A Sideways Glance at Politicians’ Memoirs

This is an edited version of a column that appeared in my long-defunct weekly newspaper on February 23, 1977. Gerald Ford had recently relinquished the presidency to Jimmy Carter, and Richard Nixon had fallen from grace less than three years earlier.

It’s expected that Richard Nixon will rake in millions for his printed and televised memoirs. Mr. Nixon wants the government to turn over the documents he compiled while an employee of the taxpayers, so that he can refer to them in writing his memoirs.

Henry Kissinger, another incipient memoirizer, wants the same deal. In fact, it’s reported that he removed from the State Department the stenographic records of thousands of phone conversations he had while Secretary of State. Dr. K. claims that those are personal documents. If that’s so, he should refund a good chunk of his government salary, to compensate taxpayers for the thousands of hours that he spent on personal phone calls.

There’s something to be said for allowing ex-presidents and other high officials access to their records so that they can tell us how great they were: Memoirs are a boon to insomniacs. Sleeping-pill manufacturers should have sued Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson for unfair competition.

Many Americans are eager to read Nixon’s version of his presidency. I’m among them, mainly because I want to see if Nixon will say that he was Deep Throat*. I’m serious. Can you recall another politician who reveled in misery like Mr. Nixon? Remember the “Checkers speech“; the 1960 election that Nixon lost to JFK, but probably could have won by contesting the Illinois results (enough votes turned up in Chicago to swing the outcome)**; the lashing-out at the press after losing the California governor’s race in 1962; and the sweaty, lying performance during the Watergate affair. Why couldn’t the person who as a boy signed a letter to his mother “Your good dog, Richard” have become a man who satisfied his need to grovel by blowing the whistle on himself?

Whatever the truth about Nixon’s role in the Watergate affair—the cover-up, the cover-up of the cover-up, and the uncovering of the cover-ups—we are unlikely to learn it from Nixon’s memoirs, except by inference. Look for the parts where his innocence is most stridently protested, and assume that the opposite is true.

Will Gerald Ford also write his memoirs? The question doesn’t seem to be keeping book publishers awake at night. But, if he does, you can throw away your Sominex.

Jerry Ford would be a good guy to have a beer with. I even voted for him. But I draw the line at self-inflicted boredom. Rather than read Ford’s memoirs, I would watch grass grow.

As for Kissinger’s version of events, one should keep in mind Voltaire’s remark that “History is the lie agreed upon.”

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* In 2003, long after I published the original piece, Deep Throat was revealed as Mark Felt, then Deputy Director of the FBI. In 1972, following the break-in by White House operatives at Democrat headquarters in the Watergate Hotel and Office Building on Virginia Avenue in Washington, D.C. Felt fed inside information to Bob Woodward, who with Carl Bernstein wrote the series of articles in The Washington Post that led to congressional hearings into the Watergate affair, and Nixon’s eventual resignation on August 9, 1974. Felt’s secret meetings with Bob Woodward were held in the parking garage of an office building at 1401 Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, Virginia. At the time, I worked at 1401 Wilson Boulevard.

** This is a common bit of folk-lore. In fact, even if Nixon had won Illinois, JFK would still have led Nixon in electoral votes: 276-246. Another 15 electoral votes were cast for Senator Harry Byrd by Virginia’s electors. Even if those electors had switched to Nixon, the tally would have been 276-261. It’s possible that if Nixon had won Illinois, enough Kennedy voters in the West would have stayed home to swing New Mexico or Nevada to Nixon. Kennedy won both States narrowly, and a Nixon victory in either State, coupled with a win in Illinois, would have made him the winner. Maybe.