Let’s Look at the Record
“Let’s look at the record”
The old saying, “An error gets halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on,” is especially relevant in the age of the internet and social media.
Richard Nixon is often the subject of such errors – some deliberate, some inadvertent, but all in need of correction to advance historical accuracy and understanding.
When confronted with such errors himself, Mr. Nixon himself would often begin his reply by saying, “Let’s look at the record,” and that’s what this page is all about.
When we find any RN-related errors that appear in print, over the air, or in cyberspace, we will “look at the record” and set the record straight.
We invite you, if you find something that needs correcting, to let us know so we can include it on this page.
On January 7, 2018, in the New York Times, Jeff Shesol reviewed Lawrence O’Donnell’s book Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics.
The review said, rightly, that Mr. O’Donnell is a skilled writer who knows how to tell a story. It took him to task, equally rightly, for his tendency to dramatic overstatement, his failure to consult new material, and his overdependence on single sources.
As an example of the latter, Mr. Shesol mentions Mr. O’Donnell’s embarrassing reliance on the 1969 book An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968. Another example is his essential re-telling of Ken Hughes’ conspiratorial polemic Chasing Shadows for his account of Richard Nixon’s actions and motives in the last weeks of the campaign.
Mr. Shesol uncritically accepts Mr. O’Donnell’s uncritical acceptance of John A. Farrell’s misinterpretation of H. R. Haldeman’s notes of his late night telephone conversation with candidate Nixon on October 22nd 1968.
Mr. Farrell disserves his readers by failing even to mention the context of that conversation. Earlier on the 22nd, Nixon had received word that, despite his assurances to the contrary, and in order to tilt the increasingly close election to his Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, President Johnson was going to declare a surprise bombing halt in Vietnam in the last days before the election.
Haldeman writes “N mad as hell,” and most of his four pages of notes deal with Nixon’s plan to let Johnson know that his duplicity had been discovered, and dissuade him from announcing the bombing halt.
By failing to provide his readers with this vital contextual information, Mr. Farrell has convinced many that Nixon wanted to “monkey wrench” LBJ’s hope for peace in Vietnam, rather than convince the President not to announce such a strategically risky and politically motivated “October Surprise.”
The story and backstory of the Nixon/Haldeman telephone conversation may be found here:
On September 11, 2017, Democratic strategist Michael Starr Hopkins claimed on Tucker Carlson Tonight that “the campaign slogan of Donald Trump was the campaign slogan that Richard Nixon used it to divide people.”
“Let’s Make America Great Again” was the 1980 campaign slogan of Ronald Reagan. Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign slogan was “Nixon Now.” His 1972 slogan was “President Nixon. Now More Than Ever.”
In the 1968 campaign, Candidate Nixon declared that he had a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam, campaigned on that promise, and reneged on it once in office.
John Avlon, The Daily Beast, September 5, 2017 – link
Albert B. Wolf, The Hill, August 22, 2017 – link
Bob Hennelly, SALON, August 1, 2017 – link
Rick Hampson, USA Today, July 9, 2016 – link
Phyllis Bennis, MSNBC’s The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell, April 28, 2016
Lawrence Korb, Politico Magazine, February 11, 2016 – link
David Corn, Mother Jones, July 24, 2015 – link
Patricia Sullivan, The Washington Post, July 20, 2013 – link
This myth has been thoroughly and widely debunked. Nixon never said he had a plan — “secret” or otherwise. William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter and columnist for the New York Times, once called the “secret plan” a “non-quotation [that] never seems to go away.”
June 21, 2017 – In an op-ed in today’s Los Angeles Times, Pulitzer-winning biographer Kai Bird uncritically accepts John A. Farrell’s interpretation of handwritten notes by H. R. Haldeman of a conversation with presidential candidate Richard Nixon on the night of October 22nd 1968.
Mr. Bird writes:
Democrats in particular have painful memories of the 1968 “October surprise,” in which Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon passed messages to the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, telling him to stall on the peace talks. Nixon always denied the allegation. But we now know from the private diary of H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, recently discovered by the presidential historian John Farrell, that Nixon was lying.
Mr. Farrell, strictly speaking, is not a presidential historian; he is a former journalist whose books before Richard Nixon: The Life were a biography of House Speaker Tip O’Neill, and of attorney Clarence Darrow. The Haldeman notes were not from a private diary (he did, in fact, keep a private diary) but typical of the notes Mr. Haldeman made on yellow pads of meetings he had with Nixon — both as candidate and as president.
In his op-ed, Mr. Bird provides a link to a New York Times article by Peter Baker about Mr. Farrell’s interpretation of the Haldeman notes. In that article Mr. Baker made the point that some historians agree with Mr. Farrell’s interpretation, but others don’t. He wrote:
Still, as tantalizing as they are, the notes do not reveal what, if anything, Mr. Haldeman actually did with the instruction, and it is unclear that the South Vietnamese needed to be told to resist joining peace talks that they considered disadvantageous already.
Moreover, it cannot be said definitively whether a peace deal could have been reached without Nixon’s intervention or that it would have helped Mr. Humphrey. William P. Bundy, a foreign affairs adviser to Johnson and John F. Kennedy who was highly critical of Nixon, nonetheless concluded that prospects for the peace deal were slim anyway, so “probably no great chance was lost.”
Luke A. Nichter, a scholar at Texas A&M University and one of the foremost students of the Nixon White House secret tape recordings, said he liked more of Mr. Farrell’s book than not, but disagreed with the conclusions about Mr. Haldeman’s notes. In his view, they do not prove anything new and are too thin to draw larger conclusions.
The Nixon Foundation has posted a different interpretation of the Haldeman notes that takes into account their textual context and the specific circumstances in which the phone call took place. The Foundation’s post is here: “Misunderstanding a Monkey Wrench.”
Of course, Mr. Bird, like Mr. Farrell, is entitled to his interpretation of the Haldeman notes. But it is disappointing that a writer and biographer of Mr. Bird’s rigor and stature did not inform his readers that there is disagreement among historians about the significance of Mr. Farrell’s discovery, and what it actually means; and that there is an at least equally plausible interpretation.
May, 26, 2017
“We were furious about the past presidential election of a man [Nixon] whose presidency would eventually end in disgrace with his impeachment for obstruction of justice…”
Hillary Clinton, Wellesley College Commencement
President Nixon was not impeached. Only two Presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868, and Bill Clinton in 1998.
March 28, 2017
“More young men were killed in Vietnam post-Richard Nixon’s inauguration in 1969 than had died in the war prior to 1969. It’s very troubling.”
Mike Barnicle, Morning Joe, MSNBC
American lives lost during the Vietnam War are as follows:
1956 to 1968: 36,956
1969 to 1973: 21,195
In fact, more Americans died in Vietnam during just the last two years of the Johnson administration than during the entire 5 ½ years of the Nixon administration.
[SOURCE: National Archives and Records Administration https://www.archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics.html]