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Nixon took time out from Watergate to plot politics with Young, Coghill

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 9, 2014

Forty years after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace, the secret tapes that proved his role in the Watergate cover-up continue to reveal the inside story of his years in the White House.

Three new books this summer draw extensively on hundreds of taped conversations about Watergate, foreign policy, political strategy and Oval Office intrigue.

Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward refers to Nixon's taping system as the "most consequential self-inflicted political wound of 20th-century America."

Other presidents had made limited recordings but Nixon outdid them all, with 3,700 hours of secretly recorded conversations.

Nixon wore a device that allowed the Secret Service to track his location in the White House, emitting an electronic signal that activated the Sony reel-to-reel tape recorders.

Other than a few Nixon aides and the Secret Service, visitors to the Oval Office had no clue that whatever they said to the president would be preserved for posterity.

That was certainly true for the two men from Alaska who visited Nixon at 3:56 p.m. on March 15, 1973 -- the newly elected congressman from Alaska, Rep. Don Young, and the state Republican leader who directed Young's campaign, Jack Coghill.

They posed for what Nixon called a "congratulations picture" and the president led the two men into a 21-minute conversation about the minutiae of Alaska politics and personalities.

Young sat to the left of Nixon, while Coghill sat on the right of the uncluttered desk.

A break from Watergate

Even at that point in his presidency, when other conversations taped in the Oval Office focused on the rapidly unraveling Watergate cover-up -- six days later John Dean spoke of a "cancer" on the presidency and Nixon talked about hush money -- the president welcomed the chance to focus on campaign tactics and strategy far away from the Watergate.

A few hours earlier, Nixon had faced unrelenting Watergate questions during a press conference, leading him to complain that night that "the bastards never asked one question about the most important subject," meaning his efforts to end the Vietnam War.

Young and Coghill said nothing about Watergate or Vietnam and had plenty of positive words for the president.

The sound quality is poor, as Young and Coghill did not speak directly into the five microphones hidden in Nixon's desk. There was background noise when Nixon thumped the desk or moved in his chair.

But you can hear the enthusiasm in Nixon's voice when he instructs the 39-year-old new congressman on what he should put in his first newsletter to Alaskans and suggests that getting rid of Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel should be a priority because Gravel is a "rat."

Young visited the White House one day after being sworn in and nine days after defeating Democrat Emil Notti by fewer than 2,000 votes in a special congressional election.

Begich plane crash

His unlikely path to Congress had started the year before when Young, a state senator from Fort Yukon who was not up for re-election, was a token GOP candidate against Rep. Nick Begich, who was expected to win the 1972 race with ease.

Young, now the longest-serving Republican in the House, found himself in the same position that many Democrats would occupy in the decades that followed -- in an election that he had almost no chance of winning.

Three weeks before the November 1972 election, Begich and House Majority Leader Hale Boggs of Louisiana disappeared with the Cessna 310 in which they were traveling from Anchorage to Juneau.

Nixon learned of the missing plane from news accounts on Oct. 17, 1972. In a conversation that day with his press secretary, Ron Ziegler, the president spoke of the political implications and said it reminded him of the death of Wiley Post and Will Rogers in a 1935 plane crash in Alaska.

Nixon said, "We've got a candidate in Alaska," and added, "I hope to Christ we've got a candidate in Boggs' district."

"If we haven't, we're stupid," he said.

He discussed the missing plane at least three times that day and called the wives of both men, offering his condolences.

In his call to Pegge Begich, Nixon said: "Mrs. Nixon and I are thinking of you and just hoping for the best on your trip. That's a terrible shock for all of us to read about it. You tell your six children too that we called."

"It's a tough time for you but just keep the faith and hope for the best," he said.

Mark Begich, 10 at the time, is running for re-election this year to the U.S. Senate. He said he remembers his mother saying the president had called.

Nixon's predictions

On the same day that Nixon talked to Mark Begich's mother, the president privately and correctly predicted to his aides that searchers would never find the plane.

"The other point is this," Nixon said. "Both of them, of course, are on the ballot. You can't assume they're dead until they're found. So they'll be on the ballot and will be re-elected."

He was also right about the election results. Both won election posthumously. After the men were declared dead, Louisiana and Alaska held special elections to fill the vacant seats.

Lindy Boggs won in Louisiana, the start of a 17-year House career, while Pegge Begich failed to get the Democratic nomination in Alaska in a convention contest that also featured Anchorage state Sen. Chancy Croft and Notti, who won the nod to run against Young.

Using Nixon's line

When Young sat down with Nixon the day after he cast his first vote in the House, the president recalled that Young had told him during a photo session Jan. 31 about the importance of the vote in rural Alaska. Nixon said he had followed the early results and they didn't look promising for Young.

"I noticed that it showed that it was neck and neck but the returns from the bush country were yet to come in. I says, 'Oh we've lost it.' Remember you told me that you didn't think you'd do well in the bush country. But you must have done well in the bush country," Nixon said.

"We got 30 percent, which was what we needed to win." Young said.

Young said that Notti had made Nixon a major part of his campaign, which helped Young.

"He ran against you," Young said.

"He really did," said Nixon.

"He really did," said Young.

"We turned it around, just exactly the way we said, instead of being defensive about it," said Young.

"You weren't defensive?" said Nixon.

"No way, offensive, we took the idea of the revenue sharing program to get back down to the people," said Young.

He said Nixon had used a phrase about the problem of bureaucrats giving to bureaucrats that Young found powerful.

"I used that time and time again," Young said.

"You used that line?" said Nixon.

"I used that line and I used it over and over and people liked that," Young said. "The idea of getting money back down to the people."

Trickle-down theory

Nixon then launched into a soliloquy about "what you're really saying" and how the Johnson administration spent $2.3 billion on a community action program and 80 percent never reached the "poor folks" because the bureaucracy consumed it.

"In your first newsletter you should point this out," Nixon said.

"It trickled down. That's what you call the trickle-down theory. It trickled down through layer after layer after layer of bureaucrats. So the poor folks got 20 percent. Now, that's not enough," Nixon said.

Coghill and Young said they had argued that only 10 percent of the money made it out of the bureaucracy.

"Sounds like our campaign, Mr. President," said Coghill. "That's exactly the approach we took. We had it on a 10 percent basis."

"Yeah, we used a 10 percent basis," said Young.

Young said he campaigned by speaking to service clubs and went on radio and TV, which drew detailed questions from Nixon.

"Do you have a statewide network there? Is it a network or do you have to go on in Anchorage, in Fairbanks and Juneau?" Nixon asked.

Ted Kennedy and Wally Hickel

Coghill said they bought ads in the major towns and gained an advantage because Notti's campaign ran a televised endorsement by Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy.

It backfired because Kennedy pronounced Alaska as "Alas-ker," according to Coghill, and by association they linked Notti to Kennedy's support for gun control.

"We found out what the spot was. We went down and got Wally Hickel and we cut a tape with Wally Hickel locally," Coghill said.

Nixon interjected, "Wally help you?"

"Oh, very definitely," Coghill said.

"Ted Kennedy is for Emil Notti but Ted Kennedy is also for gun control. Ted Kennedy's against the pipeline," was Coghill's summary of the Hickel ad. Hearing this, Nixon shouted, "Gun control!" and guffawed as Coghill and Young joined in, perhaps the biggest laugh recorded that day on the White House tapes.

Notti responded to the gun control claim with ads saying it was a smear tactic and dirty politics by Young but the Republicans claimed otherwise. When Young mentioned that Gravel backed Notti, Nixon's voice perked up and he asked if the GOP had a candidate to challenge Gravel in 1974.

'Gravel is a rat'

Gravel had irritated Nixon in 1971 by placing the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the Vietnam War, in the Congressional Record.

"Well, you know, I owe that state now. Let's get together," said Nixon, perhaps referring to winning the Alaska popular vote in 1968 and 1972. "That fellow can be beaten. He's a little off his nut."

"I'm glad to hear you say it," said Young.

"I would never say it" in public, Nixon said. "Gravel is a rat; let's face it, he's not a credit to Alaska. That's the point."

Nixon contrasted Gravel with Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, who had also been in Washington since 1968. During his talk with Young and Coghill, Nixon at times referred to Stevens as "Stevenson."

Stevens, who went on to spend more time in the Senate than any other Republican, was not as well known then as he would become.

"Stevens is a credit to Alaska. Stevenson is a solid -- not spectacular -- but a solid guy. And that's what Alaska wants," said Nixon.

"And Gravel? Gravel's an attractive guy, good-looking guy and all the rest of it. But I don't think that -- Alaskans want a man they can be proud of down here. And frankly, his Senate colleagues don't think a hell of a lot of him."

"This is our big challenge right now, Mr. President," Coghill said, though it would take until 1980 for Gravel to lose his Senate seat.

Nixon suggests a Democratic split

Nixon said that taking advantage of a split between liberal and conservative Democrats might help Republicans in Alaska.

"Is there any way you can get them to have a very nice, pleasant primary?" Nixon asked.

When told that Sen. Henry Jackson, a conservative Washington Democrat, had run an ad for Notti, Nixon said that "Jackson's out of his mind" and appears to refer to Notti as an "ass," though the full sentence is not clear.

Coghill said that Jackson was looking to the future with his endorsement, as the time would come when the new Alaska Native corporations would have a great deal of power and influence in the state.

Young had help from several GOP operatives sent to Alaska to work in the "back room" in Anchorage. Nixon said it was a good approach to keep them in the back room.

"Terrible bringing outsiders in and having them tell the people of Alaska," said Nixon.

"Nobody knew they were here," Coghill said.

"I took them through the state and introduced them and I says, now, 'These people are from Anchorage, they're Anchorage-based staff people,' " Coghill said.

Nixon liked what he heard from Young and Coghill.

"You know something: I think that we ought to get this story told," Nixon said of the Young campaign.

"The story of how you won, what the issues were," he said. "You've got to tell that story."

Young said he thought it was important that he never changed his positions as the campaign went along.

"The big thing, though, is that we ran, when I first filed, when I first ran for the special nomination, run as a Republican in a Democrat state, we never changed that whole round of what we are," Young said.

'Hold your seat'

Nixon said Young should focus on the next election in 1974.

"You want to hold your seat," Nixon said to Young, which in retrospect sounds as obvious as any proclamation in presidential history.

Turning to the pipeline, Young and Coghill said Alaskans supported the project, which remained tied up in court. Nixon said he understand "a few nuts" in Alaska opposed the project and he wanted Congress to get "off its tail" and take action.

"You have a few governmental employees that are against it," Young said.

"Our people?" Nixon said.

"Not your people but the federal employees are the ones that are involved in the Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club," Coghill said.

"We used in our campaign the relationship of Alaska to the West and to turn back the clock 100 years, that if the thinking on the environmental end of it was as great 100 years ago as it is today we would be a fifth-rate nation," said Coghill.

"Excellent," said Nixon.

'Nixon repudiated'

He said Young should tell his constituents that he talked about the pipeline with the president and that he urged action.

"You put that out," Nixon said, adding that Alaskans would have to be patient.

"Now, of course, they'll expect it tomorrow. It won't come tomorrow. But at least they will know you spoke about it. The most important thing many times is not what you achieve but the fact you're fighting for it. The fact that you're in here fighting for it, they will know," Nixon said.

Because of the special election, Young had missed the start of the Congress in 1973, which he said put him behind schedule.

"Just that statement alone will make up for all the time that I've missed," he said.

As they wrapped up their meeting, the men discussed how the election would have been portrayed by the press had Notti defeated Young.

"Nixon repudiated," Nixon said, offering an imaginary headline.

Smoking gun and resignation

The existence of the taping system became public knowledge four months later when Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield told the Senate Watergate Committee of its existence.

A year later, on Aug. 5, 1974, the "smoking gun" tape was released, showing that six days after the Watergate break-in into the Democratic National Committee offices in 1972, Nixon had sought to stop an investigation, claiming it was a matter of national security.

He resigned on Aug. 9, 1974.