why I believe that in the years since Nixon never acknowledged complicity in any cover-up, never apologized for his behavior, and never told the nation he was sorry. His resignation as President was enough to cover the remorse he felt, he has since said. But what he felt was failure, not guilt, failure as political leader of the most important country on earth, failure to hold the confidence of the American people even while personally "innocent" of "obstructing justice" over a two-bit burglary. In the end he was responsible, but not culpable, as were his assistants. You cannot feel guilt if you know you are innocent, and by my reading of the tape transcripts I knew Nixon could not be guilty of that with which he was being charged. The tapes themselves proved his innocence, through an internal logic that could not be destroyed. I thought so at the time of his resignation and believe this more strongly today, having observed Nixon and talked to him in the 20 years since. I allowed myself to think that historians would one day pore over the tapes as I did, without the passions Nixon engendered coloring their views, and that one day long past his death Nixon would enjoy a vindication of sorts.
It was ironic that I would come to feel so strongly about Richard Nixon when, early on, I hated him with the kind of passion reserved for young political hotheads. In 1952, 16 years old and growing up in Brooklyn in a family of labor union Democrats, I adored Adlai Stevenson, campaigned for him against Eisenhower, and kicked the family's first TV set during Nixon's "Checkers" speech (for which I was whacked by my father). Ten years later, a newspaper editor I admired told me Nixon was not the fiend I imagined. I read his first biography, Six Crises, and decided maybe I was wrong. In 1964, the day after Barry Goldwater's defeat, I wrote a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that predicted Nixon would be the GOP nominee in 1968. In 1967, Nixon made a lasting impact on me with his essay in the fall issue of Foreign Affairs, "Asia After Vietnam," the first display of the awesome landscape of his mind in foreign affairs. What greatly impressed me was his creativity in looking past the conflict of the moment to a future potential, thinking of ways to bridge the two. By now, before I'd met him, I almost thought I could read his mind, and was the first journalist in the Washington press corps to see what he was up to in China. A few days after his inaugural, I wrote "Is This Turning Point in Sino-American Relations?" in the National Observer, February 3, 1969.
Nixon's weakness in domestic affairs was really no fault of his own. He was fated to serve at the high point of demand-side economic theory, which I also fell for at the time. "We are all Keynesians now," he said. In fact, I came to believe he was undone not really by John Dean and Watergate, but by James Tobin and Milton Friedman, whose followers persuaded him to raise the capital gains tax (in 1969) and devalue the dollar (in 1971). On June 19, 1984 in a two-hour talk I had with him in his office on Foley Square in Manhattan, we talked about Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp and supply-side economics, and I asked him if it ever occurred to him that he might not have been impeached if he didn't close the gold window and float the dollar. He paused only for a second and said, "It's true, it's very rare in history for a political leader to be touched by scandal and be brought down in an expanding economy."
In the years since, I'd send him essays I thought he'd be interested in and he'd respond with notes and comments, most recently on China and Russia. A few weeks ago, I missed him by only a few minutes at One Washington Circle, the little hotel we both have used for years. The bellmen knew I'd be sorry, but I said I'm sure I'd see him one of these trips, as he seems to spend as much time in Washington as I do. He's been a part of our political lives for so long, it's now hard to believe he won't be there anymore. Rest in peace, Mr. President. You were a good man, better than we knew.