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40 years after his resignation, President Nixon’s tapes are making a comeback

“Jews are born spies,” confides the President of the United States to underlings in the Oval Office. That’s because of their “basic deviousness” he explains. “All arrogance. … Most Jews are disloyal. You can’t trust the (expletives). They turn on you.”

“Negroes,” in his lofty presidential view, “live like a bunch of dogs.”

And ahhhhh, the press. “The press is the enemy,” he tells another loyal underling. And then repeats it a couple times. “Write that on a blackboard and never forget it.”

“Blunt and candid remarks” is how Richard Milhous Nixon characterized them later. Paranoid small-minded sewage and bigotry others might have called them. They are still shocking, after all these years, coming from the mouth of a man presiding in the Oval Office.

Norman Mailer, bless him, probably said it best: Richard Nixon was the true test of liberal compassion. And they failed. Understandably, perhaps. But it’s making the verdict of history nothing if not complicated.

It was Garry Wills, in his book “Nixon Agonistes,” who had the chutzpah to call Nixon “the last liberal.” Wills has been joined since by a platoon of like-minded people who can’t help pointing to the environmental legislation (the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency), the trip to China and the elimination of the draft, among other things. Noam Chomsky, of all people, is one of those people.

In his permanent wound over being too unshaven, sweaty and shifty-looking to win the presidency in 1960 over a sun-tanned and genially patrician Jack Kennedy, he seemed determined to dot his presidency with stuff Kennedy should have done (or might have, if he’d lived.)

It forever dilutes the record of The Man From CREEP, the first and only man ever to resign from the American presidency – the much loathed and vilified “Tricky Dick,” the eternal Other of American politics, the continuing symbol of everything we’re afraid political ambition will turn into.

The 40th anniversary of his resignation announcement arrives Friday. On the next day, he climbed on to that helicopter, saluted the crowd with a right arm spasmodically stiffened from the elbow, then made that familiar two-handed triumphal wave and was gone.

Said Gerald R. Ford hopefully: “Our long national nightmare is over.”

Fat chance. The demolition of our respect for those in the White House had become a permanent fixture of American life.

Peter Kunhardt’s “Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words” premiered on HBO Monday night. If you missed it, you’ll have all sorts of chances to catch up with it or DVR it.

Those White House tape recordings will forever haunt Nixon’s history. The system was voice-activated. Everything was taped.

“Probably stupid,” he admitted later about his project to tape all his Oval Office ruminations, conversations and phone calls. Only his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, of his major henchmen, knew he was doing it. It was revealed to the world by deputy assistant Alexander Butterfield, who helped set it up.

Special assistant Stephen Bull knew about the tapes too.

But that’s it. No one else in his administration did – not Henry Kissinger or John Ehrlichman or John Mitchell or William Rogers. Not even his wife, Pat.

It was so typically Nixonian, so historically minded (or pretentious; your choice) that he wanted future historians to have an X-ray view into the wonders of his administration and how they happened. And then he seems to have forgotten about it entirely every time he felt like launching into the wall-to-wall bigotry and press–bashing that was the other side of his far-sighted “last liberal” self.

He was everything – statesmanship, farsightedness, infamy and wretchedness – all in one package. A whole Shakespearean drama, all to himself.

He has become the all-time favorite boogeyman of recent American politics – the man who forgot that the first rough draft of his beloved history was being written by the men and women he loathed to distraction above almost anyone else.

When you watch the HBO documentary – chock-full of moments when there are star-spangled contradictions between his public lies and private admissions – you still can’t help being shocked when that once-familiar voice can be heard saying the most scurrilous and repulsive things in private.

“In his own words” indeed.

How on earth did he ever think it would be a good idea to tape every unbuttoned and bilious chat where his religious and racial prejudices were let fly to his cronies and his misdemeanors turned into high crimes (“Blow the safe and get it” he says, clear as a bell, of one document in the possession of the Brookings Institution.).

It is all so palpably the ersatz machismo of the misfit loser who might have carried it all off if he just hadn’t been so fatally pretentious and devoted to his “place in history.”

Well, history is having its verdict again in honor of the 40th anniversary of his resignation.

Rick Pearlstein’s “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan” is being published as we speak. So is Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter’s “The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972,” the last batch of which were made available by the government last year.

That’s 1,500 pages of the road into and out of damnation.

Has any American president ever yearned more to be bigger than Nixon seems to have? Has anyone ever made himself seem so very small in the process?

In his own words, now in full, for all the world to read in 800-page books and hear on HBO documentaries?


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