YORBA LINDA, Calif. – President Richard Nixon had just delivered his first major national address on the Watergate scandal that would ultimately cost him the White House when the calls of support began pouring in.
Audio tapes released Wednesday show that within hours of the speech on April 30, 1973, the beleaguered 37th president heard from Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and evangelist Billy Graham.
The calls were captured on a secret recording system that Nixon used to tape 3,700 hours of phone calls and private meetings in his executive offices between February 1971 and July 1973.
The final chronological installment of those tapes – 340 hours – were posted online by the National Archives and Records Administration as part of a release that also includes more than 140,000 pages of text documents. Another 700 hours of tapes remain sealed for national security and privacy reasons.
Since 2007, the National Archives has released hundreds of hours of the tapes, offering the public an unvarnished and sometimes shocking view of the inner workings of Nixon’s administration and insight into the president’s private musings on everything from Watergate to Vietnam.
Wednesday’s release did not include significant new material on Watergate, but did show the incredible strain on Nixon in the summer of 1973 with the growing scandal stemming from the 1972 break-in at Democratic headquarters by burglars tied to the president’s re-election committee.
The day Nixon gave his speech, two top White House staffers, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, had resigned, as well as Attorney General Richard Kleindienst.
In the speech, Nixon said he was not aware of or connected to the Watergate break-in.
He said he supported punishment for those involved in possible criminal actions and accepted responsibility for ceding the authority of his campaign to others whose “zeal exceeded their judgment and who may have done wrong in a cause they deeply believed to be right.”
White House counsel John W. Dean III was also fired that day, a special Senate committee to probe Watergate was being formed and a special Watergate prosecutor was assigned.
Reagan, who called late that night, reassured a needy Nixon that the speech was the right one to make during such a crisis.
“I just want you to know, we watched and my heart was with you. I know what this must have been and what this must have been in all these days and what you’ve been through,” Reagan said.
“You can count on us, we’re still behind you out here and I wanted you to know that you’re in our prayers.”
At the end of the call, Reagan told Nixon: “This too shall pass.”
That same evening, Bush, who had recently been appointed chairman of the Republican National Committee, called to say he had watched the speech with “great pride.”
This time, however, an angry and exhausted-sounding Nixon complained to Bush about the reaction from TV commentators.
“The folks may understand,” Nixon said, before adding later: “To hell with the commentators.”
The following year, Bush would privately write Nixon a letter urging him to resign, which he did on Aug. 9, 1974.
Politicians weren’t the only ones who checked in that night.
Graham spoke at some length with Nixon, dissecting the network TV coverage and briefing the president on CBS’ coverage, which he deemed the most negative.
“I felt like slashing their throats. But anyway, God be with you,” said Graham, who also told Nixon the speech was “his finest hour.”
“CBS was knocking it but ABC and NBC were not bad?” Nixon replied.
“They were all favorable,” Graham replied.
The calls are significant because they show the pressure Nixon was under and how desperate he was for validation as the crisis wore on, said Ken Hughes, a research specialist for the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
“It was one of the worst nights of his life and even two people as famously upbeat as Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were unable to cheer him up,” said Hughes, who studies and reviews Nixon tapes.
“He saw the writing on the wall,” he said.
The tapes also include discussions between Nixon and his aides about the Vietnam War and contain a lengthy recording of Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev chatting warmly in the Oval Office before a historic summit in June 1973.
In a June 7 recording dealing with Vietnam, Nixon told his chief of staff, Alexander Haig, that South Vietnam’s president, Nguyen Van Thieu, had leverage in the peace settlement because he knew the U.S. would be embarrassed if South Vietnam fell as soon as American forces left.
“You know, we’re in a real tough position, aren’t we?” Nixon said. “Thieu knows that we don’t want them to go down the tubes so soon after the darn war is over, you know, for our failure, so he thinks that he’s got us by the short hairs.”
He added later, “It’s a strange, strange world we’ve living in, isn’t it, Al?”
The tapes also captured a rare and unscripted conversation between Nixon and Brezhnev. The two met for an hour on June 18 and chatted about personal topics, including their families and future travel plans, with only an interpreter present.
The conversation happened before the start of a historic seven-day summit that was part of Nixon’s strategy of detente with the Soviet Union.
“We must recognize, the two of us, that ... we head the two most powerful nations and, while we will naturally in negotiations have some differences, it is essential that those two nations, where possible, work together,” Nixon told Brezhnev.
“If we decide to work together, we can change the world. That’s what — that’s my attitude as we enter these talks.”
The conversation is remarkable because of the camaraderie that is evident, said Luke Nichter of Texas A&M University-Central Texas in Killeen, who runs a website cataloging Nixon’s secret recordings. Both men discuss their children and Brezhnev even talks about his grandson’s attempts to pass college entrance exams.
“These are Cold War archenemies who are talking like old friends,” he said. “This is very unusual.”
The recordings were released at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda and cover April 9, 1973, to July 12, 1973, the day before the existence of the covert recording system was revealed to a Senate committee probing Watergate.
Previous tape releases show the president as a paranoid man who was not afraid to use bare-knuckle tactics to crush the enemies he saw all around him.
Tapes released in 2009 show, in particular, Nixon’s obsession with the Kennedy family. He considered Ted Kennedy such a political threat, for example, that he ordered surveillance in hopes of catching him in an affair. Recordings that came out the following year captured Nixon making disparaging comments about Jews and blacks.
Ultimately, Nixon’s second term was overrun by Watergate. Faced with impeachment and a possible criminal indictment, Nixon resigned a little more than a year after the tapes end and retreated to his native California, where he was pardoned a month later by his successor, Gerald Ford.