• U.S.

THE EX-PRESIDENT: Evading the Questions

3 minute read

The lawyer’s question to Richard Nixon was direct: Did he think that the public had a right to know the full story of Watergate? Before the former President could reply, his own attorney interjected: “What do you mean by Watergate? The building?” Asked again, Nixon shrugged off the question: “If my counsel doesn’t know, I would never put my wisdom above his.”

As that exchange indicates, Nixon still persists in evading questions about the scandal that drove him from office. The occasion was the giving of a six-hour deposition by Nixon in San Clemente on July 25. This was part of a lawsuit in which he is challenging the constitutionality of a law passed last December that made his White House files, containing some 42 million documents and secret tape recordings, the property of the Federal Government. For six hours, Nixon was interrogated by ten attorneys who are contesting his suit. Among them were lawyers representing Watergate Special Prosecutor Henry Ruth, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Columnist Jack Anderson, who has been trying to obtain access to the materials since 1974. Turned over to U.S. District Court in Washington last week, the deposition was Nixon’s first public statement on the Watergate tapes since he left office.

His responses to the lawyers’ questions ranged from acerbity to vagueness to sarcasm, as he continued to insist that by law and tradition, his papers still belong to him. Said he: “I shall determine . . . not the Congress. I shall determine what can appropriately be made public.” That would be done, he promised, “as expeditiously as possible.” But there is a catch: he and members of his family should review the tapes and documents, “having in mind the national security problem, the embarrassment, the private issue. By ’embarrassment’ I am speaking of personal embarrassment and not speaking of embarrassment with illegality, of course.”

When Anderson’s lawyer, William Dobrovir, asked whether the review might take five years, Nixon responded with a sharp dig at the lawyer: “I can’t tell you until I see how big the task is. Most of the tapes are not as audible* as the one you played at that cocktail party.” The reference was to Dobrovir’s ill-advised playing of a portion of a subpoenaed Nixon tape at a Georgetown party in December 1973.

Don’t Know. Nixon found ways of evading the tough questions. At one point, Dobrovir asked him to confirm, as reported on a White House transcript of a tape recording, that he had told John Dean that “nothing is privileged that involves wrongdoing.” By way of an answer, Nixon countered with a question: “What is the definition of ‘wrongdoing’?” Replied Dobrovir: “I am quoting your words.” Nixon persisted: “I am asking you, what do you say is ‘wrongdoing’? I don’t know.” That was a telling admission for a man who made his career as a lawyer and rose to the highest office in the land. It also indicated why, although a three-judge panel will hear arguments in the dispute next month, the suit will most probably not be finally resolved until at least 1977.

* On another question of audibility, Nixon denied that he had ever called Judge John Sirica a “wop.” He said that what he heard himself say on tape was that Sirica was “the kind I want.”

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