BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Tom Wicker, your new book, "One of Us" was reviewed in the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago by Joseph Persico and he starts off by saying, "Here is the book that Richard Nixon must have dreamed about -- that one day a respected liberal would look his life straight in the eye and conclude that 'Tricky Dick' was more properly 'Respectable Dick,' the right president for the right time." Did that hurt when you read that?
TOM WICKER, AUTHOR, "ONE OF US: RICHARD NIXON AND THE AMERICAN DREAM": No, not particularly. I expected that sort of thing when I realized that my book was going to be more favorable to Richard Nixon than some people would wish for it to be. But I don't think that's really very accurate, the part that you read. In the first place, Richard Nixon, in my judgment, will not think this is the book that he's dreamed of. It's quite critical of him in many ways. And in the second place, the phrase "the right president for the right time" is used directly and specifically only in reference to the school desegregation crisis in the fall of 1970, not for the overall presence of Richard Nixon in the White House.
LAMB: I want to again show the cover of your book and this picture right here and ask you to tell us who those people are.
WICKER: Well, that's Richard Nixon and his mother and father, and the child in his father's arms there is, I'm reasonably certain, Richard Nixon's oldest daughter Tricia when, of course, she was it looks like perhaps 3 or 4 years old.
LAMB: And the picture of his father. What impact did his father have on him?
WICKER: Well, Richard Nixon's father, Frank Nixon, by the testimony of many people who knew him -- and there's a great deal of oral history evidence available on this -- was a rather aggressive and somewhat loud, argumentative man who had not been in life what would be considered a great success. For most of Richard Nixon's childhood, Frank Nixon was the operator of a small grocery store and filling station in the town of Whittier, Calif., which is now sort of a suburb of Los Angeles. He apparently had a great interest in politics, however, and talked about politics a lot, which probably had some influence on young Richard Nixon. He was, as I say, argumentative and some people claim that he was abusive to customers in the store and to people of that sort. That's in the oral histories. I think, perhaps, it's at least arguable that the two sides of Richard Nixon that so many people have talked about -- on the one hand the rather pious, patriotic American; on the other hand the savage, slashing campaigner -- represent in a real sense his mother, who's always described as a saint, who was a Quaker, and this rather tough and argumentative father.
LAMB: What else can you tell us about his mother?
WICKER: Of course, I never knew Hannah Nixon, his mother, but from all those oral histories and other things that have been written about her including some extensive interviews that she gave when alive, it's clear that she was a very impressive woman who was clearly the moral leading figure in that family. Two of her sons, I believe, died. She did not lead a life of affluence or anything of the sort. She was a hard worker. And there seems to be no question but that she was an extremely admirable person in terms of her moral influence. What seems to be missing in any of these recollections or anything that I've been able to find out is evidence that she was a loving mother. I don't mean in the largest general sense -- of course she was a loving mother in that way -- but I mean in the sense of warmth and visible, overt signs of affection and so forth. There are many ways in which I think a child needs that as much as he or she may need moral guidance.
LAMB: There seems to be an episode in your life 30 years ago or so that left a big impression. You open the book this way -- it's also on the back of the book -- and I'll start by reading, "One night in 1957 after the Senate session had ended and most Congressional reporters had left the Capitol, I worked late in the Senate press gallery. As I came down the ornate staircase from the gallery floor, Jack Sherwood, Vice President Nixon's Secret Service agent, passed below me in the silent Senate lobby. Not far behind was the vice president himself. I had until seen him only distantly from the press gallery, but he was and remains an eminently recognizable man." You go on to write more. Why did that event leave such an impression on you?
WICKER: Well, there we were, the two of us -- Sherwood had already passed by -- the two of us alone in this echoing corridor in the Capitol, and as we walked towards each other -- it was inescapable -- he never even noticed that I was coming along. I mean, not just me. He'd never notice anybody was coming along. I would have thought, as I explained here, that a political figure -- one who was already talked about as the next president -- would have had kind of a glad hand for a voter, you know, as far as he knew. I would have thought that the man would have had a more confident air about him. I had learned by then, although I was a newcomer in Washington at the time, that most congressmen parade the halls with a entourage of staff and so forth. But there he was all alone, hands shoved down his pockets, shoulders slumped, a really rather despondent look on his face. His head was down, and as I say, he never noticed that I or anyone was passing. I couldn't help but wonder at the time why a man who was thought to be the likely next president and who was already the vice president and who was a widely known public figure and a very successful politician should look so despondent and so gloomy -- perhaps even angry for all I could tell.
As you say, that was in 1957, and I thought even then that here was a man, a personality, who was very interesting. There's something really fascinating about a man in his position who presents this kind of appearance and who doesn't even recognize that someone else is in the same space with him. I thought then that he was a very interesting figure and while I can't say that I determined then to write a book about him or anything of that sort, as the years went along and I saw and heard and knew more about Richard Nixon, I never have lost that impression. Ultimately I did decided that I would try to write about him and see if perhaps I could understand this elusive and strange, even bizarre, man. As I say in my book somewhere, Dr. Arthur Burns, who worked with him in the Eisenhower administration and then was appointed chairman of the Federal Reserve by Richard Nixon -- knew him well, liked him -- Dr. Arthur Burns said to me in an interview, "You will never understand Richard Nixon." I don't think I have, and I'm not sure the readers will, but I hope that perhaps my book gives some insight into this man.
LAMB: Have you ever sat down with former President Nixon one-on-one?
WICKER: Not with former President Nixon, no, and not with President Nixon. Before he was elected president, I had that opportunity to talk with him. When he became president, reporters that he perceived as critics -- of whom I certainly was one -- I don't believe he ever interviewed any of those in the White House. He may have or he may have had some large session with them. But I don't think one-on-one, and I have not seen President Nixon while I was working on this book except that I did go out to California and I heard him make a speech at one time and at a reception beforehand we chatted quite briefly. But I didn't have an interview with him.
LAMB: Did you try to interview him for the book?
WICKER: I did try to interview him. I made several requests for interviews, and at the suggestion of his staff I submitted -- I believe it was two written interrogatories to which they said that he might answer. But he didn't. Towards the end of my work on the book -- in fact, when the book was almost written -- I had a note from a staff man who said that President Nixon gave me a promise that I could take to the bank -- a very Nixonian statement -- that after my project was completed if I had any loose ends on foreign policy that he could tie up, they would arrange an hour for me. But that seemed to me to be a rather narrow offer, particularly after my book was virtually completed, and so I didn't take him up on that.
LAMB: To what extent do you think that Richard Nixon has a plan to protect himself from either talking to people like you now, or do you get a sense that there are attempts made at putting him at a certain place in history?
WICKER: Oh, I am sure he is seeking a certain place in history, but I wouldn't say that he has got a plan to protect himself from people like me. I think it's much more nearly that President Nixon has an attitude which by his lights is well earned. He has had, of course, a long record of ... not even perhaps animosity with the press and they with him, and as I say, I'm sure he perceived me as a hostile critic and in that case I wouldn't have given me an interview either. I don't think it hampered the work on my book so much because many of his associates are still available and were willing -- even anxious -- to talk. There's a tremendous library of Nixon published works. I don't mean just by him but about him. And then, of course, there's the archive of the Nixon papers over in Alexandria, which while I was at work was available, and the oral histories that I mentioned, most of which are in California. So, there's no dearth of material about Richard Nixon, particularly for one like myself who was not particularly interested in unearthing some great new revelation, some new presidential peccadillo or anything of that sort. I wasn't looking for that. I was looking at the man and trying to give an explanation, reasons for why things that we already knew about had happened. There may be other Nixon secrets squirreled away somewhere, but, if so, that was not my objective.
LAMB: On page 444 of your book you say, "I was well aware of, and to some extent shared this attitude, but never saw it as anything like a press crusade to get Nixon. As a columnist I wrote many critical articles about him, some of them in retrospect overstated and rather righteous. My prime motivation, I believe, always was disagreement about his policies particularly on Vietnam and civil liberties, but the fact that I found him no more appealing as a personality than did most reporters may have affected my view subconsciously."
WICKER: Well, yes, I wrote that and I would stand by that and I stand by the columns I wrote at the time. I think a daily journalist, which I was -- I believe when Nixon was president I was writing three columns a week for the New York Times and an occasional news story -- and I think that to go back 10 years later or nearly 20 years later and say well, I was all wrong about that; that might be necessary if you were wrong factually on something. But I think you can hardly be expected to have the same perspective, the same generally rounded knowledge, of something you might have 20 years later and after about five years of research and many interviews. The daily journalist or even the columnist doesn't have the time or the luxury to do that. You have to comment on events as they come along. So not only in regard to Nixon and Watergate but in regard to many pieces that I wrote 20 or 25 years ago, I think probably if I were confronted with them today I would say, well, you know, I didn't really know as much as I should have and perhaps I was over-confident when I wrote that, but that's a hazard of the game.
So I stand by what I wrote as a columnist about Richard Nixon, but with many years of personal experience of my own having transpired since then, with many years of hindsight on events as I knew them at the time, with five years of research into those events and with the necessary and long forethought that the writer of a book has to put into what's going to be on a page forever, then I think the judgments in this book are different from the judgments made 20 years ago, and I don't see any reason to apologize for that.
LAMB: I want to pursue this whole section here on the press. "Because Nixon was not likeable," you write, "the press tended to exaggerate his political machinations and personal pretensions. In his case these were seen as his basic persona rather than the curious appurtenances of public life shared by all politicians."
WICKER: Yes, well, I think it's quite true that the press didn't like Richard Nixon and Richard Nixon didn't like the press, and it's sort of a chicken-and-egg situation. I believe my experience in the press has led me to believe that where we reporters understand that a politician likes us and likes to deal with us, we are more likely to like him and like to deal with him. Whereas when we know that a political figure -- a governor or whoever it might be -- really doesn't like us, criticizes us, doesn't want anything to do with us, then we feel very much that way about him. I think that's a human reaction. I would say, for example, that whatever the origins of the Nixon-press animosity -- I trace it largely to the fund crisis of 1952 on his part and to his early communist-hunting activities on the press's part; I think that's where the original animosity derived from. But whatever those causes, I think by the time Nixon was president, the fact that the press didn't like him, many members in Congress didn't like him -- I'm talking about in a rather personal way -- and it was clear that a large part of the public didn't like him. I mean, a large part of the public did like him, too, but certainly a lot didn't.
I think that had a great deal to do with the fact that he was driven to a forced resignation, whereas several presidents later, Ronald Reagan, who was liked by the press and generally speaking by Congress and generally speaking by a large majority of the American people, or at least he was perceived to have been liked, I think in what was really a much more serious charge of offenses against a president -- the Iran-Contra matter -- there never was really a serious effort to impeach Ronald Reagan. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that he was liked and was popular and Richard Nixon was not liked and was not popular. By that I don't mean to imply for one instant that the offenses alleged against Nixon should have been overlooked or forgiven or that they weren't serious. They were. I'm simply saying that the reason one man was impeached and the other one wasn't had a lot to do with their personal popularity.
LAMB: You say, "In 1960 in the campaign against Kennedy, Nixon and many on his staff became convinced they probably were predisposed to believe that a cabal of reporters" -- and you name Bill Lawrence of the New York Times, deceased, Sander Vanocur of NBC now with ABC, Phil Potter of the Baltimore Sun -- is he still alive?
WICKER: No, unfortunately.
LAMB: . . . among others, "was working to harass and embarrass him during his news conferences. Most of these reporters would admit that they personally favored Kennedy. The late Bill Lawrence, whom I knew well, made no secret of his close association with the senator -- too close, I thought, then and now. All would insist, I have no doubt, that their personal preference did not affect their professional coverage."
WICKER: Yes. Well, I'm quite sure of that. I didn't cover that campaign. That was in 1960. I was assigned with my colleague, Anthony Lewis. He and I covered the two vice presidential candidates, sort of in rotation -- Lyndon Johnson and Henry Cabot Lodge. But I remember those charges very well, and I thought then and I think now that it hurt Nixon during that campaign to have got at loggerheads with the press that way. While I don't for one moment think that there was really a cabal in the sense that the Nixon people thought, nonetheless it was clear to me then and it's clear now that Nixon was not liked in the press. In fact, even all these years later when colleagues of mine found out that I was writing a book about Richard Nixon, it was, "Oh, how can you do that?" You read the excerpt from the review in the Washington Post there. I'm not accusing Joe Persico, that reviewer, of this, but I think there is a considerable attitude, and it's not least in the press, which is that if you can't say something bad about Richard Nixon, don't say it.
LAMB: In one line here you say, "JFK was more attractive and likeable, qualities to which reporters like anyone else responded favorably." Do you have to be liked by the press in order to get favorable publicity, and, if you do, what does that say about the press-politician relationship?
WICKER: No, you don't have to be liked by the press to get favorable publicity, and that's not the meaning of what I say there. But I do think that if a political figure, if a political leader is liked by the press as a personality, as a human being, and if he in turn gets along well and easily with the press, then I think that their relationships are going to be easier. There may be even some tendency here and there to overlook something that would not be overlooked by someone else. I could name, I think, political figures who have not been popular with the press -- Richard Nixon is a good example -- who, on the whole, have had good publicity. Richard Nixon didn't suffer in the White House from constant, unrelenting, relentless bad publicity. Quite the opposite. In fact, no president ever has done that, and Richard Nixon got quite a lot of what they call "good ink" while he was in the White House and in his career. I've written some of it myself.
LAMB: You write, "As for the Nixon press love-hate relationship surviving like a noxious week into the White House years, my judgment is" -- meaning Tom Wicker's judgment is -- "that considerable responsibility lay with both sides."
WICKER: Yes. Well, that's along the lines of what I'm saying now, and the Nixon papers that are available from the White House really disclose a real distrust, an animosity towards the press. I don't think there's any question at all that reporters who covered him at that time sensed that and in some sense returned it. As I say, he had made an early reputation that was earned through at least 1954 of being a very savage, take-no-prisoners campaigner, particularly on the communist issue. I think it's an overstatement, but it's widely believed that he smeared Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas, his first two major opponents.
LAMB: What years were those?
WICKER: Oh, in 1946 he ran against Jerry Voorhis for Congress, his first election, and in 1950 he ran against Helen Gahagan Douglas for the Senate from California and won. It's widely believed that he won both of those races primarily by implying that Jerry Voorhis and Helen Douglas were Communists. Well, that's quite overstated. I mean, he did make certain implications of that kind, not that they were communists but in Mrs. Douglas's case that her voting record was similar to that of Vito Marcantonio, who was always referred to in those days as the left-leaning congressman and so forth. That was superficially true, although he distorted the comparison. A lot of the votes that he said she voted with Marcantonio were sort of housekeeping votes in the House. You know, they had no reference to international affairs or anything of the sort.
But particularly in the case of Jerry Voorhis in 1946, I think Nixon would have won that election had the whole communist issue never arisen because Voorhis, who was an admirable congressman, was not an admirable campaigner. That was in the days before jet flight. He had not visited his district in California very often. That district was changing. There was an influx of new people coming in after the war. He was out of touch with the voters in that district, and he proved to be a very inept campaigner as against a sharp guy like Richard Nixon. I think he would have lost in any case. Helen Gahagan Douglas suffered most in that campaign, really, from the fact that in 1950 she had a very bitter Democratic primary, first with Sheridan Downey who was the incumbent senator, then after he withdrew from the campaign, with a man named Manchester Boddy. They first raised the Vito Marcantonio left-leaning charges against Helen Douglas, which Nixon certainly did amplify later on. But without that original bitter primary within the Democratic Party, while I won't say that she would have won, still I think that primary was the major problem for her.
LAMB: In the front of your book the dedication is, "To the memory of Richard Harris, who would have hated this book." Who is Richard Harris and why would he have hated the book?
WICKER: Richard Harris was my dear, close friend to begin with, but he was a writer for the New Yorker for many years, mostly of non-fiction. He was a splendid journalist. He was among those who had very low regard for Richard Nixon, and when I first talked about writing this book, he expressed extreme distaste for the project. So, while my dedication is a joke in a sense, to those who knew Richard, who was a man of powerful opinions and never hesitated to express those opinions, why, it's also a tribute to him.
LAMB: In your preface you complete it by signing off "Tom Wicker, Rochester, Vt., Oct. 12, 1990." Why Rochester, Vermont?
WICKER: I have a second home in Rochester, Vt., which is a very beautiful old Vermont farm which I've had for several years, and I go up there as often as I can. I did a lot of work on this book up there. When I have time to be there, far from the urban distractions of Washington and New York, I find that I can get more of this kind of work done there than elsewhere.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
WICKER: I live in New York City and still, of course, write a column for the New York Times there, but I get away to Vermont as often as I reasonably can.
LAMB: "A final word," you write in your preface. "I grew up in a small railroad town in the South." Where?
WICKER: Hamlet, North Carolina. Hamlet is literally a railroad town. That's its reason for being, and, of course, that means it now has less reason for being than it once did. But when I was growing up it was a very busy town on what was then the Seaboard Railway. That's about three mergers back. It's something else now. Particularly during World War II, it was an extremely busy railroad town. The troop trains were coming through constantly. Those were the days, too, of steam locomotives, so the train whistles blowing was a constant presence in my youth.
LAMB: You say, "And I, too, as Richard Nixon did in the California of his youth, heard lonely whistles in the long-ago nights. And I, too, as he did, in his far different young world, dreamed of great things to be done and believed that I would do them. Poles apart though we may otherwise be, that seems to me not an insignificant bond."
WICKER: Yes, it does. He spoke -- I believe it was his acceptance speech at the Republican convention in 1968 -- about his childhood and mentioned hearing train whistles in the night. That's something that people of a certain age -- which I certainly am and he is, too -- can remember very clearly. Unfortunately, my children, for example, don't really have a memory of the old steam locomotive whistles, which were a very lonely and poignant sound and one that, if you heard it as often as I did as a child, stays with you forever. You would hear that in the middle of the night or in the early morning during that time. We all have our dreams, of course, but to connect them to the whistle of the trains, as Richard Nixon did in that speech, struck a special note in me.
LAMB: How many of your dreams have you not realized?
WICKER: Oh, practically all of them. That's not really true. I wanted to be a writer, and I suppose I've become one. I've published a lot of books anyway. I wanted to have some impact on the way things happen in the world, and I suppose a columnist for the New York Times would have to concede that there's some impact involved there. I must say, it often seems to me to be a very light impact.
LAMB: What was growing up in your town like? What was your family like? How many kids?
WICKER: It was a small family. My mother and father and my sister and me. My mother and father are gone now -- my father for many years. In fact, my father, who was a very strong Democrat, died just a few weeks before John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in 1960. I've always regretted that because if he could have lived a few weeks longer, it would have been a matter of great satisfaction to him to see a Democrat return to the White House. But he was a strong union man, as everybody was in my hometown. It was a small but, I thought at the time, very pleasant community. My sister is still living in Hampton, Virginia. We did the things that small-town kids usually do in small families.
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
WICKER: I went to the University of North Carolina, and later I had a year at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow. But basically my education was in the Hamlet High School and then later at the University of North Carolina.
LAMB: What did you study?
WICKER: At the university I was a major in journalism. At that time -- we're speaking now of the immediate postwar years -- journalism was a very small department at the University of North Carolina. There were about, as I recall, perhaps 20 journalism majors, but we had some outstanding teachers. There was a wonderful course in the Journalism Department taught by Phillips Russell in creative writing. I majored in all that, not so much because I really wanted to be a journalist, but because it was thought to be an easy course at the time. Also I did want to be a writer, and the Phillips Russell course was renowned at that time at the university for being very helpful to young and aspiring writers.
LAMB: What did your dad do, or your mom do, for a living?
WICKER: My father was a railroad conductor for the Seaboard, a freight conductor. He worked for the Seaboard for many, many, many years. In fact, he died -- he had a heart attack -- when he was just coming off a run, so he quite literally died at work.
LAMB: Who do you credit, if not yourself, for getting interested in writing?
WICKER: Well, my mother, I would say. But my father, too. My sister and I were encouraged to read. My mother was a reader. My father was a reader, too. They were not educated people in the sense of having gone to college or anything, but they read and they read assiduously. Not perhaps the great literature of the world, but my father, for example, was an almost religious reader of the Saturday Evening Post, which used to come every Monday morning as relentlessly as anything could. I've always believed they set an example in that house. They read, and they read anything that was available. They imparted to my sister and me the idea that reading was not only important, I suppose, but that it was fun. It was a way to occupy your time. I have been a reader as far back as I can remember, and I think that's the main influence on any writer -- his reading.
LAMB: What did you do after North Carolina?
WICKER: After the university? Well, I took jobs in journalism. My first newspaper job was on the Sandhill Citizen in Aberdeen, North Carolina, which still exists. It was a weekly, about 1,800 circulation. It was a very good job. I was the only editor and writer on the paper, and I did all the advertising sales. On Thursday nights when we went to press, I turned two in the newsroom and ran the Omaha folder, and then took the bags to the post office and mailed what mailers we had, and on Friday I delivered the paper by car. So I learned a lot about newspapers.
LAMB: The New York Times. What got you there?
WICKER: I had worked on several newspapers in North Carolina, most significantly the Winston-Salem Journal, and the Journal sent me to Washington in 1957 as its correspondent to cover the North Carolina delegation, and so that's when the incident that you read about when I encountered Nixon in the corridor occurred. My former editor in Winston-Salem had been a distinguished journalist named Wallace Carroll who had been a great correspondent for UPI during the war and later was James Reston's assistant in the Washington bureau of the Times. But when I first knew him he was the editor of the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel. By the time I came to Washington for the Journal, he was working in the New York Times Washington bureau. I suppose -- at least I hope -- he was impressed with some of the work that I had done because a year or so later when Allen Drury, the well-known author of Advise and Consent, who was then a reporter for the Times, resigned to pursue his novel-writing career, they offered me his job, and I'm sure that Wallace Carroll was the one who was primarily responsible for that because he knew my work.
So I came to Washington in February of 1960 to work for the New York Times, and I must say that was a very good year because that was the last year of the Eisenhower administration, the year of the great Kennedy-Nixon election, which I still think is the most interesting election of my time -- the last election, incidentally, in which more than 60 million Americans voted and then, of course, the transition later in that year. I've been with the Times ever since.
LAMB: You meant to say the last time that 60 percent of Americans voted, didn't you?
WICKER: Yes. More than 60 percent of the American people voted.
LAMB: While you were a reporter for the New York Times, what's your most memorable series of articles? I noticed you mentioned the Pentagon Papers in here -- you had something to do with that -- but what in your opinion was the most interesting . . .?
WICKER: Oh, there's no doubt. I was the Times White House correspondent in Dallas the day President Kennedy was murdered. While that's a dreadful memory, it's nonetheless clearly the most interesting and significant story that I ever covered. That was on a Friday, and I came back to Washington on Saturday and covered the march down to the Capitol and his funeral in the days following. So I would say that stories having to do with his death and the transition to President Johnson were both the most important and the most challenging stories that I covered. The experience of being in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 -- I mean, all Americans practically remember where they were on that day, who were living then, and I certainly do.
LAMB: When did you start writing your column?
WICKER: In 1966. I succeeded Arthur Krock upon his retirement. He had created the column "In The Nation" in the early '30s, I believe, and had written it for many, many years. Then upon his retirement -- I was Times Washington bureau chief at that time -- I was eased into the spot that he was vacating.
LAMB: We're talking to Tom Wicker, and he has a book out that you can see in your bookstores right now called "One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream." You said you've worked on this for five years?
WICKER: Yes. Of course, at the same time I'm working for the New York Times, and I don't mean I put in five years of 40-hour weeks working on the book. I worked on it over a period of five years. I did a lot of interviews. I did a lot of documentary research, one might say, and then, of course, it takes a lot of time just simply to write the book.
LAMB: I wrote down as I went through the book the number of sources that you seem to use and thought it might be instructive to bring them up and ask you why you happened to choose these particular sources. " RN," the book the president wrote when he left office, "Six Crises" -- when did he write that?
WICKER: "Six Crises" was written within the immediate years following his defeat by Kennedy in 1960 and, I believe -- I'm sure -- before his defeat for governor of California.
LAMB: Good book?
WICKER: It's a very revealing book. I reviewed it for the New York Times in those years, not entirely to Mr. Nixon's satisfaction. It's a good book in the sense that I think fundamentally it's factually accurate if you allow for obviously the author's judgments of events that he was interested in. It's an interesting book, and it was thought to be at the time -- and I said so in my review and I still think so -- a very revealing book about Mr. Nixon's psychology, more so than his later book. "RN" is his formal memoir published after he became president and after he had been forced to resign. "RN" is a much more detailed book about public events, much less revealing about the man himself. But both books taken together provide a reasonably good record of Richard Nixon's career. Again, as I say, as with anyone's autobiography, you have to take it with a grain of salt.
LAMB: " The Resurrection of Richard Nixon" by Jules Witcover -- you give quite an endorsement to it here.
WICKER: Yes. Jules Witcover is a splendid reporter here in Washington. He and Jack Germond are partners in a political column, I believe published basically by the Baltimore Sun now but syndicated widely. I have found over the years that those guys are very reliable. Jules has published a number of books, one of which is called "The Resurrection of Richard Nixon," and it has to do with the years in which Mr. Nixon redeemed himself politically from his double loss to Kennedy and then for governor of California until he was elected president in 1968. I covered Nixon during some of that period -- for example, in his well- known campaign for Republican congressional candidates in '66. Witcover did even more of it and wrote a book about it, and that book was very helpful to me, as you say, as a source.
LAMB: You also mentioned a number of times something that we covered with cameras, and that was the Hofstra 1987 Presidential Conference on Richard Nixon. Why did you find that useful?
WICKER: Well, Hofstra does these things. I think their reason for it is they have a conference on a president -- every president that's been in office since 1935 when Hofstra was founded -- and it got to be Richard Nixon's chronological turn in 1987. They had done one the year before, in which I also participated, on Lyndon Johnson. So I'm in the thick of writing my book at that time, and the Hofstra conference was three days of really intensive seminars of academics who had studied the Nixon administration, of persons who had participated in that -- I mean who had literally been officials of that administration -- journalists who had covered it, public speeches and seminars. Henry Kissinger made a speech, for example. Elliot Richardson made a speech. John Ehrlichman was there. Any number of people who had been involved in that administration plus academics who had studied it thoroughly and a lot of journalists, including me. I just found all those sessions particularly interesting. I thought it was a particularly good conference. I've been to that one, the one on Lyndon Johnson, as I say, and then just this past year one on Jimmy Carter. Perhaps because I was engaged in the book, I found the Nixon one more informative than the others. I thought it was particularly good. As you say, it was covered by C- SPAN, and they had arranged that all the session were taped. So even those sessions that I couldn't attend, because some of them overlapped, I was able to get tapes for and it was very helpful.
LAMB: Another author you mention is Stephen Ambrose who wrote books on President Eisenhower and President Nixon. Why did you go to him as a source?
WICKER: Well, I didn't go to Ambrose as a source on Nixon. He was more or less contemporaneously writing about Nixon, and I think two of his volumes have been published. I have read neither of those, precisely because I wanted to keep my own ideas and not be influenced particularly by someone else, and I didn't feel like piggybacking on any research that he might be doing. I did use Stephen Ambrose's second volume of his two-volume Eisenhower biography. The first of those two volumes is about Eisenhower the general, and the second is about Eisenhower the president. It's quite comprehensive and, therefore, in the Ambrose picture of Eisenhower the president, there's a great deal in there about Nixon the vice president. I used that book for that purpose and found it very useful. I did not use Steve Ambrose's books on Nixon, which have been very well reviewed, but I just haven't read them.
LAMB: You also mentioned earlier the personal interviews. You mentioned Arthur Burns's interview. How many personal interviews of real substance did you have, and what are the ones you'll remember the most for your book?
WICKER: Well, I can't right offhand say how many. There were quite a few, ranging from the accidental to the planned. For example, returning from the Democratic convention in Atlanta, I just by sheer chance was seated on the airplane next to Larry O'Brien, who was a very old friend of mine from his days as chairman of the Democratic Party and in the Kennedy White House. So we chatted, and he didn't even know I was writing a book about Nixon, but he gave me several interesting anecdotes and told me a lot about the 1968 national convention which had to do with the nomination of Richard Nixon's opponent. It turned out to be Hubert Humphrey. So, that was very helpful, but that was accidental. Others were planned and worked out in advance. I would say the two best interviews that I had in terms of an overall account of what I was writing about were with the late Bryce Harlow, who had worked with Nixon as far back, actually, as his congressional career. Had known him first in the House -- when Nixon was in the House -- but had worked with him during the Eisenhower administration and later was the chief of Nixon's own congressional liaison team and really was quite close to Richard Nixon. He was living in retirement in West Virginia, and I went out and spent an entire day with Bryce Harlow and that was extremely interesting and helpful.
LAMB: Did you audio-tape all that, by the way?
WICKER: No, I don't use tapes on those things. It's my old, antiquated reporter's habit. I take notes. What I then did, after taking the notes, I went back home and began to modernize myself with a word processor and transformed the raw notes into a narrative of these interviews, fleshing it out as best I could. The other really significant interview I had was with John Ehrlichman, who is now living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is an author in his own right, and so forth. I had always gotten along rather well with Ehrlichman when he was in the White House and thought him not only the most sympathetic, but in many ways the most knowledgeable of the Nixon people who were in the White House. Of course, he took one of the falls in the Watergate matter and so forth, and he's not in touch with Richard Nixon anymore. But he was extremely helpful. We had a long interview on his years in the White House with Nixon and, before that, campaigning with Nixon, and, of course, he's published his own book about that. Ehrlichman also was at the Hofstra conference. Beyond that, he gave an extensive oral history to -- I've forgotten exactly the long title of it -- the Miller Center for the study of the presidency at the University of Virginia, which is headed by Kenneth Thompson. A number of Nixon officials had given long oral histories there, including Ehrlichman, so a lot of his views were available to me.
LAMB: Is that Merle Miller?
WICKER: No. I think I'm getting this right, and forgive me if I'm not, but I think it's the White-Burkett-Miller Center for the Study of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and it's headed by Dr. Kenneth Thompson. They not only have some fellows in residence there, but they invite people in and have long sessions with them which are recorded and later published.
LAMB: Did you try to talk to people like Bob Haldeman or Chuck Colson?
WICKER: I did try to talk to Bob Haldeman and he was willing to talk, but we just never worked out a particular time. Again, he had given one of those interviews at the University of Virginia and published his own book and was at Hofstra. So I did have some input from him even without sitting down and talking to him. Colson I did not talk to or try to, but, again, he published a book and was on one of the seminars at Hofstra.
LAMB: Two incidents that you write about and then you comment on the character of Richard Nixon -- one, in 1960 when he did not contest the election that some people thought was stolen from him through Illinois and other places, the vote-counting in the John F. Kennedy situation. Why did you bring that up?
WICKER: You mean the 1960 matter?
LAMB: I mean, is that a character . . .?
WICKER: Well, yes it did and, of course, there's so much that's unfavorable about Richard Nixon, one writing about him scrambles to find anything favorable. The title of my book is One of Us, and the publisher, for example, was puzzled by that -- a lot of people have been. But I maintain that Richard Nixon is one of us because I think in all of our character there's good and there's bad, and depending on circumstance, depending on events, depending on pressures, the good dominates or the bad dominates -- not necessarily all the time, but as things happen. I think Richard Nixon is one of us in that sense, that sometimes the well-known dark side of his character has dominated and sometimes what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" have dominated.
I think that was the case there in late-1960. You'll recall that Kennedy won that election -- if he did -- by either 118,000 or 113,000 votes out of well over 60 million cast. That depends a little bit on how you count the vote in Alabama. But any way you look at it, that's virtually a dead heat -- even if you take the 118,000 out of more than 60 million. Almost any reporter would concede that that many votes could easily be stolen in a national election. Whether they were or not is another matter, but they could be. The evidence suggests to me that Richard Nixon believed that election had been stolen from him. A lot of Democrats certainly did. President Eisenhower is said to have thought that at first, at least. I am the reporter for the New York Times who finally wrung out of Thruston Morton, who was then the Republican national chairman, a senator from Kentucky -- it was as late as March or perhaps even April of 1961 -- I wrung out of him the concession that, yes, it's all over. Kennedy is president. We are not going to challenge the election. Well, long before that, Nixon had made it clear that he was not going to challenge the election. I don't think that he could have sustained a challenge. I don't think he could have won had the results reversed or anything of that sort. But had he raised the challenge, had he called for a recount, had he pushed for some kind of a reversal of the election, it would have clouded the legitimacy of President Kennedy at the time he was taking office. It could have led to some terrible political imbroglio like that of 1876. It was clearly a dangerous thing to do.
I mentioned Bryce Harlow a while ago, and he said that he -- Bryce Harlow -- believed the election was stolen. He was an old political veteran and urged Nixon to do something about it, and according to him Richard Nixon said to him, "Bryce, you can't do that. It would tear the country apart." I found that testimony repeated by a number of people, so I believe Richard Nixon thought that election had been stolen from him and decided not to challenge because it would tear the country apart, and I think it would have.
LAMB: I did think of the second incident and that was when he did not burn the tapes in Watergate.
WICKER: Yes. No one seems to know why he didn't destroy the tapes. My reference is not so much to the fact that at some point along the line he didn't destroy the tapes -- perhaps that would have been impossible to do without it becoming known or something. I don't know why all that was. My reference was to the fact when finally in June of 1974 the Supreme Court ruled that those tapes had to be turned over, that they were evidence or possible evidence in a criminal case, Nixon in fact turned over the tapes. Now, you may say, "Well, what could he do? The Supreme Court had told him he had to." and that is true. There's no question of that. But what could he do? He was president of the United States, he still had a great deal of political support in the country. Anyone who doesn't remember that from 1974 is not remembering the facts. He had a lot of political support in the country. He had some support, still, in Congress, although not enough. He was commander-in- chief of the armed forces. We have just seen in the Gulf War the extent to which the commander-in-chief of the armed forces is obeyed. So I think there's a lot Richard Nixon could have done in 1974 had he said, "I simply refuse to turn over those tapes, Supreme Court or no Supreme Court." Had he even gone so far as to attempt to call out armed forces somehow to protect himself, I think there would have been again -- I don't assert that he would have gotten away with that; that he could have subverted the Constitution.
I just say that he could have done all of that if he were the evil figure that many people thought then and still think that he is. He would have done that if he had been the conniving figure that many people think he is. He would have done that, and it would have been a terrible crisis in this country. He did not do that. Once again, knowing that it was his own destruction, he turned over the tapes. Now, you may say -- and many people do and I do myself -- "Well, what's so great about that? He's only obeying the law." Granted. What I am saying is that if Nixon were the terrible, really just evil person that so many people think, he might not have done that. So I think the fact that he did do that and spared the country the torments it would have caused, that seems to me to be a mark in his favor, even though I understand how many people really resent marks in his favor.
LAMB: Do a lot of your personal friends resent this book?
WICKER: Oh, I don't think so, no. In my dedication to Richard Harris in the beginning there, as I say it's like the old story, you know, you have to have been there to appreciate the joke. Well, in a sense you have to have known Richard to appreciate that introduction, how strongly he held his views. But no, I feel quite certain that once he or any of my friends -- the people who know me -- read this book, they may say, "Well, that Wicker is wrong-headed about this, but nonetheless he did his work and tried to do an honorable and even-handed job."
LAMB: How many times a week do you write your column?
WICKER: Now it's twice. For many years it was three, but now it's twice.
LAMB: As you were trying to write your column through this period you were doing this book did you find yourself having trouble or was it a benefit to keep going back in history and relating it to the current day?
WICKER: Oh, I think it's a benefit, and I think American journalism suffers from the fact that our journalists too often either don't know very much about our history or don't understand very much about our history, or perhaps it's only that in the crush of events they are not able very often to relate events back to earlier times and earlier characters in our history. I think American history is vital -- vital is too small a word -- it's essential to an understanding of what's happening today. You have to know how our country got to be what it is before you can comment intelligently, in my judgment, on what we are today. Any study of the past is beneficial for a journalist. I would say it's beneficial for anyone, but particularly for a journalist in a professional way. I had to go back in this and study in quite detail the opening to China, the negotiation of the SALT I treaty, the school desegregation crisis -- not just elections and so forth, although those are interesting, but many things that I had commented upon and still commented upon. When I was writing this book, arms control was still a major factor in our politics. Not so much now, perhaps, with the decline of the Soviet Union, but certainly two or three years ago arms control was at the very top of most of our agenda. So to go back and study the development and the negotiation of the SALT I treaty which, in my judgment, is not one of the outstanding achievements of the Nixon administration -- I think it's a badly-flawed treaty, but that's beside the point -- but to go back and study it is very beneficial to what one is trying to do today.
LAMB: You told us that Bryce Harlow and John Ehrlichman were your two favorite interviews in this process.
WICKER: Well, by that I meant they were perhaps the two most helpful interviews.
LAMB: Well, the point of my question is, what were the favorite things you learned that was new in all of your investigation?
WICKER: I think the thing that impressed me most was -- I've just mentioned -- as I studied that record, I became convinced that Richard Nixon's record as a domestic leader, as a domestic president, his record in domestic affairs was more impressive than his record as a foreign- policy leader, which is contrary to the conventional wisdom and contrary also to the view that Nixon himself assiduously cultivates of having been a great foreign-policy president. I think he was a man who knew a great deal and understood a great deal about foreign policy, but the record of the secret bombing of Cambodia, of the flawed SALT I treaty, of the destabilization of Chile, of the tilt to Pakistan in the Indo-Pak war, of the reliance fundamentally on the idea of hard anti-communism as the central theme of foreign policy, I think all that doesn't sustain the picture of Richard Nixon as a great leader in foreign policy.
LAMB: Our guest is Tom Wicker and the book is called "One of Us." This is what it looks like, published by Random House, in your bookstores. Thank you, Mr. Wicker.
WICKER: Thank you.
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