“(Politicians) hate to admit mistakes, and I guess I’m one of them.”
It’s the kind of statement a politician would make only when he’s been under sustained pressure. This was what former US president Richard Nixon stumbled into when he agreed to be interviewed on camera by journalist David Frost in 1977.
At the time, Nixon was about to publish his biography and probably thought a public interview would give it good publicity. The public needed to know about his achievements, despite that large black mark called Watergate against his presidency.
“I did some of the big things rather well. I screwed up terribly on what was a little thing and became a big thing.”
Nixon’s apologists try to make the case that he had the makings of a grand presidency. He was moderate for a Republican and had chalked up successes such as founding the Environmental Protection Agency, initiated diplomatic relations between the US and China, and negotiated treaties to defuse the risk of nuclear war with Russia.
But the truth was, people only saw Watergate. Contrary to what Nixon claimed in the interview, it wasn’t “a little thing” but rather that one thing he got caught at in a morass of many, many very bad things.
Principally, he held a strong distrust of the media and effectively sanctioned illegal or underhand operations to smear his political enemies and stifle the press.
When the scandal broke, Nixon tried to distance himself by denying he knew the people who directed the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building.
But his lies caught up with him when it was made known that conversations in the Oval Office were recorded. The tapes revealed that Nixon knew about the robbers being paid through a slush fund, and that they tried to stop the investigation by saying it was related to national security.
It was this evidence, a kind of smoking gun, that was very difficult to explain away. Faced by facts, Nixon tried to talk around it without really admitting to anything. However, to the public, his evasiveness pointed to complicity and conspiracy. The evidence was overwhelming.
“When I resigned, people didn’t think it was enough to admit mistakes; fine. If they want me to get down and grovel on the floor, no. Never. Because I don’t believe I should.”
Frost recalled that when the topic turned to Watergate, Nixon arrived late with a “haunted look” on his face. Discussing it was a real effort for him, unlike the rest of the interview.
I believe this is why Nixon found it hard to process the truth – that people saw him as a villain. He knew he wasn’t innocent, but he must have felt the pressure of the entire Watergate blame squarely on his shoulders, and that there were mitigating circumstances why things happened the way they did.
In short, the public was being unfair.
“I didn’t intend it to cover up. Let me say, if I intended to cover up, believe me, I’d have done it.”
But why did Nixon allow the tapes to even exist? In fact, the recording machines were taken out of the Oval Office when Nixon become president, but he directed them to be installed again.
He could have destroyed the tapes when the scandal broke but chose not to. It has been suggested that it was pride that stopped him from doing it. He wanted the tapes to record his legacy and the policies he presided over, but he underestimated the risk they represented.
When reality finally caught up, Nixon apologised to his staff in private. In public, he admitted “we have done some things wrong in this Administration, and the top man always takes the responsibility”.
Then during the Frost interview, he said: “When the President does it, that means it is not illegal.”
It was an admission but without an acceptance of responsibility. I believe it was this quote from the whole interview that defined him to the people who watched the broadcast.
A public poll taken after the interviews found that 69% thought that Nixon was still trying to cover up, 72% thought he was guilty of obstruction of justice, and 75% thought he deserved no more role in public life.
That last one must have stung. Despite being an embarrassment, Nixon hoped he could still make some contribution to his country. In the Frost interview, he said he wanted to “give a little advice from time to time”.
That took a while, which was helped by a pardon from his successor, President Gerald Ford. After being a pariah, Nixon gradually returned to the limelight.
In 1980, he supported Ronald Reagan’s bid for presidency. In 1986, Nixon visited Russia and returned with a memorandum of foreign policy suggestions for President Reagan. One Gallup Poll ranked Nixon as among the 10 most admired men in the world. Newsweek ran a story with the headline, “He’s back”.
By 2014, one Roper Center poll found that more Americans considered George W Bush and Barack Obama as the “worst US Presidents” over Nixon.
It’s easy to caricaturise politicians, but reality is a bit more complicated. Presidents, Prime Ministers, even Deputy Prime Ministers who have endured criticism while in power, whom many celebrate to see the back of when they fall, sometimes have the will, capability and resources to turn things around and return to some semblance of authority – even if it takes decades.
It seems the line between hero and villain is just time.