'The Nixon Tapes'

What historian Douglas Brinkley heard from the 37th President may surprise you

'The Nixon Tapes'

Forty years ago this month, President Richard Milhous Nixon resigned from office. Since that time, his actions and words have been scrutinized in an attempt to make sense of his tragic legacy. For historians, the most important part of the official record is 3,000 hours of secretly taped conversations in the Oval Office.

Out of this treasure trove of documentary material, historians Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter have mined The Nixon Tapes, a look at the non-Watergate portion of this material. That infamous break-in and its resulting scandal may be the most titillating and memorable part of the Nixon White House, but there was much more to his presidency.

While Nichter runs www.nixontapes.org, an online compendium of the recordings, Brinkley can be seen on television, where he's often found chatting with Charlie Rose as the official CBS News presidential historian. He can also be seen around Austin, where he's lived with his wife and three children since leaving New Orleans post-Katrina. He talked with the Chronicle about his latest work.

Historian Douglas Brinkley
Historian Douglas Brinkley

Austin Chronicle: How did you get involved in collaborating with Luke Nichter on The Nixon Tapes?

Douglas Brinkley: Well, a few years ago I was doing a book called Tour of Duty about John Kerry and the Vietnam War. And I started doing research on how Nixon was trying to destroy Kerry, who was at that point in 1970 running the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. John Kerry had given me a lot of personal letters and memorabilia from his Vietnam era, but I was looking into the Nixon tapes, and I came upon Luke Nichter, who was really working to make sense out of a lot of the garbled tapes. He teaches at Texas A&M. He helped me find some stuff about Nixon going after Kerry which I used in my book.

Luke and I, as fellow Cold War historians, decided to embark on a book project where we went through all of the non-Watergate tapes. Nixon would have burned the tapes if it was just Watergate-related, but Nixon thought this was hugely important material about how he handled things like the Vietnam War, detente with the Soviet Union, the recognition of the People's Republic of China, on and on.

AC: I just finished watching the new HBO documentary on Nixon, and it changed my perception of him a bit. Even with all of the horrible things he said and did, I found myself a little sympathetic for the man. Did you have any change in your perception of him after going through this material?

DB: Yes, I did. The main one is, I never quite realized how hands-on Nixon was, that it was his policy with the China breakthrough, not Henry Kissinger's. He just overshadowed Kissinger. The progenitor of Nixon's achievements was Nixon himself.

Also, particularly in the Vietnam War, I didn't realize Nixon was micromanaging the war, calling the Pentagon, taking admirals and generals to the woodshed, almost daily serving as a field general from the White House.

But also, Nixon many times said, "Look, I'm trying to hold the center. What liberals need to know is, if you lose me, you're getting a hard-right America." Nixon was always willing to be bipartisan, so there are a lot of surprises in the man. It's Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency. Clean Air and Water Acts. Endangered Species Act. Promoted affirmative action. One could go on and on with Nixon as a New Deal liberal on domestic policy and a hawk, but one with great geo-political skills.

All that sounds pretty good, except the vulgarity of Nixon and his willingness to obstruct justice and abuse power made him unsuitable for the presidency. I know it's impossible to extract Watergate from Nixon's legacy, but if you can start looking at Nixon and U.S. foreign policy-making, you realize just how astute a reader of the international scene he was, even though in my opinion he didn't take human rights and humanitarian concerns into consideration often enough.

AC: My first exposure to you was from the book The Majic Bus, your retelling of the road trip/history/literature class you taught. For someone in college, feeling the energy of Gen X in the air, this book was a revelation. How do you look back on it 20 years later?

DB: Well, now I'm the father of three children; I'm not able to go live on a bus and do semesters around the country like I did when I was young. But those were some of the best days of my life. I have some of my sharpest memories from running the Majic bus.

A lot of people we would visit have passed: poet Allen Ginsburg or playwright Arthur Miller; Arthur Schlessinger Jr., the historian; John Kenneth Galbraith, economist. Waylon Jennings was on the Majic Bus. Townes Van Zandt from Austin was on the bus. Many of the people we visited are all gone now, so I was glad to make those memories for the students by introducing them to some of the really talented icons of American arts and culture.

Brinkley and Nichter will read from The Nixon Tapes Wednesday, Aug. 13, 7pm, at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar. For more information, visit www.bookpeople.com.

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