The Clinton Tapes

Just as Nixon was considered the only president who could open diplomatic relations with China, Clinton was the only one who could bestow upon Nixon the kind of public credibility he so desired.

—Monica Crowley

“Nixon in Winter” (1998)

In my library, I try to keep one or two good biographies of each president since FDR.  This timeline of course, corresponds with Richard Nixon’s political career.  The recently released book, “The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President” will not disappoint those who are interested in Richard Nixon and his interactions with Bill Clinton during Nixon’s final years.

Much has been written about President Clinton’s eulogy of President Nixon where Clinton states “may the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.”  In the Clinton Tapes, Clinton told Taylor Branch that he received a lot of grief for the tone of the eulogy.  However, Clinton “wanted to frame Nixon as the last liberal in a larger historical cycle, by highlighting his innovative proposals for the environment, income maintenance, and comprehensive health insurance.”  {See Branch, “The Clinton Tapes,” (2009) p. 153.}

I was struck by how Clinton viewed RN much more sympathically, even though Clinton was from the opposite party and had a different political philosophy.  It is his wife that holds the partisan grudges of the past.  This is illustrated in a story about where Presidential portraits are to be hung in the White House.  Hillary was adamant that the Nixon official portrait be taken upstairs and hidden from view.  {See “Clinton Tapes, p. 284.}

In spite of his wife’s partisanship, President Clinton saw RNs foreign policy experience, especially as it related to Russia in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War; to be the biggest asset to Clinton.  There were other reasons as well, as President Clinton hoped that RN could provide political cover with Republicans in Congress regarding aid to Russia. {p. 124.} RNs trip to Russia in 1993 turned out to be a valuable resource to President Clinton.  The report of the meeting in Russia was in the words of President Clinton: “the most brilliant communication on foreign policy to reach him as president.”  {p. 135.} The former president had a glowing review as well. The following telephone call between the two was “the best conversation with a president I’ve had since I was president”, according to RN. {See Crowley, “Nixon in Winter,” p. 129.}

It was most interesting to compare what the 42nd thought of the 37th and vice-versa.  The best source material to accomplish this is Monica Crowley’s second book on her professional time with Nixon, the previously cited “Nixon in Winter.”

According to Crowley, RN wasn’t enamored with Clinton at first.  RN saw that Clinton’s election showed that the country “had adopted a more permissive view of personal morality,” a precedent for lower moral expectations.  {See Crowley, p. 321,322} Still RN courted Clinton from the beginning, writing him a note congratulating Clinton on running an excellent campaign for president in 1992. {p. 103-104.} Crowley notes the irony that it was Senator Bob Dole, the future nominee who would run against Clinton in the next election; as the very person who brought the two together. {p. 127-128}

It would be fair to say that Nixon would still have his doubts about Clinton.  He would cite Clinton’s indecisiveness and failure to lead “were robbing America of the extraordinary power, leverage, and creditability it had done so much to achieve.”  {p. 139} Nevertheless, through renewed access (as RN thought the previous president didn’t consider his advice) Nixon warmed up to Clinton.  He was an attentive pupil in the area of foreign affairs.

Crowley sees the relationship between Clinton and Nixon well:

Nixon was a realist and knew that Clinton sought his advice for his own benefit, not for Nixon’s.  But Nixon, aware that his position close to Clinton’s ear guaranteed him access and influence, flattered Clinton as Clinton flattered him.  It was a mutually beneficial relationship: Clinton got much needed foreign policy advice for the nation’s elder statesman, and Nixon got a measure of public credibility and access to the president. (p. 135}

In several ways, it can be argued that the teacher-student relationship that the new president had with the recognized elder statesman was RNs last attempt of both redemption and service to his country.