His private campaign headquarters was an elegant suite on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Elected with 43.4 percent of the vote, he claimed the mandate of a silent majority. A secret liaison with a foreign government helped him win. America’s spies detected this stratagem; the sitting president called it treason.
His slogan was “Bring Us Together.” In time, he tore us apart.
His cabinet nominees, especially his attorney general, scared some Senate Democrats half to death. His inaugural parade to the White House was met with fierce protests. His inner circle – young, loyal, clean-cut, ruthless – protected him like a palace guard. He hated the press. Once in power, he did all he could to rip out the architecture of government built by his Democratic predecessor.
When the White House felt confining, he flew off to his well-appointed retreat in Florida to relax with his rich cronies. He had few real friends in American politics. He made alliances with the Russians instead.
A framed fan letter from Richard M. Nixon to Donald J. Trump will reportedly hang on the wall of the Oval Office on Jan. 20. It is a warm note conveying a prophecy that Trump would be a winner if he ever ran for office. If there are ghosts at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, perhaps a spook with a five o’clock shadow will skulk through the corridors late one night, insisting in a whisper that he is not a crook.
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An alliance does exist between Trump and Nixon, though their differences are glaring. Nixon was a professional politician; Trump decidedly is not. Nixon gave polished speeches; Trump apparently cannot. Nixon practiced diplomacy and statecraft; Trump thus far seems to prefer threats and tweets. Nixon was a skillful, often subtle liar; Trump is brash and brazen.
But the preambles to their presidencies bear some remarkable resemblances.
Even Trump now admits that the secret machinations of Moscow played a hidden hand in his election. The Senate will be holding hearings on this extraordinary matter in short order. Exactly what went on remains a mystery, but no less an authority than Senator John McCain says it was “an act of war.”
In Nixon’s case, a subterfuge was hatched in great secrecy at his campaign suite at the Hotel Pierre, in a penthouse apartment at the Watergate in Washington, and at the presidential palace in South Vietnam.
The government of the United States, led by President Lyndon B. Johnson, was trying to negotiate a bombing halt and broker a cease-fire in the Vietnam War. Hundreds of Americans were dying there each week in 1968. The Democratic candidate opposing Nixon was Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. If LBJ could strike anything resembling a peace deal, it could swing the election for Humphrey. But Nixon already had a plan well in motion to, in his words, “monkey wrench” the chances for peace.
Nixon had enlisted South Vietnam’s ambassador to the United States to send a clear message to his own president, Nguyen Van Thieu: don’t make a deal with the Democrat in the White House. I promise you a better bargain. Thieu responded to his ambassador in Washington: We’re with Nixon. His commitment was recorded in a National Security Agency intercept – the NSA had Thieu’s palace wired – on October 28, 1968.
President Johnson had a full report on this desk the next morning. The election was a week away. Thieu promptly balked at the bargaining table. Peace was no longer at hand. The pendulum of the polls had been swinging away from Nixon. Now it started swinging back.
LBJ taped his own telephone calls, and in three pithy words, he passed judgment on the Republican candidate’s private diplomacy with the president of South Vietnam: “This is treason.”
Nixon won the election by seven-tenths of a percentage point. The intelligence file on this case, including NSA intercepts, FBI wiretaps of South Vietnam’s embassy in Washington, and a CIA cable directly quoting Thieu saying that he had “sent two secret emissaries to the U.S. to contact Richard Nixon,” was unsealed at the LBJ presidential library in 2013. They are the most dramatic documented example – to date – of a foreign leader’s interference in an American election. It took 45 years for the full story to unfold. But as a great newspaperman once said, some stories don’t break. They ooze.
We now know, of course, what Nixon knew. We may never know what, if anything, the Trump campaign knew about Russia’s role in the 2016 election. Let’s hope it takes less than half a century to find out.
This “sordid story,” as LBJ called it, has an epilogue. Before he sealed the file and sent it off to the secret section of the LBJ library in 1973, Johnson’s national security adviser, Walt Rostow, added some personal reflections. He thought that the operation “relates in two ways to the Watergate affair,” which was then starting to destroy Nixon’s presidency. First, he wrote, the election was very close-fought and the Republicans had reason to believe that their secret dealings could provide a margin of victory.
“Second, they got away with it,” he wrote. “There were memories of how close an election could get and the possible utility of pressing to the limit – and beyond” in pursuit of power.
(Tim Weiner is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. His books include “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA” and “One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon.”)
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