A father's reluctant judgment on Nixon

May 02, 1994|By Jack Sirica

MY FATHER certainly would have been one of the Watergate-era figures sought by reporters for comment about Richard Nixon's death. I'm also reasonably sure he would have declined to respond -- and not because he would have had nothing to say. My father was nothing if not blunt, but at Mr. Nixon's death he would have felt uncomfortable saying publicly what he really thought: that, as a lifelong Republican, he was ashamed of Richard Nixon.

Twenty years ago, as the judge who presided over the Watergate cases, my late father, John J. Sirica, reluctantly concluded that Nixon was a crook. From our many conversations about this, my key recollection is of how "disappointed" he was in Nixon. "I hope no political party will ever stoop so low as to embrace the like of Richard Nixon again," he wrote in a 1979 book, "To Set the Record Straight."

As flags flew at half-staff last week and guests gathered at Mr. Nixon's birthplace in Yorba Linda, Calif., for the funeral, it struck me that my father's perspective was valuable and perhaps necessary in the wake of an outpouring of mostly positive remembrances of the only American president to resign in disgrace.

My father always was afraid something like this would happen -- that Mr. Nixon's accomplishments would get most of the attention and Watergate would become almost an obligatory negative footnote, not the defining note of his career, as my father came to feel it was.

My father died two years ago this August, a couple of weeks after the 18th anniversary of Mr. Nixon's resignation from office. He always said that Mr. Nixon "could have been a great president." But to my father, who saw no gray areas when it came to ethics, Mr. Nixon couldn't be both statesman and crook. And, from the day in 1973 that he first put on earphones to listen to the White House tapes, my father remained ashamed of what Nixon had done not only to the Republican Party but, more important, to the spirit and psyche of the nation.

He resisted that conclusion for a long time. But when he'd talk about how he finally had come to believe the worst about Mr. Nixon, the anger in his voice -- and that piercing look that had made his hazel eyes appear black to me on the few occasions as a kid when I dared to lie to him -- convinced me that his feelings about Mr. Nixon were, quite unfortunately for my father, both real and irreversible.

As one of the few Italian-American stump speakers the Republicans could muster, Dad as a young lawyer had campaigned around New York State for losing presidential nominees Wendell Willkie and Thomas E. Dewey, and around the country for the winning Eisenhower-Nixon presidential ticket in 1952. Eisenhower appointed him a federal judge for the District of Columbia in 1957.

Dad's study at home in Washington was filled with black-and-white, grip-and-grin photos from the 1950s of himself with political figures he had either liked or admired: Dad with J. Edgar Hoover. Dad with Dwight Eisenhower. Dad with Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, who in 1953, the year I was born, had offered him the job as chief counsel of his Senate subcommittee investigating communists in government. (Dad, then a partner in a Washington law firm, declined.)

And, yes, there was a photo of Dad with Richard Nixon. After Mr. Nixon was elected president in 1968, my father and I had plenty of political arguments stemming largely from my disagreement with a view he shared with Mr. Nixon: that Vietnam War protesters, and the social values they often espoused, were leading the country to ruin.

But I remember the point in late 1973 when my father could deny no longer that Richard Nixon had led the cover-up of the Watergate burglary from the beginning -- and that, consequently, he had smeared his oath of office.

In the summer of 1973, he had presided when the special prosecutor went to court to obtain copies of Mr. Nixon's White House tapes. My room was in the basement then, and there were many mornings, roughly at 3 a.m., when I'd awaken to hear him bumping around in the kitchen upstairs, preparing a bowl of cereal and a cup of instant coffee, then sitting down with the reams of motions and briefs that he had brought home. He knew what he was in for: It was to be nothing less than an historic constitutional confrontation -- not with Mr. Nixon the man, but with the most powerful office on earth.

He began to listen to the tapes on a Saturday in December 1973, retiring with his young law clerk, Todd Christofferson, to the jury room behind his courtroom. Mr. Nixon's guilt in the cover-up didn't hit my father foursquare until he and Todd played a tape from March 22, 1973, in which Nixon coached his aides:

". . . I don't give a shit what happens," Mr. Nixon said on the tape. "I want you all to stonewall it . . . cover up or anything else, if it'll save it -- save the plan."

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