The president seemed to be sloshed.
It was late on the night of April 30, 1973, and President Nixon had just finished a special address to the nation on the Watergate scandal, announcing the departures of his two top aides, H.R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman. He was feeling blue. Fifty minutes after he’d finished talking, hardly anyone had called to tell Nixon what a great speech he’d made.
So he spoke to Haldeman. A tape of that conversation and other phone calls Nixon made that night was released this month by the National Archives. It was plain from his slurred syllables that he’d been drinking.
“Hope I didn’t let you down,” he told Haldeman.
“No sir, you got your points over,” Haldeman replied in remarkably gracious tones. “You’ve got it set right.”
“Well, it’s a tough thing, Bob,” Nixon said. “For you, for John, the rest, but goddamn it, I’m never going to discuss this son-of-a-bitching Watergate thing again. Never, never, never, never.”
The president quickly skipped to his next point: “The only Cabinet officer that has called, and this is 50 minutes after the thing is over, is Cap Weinberger, bless his soul. . . . All the rest are waiting to see what the polls show. Goddamn strong Cabinet, isn’t it?”
Haldeman said the real problem was that the White House switchboard had been ordered not to put any calls through.
“No, no, no, they know, they know,” Nixon interrupted, his slurring pronounced now. “They know to call, you know. They know they can get through. . . . But let me say, you’re a strong man, goddamn it, and I love ya. . . . I love John and all the rest, and by God, keep the faith. Keep the faith. You’re going to win this son of a bitch.”
“Absolutely,” Haldeman said.
On the tape, some of Nixon’s words are unclear, his speech halting. He begins one sentence, then switches to another.
He said he thought it was good to end the speech by saying, “God bless America.” “I mean--I don’t--I’m certain--I must have--you know, I must have driven you up the wall,” he said.
“Didn’t drive me up the wall,” Haldeman assured him. “I completely agree.”
Nixon sighed. He wanted more feedback. Could Haldeman make some calls, get some reactions, just as he used to?
Haldeman was nonplused. As a man who’d just been pushed off the ship of state, he was in no condition to check the deck. “I don’t think I can, I don’t, I don’t,” he said.
Nixon realized his mistake: “No, I agree. Don’t call a goddamn soul. The hell with it.” But it still bothered him that no one had called.
The next call was from then-Secretary of State William P. Rogers, who explained that he’d been trying to get through earlier, but couldn’t. “That was terrific, really superb,” Rogers said of the speech.
“Don’t give me that [expletive deleted],” Nixon said, mispronouncing the expletive. He went on to compare Haldeman and Ehrlichman with Sherman Adams, President Eisenhower’s chief of staff, who left more readily in the midst of a 1950s scandal involving a vicuna coat.
“Adams, you know, to his credit, did come in and say, ‘Look, I’ll resign,’ ” Nixon said. “But Haldeman and Ehrlichman didn’t. I had to tell them they had to resign.”
“That was a great speech,” Rogers assured him, “and get some sleep.”
Minutes later, then-Defense Secretary Elliot Richardson was on the line. Nixon had just named him as the new attorney general and given him “absolute authority” to handle the Watergate investigation, including the power to appoint a special prosecutor.
Now, though, the president voiced some reluctance, saying he really wasn’t sure about a special prosecutor, but telling Richardson: “Do what you want and I’ll back you to the hilt. I don’t give a damn what you do. I am for it. Do you understand? To get to the bottom of this son of a bitch.”
A few months later, Nixon would fire Richardson for refusing to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
Yet another call that night came from Reader’s Digest chief executive Hobart D. Lewis. Nixon was still musing over Haldeman and Ehrlichman. “They’re great men, but I had to do it,” he said.
“Well, you’re going to miss them,” Lewis said.
“Oh well, the hell with missing them,” Nixon said abruptly. “You can fill any position, Hobe. You didn’t think the speech was too emotional, huh? . . . Hope you liked ‘God bless America’ at the end. I believe that, you know, very deeply.”