Topic: An afternoon with President Richard M. Nixon and Clark Clifford.
Interview Date: October 2, 2003.
WILLIAM O. BAKER: Seems to me [our meeting] started like about 2 o'clock, and it stopped, maybe, about 4 o'clock, but it might have been a little later than that. That's my impression.
We talked about the existence and performance of the Presidents Board, intelligence, and how it could serve in the complex of national defense. That president was much involved in, at that point.
I think Clifford was still chair. I was a surviving senior member, however. I was an original appointee. The discussion, of course, was how it could best serve a given president. But this was, of course, all about the president who was involved and concerned at that point.
The discussion took the angle of what the Board and specifically the senior membership could do, or could have done, in behalf of the president. Now, it was in behalf of the president and more specifically, national security needs and national security strengthening of the White House. And, as you point out, had to do with the arguments, issues of whether national security was being preserved or whether the country was benefiting from the mobilization of the citizens and the people who were in the special responsibilities and appointments by that president and by some of his predecessors. So the conversation was very wide ranging.
PSAC, definitely, was a blank or negative feature. I say “blank” because at that point it has zero cognizance by President Nixon. It just didn't register at that point. I think at that point the decision had been made. I do not know really fundamentally the President's or some of his advisors, Secretary Schultz and a couple of others, that they ought to get rid of PSAC anyway. So that didn't take a very central part in this long afternoon discussion.
At that point he [Nixon] was enormously preoccupied, and he spent a good bit of time emphasizing to Clifford and me that, oh, for example, a thing I remember pretty vividly, is that he said that the country had not rallied with him. By country he meant independent leadership, including industrial and academic leaders. He was very explicit in he said they didn't rally to the president and advance the difficult security measures which were central.
Now, of course, he already knew there was tremendous political opposition in the Congress and elsewhere. Kissinger had recognized very incisively that this was a crucial turn in the presidency. And so, of course, Nixon was completely attuned to that potential and the significance of it. And he spoke repeatedly that the citizens he thought would be the leaders in mobilizing citizens with the president didn't do so. They didn't take leadership roles. They didn't recognize the things that the president was trying to do.
Well, he certainly was very negative at that stage. And he was very bitter, I think, is a clear term.
Well, I think [his coming resignation] was an interesting point. And I think the cast had been made. But it had been carefully avoided explicitly at that stage. Now Kissinger, a little bit earlier, had read the omens pretty accurately, I think. And Kissinger confided in a couple of us, but hardly any others, including hardly the president, in a way that he would resign. But Henry was fully cast at that stage in the notion that the president simply could not continue under the condition that they were creating.
Well, when they [Ehrlichman and Haldeman] were there, it was a spirit of which you might call dealings. I would like not to say it was an actual plan or structure. It was a way that you were going to outwit the ordinary political process by selected moves which were allegedly very clever moves on the part of the president and his immediate assistants in the White House versus the way the political winds were moving, political currents were forming, political evidence was shaping up. So it was very much a partisan expression of very delicate measures to do with the national security and its derivatives, its formation.
Whereas as a public spokesperson, Nixon was very much more straightforward and much more explicit. And incidentally, much more civil language, and very little expletives and such. That was a rather striking feature. Whereas with Haldeman and Ehrlichman, but also some other specifics. Of course, the thing was replete with expletives of all kinds. When he was speaking as president and dealing with organizational issues in the more conventional and traditional forums, there were virtually no expletives. It was not just a question of reduction, they just weren't there. Whereas in the earlier cases I cite, of course, the whole system shows up in the record, there were compounded expletives.
And then it comes, of course, this very subtle question who done it in the sense of how did they get into this terrible tangle. That, I think, remains as one of the real challenges of the period. I don't think that anyone understands how in the dickens anybody that had Nixon’s innate intelligence and general poise and patriotism in the sense of being president got into this situation. It's a very, very puzzling deal. But your characterization of it is correct: the fact that Haldeman and Ehrlichman were central elements of it.
… they [Nixon and Kissinger] related well. Henry was, of course, learning at that period. He was just getting into the cabinet level work or the White House advisory role. And he was very astute about that. And he learned how to deal with all those people. And he pursued that learning process very astutely. So I don't know whether he was astute. It was a dynamic situation.
We were out when this was all shaping up, and the president was obviously under high stress. So he insisted that three or four of us take a cruise on their boat “Sequoia” for relaxation. We got Henry to go along. And of course we started our whole conversation, with the boat was just going around the Potomac there, based on this issue. And at one stage the president apparently sent for Henry, and Henry felt indeed he had to go. They put a special launch in from the “Sequoia.” The three or four of us there were the principal people involved in the national security strategy at the time, and despite that we put a special boat in with Henry which took [him] to the White House. So Henry was getting deeper and very insightfully into this.
Well, Kissinger was obviously very effective or in support of it [the initiatives with China and the soviet Union]. But as far as we could tell, it was the president. The president had this remarkable kind of sense that this was the thing which should be done. And, of course, he talked to all, each of us, about four or five people together there, about it. He really took the initiative on it. Kissinger was obviously highly supportive. This was essentially the president.