'Fascism' is only when somebody else breaks the law

November 27, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- It seems that Richard Nixon, like the poor, will always be with us.

The latest refreshing of our memories of the only American president forced to resign in disgrace is the new batch of recorded White House conversations in which he mused about quitting a year before he actually did, and in which he ordered a break-in of the Brookings Institution.

The latter revelation is certainly no evidence that Nixon also ordered the infamous Watergate break-in a year later. But he did instruct his White House chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, to ''break into the place [Brookings], rifle the files and bring them out'' in pursuit of data the liberal think tank might have had on the conduct of the Vietnam war.

Nixon's direct and emphatic order to Haldeman puts into perspective his mind-set about such clandestine operations, and his famous assertion in the midst of the Watergate scandal that ''I am not a crook.''

Et tu, Henry?

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the ordered Brookings caper -- it apparently never took place in spite of Nixon's tape-recorded follow-up instruction to Haldeman the next day to ''use any means'' to ''get the Brookings Institute [sic] raided'' -- was the reported presence of Nixon's national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger, in the room on both occasions.

White House logs placed him at the first meeting, along with Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and Attorney General John Mitchell, the nation's top law-enforcement officer, and at the second with Nixon and Haldeman the next day.

Mr. Kissinger through a spokesman said of the first Nixon call for a Brookings break-in: ''I have absolutely no recollection of any such conversation. I seriously doubt that I was ever in the room when such a conversation took place. Even if I had been there earlier, I would have left the room once I had completed whatever I had needed to discuss with the president.''

When the tapes revealed that Mr. Kissinger also had been at the second meeting, his spokesman acknowledged: ''He was there if the logs say he was there. But he has no memory of this discussion at all. These meetings covered much broader issues.''

A talent for absence

Being out of the room is a talent that seems to grace certain politicians. President George Bush's campaign manager and eventual secretary of state, James Baker, also appeared always to have the good fortune to be elsewhere when a decision was made that might prove embarrassing to him or detrimental to his political standing.

Veteran watchers of congressional hearings perk up their ears when witnesses say they have ''no recollection'' or ''no memory'' of such moments. Such comments often are a reliable buffer against allegations of perjury if evidence surfaces later that a witness' ''recollection'' or ''memory'' was faulty.

Each new revelation of the Nixon tapes opens more windows on the late president's thought processes. On the tape on which he first ordered Haldeman to ''rifle the files'' of the Brookings, Nixon complains of lawyers on his staff who get hung up on whether such actions were ''technically correct.''

He says he ''can't have a high-minded lawyer like John Ehrlichman [his domestic policy chief] or [John) Dean (his White House counsel] or somebody like that [breaking into the Brookings]. I want somebody that's just as tough as I am for a change, just as tough as I was, I would say, in the [Alger] Hiss case,'' which made Nixon's reputation as a young congressman.

Haldeman, writing in his White House diaries that same day, has Nixon saying, presumably of Vietnam war protesters, that ''those who disobey [the law], even if they think the laws are wrong, are immoral. If the cause is right, they say it justifies breaking the law, but that's fascism; the means justify the ends.''

Ah, yes. Richard Nixon, guardian of morality, is always with us.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 11/27/96

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