The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Richard Nixon Breaks Silence
ROBERT MacNEIL: Good evening. And good morning to BBC viewers in Britain, where it`s just turned Friday morning, who are joining us live by satellite. Last night Richard Nixon, the first American President ever to resign the office, broke the silence of his three-year exile in San Clemente. Typically, for a man whose political career has spanned the television age, who lived most of his public crises on television, the medium was TV -- the first of four paid interviews with David Frost. Tonight we examine Mr. Nixon`s thoughts on his own downfall with the two journalists whose relentless stories did most to expose the Watergate scandal, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in Washington; and with the author of the latest psychohistory of Nixon, the psychoanalyst Dr. David Abrahamsen here in New York. For millions of Americans the program was compulsive viewing, dominating the television schedule across the nation, exciting all the old sympathies and angers. Among political figures reaction tended to fall into worn political channels. Sam Ervin, chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee, said, "He is still covering up." Ray Price, Nixon`s former speech-writer, thought it was a generous concession of errors which would have a cleansing and healing effect. Many Americans questioned the propriety of a President who escaped impeachment by resignation choosing to speak only on television, and for money.
In Washington, Bob Woodward -- co-author with Carl Bernstein of All the President`s Men, The Final Days -- did Mr. Nixon say anything new to you about his Watergate role?
BOB WOODWARD: In a factual sense, no, I don`t think he added anything to the record, really; maybe a phrase or a sentence here and there. I think in an emotional sense he certainly did. I was moved by it -certainly the last half hour of it.
MacNEIL: Carl Bernstein, did you hear anything factually new?
CARL BERNSTEIN: No, not in terms of the facts. I think you have to divide the program into really two segments. You had the first hour during which was some rather relentless questioning by Mr. Frost; former President Nixon consistently misrepresented what the record was, he divined in his own taped conversations meanings that only he perceives, motives that only he comprehends. I think even Mr. Nixon`s partisans would have a difficult time defending him in terms of the accuracy of what he represented last night. Then you get into that last half hour which, as Bob said, was quite emotional, at times was moving; and it seems to me that David Eisenhower once said to General Haig in the final days of the administration, when Haig was trying to get Nixon to resign, that Mr. Nixon would go when he was sure that he would not be morally condemned, and I think that`s what we saw last night in that half hour, was this grand attempt to avoid moral condemnation. And that`s when he was perhaps able to move us a little bit and to say something a little bit new; previously he`d said that he tried to contain the scandal for reasons of national security -- now he had a new excuse: he was too good a man, he said, too good to his friends, especially Mr. Haldeman.
WOODWARD: I don`t think you should underestimate the Nixon partisans and their willingness to accept the misrepresentation of the facts which he indulged in...
BERNSTEIN: It was so glaring at various times; in fact, you this afternoon made a list of some of them that, just one after the other, they...
WOODWARD: But they were shrewdly executed, and even on the first reading of the transcript and seeing it once I didn`t quite see it until I went back to the record and he would take phrases out of context and throw them at Frost; and frankly, I think Frost did a fine job, but I think Nixon -- he`d spent months dealing with the record, knew it better, and accordingly, ran circles around him.
MacNEIL: If he did not come up with facts new to you, were the things that he did say consistent with what he had said before he resigned?
BERNSTEIN: His interpretation of the March 21 tape, which is a vast misrepresentation of the facts, is absolutely consistent with his previous statements, which is to say he totally ignores -- as we saw when Frost finally pinned him down on sixteen specific points -- Mr. Nixon conveniently ignores most of that discussion in which the whole cover-up, payments to the conspirators were discussed, executive clemency was discussed, and in a way that I think any reasonable person would conclude that Mr. Nixon was very much aware of what this discussion involved.
WOODWARD: Everyone said -- not everyone; a lot of people said -- he apologized, he went further in conceding things last night in the Frost interview than he had before, and I don`t think that`s true. Again, if you read the statement he put out when he accepted President Ford`s pardon in September of 1974, he talked about regret, anguish of his mistakes, said again, "I know many fair-minded people believe that my motivation and actions in Watergate were intentionally self-serving and illegal;" then he goes on to say he didn`t do that, talks about the burden he`s going to have to carry around for the rest of his life -- it was exactly, not only in content but some of the words.
BERNSTEIN: I think, though, that the tone this time was a little more emotional, and in that sense you have a feeling of his having gone farther than he did in that written statement...
WOODWARD: Television is more emotional than a statement.
BERNSTEIN: And he uses television very effectively; I think he did in that last half hour.
MacNEIL: Okay. Let`s look at some quotations from the interview in little more detail. Mr. Nixon repeatedly denied criminal culpability on the grounds of motivation that he said was not criminal. He said, for example, "Motive -- that`s the important thing. If a cover-up is for the purpose of covering up criminal activities it is illegal. If, however, it`s for a motive that is not criminal, that`s something else again. And my motive was not criminal. My motive was pure political containment." Is there any legal basis, to your knowledge, gentlemen. -- in your knowledge of Watergate -- for the distinction between political and criminal motivation so far as a charge of obstruction of justice would be concerned?
BERNSTEIN: I`m not a lawyer, but I`ve had a number of discussions with lawyers about this, including one with James Neal, one of the assistant prosecutors, this morning; and I think that most lawyers would tell you that Mr. Nixon`s defense as he put forth last night was patently absurd in terms of this distinction of political containment. And it was also rather clear, I thought, that Mr. Nixon was not at all familiar with the conspiracy statute and that Mr. Frost was. I disagree with Bob a little bit about Nixon running circles around Frost; I think the opposite was the case. I think repeatedly in that first hour Frost was able to pin Nixon down, although at various time`s the former President got away with gross misrepresentations. But I think it was pretty obvious, especially in that first question when it got into this thing about "motive -- that`s the important thing. "I think clearly from the tapes you know that there was a conspiracy to obstruct justice, and any reasonable person would conclude that.
WOODWARD: But just to take an example of that, Nixon`s whole case last night was "I didn`t mean to do it. I had good, pure intentions, which is a standard Watergate defense that we`ve been fed for a long time. He said "political containment" was his goal. In the March 21 tape he says exactly the opposite, and he should have been called on it. He said, "I`m not worried about bad publicity. We can rock through that," and an exact quote is, "but the point is, I don`t want any criminal liability." That`s obstruction of justice, and that`s why that tape was so damaging to him; but Frost let him get away with his interpretation.
MacNEIL: Okay, thank you. Presumably what everybody was waiting for was to hear to what extent Mr. Nixon would admit to a sense of wrongdoing. If the public was waiting for a full confession they were disappointed, but his former supporters thought he went quite far. He said, "I did not commit, in my view,. an impeachable offense. I said things that were not true. Most of them were fundamentally true on the big issues, but without going as far as I should have gone in saying, perhaps, that I`d considered other things but had not done them. While technically I did not commit a crime, an impeachable offense, it was so botched up, I made so many bad judgments -- the worst ones, mistakes of the heart rather than the head. I wasn`t a good butcher," Mr. Nixon said.
Dr. David Abrahamsen is a practicing psychoanalyst, a consultant to the federal government who has testified at many trials. He`s the author of a psychological study of President Kennedy`s presumed assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. This year he published Nixon vs. Nixon: An Emotional Tragedy. Dr. Abrahamsen, from your studies of Mr. Nixon, how do explain that: a simple unwillingness to face guilt, or a real belief in his own innocence?
Dr. DAVID ABRAHAMSEN: He really believes in his own innocence, unfortunately, and he believes that he did not do anything wrong. And also, his whole presentation last night was really an expression of his own distorted viewpoint about what is truth and what is a lie.
MacNEIL: Is he capable of distinguishing between...
ABRAHAMSEN: Apparently he is unable to do so. Because of his psychiatry (ph) disorder, which I think is in some way a character disturbance, he is unable to distinguish between what is truth and what is a lie. And this comes, or originates, from his own feeling about himself that he is very much concerned about himself. He always thinks about himself, which we can see from the book I have written. He felt very lonely as a child; he always thinks of himself as the person about whom everyone should circuit. In one- way you can say that he has a high opinion of himself to the outside world, but within himself he has a very low opinion. And for him, then, it was most important that he could get all the power he got, which also he received when he became the imperial President. But all these distortions which he had about himself and about his life around him really developed into some sort of an encirclement of himself that he wasn`t able to see, really, what was going on. For instance, there were so many obvious matters; he said yesterday that "I impeached myself." This is obviously a distortion; he didn`t impeach himself, you know. It was the Judiciary Committee which impeached him. And then he talks about "pure political containment"; that was the same as saying that he did not really commit any crime in trying to excuse himself. But also it really didn`t surprise me. Nixon was last night a very good talker, and he tried to, I would say, misguide...
ABRAHAMSEN: Mislead -- pardon me -- mislead David Frost, and sometimes also he succeeded.
MacNEIL: How do you describe clinically the pattern of behavior you`ve just been outlining, this inability to distinguish truth from lies?
ABRAHAMSEN: Having examined quite many people, not only in human behavior with regard to suffering from neurosis and so on, but having examined quite many criminals who have been denying their acts, he really reminded me about one of those people who are always trying to excuse himself: he didn`t do this, he didn`t do that; it was somebody else who did it, or anything like that. For instance -- and this is really the most glaring thing here -- that we still are wondering about whether Nixon knew about Watergate. Obviously he knew every detail. Obviously. But he`s just like the little boy who steals a cookie from the cookie jar and his mother comes out and sees it -- "Didn`t you steal it?" "No," says the boy, "I didn`t steal it. Somebody else did it."
MacNEIL: Did you think, gentlemen in Washington, that he was sincere last night, or being cynical and deliberately misleading, to use Dr. Abrahamsen`s phrase?
BERNSTEIN: Both, I think. I think there`s no way to conclude other than that he was deliberately misleading in the way that he misrepresented the record and what was on those taped conversations.
MacNEIL: You mean, he had to know better. Is that what you`re saying?
BERNSTEIN: Absolutely. I mean, there`s a printed record, there is a .whole courtroom record from the trial of his subordinates; you could go through and list just a tremendously long group of plain inaccuracies, factual misrepresentations. And he did that throughout the first hour. But there was also some extraordinary human drama, I thought, in that last half hour, and it gets into what Dr. Abrahamsen is saying, and that is that clearly, I think, we were able to see his steadfast belief in his own innocence. And it`s almost as if his epitaph is going to be, as it seemed to say in that last half hour -and as he said before -- "I know what I meant. If the facts stack up against me I still know I was innocent. I know there was not an impeachable offense." And he wants us to accept that view of his moral behavior.
MacNEIL: Dr. Abrahamsen points out, that this is the usual explanation of a criminal. I just wanted to ask you, Bob Woodward: he told Frost that he could have covered up by granting everybody clemency after the election. By not doing that, he said, that proved that he had no intention to carry on a cover-up. Do you believe that? Is it conceivable that he could have granted clemency after the election?
WOODWARD: Well, he could have done it, but there would have been political hell to pay for it, obviously.
BERNSTEIN: He probably would have been impeached.
WOODWARD: There certainly would have been an investigation; but he could have done it. As somebody once described Watergate and Nixon`s behavior, he got gangrene in his toe so he cut off his toenail; he got it in his foot so he cut off his toe; he got it in his leg so he cut off -- and just kept following it...
BERNSTEIN: He would have stopped soon.
WOODWARD: ...too far behind (laughing).
ABRAHAMSEN: Nixon himself admitted that you cannot politically do it in 1974, or after the election -- couldn`t do it; he admitted that himself.
MacNEIL: Let`s look at another point in the interview, if I may. Mr. Nixon also seemed a bit ambivalent about whether to blame the fall on himself or on others, and at one point he said, "It was a five-front war with the fifth column; I had a partisan Senate Committee staff, we had a partisan special prosecutor staff, we had a partisan media, we had a partisan Judiciary Committee staff in the fifth column." But then he added, "However, I don`t go with the idea that what brought me down was a coup, a conspiracy, etcetera. I brought myself down. I gave them a sword and they stuck it in, and they twisted it with relish and I guess if I`d been in their position I`d have done the same thing. What did you make of that, gentlemen in Washington?
BERNSTEIN: I thought it was some self-pitying rhetoric, for the most part. I think the idea that anybody involved in the impeachment process, covering that story who did anything with relish -- I think Mr. Nixon knows better than that. Anybody that will recall the national trauma that went with the experience of Mr. Nixon leaving office in Watergate...
MacNEIL: In fact, the spectacle in Congress was that it was done with extreme reluctance, even by people who were politically partisan against him a lot of the time, isn`t that true?
WOODWARD: Absolutely. And I think it reflects a point of view -- and it`s a political point of view -- everything is a war, is a political battle, and he sees the world in that context and he expressed it in that way.
ABRAHAMSEN: Furthermore, also Nixon himself did not consider you or I as human beings; we were his adversaries, whether we agreed with him or not, and this is the way he was brought up. All the people who did not agree with him were his adversaries, and for this reason they had to be butchered or they had to be nullified. And being and having such an attitude, it shows, really, that within himself he had strange feelings that people were against him.
MacNEIL: And those derive from the way he was brought up, you `believe.
ABRAHAMSEN : Yes.
MacNEIL: Can I just ask Woodw and Bernstein, was it actually new -- literally new, in so many words -- for him to say, "I brought myself down"?
BERNSTEIN: I don`t think he used that phrase before. The fact is, I think that`s true; I think that his own actions are the reason he`s no longer in office. I don`t think that`s exactly what he meant. I think he meant he took himself out politically, which is a misrepresentation. He took himself out because he knew that he was going to be impeached and convicted.
WOODWARD: He used almost that same expression in the day he resigned, the departure speech to the staff, sort of "If you hate your enemies they`ll get you," or words to that effect, and I think that`s sort of what he ...
BERNSTEIN: Same idea, I suppose.
ABRAHAMSEN: He was only talking about himself.
MacNEIL: He was. But you don`t see that as a significant concession emotionally or psychologically, that "Nobody else did it; I did it myself."
ABRAHAMSEN: I do not believe so. I`m afraid that the former President really does not have those deep emotions..
MacNEIL: How did you feel about the line, "They put the sword in and they twisted it with relish, and I probably would have done the same thing... but I was not a good butcher"? How did you feel about that?
ABRAHAMSEN: This is very interesting. Not being a good butcher -- I do believe that throughout his life he had been an excellent butcher, to use such an expression. I mean, he had butchered Voorhis, Helen Gahagan Douglas...
MacNEIL: The Congressional and Senatorial candidates in California at the beginning of his career.
ABRAHAMSEN: Yes. And all for the reason that they were his adversaries -- everyone was his adversary. So I think that he was really a good butcher, but last night he was really trying to make a good impression for those people who superficially might think he was right.
WOODWARD: I think the point has to be expressed that he in his own mind gave a lot by conceding, by going on television show like that and saying that it hurt, that it was very, very painful and then describing some of those scenes. Now, I`m sure lots of people thought it was very melodramatic; some may think it`s insincere, but I think he really felt it. I know from the reporting Carl and I have done on that period it did hurt; it was very painful...
MacNEIL: Firing Haldeman and Ehrlichman.
WOODWARD: Oh, indeed.
BERNSTEIN: Also, these are things that he`s said before, particularly in his last days in office, to his aides. Most of the things that you heard last night he has said before, and I think that you can generalize to the extent to say that in matters of fact last night he misrepresented throughout. On matters of emotion, I think there`s very little reason to doubt that he, at least, believes what he`s saying. Now, he`s a man with a talent for self-deception that goes over a generation.
ABRAHAMSEN: He believes what he says, that`s very correct; but whether it is true. or not is another story. I think that his mind, unfortunately, has become so distorted because he within himself feels that it is only he who knows it. For instance, when he says, "Well, this isn`t what I meant. I know what I meant." Well, this is just what a criminal answers always. "This is what I meant." And it is always an excuse.
WOODWARD: I think you also got a feeling, looking at him up through the end -- at least, I did -- that you can see why he was President, or how he got elected President, how he was a good politician, how he was able to play on people to get his way, to get his interpretation. I know in talking to some of the people who worked with Frost on this, they said at the end they came away with that feeling that this is the consummate politician.
BERNSTEIN: Gee, that`s funny, I had exactly the opposite feeling, and I wrote down in a notebook...
WOODWARD: That`s not the first time (laughing).
BERNSTEIN: ...right afterwards that one of the amazing things to me was to watch this performance by Mr. Nixon and to wonder how it was that this man was President of the United States. It was so different than the kind of behavior that we`ve seen from other Presidents.
WOODWARD: That we`ve mythologized for Presidents, that they don`t tell those sad stories, that they`re stiff and plastic; but in the reality they`re human beings and I think what we saw there reflects very much what we found in reporting on the book, The Final Days, that this guy was a human being, that he did feel. At one point he said the tulips were out; I know lots of people might have laughed and thought that was insincere, but that guy thought that way. Things like that touched him.
MacNEIL: Dr. Abrahamsen?
ABRAHAMSEN: The reason why Nixon was elected and why he was able to be on the forefront of the political scene for the last thirty years is because he had people on two fronts: those who liked him, and those who disliked him. And those who disliked him could see now and then some charisma in him. And really, because of his own ambivalence he was playing on two fronts in a very, very remarkable way -- possibly the most remarkable way I have seen. But this only came because he himself was inwardly conflicted and inwardly ambivalent, which is the reason for the title of my book, Nixon vs. Nixon.
MacNEIL: Okay. Finally, Mr. Nixon addressed himself at length to the question of motive, as we`ve discussed, but many people are asking what were his motives for doing this interview? Was this his historic apologia to the American people? Was it strictly for money? Was it the ever- resurgent Nixon trying to make a comeback? In perhaps the most dramatic moment of the interview he said, "I let down my friends, I let down the country, I let down our system of government and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but think it`s all too corrupt, and the rest. I let the American people down, and I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life. My political life is over. I will never again have an opportunity to serve in any official. position. Maybe I can give a little advice from time to time." Do you find that last piece credible?
ABRAHAMSEN: No, not at all. On the contrary, I do believe that he yearns for politics, because politics was part of his intimate life and it was the only thing he had. Because politics meant to him one thing -- entirely one thing, and that was power; and he wasn`t going to relinquish that power.
MacNEIL: A man can yearn for power while still knowing that he`s never going to have it again, can`t he?
ABRAHAMSEN: Yes, but whatever Nixon is going to receive now, his wounded ego isn`t going to tolerate it. He must have something big or great, and so of course he tried, "Well, maybe I can be an advisor." No, Nixon wouldn`t be satisfied with that. He really wants to be in the political arena, and for this reason I think that what he said there wasn`t really in confirmation or in accordance with his deeper, inner feelings.
MacNEIL: A lot of people, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, found -- I talked to them today, and I must say, I felt this a little bit myself -- the spectacle somewhat distressing, even undignifying, of Mr. Nixon choosing this kind of forum which forced David Frost to be the kind of personification of the national or international conscience, if you like, and the judge, jury and everything. What were your own personal feelings about that -- the appropriateness of this way of doing it?
BERNSTEIN: I think that it was one Mr. Nixon liked and that he used effectively, that like his memoirs, he`s very interested in his redemption. And particularly that last half hour is a way; if he can get great numbers of people to accept his moral explanation for what happened, then he sees his redemption, he sees that somehow he`s going to be repatriated among his predecessors.
WOODWARD: Some people said it was unseemly to see a former President there, almost in the dock, being hit with these questions...
MacNEIL: I wasn`t thinking of stance, Senator Percy, a Republican to be doing it there and being paid than doing it, I suppose, somewhere that, Bob, so much as what, for in said, that it was unseemly for him for doing it on television, rather else.
WOODWARD: I think it`s unfortunate that it had to be done money, but it probably wouldn`t have been done had he not been paid I certainly would have liked some other former Presidents -- Lyndon Johnson in particular -- to go through that sort of interrogation, and I certainly would hope former President Ford would be willing to do the same thing.
BERNSTEIN: Also, it has something to do with the pardon. I mean, that`s the reason you had this format, is because the judicial process was stopped at a point where we didn`t have a judicial proceeding to find out the answers to these questions.
MacNEIL: Dr. Abrahamsen.
ABRAHAMSEN: There were several motivations why he went to this forum. I think firstly, he wanted to have a public forum; and secondly there was personal greed that he got the money. But most of all I think he wanted, really, to have someone to talk with and to the public without having to go through court, and so on. And he had done this one time very successfully in 1952 with his "Checkers" speech, and he hoped now to repeat it again.
MacNEIL: The "Checkers" speech, where he stayed on the Eisenhower ticket when there were charges that he`d had a -- slush fund against him--went on national television.
MacNEIL: In your own personal feeling, gentlemen, you who`ve spent longer on this story than anything else, in a word, what did you feel about seeing that last night?
BERNSTEIN: I guess my emotions ran the gamut. I thought some of it was pathetic; some of it was outrageous, particularly when he misrepresented the record; I thought he had a few moments of being proud, that he was cunning, deceptive ...
MacNEIL: I think on those eloquent words, Carl, we have to leave it. Thank you very much, and Bob Woodward in Washington. Thank you, Dr. Abrahamsen here. That`s all for tonight,. I`m Robert MacNeil. I`ll be back tomorrow night. Good night, and good night to our viewers in Britain.
- The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
- Richard Nixon Breaks Silence
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- NewsHour Productions
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- National Records and Archives Administration (Washington, District of Columbia)
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- Last night Richard Nixon, the first American President ever to resign the office, broke the silence of his three-year exile in San Clemente. The guests this episode are David Abrahamsen, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein. Byline: Robert MacNeil
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- MLA: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Richard Nixon Breaks Silence.” 1977-05-05. National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. November 30, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-5d8nc5sx8v>.
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