Stanley Kutler described Nixon’s grand jury testimony as a “virtuoso performance” . For Nixon, it was his last opportunity to convince the world that “he was no worse than anyone else” . It was his last opportunity to remind people that he “was not just Watergate” . “He seemed to be saying…I was important, difficult, tough national security issues and I dealt with them well” . 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”  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” . 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”  broke into the Watergate. Nixon was “preoccupied with foreign policy”  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” . Nixon was too busy doing the “big things”  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”  and one of those Nixons “did some very positive things” , so positive “that he should not be defined by the events that led to his resignation” . The world he lived in “was not just Watergate and Watergate related episodes” . 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,”  said Richard Davis, who questioned Nixon during his grand jury testimony. Throughout the entire testimony, he “slipped in little digs at the prosecutors” . He “applauded them for their hard work and criticized them as being part of an effort to take him down”  because, remember, “he was no worse than anyone else” . He accused the prosecutors of “having a double standard”  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”  because in Richard Nixon’s world, history will judge him kindly. He was “subjected to some of the most brutal assaults”  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” . He was aware that his campaign was not “pure”  but as someone who had been in politics for “the last 25 years”  he could assure everyone “that politics is a rough game” . 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”  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” . 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.
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.