To those who see Richard Nixon as evil incarnate, there is no tragedy in his fall from grace and power. It looks different to those of us who saw him as a good man, with flaws; as a statesman struggling to reshape the world so that peace would be secure for the next generation, brought low when he provided the weapon to those who sought to destroy him. --from With Nixon by Raymond K. Price
Raymond K. Price has a philosophy of life: never plan too far ahead into the future. It is a philosophy the pursuit of which helps to explain some of the seemingly odd turns his life has taken in recent years. Until 1966, Price served as editorial editor of the New York Herald Tribune. Today, he is a self-styled critic of the American media preparing a book that outlines his criticisms. Scarcely four years ago, Price, a Yale graduate, served in a presidential administration that sought to undermine the power and prestige of the traditional American elites of the Eastern Establishment. Today, Price serves as a visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics of Harvard University, which most observers consider the educational training ground of this very same Eastern Establishment elite.
In the midst of these shifting patterns in the life of Raymond Price, however, lies one overwhelming point of continuity and stability: throughout the past decade, the 47-year-old Price has remained a close friend and personal adviser of Richard Nixon. As Nixon's chief speechwriter throughout the White House years, Price collaborated with the president on most of his major speeches: the first and second inaugural addresses; the State of the Union speeches; and, finally, each of Nixon's Watergate speeches, up to and including the speech that finally clinched Nixon's ignominious position in American political history, the resignation speech of August 8, 1974.
In the aftermath of the Watergate debacle, some Nixon White House aides came to view public Nixon associations as a potential source of embarrassment to be avoided. Price says. He adds that many well-intentioned friends have advised him to wash his hands of Richard Nixon--that renouncing Nixon is required for readmission to "polite society." It is advice that Price says he always graciously refuses with explanations like, "Thanks, but I just don't feel that way--it wouldn't be honest."
In fact, Raymond Price and Richard Nixon have grown closer since resignation. Their professional association continues, though its focus has changed somewhat. Whereas hardly three-and-a-half years ago. Price collaborated with Nixon on the president's pronouncements on the highest affairs of state, today Price serves as a literary aide-de-camp for the disgraced statesman, as he pens his memoirs in the seclusion of his San Clemente estate.
Price says he respects the Richard Nixon he saw at San Clemente at the beginning of November just as much as the private citizen he first met ten years ago, when Nixon was preparing his second run for the presidency. A self-described "libertarian conservative," Price does not doubt that Nixon obstructed justice while President. But according to the moral calculus the former speechwriter employs, Richard Nixon acted during Watergate in the same way past presidents would have acted, and the greatness of Nixon's presidential initiatives made his criminal actions worthy of forgiveness. As Price writes in his own, just-published memoirs of the Nixon White House:
Even during the worst of Watergate, I continued to see its events--whatever they might turn out to have been--as of far less consequence than the efforts Nixon was engaged in to cement a new structure of peace abroad, and to set domestic policies on a new and, I thought, more rational course. To cast it in rather extreme terms, I saw getting on with the prevention of World War III as more important than the bugging of [Democratic National Committee Chairman] Larry O'Brien's telephone.
It is clear this die-hard Nixon loyalist believes the major blame for the national trauma of Watergate rests not with the former president, but with the media people and politicians. Price speaks of the creation of a "national hysteria over Watergate, fueled by the "obsessive press coverage" and "the climate on Capitol Hill a lot of demagogues helped to orchestrate."
According to Price's analysis, the media and Nixon's foes on Capital Hill developed a malevolent symbiosis in joining together to bring down Nixon. The press knew "perfectly well they were dealing with people who had axes they wanted to grind in our backs. These people on the staffs of committees on the Hill were out to screw us any way they could and would use the press to do so. And the press was willingly used by them to foist on the country a hell of a lot of lies."
The entire Watergate hysteria was a natural product of the double standard applied by the press and politicians in judging Richard Nixon, Price says. If the Democrats had been caught bugging Republican National Committee Headquarters in 1964, "I don't think it particularly would have been news." In those June days following the Watergate break-in, Nixon's top aides informed him that John Mitchell--his close friend, former U.S. Attorney General and then re-election campaign director--probably had prior knowledge of the break-in plan and Nixon asked the CIA to head off the FBI's investigation of the incident. In so doing, Price says Nixon was following fairly standard presidential practice. "When you have a political embarrassment of potentially major proportions, you try to find some way to make it go away. I think Nixon did pretty much what FDR or JFK or LBJ would have done."
Price, like Nixon in the David Frost interviews last spring, emphasizes the "humanitarian" calculations that entered into the President's decision to embark on the coverup. In retrospect, he says, it becomes easy to think that immediately after the events of June 17, 1972, Nixon should have said "O.K., let's get the truth out, everybody walk the plank." "There wouldn't have been much damage," Price says, "even if John Mitchell were involved. On the other hand, in human terms, I doubt if he could have done that." Price adds that he feels certain that Nixon would have won re-election, even if he had immediately made everyone walk the plank.
"Probably our last chance, in effect, to come clean, was April 30, 1973--the first Watergate speech," Price says. "If at that time, President Nixon had been able to talk in terms of what he had confronted last June, and what he did, fairly honestly, we might have gotten away with it--we might have pulled it off. But I think probably not, after that."
As the writer of each of Nixon's major Watergate addresses, Raymond Price probably received one of the closest looks of any White House insiders at the defense Nixon attempted to weave. In November 1973, Price writes in With Nixon, the speechwriter made an abortive effort to resign his White House position because of doubts about the Watergate case that were "not so much specific as they were a general concern...that there was more than Nixon had admitted to, more than I had been told."
But because of the speechwriter's unflagging belief in Nixon's policies and his conviction that politicos and journalists invoking a double standard were persecuting the president, Price says he felt no sense of "moral outrage" when White House chief of staff Alexander Haig called him into his office one morning late in July 1974, and presented Price with a transcript of the soon-to-be released "smoking gun" tape of June 23, 1972, which demonstrated beyond doubt that Nixon had participated in the coverup from the start.
Price says he felt not outrage, but a combination of relief and regret when he read the transcript. "I recall it as a time of sadness. On a selfish level, I was glad I hadn't known [about the June 23 tape]. On a less selfish level, I kind of wished I had. Even at quite some cost to myself, I might have found some way of handling it. I might have ended up in jail, but it would have been worth it to salvage the presidency," Price says. "There were larger things at stake."
An unnerving lack of knowledge about past events, about the exact content of the tapes, appears to be the best description of White House Watergate "dynamics," according to Price's view. Price's analysis seems to demonstrate that most Nixon aides--even those such as Price who were not involved in the coverup--were not motivated by a desire to get the truth out.
Instead they feared the subpoena, feared the damage they might do if they knew too much and were called before the grand jury or Congressional committees. "Part of the problem throughout Watergate--part of the reason we blundered so badly, from start to finish, was that there was this sense of a need not to know a lot of things, partly because of this question of if you're called on to testify," Price says. Throughout the White House, you had individuals "not knowing what various people's liabilities might be, imagining as a possibility the worst as well as the best, wondering what the truth was. You did have a lot of people--even the ones who were caught up in it--genuinely seeing things differently and assessing things differently," Price says.
The delicacy with which Price says he handled the "18-minute gap" question with Rose Mary Woods illustrates this know-nothing White House mentality. Price admits