Yes, I know Richard Nixon is no longer with us, but former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is doing an amazing job of channeling the nation’s 37th president. He remains with us on video. This includes, of course, his struggles in the Watergate crisis that eventually ended his presidency. Of particular note are his struggles after it was discovered that he had a taping system in the White House. The fight over the Nixon White House tapes — the technology of the day — are eerily called to mind in Mrs. Clinton’s current controversy over her emails.
In both cases the instant it was understood in the media and on Capitol Hill — and in Mr. Nixon’s case in the precincts of the Watergate Special Prosecutor — that tapes or email were out there the demand rose for their release. Nixon, at first adamant about ever releasing them, was quickly buried under a mass of bad press and actual subpoenas. He resisted, fired the special prosecutor (setting off the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre” firestorm), then, on April 29, 1974 went on television to announce he had resolved the problem. He had listened to the tapes, with what he deemed the relevant portions now transcribed in leather bound volumes (that were stacked neatly to his left on-camera.) That night he said he would hand over the transcriptions to investigators. There was no mention of what was already known — there was an eighteen-and-a-half minute gap.
As with Mrs. Clinton — whose emails are being sought by the Benghazi Committee and the Associated Press thus far — there was an immediate uproar. No one believed the transcriptions were complete, and the fact that Nixon himself decided what was relevant launched a media and political outcry.
For those who recall the furor, the Clinton press conference over her emails this week was, there is no other word for it, Nixonesque. So forthwith a comparison of the Nixon April 1974 speech on his Watergate tapes with Mrs. Clinton’s UN press conference. The similarities — from the rationale, to the demand for privacy, to the insistence that both Nixon and Clinton alone would be the final judge of what the public should see — are startling if not surprising. So with a minimum of commentary limited to pointing out the goal sought in saying something, forthwith eight parallels — some of them eerily similar — between Richard Nixon on his tapes and Hillary Clinton on her e-mails.
1. The goal: appear to be forthcoming when you’re not. Illustrate by referring to the amount of material/pages released to the public.
NIXON: In these folders that you see over here on my left are more than 1,200 pages of transcripts of private conversations I participated in between September 15, 1972, and April 27 of 1973 with my principal aides and associates with regard to Watergate. They include all the relevant portions of all of the subpoenaed conversations that were recorded, that is, all portions that relate to the question of what I knew about Watergate or the coverup and what I did about it.
They also include transcripts of other conversations which were not subpoenaed, but which have a significant bearing on the question of Presidential actions with regard to Watergate. These will be delivered to the committee tomorrow.
CLINTON: Third, after I left office, the State Department asked former secretaries of state for our assistance in providing copies of work-related emails from our personal accounts. I responded right away and provided all my emails that could possibly be work-related, which totaled roughly 55,000 printed pages, even though I knew that the State Department already had the vast majority of them.
2. The goal: Appear transparent, citing the relevance of the documents to be released — while politely, carefully, but firmly making clear that only you will decide what gets to be released.
NIXON: In these transcripts, portions not relevant to my knowledge or actions with regard to Watergate are not included, but everything that is relevant is included—the rough as well as the smooth—the strategy sessions, the exploration of alternatives, the weighing of human and political costs.
As far as what the President personally knew and did with regard to Watergate and the coverup is concerned, these materials—together with those already made available—will tell it all.
CLINTON: We went through a thorough process to identify all of my work- related emails and deliver them to the State Department.
At the end, I chose not to keep my private personal emails — emails about planning Chelsea’s wedding or my mother’s funeral arrangements, condolence notes to friends as well as yoga routines, family vacations, the other things you typically find in inboxes.
3. The goal: You are being unprecedented in your openness and trying to draw in other governmental institutions — members of the House Judiciary Committee (Nixon), the State Department (Clinton) — to back you up.
NIXON: I shall invite Chairman Rodino and the committee’s ranking minority member, Congressman Hutchinson of Michigan, to come to the White House and listen to the actual, full tapes of these conversations, so that they can determine for themselves beyond question that the transcripts are accurate and that everything on the tapes relevant to my knowledge and my actions on Watergate is included. If there should be any disagreement over whether omitted material is relevant, I shall meet with them personally in an effort to settle the matter. I believe this arrangement is fair, and I think it is appropriate.
CLINTON: Fourth, I took the unprecedented step of asking that the State Department make all my work-related emails public for everyone to see.
I am very proud of the work that I and my colleagues and our public servants at the department did during my four years as secretary of state, and I look forward to people being able to see that for themselves.
4. The goal: Emphasize your right to privacy.
NIXON: Ever since the existence of the White House taping system was first made known last summer, I have tried vigorously to guard the privacy of the tapes. I have been well aware that my effort to protect the confidentiality of Presidential conversations has heightened the sense of mystery about Watergate and, in fact, has caused increased suspicions of the President. Many people assume that the tapes must incriminate the President, or that otherwise, he would not insist on their privacy.
But the problem I confronted was this: Unless a President can protect the privacy of the advice he gets, he cannot get the advice he needs.
CLINTON: No one wants their personal emails made public, and I think most people understand that and respect that privacy.
5. The goal: You are historic. A sitting president (Nixon) and a former Secretary of State (Clinton) who has so much they are trying to achieve for the world. You are important, and cannot be distracted by all this pettiness while you are working so hard to change history.
NIXON: We live in a time of very great challenge and great opportunity for America.
We live at a time when peace may become possible in the Middle East for the first time in a generation.
We are at last in the process of fulfilling the hope of mankind for a limitation on nuclear arms—a process that will continue when I meet with the Soviet leaders in Moscow in a few weeks.
We are well on the way toward building a peace that can last, not just for this but for other generations as well.
And here at home, there is vital work to be done in moving to control inflation, to develop our energy resources, to strengthen our economy so that Americans can enjoy what they have not had since 1956: full prosperity without war and without inflation.
Every day absorbed by Watergate is a day lost from the work that must be done—by your President and by your Congress—work that must be done in dealing with the great problems that affect your prosperity, affect your security, that could affect your lives.
CLINTON: I want to thank the United Nations for hosting today’s events and putting the challenge of gender equality front and center on the international agenda. I’m especially pleased to have so many leaders here from the private sector standing shoulder to shoulder with advocates who have worked tirelessly for equality for decades.
Twenty years ago, this was a lonelier struggle. Today, we mark the progress that has been made in the two decades since the international community gathered in Beijing and declared with one voice that human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.
And because of advances in health, education, and legal protections, we can say that there has never been a better time in history to be born female. Yet as the comprehensive new report, published by the Clinton Foundation and the Gates Foundation this week makes clear, despite all this progress, when it comes to the full participation of women and girls, we’re just not there yet.
As I said today, this remains the great unfinished business of the 21st century. And my passion for this fight burns as brightly today as it did 20 years ago.
6. The goal: I’m giving you everything you need to know. Period. If you don’t like it, too bad. There’s nothing more to see.
NIXON: The facts are there. The conversations are there. The record of actions is there.
To anyone who reads his way through this mass of materials I have provided, it will be totally, abundantly clear that as far as the President’s role with regard to Watergate is concerned, the entire story is there.
CLINTON: In going through the emails, there were over 60,000 in total, sent and received. About half were work-related and went to the State Department and about half were personal that were not in any way related to my work. I had no reason to save them, but that was my decision because the federal guidelines are clear and the State Department request was clear.
For any government employee, it is that government employee’s responsibility to determine what’s personal and what’s work-related. I am very confident of the process that we conducted and the emails that were produced.
7. The goal: Make it clear that you trust the American people. Cast the whole issue as simple fairness, and you know the American people are fair.
NIXON: In giving you these records—blemishes and all—I am placing my trust in the basic fairness of the American people.
CLINTON: Now, with respect to any sort of future — future issues, look, I trust the American people to make their decisions about political and public matters.
8. The goal: This far — and no further. There will be no more tapes released (Nixon). There will be no more emails released, much less the server (Clinton).
NIXON: I know in my own heart that through the long, painful, and difficult process revealed in these transcripts, I was trying in that period to discover what was right and to do what was right.
I hope and I trust that when you have seen the evidence in its entirety, you will see the truth of that statement.
CLINTON: The server contains personal communications from my husband and me, and I believe I have met all of my responsibilities and the server will remain private and I think that the State Department will be able, over time, to release all of the records that were provided.
When you sum it all up?
Richard Nixon and Hillary Clinton were and are on different mileposts of the same journey. Nixon was already in the White House and sought to save his presidency. Clinton is the presumptive nominee of the Democrats and seeks to save that nomination and the presidency that may lie beyond that.
But other than that specific difference? In the quest to complete their respective journeys both Richard Nixon and Hillary Clinton used not only the same tactic — which in Nixon’s day was called (by Nixon aide and Watergate conspirator John Ehrlichman) the “modified limited hangout.” Meaning: only put as much information out there as you need to do to survive. Release what you must, but don’t give them everything. And for heavens sake keep them from any incriminating information.
As the Watergate tape crisis spread, Nixon’s desperate gamble to keep his tapes ultimately failed. At one point Nixon aide Pat Buchanan suggested he take the tapes and toss them into a bonfire on the South Lawn. No one believed Nixon had delivered all available information — and eventually, the critics were proved right. The issue of the tapes was finally resolved by a unanimous Supreme Court. A requested tape was turned over — and there was the long-sought smoking gun proving Nixon’s personal participation in the scandal. Within days he had resigned and was flown to exile in California.
Mrs. Clinton has gone the Nixon route in several respects already — she has said she has had thousands of emails already deleted. Her version of the Nixon tape bonfire that never happened or the equivalent of that erased eighteen-and-a-half minutes of Nixon tape.
What next? Who knows. But one thing is for certain. Whatever else lies ahead, there is no doubt that the guiding spirit of her presidency would be not Hillary Rodham Clinton — but Hillary Milhous Nixon.