The Magazine

Still the One

Nixon at 90.

Jan 20, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 18 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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"Ron, get this word out: This report in the Washington Post is completely erroneous. Completely. You tell those guys, Chairman McCracken has complete confidence in the president and in the president's policies. Got that? Go to it."

You hear the phone slam down. "That takes care of that," he says. "We can't take any crap from these people, Paul. Am I right? Sometimes you got to just stand up and kick 'em in the teeth."

McCracken departs and Nixon is joined by his aide Al Haig and his former Treasury secretary, David Kennedy, who has come to brief the president on his recent tour of Asia. Kennedy's account drags on and Nixon responds monosyllabically, until Kennedy mentions some trouble with the U.S. State Department and the Agency for International Development. On the tape there's an eruption.

"Goddammit, Al, I told them I wanted that AID budget cut! It's not the money, it's the personnel. Get those bastards out of there! You got all these young whippersnappers [actual word--Ed.] running around Asia knocking our policies. Get. Them. Out. Of. There."

"Yes, sir!" Haig says. "Should have been done already!"

"I'll tell you, we got to break some china around here. We need hard-headed, tough guys, not this usual State Department way of doing things. All these guys over there--they're weak. They go to these goddamn Eastern Ivy League schools and they're not pro-American."

Here I should stress again that this tape was taken at random, from a box selected at random, though there were moments when I thought Weissenbach was pulling a gag, slipping a Rich Little tape into the machine.

But no. Kennedy goes on to mention unflattering reports he'd heard about Peace Corps volunteers.

Nixon's feet hit the floor. "Goddamn them, Al! That's another thing I told those bastards to cut! I've never seen a place where the Peace Corps was worth a damn. Am I right? Oh sure, it's great for the kids. They're going to a nice Eastern college, they want a nice little vacation. Well, send them to the goddamn Congo then!"

The next meeting that morning concerned the arts.

Nixon's presidency was the most generous ever enjoyed by the arts establishment in the United States. Representing that establishment in the administration were Nixon's old law partner Leonard Garment and, preeminently, Nancy Hanks, a former director of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and thus, ex officio, a life member of the Eastern Establishment.

On the tape, Nixon says he wants to talk about the film industry.

"Now, Nancy, it turns out, 52 percent of the movies we see here in the United States were made abroad. What I want to do is find a way to keep these damn foreign movies out. Oh, I know they're supposed to be so damn great and so forth. To tell you the truth, I don't see many movies. Saw 'Love Story.' 'Patton.' But my point is, I will not have America slip to number two in the world when it comes to movies."

Mrs. Hanks protests that the popularity of foreign movies is owing to their superior quality.

"Well, then, here's what I want you to do. I want you to take it to the movie industry. You tell 'em, You've got to start producing good movies. Say: No more of this weird stuff! Shape up!

"The family movie is coming back, you know. People don't like arty. They don't like offbeat.

"But the film industry, they're trying to reflect the intelligentsia"--the word drips with venom--"and that is their big mistake. Following the intelligentsia is where they always go wrong. Look at these film schools today. All they do is the weird stuff. They produce weird movies. They produce weird people."

But Hanks and Garment have come to talk not about the movies but about the government's grandest current project for the arts, the construction of the Hirshhorn Sculpture Museum on the National Mall.

"Is this going to be some of that--that modern art?" Nixon asks suspiciously.

"It is, Mr. President," Mrs. Hanks replies, in her Rockefeller voice. "It's one of the finest collections of modern sculpture in the world." In the wuld.

"Oh yeah?" Silence. Then: "Don't let it be one of those horrible modern buildings, all right? 'Cause if it is, we're not going to do it."

Garment and Hanks try to explain that the plans have already been approved.

Nixon's voice deepens. "I will not have the Mall desecrated with one of those horrible goddamn modern atrocities like they have in New York with that, what is it, that Whitney thing. Jesus H. Christ. If it looks like that, it--will--not--happen."


"And I don't want 'controversial,' either. All right? Now this list for the board or whatever. Am I stuck with these names?"

Garment assures him the list for the museum's board of directors can still be changed.