Nixon vs. The Truth

The Claim: LBJ bugged Nixon’s campaign plane in 1968

“The F.B.I. was at one point directed (by President Lyndon Johnson) to bug my plane.” FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover “once told me that they did.”

The Real Story: Nixon was not bugged.

Nixon authority John Hughes of the Miller Center writes: “After the election, Director J. Edgar Hoover told Nixon that Johnson had ordered the FBI not only to wiretap (Nixon operative Anna) Chennault, but also to bug the Republican candidate’s plane. Hoover was, as his deputy, Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, later wrote, ‘embellishing.’ The FBI never did bug Nixon’s plane.”

David Greenberg

DavidGreenbergProfessor at Rutger’s University 

“I guess the way I would put it is there’s a certain grandiosity to Nixon.  He always had this enormous ego that was paired with enormous insecurity—which is often in the case with people in great power.

This irony with Nixon is that as much thought and energy he puts into the performance, he’s actually pretty bad at it and people can seethrough it. He comes across as transparent and phony. He’s trying to be so smart with these prosecutors. Who’s he fooling really?”  (International Business Times)

Stanley Kutler

31kutler2-190Watergate Historian, author of “The Wars of Watergate,” and guest lecturer at our Watergate class

“If you know the voice of Richard Nixon, it’s a virtuoso performance—from the awkward attempts at humor to the moments of self-pity.  It’s just terrific stuff.” (New York Times)

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“Judge Lamberth is a very conservative man; he’s a Republican but you won’t know what he’s going to do … He points out grand jury minutes are secret, but there are exceptions and he discusses them in terms of the law … It turns out he’s a Watergate buff.”  (International Business Times)

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“This doesn’t reverse or change or undermine anything that we’ve already known about Richard Nixon.  This was a blow against official secrecy.”  (International Business Times)

Tim Naftali

 220px-Timothy_Naftali_2012_04Director of the Nixon Library from 2007-2011

“The grand jury testimony sheds more light on President Nixon’s personality and character than it does on the remaining puzzles of Watergate.  Even under the protections of grand jury secrecy, which was inviolate at that point, the president, it appears, was unwilling to be more forthright about his role in what the House Judiciary Committee determined were abuses of government power.”  (New York Times)

Associated Press

“(Historians) were determined to bring to light all facets of that extraordinary episode of presidential disgrace. The fact that the testimony was released counted for more than its contents, they said, because it helps establish a precedent for lifting the veil of secrecy over grand jury proceedings when matters of great historical significance are involved.”

More Commentary

Below are links to articles we recommend about Nixon’s grand jury testimony, Watergate and Nixon in general.

Newly Released Transcripts Show a Bitter and Cynical Nixon in ’75,” New York Times, Nov. 10, 2011:

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Nixon’s testimony: The grand jury prosecutor recalls a tormented president on the stand,” Washington Post blog; Nov. 11, 2011:

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Nixon testimony: 18 1/2-minute gap an accident,” Politico, Nov. 10, 2011:

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Nixon shed no light on tape gap to grand jury,” Associated Press (USA Today) Nov. 10, 2011:

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The Center for Public Integrity:  The White House:  Profiles in Patronage:

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New York Times, Times Topics:  Richard Milhous Nixon:

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The Washington Post, “The Watergate Story.

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Watergate:  The Mary Ferrell Foundation:

Alex Kreger

Nixon Grand Jury Testimony

Many assumed that the former President Nixon would tell the truth in his Grand Jury Testimony, and take the opportunity to attempt to regain some of the honor he had lost in the drawn out Watergate Saga. However, I believe that these people misread Nixon and assumed that he wanted the Grand Jury, and eventually the general public, to know the truth when Nixon really wanted to continue to cover his tracks. From his antics we can learn important lessons about the limits of power and the power of the Constitution to punish those in power that act unethically.

What I found to be most interesting in the reports on the Grand Jury Testimony was the contradiction between the quote that began the page, that Watergate “should have warned us of the vital purposes of politics and government… the warning stands,” and Avi McClelland’s note that “reporting on the release of the Grand Jury testimony, Fox News stated that ‘On Watergate, Nixon reaffirmed what historians now generally believe: that he did not order the infamous break-in that triggered his fall from power, and did not have any advance knowledge that it would be carried out.’” The hope of many historians and Nixon scholars is that people will recall the Watergate Saga as a lesson on both the effectiveness of the Constitution and as a reminder to other politicians that may want to subvert the law as President Nixon did. We hope that the warning does actually stand. However, as McClelland’s note demonstrates, Nixon’s claims do still have some power in society, despite that they have been proven false over and over again. In fact, major news networks such as Fox have carried stories that completely miss the important lessons of the Nixon testimony.

As multiple accounts of the testimony from nixondetached.org demonstrate, the President didn’t really clear up anything in his testimony. On the contrary, for the majority of the tape, “he wandered and filibustered all over the map.” I don’t believe that this was because Nixon couldn’t keep track of his thoughts or was accidentally wandering in his speech. Instead, it seems that Nixon used wandering speech as simply another tact to hide the truth from the members of the Grand Jury. As Joel Antwi points out, Nixon wasted time as a way to obstruct the truth further, and so he could control the conversation and the subject of discussion. Nixon also effectively “claims not to remember anything that happened during his administration.” By simply asserting that he could not recall any information, the President continued to cheat the Grand Jury and the American People of the truth.

This makes it even harder to understand how Fox News’s major take away from the release of the Nixon Grand Jury Testimony was that it vindicated President Nixon. However, they weren’t the only news agency that did not cover the story the way I think it should have been. In fact, other news agencies, including The Washington Post, failed to cover the story of the release of the tapes in any depth, as Palak Gosar and Julianne Martin point out. This highlights just how important it is for historians and Nixon scholars to continue to teach about the wrongdoings of the Nixon Administration. There are very important lessons on the limits of power that should be learned from the Watergate Saga that every American should know and remember. Only by truly understanding the Nixon Testimony, and the actions Nixon took as President, can we effectively stop such actions from taking place again.

Abby Fennewald

As James Madison said, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Although Nixon’s grand jury testimony in the Watergate case produced no real breakthroughs in our understanding of his involvement, it is still important to have access to these documents.

Stanley Kutler, the historian who requested the documents, recognized this. “The grand jury after that testimony had a chance to sit and indict but they did not…so I don’t expect it to be that important,” he said to the AP, adding that it was another victory for transparency in public life.

Nixon, of course, would have been furious. He believed more than anything that he should be able to keep his secrets, and that being president gave him the power to do that. There is no way that when he was giving his testimony he thought there was even the slightest chance that what he said would come to light, but even with that assumed protection, he didn’t let his guard down and tell the truth.

The kind of openness that the release of these documents represents is a vital part of our democracy. If Nixon had been forced to tell the truth about the bombing of Cambodia from the outset, the war in Vietnam would have had a completely different outcome. There are many stories like this in American history. Allowing for public discourse on government action can make politicians think about their decisions in a new light. The only way this can happen, however, is if we know what the government, especially the executive branch, is doing.

James Madison was an early champion of this kind of transparency. Today, FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) release all kinds of government documents to those willing to read them and look for valuable information. Every president can give new directives about how to interpret and enforce this law, as what documents are released has a direct impact on how the public views a president. Under President George W. Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft recommended a very strict interpretation on what documents should be released. If one of the exceptions to FOIA applied, he wanted executive agencies to use it, even if releasing the documents wouldn’t harm any government operations.

When President Obama took office, he pledged more transparency from these agencies. The implementation of this, however, has seen limited results. Certainly we know more about how many agencies function within the executive branch than during Nixon’s administration, but there is still progress to be made. Nixon’s grand jury testimony might not have the answers we are looking for, but it is still important that they be available. There are many groups today that can help with online FOIA requests, and this is a very valuable service. Government transparency may not have been able to prevent Watergate from happening, but it could potentially have made the risk too great for Nixon to carry out some of his other “dirty tricks,” and would have changed his perspective on what information could potentially be made public.

Alisha Dingus

Stanley Kutler described Nixon’s grand jury testimony as a “virtuoso performance” [4]. For Nixon, it was his last opportunity to convince the world that “he was no worse than anyone else” [2]. It was his last opportunity to remind people that he “was not just Watergate” [2]. “He seemed to be saying…I was important, difficult, tough national security issues and I dealt with them well” [2]. It was his last chance to play Revisionist in Chief on such a public scale. And because of that, he had to give the performance of his political career. Much like his Checkers speech, this was a political Hail Mary. With the Checkers speech, if he did not convince the American public that he was not a crook, to steal a catchphrase he coined many years and scandals later, his political career was all but over. He would have been kicked off the Republican ticket and disgraced before even making it into the White House. With his grand jury testimony, here it was, his last chance to point the finger at anyone but himself. But this scenario was a bit more dangerous, because the entire time, he was at the risk of committing perjury, so he could not do what he did best and blatantly lie about the Watergate affairs. He had to be tricky about his lies, which was why he adopted the “I cannot recall” strategy. But for the entire testimony, he had to be careful not to slip and tell an actual lie (or worse, slip and tell the truth). He was walking a tightrope the entire testimony, which was why the performance was even more stunning.

Nixon was smart. He knew the grand jury would tire of his “do not recall” [4] answer, his non-denial denial. So he “repeatedly reminded his questioners that he had been preoccupied with grave matters of state, including the war in Vietnam” [4]. This was perfect, because it accomplished his goal of reminding everyone that he was not just Watergate. He reminded everyone that he was dealing with real, national security issues while “these clowns” [4] broke into the Watergate. Nixon was “preoccupied with foreign policy” [3] which was his way of taking responsibility for the Watergate scandal. He said “one of the weaknesses I have…and it is a strength in another way: I am quite single minded…I do one thing at a time, and in the office of the Presidency I did the big things and did them reasonably well and screwed up on the little things” [3]. Nixon was too busy doing the “big things” [3] well to worry about the White House plumbers and for that, he was sorry. He was sorry that he put national security above everything else.

Nixon had to remind the people “there were two Richard Nixons” [2] and one of those Nixons “did some very positive things” [2], so positive “that he should not be defined by the events that led to his resignation” [2]. The world he lived in “was not just Watergate and Watergate related episodes” [2]. And to do that, he had to create a villain greater then himself and he chose the prosecutors. “We were really sort of an enemy to him,” [2] said Richard Davis, who questioned Nixon during his grand jury testimony. Throughout the entire testimony, he “slipped in little digs at the prosecutors” [1]. He “applauded them for their hard work and criticized them as being part of an effort to take him down” [1] because, remember, “he was no worse than anyone else” [1]. He accused the prosecutors of “having a double standard” [1] and then gave them a bit of advice: “taking the double standard is going to make you much more popular with the Washington press corps, with the Georgetown social set…but on the other hand, think of your children-they are going to judge you in the pages of history” [1] because in Richard Nixon’s world, history will judge him kindly. He was “subjected to some of the most brutal assaults” [3] but he was the only one forced to resign for, in his mind, simply playing the same game Kennedy and Johnson played before him. He told the grand jury “it is time for us to recognize that in politics in America…some pretty rough tactics are used” [3]. He was aware that his campaign was not “pure” [3] but as someone who had been in politics for “the last 25 years” [3] he could assure everyone “that politics is a rough game” [3]. He was just doing what everyone else did. He just made the mistake of trusting “a group of amateur Watergate bugglers, burglars-well they were bunglers” [4] whereas Kennedy used “the F.B.I, used the I.R.S…against…a man who had been vice president of the United States, running for governor” [4]. It really was a beautiful performance, maybe the finest of his career. Not once did he overtly commit perjury. Not once did he slip up and tell the truth. And most importantly, he continued to paint himself as the victim in the entire ordeal.

I do hope someone writes a play about Nixon’s grand jury testimony because it was the performance of his political career.

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1. “Nixon shed no light on gap to grand jury.” AP.

2.Bell, Melissa. “Nixon’s testimony: the grand jury prosecutor recalls a tormented president on the stand.” The Washington Post.

3. Farrell, John. “Nixon to grand jury: $100,000 cash contributions and rewarding donors with ambassadorships.” The Center for Public Integrity.

4. Nagourney, Adam & Shane, Scott. “Newly Released Transcripts Show a Bitter and Cynical Nixon in ’75.” The New York Times.

Conor Daniels

Nixon’s Grand Jury Testimony

 The unsealing of Nixon’s Grand Jury testimony was a seminal moment not only in the saga of Watergate, but a fascinating window into the mind of a very complicated man. For eleven hours, the disgraced former president sparred with prosecutors in what could be described as classic Nixon fashion.  The tapes display a remarkable portrait of Nixon after he left office, bitter about his fall from grace and cynical about politics generally. He seems to present himself as a victim of governmental abuses by his enemies during his career in politics, and said that prosecutors were out to destroy him in order to validate their actions during the scandal’s early days.

At the same time he is arguing that his White House did nothing out of the ordinary, he simultaneously seems to compliment JFK’s administration asserting that it had directed the I.R.S. and other government agencies to discredit him as he ran for governor of California. He says:

“They were pretty smart, I guess,” he said. “Rather than using a group of amateur Watergate bugglers, burglars — well they were bunglers — they used the F.B.I….”

This is a great microcosm of the tension that existed within Nixon’s psyche. He had the propensity for law breaking, seeing it as a necessary component of the political game, and at the same time had convinced himself that he was not responsible for the actions he was taking.

Another interesting point raised by Professor Chris Edeldson was the implication of Nixon’s testifying only after he had resigned. It would have raised an interesting constitutional situation surrounding the separation of the executive branch. Had Nixon still been the sitting president, one could only imagine he might have refused to testify before the Grand Jury at all. Obviously U.S. v Nixon made clear that this viewpoint was flawed, as so many of Nixon’s were, however it would have been interesting to watch unfold.

Nixon even directed some humor at himself, as he recalled telling an advisor to look into the 18 ½-minute gap on the White House tapes. “I said to him, ‘Let’s find out how this damn thing happened,’ ” Nixon said. “I am sorry, I wasn’t supposed to use profanity. You have enough on the tapes.” This ability of Nixon to be self-deprecating is almost necessary in a man so profoundly awkward on the national stage. And from the pages of transcript I have read, his awkwardness and missed attempts at humor are present throughout. It made for a great read.