Hugh Holmes Norton,
Eleanor Katz, Elliott Macis,
Mary Sue Valenti,
INT: How did Nixon run his White House?
JOHN: You really have to hyphenate Nixon, it was Nixon-Holderman that ran the White House. he and Bob Holderman were somehow or another physically joined at the hip, and what Nixon couldn't provide, or didn't provide, Holderman provided - and vice versa. And they ran that White House together: Nixon largely by delegation to Holderman, and Holderman by filling the void, or the vacuum - and in the name of the President. it, they ran a tight ship - they had a very efficient staff system, they had some good people working there, and for the first three and a half years it ran pretty well.
INT: What was his main interest in being President?
JOHN: It, Richard Nixon's main interests translated into politics. obviously foreign affairs fascinated him - ..... political matters. some domestic issues interested him enormously: he spent a significant amount of his time on the economy; he spent a significant amount of his time in using the White House as the bully pulpit, as Theodore Roosevelt called it, to mobilize public opinion, to mobilize citizen interest in problems; and he thought a lot about public attitudes and public relations. there were other areas that were totally incognito, and some of us on the staff inherited those kinds of problems. and he would give us carte blanche to deal with those problems, and backed us very well when we made decisions in his name.
INT: How important was his relationship with Kissinger?
JOHN: The Nixon/Kissinger relationship I think will be fascinating to historians for evermore. It's one of those great complex, fundamental relationships between people, that really has not been explored very much, except by Nixon and Kissinger - and not very completely, for that reason. Henry was very temperamental, very bright, very territorial, very insecure. you could say the same thing about Richard Nixon. And they complemented one another a lot of the time; at the same time they were rivals - they fought with one another, they fought not with one another but behind one another's backs, they were devious. a very interesting relationship.
INT: The war in Vietnam continued beyond 1968 and into 1969, by a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia and Laos. Why was it felt necessary to keep that a secret - to in a sense hold American foreign policy to the hostage of your discretion?
JOHN: Well you're asking a domestic policy person a foreign policy question - and I'm not so sure I'm competent to answer it. I think a lot of it had to do with Nixon's relationship to the Congress, and there were just some things that he felt he had to do as President, that he didn't think that Congress was going to back him on, and he didn't want to create situations where the Congress repudiated him. I think those may have been such areas.
INT: What relationship does Watergate have to all this? It seemed such a bizarre episode - what has it got to do with anything?
JOHN: Watergate, accord-, Bob Holderman said to me several times, we had a great staff system in the White House for dealing with crises. We didn't apply that system to Watergate. I think part of the reason was we didn't consider it a crisis. It was a very small potatoes episode, which concerned us, because we had an election coming up, but once we got past the election we worked very hard on a new cabinet, new budget, state of the union address - came out of all that, and came up for air, and Richard Nixon said, what is all this business about a senate hearing about the Watergate break-in? And we looked at each other and said, I don't know. We sent for John Dean to tell us what had been going on - then we discovered what he'd been up to: all kinds of bribery and chicanery, done really in the President's name. The President himself got into it enough to embarrass himself very badly, but I think the story of Watergate, what really happened in all of that, has not been told well. for example, the break-in at the Watergate is considered to have been a burglary of the Democratic National Committee. That was for the fourth time that they had gone in there, in one way or another. that place was a Swiss cheese - people were going in and out of there all the time. it was supposedly because there was a telephone tap there; but the telephone company had swept for telephone taps three days previous, and found nothing. So there are a lot of disconnects in that whole story. I happen to be involved in a project right now, where we're trying to develop some of the facts, as they actually exist - and I think it's going to be a while before we get a very clear view of what actually happened. I'm inclined to think that Richard Nixon need not to have resigned - that there was a way for him to have handled the problem in a forthcoming way, to the satisfaction of the American people; but he got so sunk in the miasma of it, that he didn't see his way out of it.
INT: Nixon thought of himself very much as an embattled leader - he wrote a book revealingly called "Six Crises". What was it about him that made him think that way?
JOHN: I think from the, from the first time he ran from, for office, as a young Congressman, he was engaged in combat - there were them and there was us; and he never ever saw it any differently. he was surrounded by enemies, he was surrounded by policy enemies, not personal enemies as such, but policy enemies; and I remember when he beat George McGovern so badly, he said, now the people must be made to understand that they have made a policy choice, that they voted for us instead of him because we stood for the right things - the things that they wanted us to stand for. And it was that kind of combat that he was engaged in all his life.
INT: But he could make it sound very personal.
JOHN: Oh he did, he brought it down to the personal dimension, you bet - but that that was the context in which the struggle went on.
INT: There is a description of a conversation with Bob Holderman in which he said, I want people to think that I'm mad, particularly in relation to foreign policy, and particularly in relation to Vietnam - that I am unpredictable, even a dangerous individual that could do anything. Could you expand on that?
JOHN: Well he and, he, Nixon and Henry Kissinger played sort of good cop, bad cop - with the Russians particularly. Kissinger would see Anatoli D......., the Russian ambassador, frequently, and I mean like almost daily; and his line was, look I work for this crazy man, there's no telling what he might do; so Anatoli, you and I, as reasonable men, must work together to an accommodation between our countries. that was the appeal. And then from time to time Nixon and Kissinger would agree, well we've got to give him another, another shot to the to the solar plexus. So they would bomb Haiphong, or they would do something else that Henry would telegraph: he would say, he's out of control, he's going to bomb Haiphong, if you've got any ships at Haiphong you'd better get them out, 'cos I can't control him. And sure enough, a day later, the bombers would go in and take out whatever was in Haiphong harbor. this was a, this was a, I don't know if the Russians were deceived by this, but it was the game that Kissinger and Nixon frequently played.
INT: Nixon, of course, first entered politics on a national level at a time when America "lost" China; and twenty years later he met Mao. How did that happen - what was your perception of that change?
JOHN: Well the roots of that reconciliation with China are planted before Nixon before ever became President. he wrote an interesting article in a foreign affairs magazine, during the time he was out of office, in which he talked about a rapprochement with China; and when he came into office that was very much in his mind as necessary. My theory has always been that China needed us worse than we needed them, and that probably Jo-en Lee was saying the same thing on his side - and that they sort of met in the middle somewhere, having, having both made the decision that the time had come.
INT: For you, of course, your association with Richard Nixon ended you could say tragically. What are your feelings about all that?
JOHN: Well my feelings now are pretty well cauterized - at a thirty-year remove, or whatever it is. at the time I was feeling very sorry for myself, and I thought it was very unjust that I should be thrown out of the sleigh to slow the wolves down a little bit. looking back on it, I think Nixon made some very important mistakes in the early part of 1973, to try and solve his problems; and he took some very bad advice from people who were not terribly loyal to him. and I understand that - and that helps my sensibilities about it.
INT: You were regarded at the time of the Irving Committee hearings as perhaps the most belligerent, the most forthright in asserting the right of the President to over-ride certain constitutional niceties in what ....... policy in the national interest. How do you feel about that?
JOHN: Well I think I handled the Senate Hearings rather badly. I think from the standpoint of historical attitude, I'd have been better off to have been a pussycat there. but I had tried, I don't know, hundreds of lawsuits in my time as a lawyer, and I try a lawsuit hard. I saw these folks as adversaries, partisan adversaries, and so I didn't give them much quarter. I had respect for a few of the people on that Senate Panel, but most of them were hacks, and I had very little regard for them.
INT: To what extent did the pressures of the Cold War create what people called an imperial presence under Nixon?
JOHN: That whole business of the imperial presidency I think is bushwar, invented by Arthur Schlesinger Junior, who is not much of a historian in my opinion. if imperialism set in, it set in the Kennedy years; by the time Lyndon Johnson became president, people were rushing around the world carrying beds into other countries, to make sure that Lyndon Johnson would sleep well at night. he always required a seven foot lighted mirror wherever he went - I mean that's about as imperial as you get. I followed him around, too months after he went out of office, and I set up drips to Europe for Richard Nixon; and we kept encountering these imperial-like demands that had been made by the Johnson people everywhere. so I'm sympathetic to the to the notion that some of that existed. actually Richard Nixon didn't succumb to a lot of that - he slept in whatever bed there was, didn't need a lighted mirror, didn't put on some of the airs that some of his predecessors had, but he didn't get any credit for that.
INT: Was the Cold War necessary?
JOHN: Well I guess as we look with 20/20 hindsight, the Soviet Union was a kind of paper tiger, with a lot of inherited infirmities; and it was probably not necessary to pursue the Cold War in the way that we did. but we were getting very bad intelligence, and I think whoever was President at the time - be it Johnson or Nixon or whoever - probably played the ball as they, as they saw it lie.
INT: What was the worst moment for you in the Cold War?
JOHN: Well I didn't have very many bad moments during the Cold War. I recall the first week I was in the White House, a man came around and asked to see me, and unrolled an enormous photograph of the Kremlin. And it was possible to look at this satellite picture and pick out the pips on the shoulders of the Russian officers. Now, he said, I just want you to be aware of our capabilities with the satellite photograph; he said, bear in mind, they have the same capabilities. Now, when the war breaks out, your assignment is as follows: if you are at home, a helicopter will come and pick you up, and take you to a ........ - I said, whoa, what about my family? Well unfortunately the helicopter wasn't going to be big enough for my family. That was a very bad moment.
INT: What do you think the effects of the Cold War were?
JOHN: Oh I think we wasted a vast treasure of lives, money, resources, that could have been devoted to the enrichment of the lives of American people, their education, their sociology, so to speak, that never will be - that can't, that I mean the time has past, that money has gone, those resources are gone. What a, what a pity. And the poor Russians, I've spent quite a bit of time in Russia since I've been out of the White House. They live in miserable conditions, and I have no doubt that the same situation is true there - that the billions of rubles that were spent on missiles and armaments and all of that, could've been devoted to the well-being of those people - and weren't.