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Sunday, November 9, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Nixon Tapes Unleashed -- Manipulative Master Politician

More than 200 hours of tape recordings of President Nixon's administration, in the custody of the National Archives through 22 years of litigation, have now been released.

These conversations reveal new insights into the president as a manipulative master politician overseeing every detail: approving a "shakedown" of the milk lobby for campaign donations, fixing the price of ambassadorships, orchestrating "dirty tricks" against opponents, thanking the donor of hush money for the Watergate burglars.

THE FOLLOWING accounts are by Washington Post reporters Walter Pincus and George Lardner Jr.

------------------------ Ambassadorships for sale ------------------------

Although presidents have long bestowed U.S. ambassadorships on big campaign contributors, President Nixon put a specific price tag on the practice.

"My point is, my point is that anybody who wants to be an ambassador must at least give $250,000," the president told White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman on June 23, 1971.

"Yeah," Haldeman agreed, and then proposed a minimal donation threshold. "I think any contributor under $100,000 we shouldn't consider for any kind of thing."

Nixon pointed out that "we helped" Fred Russell, a millionaire California real-estate baron and Republican donor who would soon be named ambassador to Denmark. "But from now on," the president continued, "the contributors have got to be, I mean, a big thing, and I'm not gonna do it for political friends and all that crap."

The conversation had started with Nixon asking about Belgium. "The ambassador to Brussels, that hasn't been promised to anybody, has it?" he inquired.

When Haldeman said no, Nixon noted that his friend and fund-raiser Charles (Bebe) Rebozo had told him that Raymond Guest, who was ambassador to Ireland during the Kennedy administration, wanted Brussels.

"I'm sure he's talking about a quarter of a million at least," Nixon said, " 'cause he gave $100,000 last time, about 65 in one place and 35 in another. Now, he could be ambassador to Brussels. Find out when (the current ambassador to Belgium, John) Eisenhower leaves." As for Guest, Nixon added: "Uh, he's fine. His wife speaks French, he speaks French, uh, uh, but the cost is uh, a quarter of a million." Nixon indicated that his personal lawyer and another fund-raiser, Herbert Kalmbach, had set that minimum price as part of his solicitations of big donors for the 1972 election campaign. (Guest was never selected for the Brussels post.)

Haldeman agreed on the need to charge a hefty price for coveted foreign posts. "We sure, you know, there's a temptation to sell those posts for - "

Nixon finished the sentence: " - cheap price."

That fall, on Oct. 18, 1971, another ambassadorial appointment was discussed in the Oval Office by Nixon and his longtime secretary, Rose Mary Woods. Woods reported reading in the newspaper that a New York socialite, C.V. "Sonny" Whitney, was to be named ambassador to Spain.

Nixon had been unaware of that but indicated his approval. "Hell, if we did it, it was a great sale," the president said. "He gave a quarter of a million dollars."

Little over a month later, on Nov. 29, Whitney's name came up again in a conversation with Haldeman when he told the president: Attorney General John "Mitchell and/or (GOP fund-raiser Lee) Nunn made a deal with him for 250."

Nixon, however, had been having second thoughts. He was afraid he couldn't win Senate confirmation of the 72-year-old Whitney and thus couldn't make good on his part of the bargain. Congress at the time was debating campaign-finance reform, and one focus was the succession of major contributors getting ambassadorial posts.

Haldeman suggested a refund. "We'll just tell Whitney we've got to get . . . the 250 back to him," he said. If Whitney were nominated "he'd have to reveal his financial support," Haldeman added. "He'd have to lie or reveal it. And that would be a mess too."

Nixon told Haldeman to return Whitney's money. "The 250 can go back," the president said. "I don't want the money. Just say that in view of the present temper - put it on the Senate. But I'd say we just don't want him to be embarrassed. There's no way we can get him confirmed."

------------------------------------ Putting the squeeze on dairy farmers ------------------------------------

"Look here," the secretary of the Treasury told the president of the United States in the Oval Office. "If you have no objection, I'm going to tell them they've got to put so much money directly at your disposal."

"They" were three affluent dairy-farmer organizations, which that very morning - March 23, 1971 - had met with President Nixon to press for higher milk price supports from the federal government.

With that parting remark, Treasury Secretary John Connally walked out the door and the president's chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, walked in.

"We just made a decision on the dairy thing," Nixon told Haldeman. The president then recounted Connally's plan to squeeze money out of the three groups for Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign.

Haldeman reminded Nixon that the milk producers already planned to make a substantial donation. But Nixon persisted, noting that he wanted Connally to "see if we can get more."

"We've given them the 85 percent of parity thing," Nixon explained, alluding to his plan to guarantee dairy farmers federal price supports that allowed them to recoup at least 85 percent of their production costs. "See, we're doing more than they ever expected. We're going all out, all out. . . . (Connally) knows them well, and he's used to shaking them down, and maybe he can shake them for a little more. You see what I mean?"

"They're committed to a million dollars this year," Haldeman said of the milk producers' campaign-contribution pledge. "They're committed to $90,000 a month."

These newly transcribed White House tapes dramatically illustrate Nixon's linkage of government price-support increases with hefty campaign contributions, ties that had long been suspected but never confirmed. It was illegal then, as now, to link campaign contributions to specific government actions.

The tapes also demonstrate Nixon's role in the milk fund and other campaign-financing arrangements.

Although the milk producers' contributions to Nixon through dummy committees have been known for years and were the subject of several Watergate investigations, the resulting charges never touched Nixon directly, either in court proceedings or in the 1974 articles of impeachment adopted by the House Judiciary Committee. Connally was acquitted on charges of taking $10,000 in illegal gratuities for his role in increasing milk price supports.

Other tapes show that Nixon took a continuing interest in the fortunes of his generous dairy supporters. Less than a year after his conversations with Connally and Haldeman, he expressed outrage when his own Justice Department aggressively investigated the milk industry's political shenanigans.

In a conversation with top aide John Ehrlichman on Feb. 2, 1972, the president demanded, "What in the hell . . . (is) the Justice Department bringing a suit against the milk producers for?"

Ehrlichman replied that he had checked with Attorney General John Mitchell, who said the suit was one of "three choices, and all of them bad." The two other options involved "criminal charges against the officers of the milk producers" or doing nothing, which, Ehrlichman said, would trigger a congressional investigation.

When Ehrlichman added that Mitchell "had talked this over with the milk producers" themselves, Nixon seemed reassured. "Just so he's talked it over with them," the president said.

The milk producers ultimately would acknowledge contributing about $600,000 for the 1972 election through various channels. The Justice Department suit was settled in August 1974, the month Nixon resigned, with milk producers denying any illegal acts while agreeing to avoid such acts in the future.

--------------------------------- Hush money for Watergate burglars ---------------------------------

On March 7, 1973, President Nixon met in the Oval Office with one of his major campaign contributors, Thomas A. Pappas, to personally thank him for providing money that Nixon knew was being used as hush money for the Watergate burglars.

Pappas, who held joint Greek and U.S. citizenship and ran a $200 million industrial complex in Greece, had contributed more than $100,000 to Nixon in both 1968 and 1972. He has been identified in previously released Nixon White House tapes as the source of cash used to keep the Watergate defendants quiet. But newly transcribed conversations show for the first time that Nixon acknowledged Pappas' role with an Oval Office thank-you.

"I want you to know that . . . I'm aware of what you're doing to help out in some of these things that Maury's people and others are involved in," Nixon told Pappas, referring to GOP fund-raiser Maurice Stans. "I won't say anything further, but it's very seldom you find a friend like that, believe me."

Five days earlier, White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman told Nixon that Pappas had provided funds for "one of the major problems" that White House counsel John Dean "is working on." Haldeman described the problem as "the question of . . . continuing financial activity in order to keep those people all in place," an apparent reference to funds provided to the seven defendants convicted in the Watergate burglary.

"And the way he's working on that," Haldeman continued, "is via (Attorney General John) Mitchell to Tom Pappas." Haldeman described Pappas as "the best source we've got for that kind of thing."

In a recent interview, Dean said, "Mitchell, through (aide Frederick) LaRue, was dealing with Pappas to get money for the coverup."

Pappas, who was investigated but never charged in the Watergate scandal, became a leading fund-raiser for Gerald Ford's 1976 campaign. When his name first surfaced in the Watergate affair in 1974, Pappas denied he was asked for money by Mitchell or LaRue. He died at his Palm Beach, Fla., estate in 1988.

Haldeman also bluntly told Nixon on March 2, 1973, what Pappas wanted in exchange for his financial contributions. "Pappas is extremely anxious that (U.S. Ambassador to Greece Henry J.) Tasca stay in Greece," Haldeman said. Tasca, a career diplomat who had been selected as envoy to Athens in September 1969, had a close relationship with both Pappas and Nixon. Pappas also was closely affiliated with the junta of colonels who ran Greece in the early 1970s and who continued to receive U.S. military aid during the Nixon administration.

"Let him stay," Nixon quickly said of Tasca. "Let him stay. No problem. Pappas has raised the money we need for this other activity."

Later, when the first news accounts disclosed that hush money had been paid to the Watergate defendants, Nixon recalled his meeting with Pappas.

"I didn't discuss this, believe me," Nixon told Haldeman on April 26, 1973. "Pappas was, said he was helping on, uh, helping Mitchell on certain things. And I said, `Well, that's fine, thank you.' But I, he didn't tell me what it was."

Then, in a burst of candor, Nixon recalled, "I think it's a matter of fact though that somebody said be sure to talk to Pappas because he's being very helpful on the, uh, Watergate thing."

Haldeman reminded Nixon that he was the one who had suggested the president see Pappas, but added, "I don't think I said Watergate thing. . . . I said Mitchell wants you to be sure and talk to Pappas. He's been very helpful."

------------------------ Political `dirty tricks' ------------------------

Long before the Watergate scandal, President Nixon demonstrated an aptitude for political mischief.

For example, as 1971 came to a close, Nixon said the chief obstacle to his re-election in November 1972 was Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, the leading Democratic contender.

Brainstorming in the Oval Office with his top political aide, Charles Colson, on Dec. 23, 1971, Nixon wondered aloud whether Muskie could be weakened by a strong challenge from another Democrat. "Should something be done to finance one of the Democratic candidates?" he asked Colson.

When Colson suggested Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., might fit the bill, Nixon warmed to the idea.

"Yeah. Put this down: I would say, a postcard mailing to all Democrats in New Hampshire," where the first presidential primary would take place in little over two months. " `Write in Ted Kennedy,' " Nixon dictated. "Get every Democrat in the state."

Colson estimated the anonymous postcard campaign touting Kennedy as a write-in candidate could be undertaken for "just a few thousand dollars."

Three weeks later, on Jan. 12, 1972, Nixon and Colson again conferred on the Muskie threat.

"We got to get Muskie, you know, out on the limb on some of these critical issues," Nixon said. This time the president was looking ahead to the important Florida primary.

"Now, get a massive mailing in Florida that he's against (FBI Director) J. Edgar Hoover, a massive mailing that he's for busing," Nixon urged. "Put the necessary funds into getting mailings to every Democrat that he is for busing, that he is against Hoover and he's against the space shuttle." These mailings, Nixon added, would be deceptively arranged "on the basis that it came from (Muskie), see?" - in an effort to baffle voters about Muskie's real positions.

The secret Kennedy write-in project was undertaken first, sowing confusion among the Democrats. On Feb. 22, 1972, Kennedy - in an effort to reassert his non-candidacy - asked that his name be removed from the Wisconsin and Oregon ballots. When the March 7 primary was held in New Hampshire, Kennedy received only 954 write-in votes, but the Democratic race was in turmoil.

As for the Florida primary, Muskie's candidacy had already taken a nose dive after a mediocre showing in New Hampshire, so Nixon's mass mailing became irrelevant.

Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign became infamous for a variety of "dirty tricks" intended to disrupt the political opposition, and it was in that climate that the Watergate bugging attempt transpired. The tapes show Nixon calculating how to divide and conquer the Democrats more than a year before the election.

For example, on Oct. 6, 1971, Harry Dent, a White House political aide, told Nixon he had been talking to John Rollins, a Delaware businessman and major GOP contributor. Rollins had an unusual idea he was willing to bankroll, Dent said.

Nixon indicated that he was aware of the scheme. Rollins "should not talk to me," Nixon said. "He mentioned it a little bit. I mustn't know one thing about it."

The mystery is somewhat clarified in a tape recording three weeks later, on Oct. 29, when Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman asked Nixon if Rollins had discussed secretly funding an independent black candidacy to pull votes away from the Democrats.

"Oh, yeah," Nixon responded.

As Haldeman explained, Rollins proposed running "newspaper ads for a committee to elect Jesse Jackson." Republican operatives would then send campaign contributions to Jackson in an effort to make him believe there was a grass-roots movement for his candidacy.

It is unclear whether the scheme to encourage a black candidacy in 1972 was ever put into effect.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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