Revelations: The Coup Against Nixon
by Russ Baker
by Russ Baker: Someone
Would Have Talked? Someone Would Be Crazy
interested in Watergate again.
The media were
excited to report that Robert Redford is working on a documentary
about the scandal that brought down a president and created new
heroes: the reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Given
that the film All
the President’s Men, in which Redford played the heroic
Bob Woodward, practically made Redford’s career, we probably
shouldn’t expect any big surprises.
one: In recent days, we’ve
heard doubts from former Washington Post Executive
Editor Ben Bradlee about his journalists’ reporting on Watergate.
This from a new
book by Woodward’s own former assistant:
about Bob’s famous secret source, whom he claimed to have met
in an underground garage in rendezvous arranged via signals involving
flowerpots and newspapers.
I have a little problem with Deep Throat…..Did that potted [plant]
incident ever happen? … and meeting in some garage. One meeting
in the garage? Fifty meetings in the garage? I don’t know how
many meetings in the garage … There’s a residual fear
in my soul that that isn’t quite straight.
a kind of strange and foggy article
about Nixon’s difficult relationship with the CIA, which nevertheless
brought up an important question: what was the real role of the
spy agency in Nixon’s downfall? That article doesn’t answer it.
But I did in my book, Family
of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, America’s Invisible Government and
the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years.
One of the
major revelations is that, decades before George H.W. Bush was named
CIA director as a purported outsider, he was already involved with
CIA covert operations. Family of Secrets shows how the
CIA has violated the spirit and letter of its charter by meddling
secretly, and constantly, in American politics since its inception.
The book follows the elder Bush and the CIA into the life of Richard
Nixon and the scandal that brought Nixon down. It reveals new information
about the background and actual role of Bob Woodward and other seminal
figures in the drama. And it provides an explanation of Watergate
that is the polar opposite of the one that most Americans have accepted
for four decades.
are talking again about Watergate and Nixon, we felt this was a
good time to present the three Nixon chapters from the book. The
first installment is today. It provides an alternate history of
the rise of Nixon, and sets the stage for the momentous collision
between Nixon and powerful forces in and out of government that
would lead to his political demise. The next two installments, to
be published imminently, cover Watergate itself.
Although these excerpts do not contain footnotes, the book itself
is heavily footnoted and exhaustively sourced. (2) To distinguish
between George Bush, father and son, George H.W. Bush is sometimes
referred to by his nickname Poppy, and George W. Bush by his, W.
(3) Additional context can be found in the preceding chapters.
of Secrets, Chapter 9: The Nixonian Bushes
In early 1969,
the newly elected Richard M. Nixon took one of his first acts as
president: he arranged a date for his twenty-three-year-old daughter,
Tricia, with George W. Bush. Not only that, he even dispatched a
White House jet, at taxpayers’ expense, to pick up young Bush at
Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, in order to bring him back to Washington.
not be the only time that Nixon would bestow special favors upon
the Bush family. Six months earlier, as the GOP presidential candidate,
he had seriously considered Poppy as a potential running mate, even
though the latter was just a freshman congressman. Two years after
W.’s date with Tricia, following Poppy’s second unsuccessful bid
for the U.S. Senate, Nixon named him his ambassador to the United
Nations. And two years later, with President Nixon’s nod, Poppy
served a stint as chairman of the Republican Party. It was a quick
rise from relative obscurity to the highest level of national politics
and all with Nixon’s help.
reveal that Nixon considered Poppy Bush a lightweight. Nevertheless,
he repeatedly pushed Poppy ahead, often over people who were much
more qualified. This put the elder Bush on the upper rungs of the
ladder to the presidency. In all probability, had Nixon not so favored
Poppy, he never would have reached the top. And had Poppy Bush not
been president, his son George W. Bush almost certainly would not
In no small
way, Richard Nixon helped to create the Bush presidential dynasty.
Nixon so positively toward the Bushes? A little-known fact, certainly
missing from the many splendid biographies of the thirty-seventh
president, is the likely role of Poppy Bush’s father, Prescott,
in launching Nixon’s own political career.
the depth and complexity of the ongoing relationship between Nixon
and the Bushes, a relationship that spanned nearly three de cades,
has somehow eluded most historians. An index search of the name
Bush in the major Nixon biographies including even those
published after George H. W. Bush rose to the presidency
finds at most a handful of mentions, and in some cases, none at
The long overlooked
Nixon-Bush story is a tale filled with plots and counterplots, power
lust and ego trips, trust and betrayal, strategic alliances and
rude revenge. It has a kind of mythic circularity: the elite Bush
clan created the “populist” Nixon so that a President Nixon could
later play a major role in creating a Bush political dynasty. And
finally, the trusted Bushes, having gotten where they wanted, could
play a role in Nixon’s fall.
Richard Nixon was known to be a wary and suspicious man. It is commonly
assumed that he was paranoid, but Nixon had good reasons to feel
apprehensive. One was probably the worry that someone would unearth
the extent to which this self-styled outsider from Whittier, California,
had sold his soul to the same Eastern Establishment that he publicly
(and even privately) reviled. At the same time, he knew that those
elites felt the same about him. They tolerated him as long as he
was useful, which he was until he got to the top. Then the
Bush arrived in Washington after the 1966 elections, he was immediately
positioned to help large moneyed interests, and by so doing improve
his own political fortunes. His father, still influential, had twisted
arms to get him a coveted seat on the House Ways and Means Committee,
which writes all tax legislation. The committee was the gatekeeper
against attempts to eliminate the oil depletion allowance, and Bush’s
assignment there was no small feat. No freshman of either party
had gotten on since 1904. But former senator Prescott Bush had personally
called the committee chairman. Then he got GOP minority leader Gerald
Ford a Warren Commission member and later vice president
and president to make the request himself.
It was a lot
of voltage, but the rewards were worth the effort. Poppy now would
be a go-to rep for the oil industry, which could provide Nixon with
the Texas financial juice he would need to win the Republican nomination
in 1968. Bush was also now a crucial link to an alliance that was
forming between Eastern bankers, Texas oilmen, and intelligence
and Bush friends dominated the Nixon presidential campaign. For
fund-raising, Poppy recruited Bill Liedtke, his old friend and former
Zapata Petroleum partner, who became Nixon’s highest- producing
regional campaign finance chairman. Poppy’s ally, Texas senator
John Tower, endorsed Nixon shortly before the 1968 GOP convention
and was put in charge of Nixon’s “key issues committee.” Once Nixon’s
nomination was secured, Poppy and Prescott worked their networks
furiously, and within days some of the most influential members
of the Republican Party sent letters to Nixon urging him to choose
Poppy as his running mate. The names must have given Nixon pause
the CEOs of Chase Manhattan Bank, Tiffany & Co., J. P.
Stevens and Co., and on and on. Not surprisingly, executives of
Pennzoil and Brown Brothers Harriman were among the petitioners.
Thomas Dewey, éminence grise of the GOP, also pushed for Poppy.
Nixon put Bush’s name on a short list. But as he glimpsed the prize
in the distance, he began to assert his independence. To the surprise
of almost everyone, he selected as his running mate Spiro Agnew,
Maryland’s blunt and combative governor, who had backed Nixon opponent
Nelson Rockefeller, the “limousine liberal,” in the primaries. Agnew
seemed to offer two things. One, he could be the attack dog who
enabled Nixon to assume the role of statesman that he craved. And
two, there was little chance that he would outshine the insecure
man under whom he would be serving.
would adopt a variation on this same strategy in 1988 when he selected
as his running mate Senator Dan Quayle, who was handsome but inexperienced,
and would be ridiculed for his gaffes and general awkwardness.)
tapped Agnew, Prescott Bush, writing to his old friend Tom Dewey,
registered his disappointment in a measured manner: “I fear that
Nixon has made a serious error here,” Prescott wrote. “He had a
chance to do something smart, to give the ticket a lift, and he
cast it aside.” Actually Prescott was seething; he hadn’t felt this
betrayed since John Kennedy fired his friend Allen Dulles as CIA
director. As for the Bush children, they had learned years earlier
to fear the wrath of their stern, imposing father. “Remember Teddy
Roosevelt’s ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’?” Poppy once said.
“My dad spoke loudly and carried the same big stick.”
political expediency, Prescott may have had good reason to expect
Nixon to follow “suggestions” from the GOP establishment
a reason rooted in the earliest days of Nixon’s political career.
carefully crafted creation story, his 1945 decision to enter politics
was triggered when the young Navy veteran, working on the East Coast,
received a request from an old family friend, a hometown banker
named Herman Perry. Would he fly back to Los Angeles and speak with
a group of local businessmen looking for a candidate to oppose Democratic
congressman Jerry Voorhis? They felt he was too liberal, and too
close to labor unions.
who summoned Nixon are usually characterized as Rotary Club types
a furniture dealer, a bank manager, an auto dealer, a printing
salesman. In reality, these men were essentially fronts for far
more powerful interests. Principal among Nixon’s bigger backers
was the arch-conservative Chandler family, owners of the Los Angeles
Times. Nixon himself acknowledged his debt to the Chandlers in correspondence.
“I often said to friends that I would never have gone to Washington
in the first place had it not been for the Times,” he wrote. Though
best known as publishers, the Chandlers had built their fortune
on railroads, still the preferred vehicle for shipping oil, and
held wide and diverse interests.
appears to have recognized that forces even more powerful than the
Chandler clan were opposing him. As he wrote in an unpublished manuscript,
“The Nixon campaign was a creature of big Eastern financial interests…
the Bank of America, the big private utilities, the major oil companies.”
He was hardly a dispassionate observer, but on this point the record
bears him out. Nixon partisans would claim that “not a penny” of
oil money found its way into his campaign. Perhaps. But a representative
of Standard Oil, Willard Larson, was present at that Los Angeles
meeting in which Nixon was selected as the favored candidate to
run against Voorhis.
Voorhis had caused a stir at the outset of World War II when he
exposed a secret government contract that allowed Standard Oil to
drill for free on public lands in Central California’s Elk Hills.
But the establishment’s quarrel with Voorhis was about more than
oil. While no anti-capitalist radical, Voorhis had a deep antipathy
for corporate excesses and malfeasance. And he was not afraid of
the big guys. He investigated one industry after another
insurance, real estate, investment banking. He fought for antitrust
regulation of the insurance industry, and he warned against the
“cancerous superstructure of monopolies and cartels.” He also was
an articulate voice calling for fundamental reforms in banking.
He knew Wall
Street was gunning for him. In his memoir, Confessions of a
Congressman, Voorhis recalled:
District campaign of 1946 got started along in the fall of 1945,
more than a year before the election. There was, of course, opposition
to me in the district. There always had been. Nor was there any
valid reason for me to think I lived a charmed political life.
But there were special factors in the campaign of 1946, factors
bigger and more powerful than either my opponent or myself.
were on his side.
1945, the representative of a large New York financial house
[emphasis mine] made a trip to California. All the reasons for
his trip I, of course, do not know. But I do know that he called
on a number of influential people in Southern California. And
I know he “bawled them out.” For what? For permitting Jerry Voorhis,
whom he described as “one of the most dangerous men in Washington,”
to continue to represent a part of the state of California in
the House of Representatives. This gentleman’s reasons for thinking
me so “dangerous” obviously had to do with my views and work against
monopoly and for changes in the monetary system.
It is not clear
whether Voorhis knew the exact identity of the man. Nor is it clear
whether Voorhis knew that his nemesis, the Chandler family, had
for several years been in business with Dresser Industries. The
latter had begun moving into Southern California during the war,
snapping up local companies both to secure immediate defense contracts
and in anticipation of lucrative postwar opportunities. One of these
companies, Pacific Pump Works, which manufactured water pumps, later
produced components for the atomic bomb. The Chandlers were majority
shareholders in Pacific Pump when Dresser acquired the company,
and so gained a seat on the Dresser board, along with such Dresser
stalwarts as Prescott Bush.
But there was
even more of a Bush connection to the movers and shakers behind
Nixon’s entry into politics. In October 1945, the same month in
which that “representative of a large New York financial house”
was in town searching for a candidate to oppose Voorhis, Dresser
Industries was launching a particularly relevant California project.
The company was just completing its purchase of yet another local
company, the drill bit manufacturer Security Engineering, which
was located in Whittier, Nixon’s hometown.
evidence, both from that period and from the subsequent relationships,
suggests that Voorhis’s Eastern banking representative may have
been none other than Prescott Bush himself. If so, that would explain
Nixon’s sense of indebtedness to the Bush family, something he never
acknowledged in so many words but clearly demonstrated in so many
actions during his career.
but Bumpy Ascent
In his first
race for public office in 1946, Nixon went after the incumbent Voorhis
with a vengeance. It was a campaign that helped put the term “Red
baiting” into the political lexicon. After his victory, Nixon continued
to ride the anti-Communist theme to national prominence.
terms in the House, Nixon moved up to the Senate in the 1950 election.
By 1952, he was being foisted on a reluctant Dwight Eisenhower as
a vice presidential candidate by Wall Street friends and allies
of Brown Brothers Harriman.
But the further
Nixon rose, the more he resented the arrogance of his Eastern elite
handlers. Though he would continue to serve them diligently throughout
his career, his anger festered perhaps in part over frustration
with the extent to which he was beholden.
George H. W. Bush, not yet thirty years old and a relative newcomer
to West Texas, was named chair of the Eisenhower-Nixon campaign
in Midland County. For someone with political ambitions of his own,
it was an enviable assignment, and Poppy threw himself into it.
When a heckler interrupted a welcoming ceremony for Eisenhower’s
vice presidential running mate, Poppy rushed at the man, grabbed
his anti-Nixon sign, and tore it to bits.
would demonstrate a more effective response to criticism. His storied
“Checkers speech,” answering charges that he had accepted political
donations under the table, was a masterful appeal to middle-class
sensibilities, with a maudlin self-pity that went up to the edge
but not over.
support came pouring in to Republican headquarters; and one of the
first politicians to write was the silver-haired U.S. senator from
Connecticut, Prescott Bush:
person who heard Senator Nixon bare his heart and soul to the
American people Tuesday night could fail to hold him in high respect.
I have felt all along that the charges against Dick Nixon were
a dirty smear attempt to hurt him and the Republican ticket .
. . [These smears] will boomerang in his favor. Nixon is absolutely
honest, fearless and courageous. I’m proud of him.
his political skin that night, but money problems would continue
to plague him. This increased his seething resentment of Jack Kennedy,
who never had to grovel for money (and who was smooth and handsome
to boot). As anyone who knew Nixon, including the Bushes, must have
realized, his dependence on the financial resources of others constituted
a vulnerability. That vulnerability would later lead to his undoing.
of Nixon’s relationship with the Bushes, as with other key backers,
was that they had the wherewithal and he didn’t. And since money
was behind the relationship that made Nixon, it was only fitting
that when Watergate undid him, it was to a large extent money
as we shall see in chapters 10 and 11 that was behind his
Eisenhower years, the Texas oil industry really took off. Poppy
was now part of a “swarm of young Ivy Leaguers,” as Fortune magazine
put it, who had “descended on an isolated west Texas oil town
Midland and created a most unlikely outpost of the working
rich.” Central to these ambitions was continued congressional support
for the oil depletion allowance, which greatly reduced taxes on
income derived from the production of oil. The allowance was first
enacted in 1913 as part of the original income tax. At first it
was a 5 percent deduction but by 1926 it had grown to 27.5 percent.
This was a time when Washington was “wading shoulder-deep in oil,”
the New Republic reported.
“In the hotels,
on the streets, at the dinner tables, the sole subject of discussion
is oil. Congress has abandoned all other business.”
discovery of the giant East Texas oil fields in 1931, there was
nothing Texas oilmen fought for more vigorously than their depletion
allowance. From its inception to the late 1960s, the oil depletion
allowance had cost taxpayers an estimated $140 billion in lost revenue.
Nixon supported the allowance in 1946, while Voorhis opposed it.
Six years later, General Dwight D. Eisenhower supported it, and
he got the oilmen’s blessings and substantial contributions
backed Nixon passionately in his 1960 presidential campaign against
John F. Kennedy. After Nixon lost and then lost again when
he ran for governor of California two years later the oil
lobby began to look for another horse. Poppy Bush saw his opening.
He knew which way the political winds were blowing: toward an ultraconservatism
based on new wealth, in particular the wealth of independent oilmen.
In 1964 the
Bushes gave their support to presidential candidate Barry Goldwater,
even though this meant turning against their longtime allies, the
Rockefellers. One can only speculate as to their motives, though
Prescott Bush’s puritanical streak may have played a role. Goldwater’s
opponent, Nelson Rockefeller, recently divorced, had decided in
1958 to wed Margaretta “Happy” Murphy, an even more recently divorced
mother of four. Prescott delivered Rockefeller a public tongue lashing
that Time called “the most wrathful any politician had suffered
in recent memory.” This may have been just a convenient target.
As political historian Rick Perlstein put it, conservatives genuinely
preferred Goldwater, “and welcomed the remarriage as an excuse to
cut loose from someone they were never excited about in the first
success in snatching the 1964 Republican nomination from Rockefeller
changed the ideological dynamics of the Grand Old Party. Even though
Goldwater lost the presidential race, the party would never be the
same. So-called movement conservatives managed to build an uneasy
alliance between social issue ground troops and the corporate libertarians
who finance the party. The ever-nimble Bushes managed to straddle
ran in the Bush family. According to his mother, Prescott had wanted
to be president and regretted not getting into politics sooner.
The lesson was not lost on Poppy. If he wanted to be president,
he would have to take the long view and get started early. An alliance
with Richard Nixon could be useful. Nixon would vouch for his rightward
bona fides, and thereby make moot the patrician residues of Yale
that still clung to him.
As for Nixon,
he understood only too well the perils he faced. With his paranoid
tendencies, he worried constantly about where the next challenge
would come from. Robert Dallek’s biography Nixon
Partners in Power describes Nixon as “an introspective
man whose inner demons both lifted him up and brought him down.”
When he looked at George Bush a handsome, patrician Yale
man with no worries about money he likely saw another version
of Jack Kennedy, which for him was not a recommendation.
were nagging Nixon, people he couldn’t ignore all the more
so once he locked up the nomination in 1968. “As your finance chairman
in Texas,” wrote Bill Liedtke, “I am committed, and will back you
up what ever you decide [about a running mate]. However . . . George
Bush, in spite of his short service in the House, could help you
win. George has appeal to young people and can get them fired up.
He’s got plenty of energy. Lastly, Dick, he’s a loyal kind of guy
and would support you to the hilt.”
chose a running mate who was less capable and ambitious, and consequentially,
less threatening. Having angered both Prescott and Poppy with his
choice of Agnew, he knew that he would need to make amends to them
and their allies.
small circle of longtime Nixon loyalists, the Bush group seems to
have fared better than any other party faction in Nixon’s first
administration. Bill Clements, Poppy’s friend and sometime oil drilling
partner, became deputy secretary of defense, a position that involved
securing oil for the U.S. military. Bush’s ex-business partner Bill
Liedtke of Pennzoil (formerly Zapata Petroleum), the prodigious
Nixon fund-raiser, successfully recommended former Baker Botts lawyers
for positions on the Federal Power Commission. The FPC made crucial
decisions affecting the natural gas industry, including one that
directly benefited Pennzoil.
For his chief
political adviser, Nixon chose Harry S. Dent of South Carolina,
the architect of his “Southern strategy,” which had centered on
wooing conservative Democrats to the Republican cause. Poppy Bush’s
election from Texas’s Seventh Congressional District had benefited
greatly from this strategy. As his top aide, Dent chose Tom Lias,
who had run the candidate selection process for the Republican Congressional
Campaign Committee during that election cycle. These men, especially
Lias, are little known today. But they would play crucial roles
in the process that would lead ultimately to Nixon’s resignation.
to head the Republican National Committee (RNC), Nixon picked Rogers
Morton, a congressman from Kentucky, who had been his convention
floor manager. Morton, a Yale graduate, was an old friend of the
Bushes who had served with Poppy on the Ways and Means Committee.
Morton in turn
named as his deputy chairman Jimmy Allison, Poppy’s longtime friend,
administrative assistant and former campaign manager. Because at
the time the RNC chairmanship was a part-time position and Morton
was busy on Capitol Hill, Allison was the de facto day-to-day manager
of the Republican Party. This was a huge step up for Allison, and
quite a triumph for the Bushes. In a phrase, they had the place
Once in the
Oval Office, some presidents have warmed to the public aspects of
their role. FDR, Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton come to mind. Others
retreat into a kind of self-imposed exile. They cut themselves off
from outside advice and effectively hunker down against attack.
That was the case with Nixon, whose reclusive tendencies were abetted
by his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger.
As a longtime
protégé of the Rockefeller family, Kissinger was suspect on both
the left and right. Movement conservatives in particular feared
that the Rockefellers had a grand global design that included accommodation,
rather than confrontation, with the Russians and Chinese. Nixon
would become embroiled in this growing dispute within the Republican
Party, between the two factions known as the “traders” and the “warriors.”
were the Eastern Establishment internationalists who supported free
trade, arguing that it would prevent another world war. They generally
had a sense of noblesse oblige that translated into the “corporate
liberalism” of a Nelson Rockefeller, then New York governor, who
believed that ameliorative social programs for the needy were the
price of a healthy business climate. The warriors, on the other
hand, generally represented new money from the Southwest and Southern
California. Although they lacked experience in foreign policy, they
resented having to take backseats to their Eastern rivals, especially
when it came to the increasingly important task of securing oil
and mineral resources in such places as Southeast Asia.
Nixon felt more comfortable with the warriors. But especially in
his first term, he worked to accommodate both sides, while he and
Kissinger fashioned foreign policy themselves, in a way that bypassed
the Pentagon, the CIA, and even the State Department. He wasn’t
about to let the “the striped- pants faggots on Foggy Bottom” tell
him what to do, he said, and that included the Yalies at the CIA.
As his secretary of state Nixon chose his old friend William Rogers,
with whom he had worked on the Alger Hiss spy case. Rogers knew
little about foreign policy, but Nixon considered that a good thing,
because Rogers would keep quiet and do as he was told. “Few Secretaries
of State can have been selected because of their President’s confidence
in their ignorance of foreign policy,” Kissinger wryly observed.
determined effort to conduct foreign policy in secret and exclude
the entities normally charged with that function caused growing
alarm, particularly within the military and the defense industry.
Eventually, the Nixon administration would discover that the military
had its own powerful “back channel.” That apparatus, little recalled
today, was the equivalent of a spy ring inside the Nixon White House.
Its operatives passed top-secret documents from the National Security
Council to the Joint Chiefs of Staff without Nixon’s knowledge.
On discovering what seemed to him not only disloyalty but also borderline
treason, Nixon expressed his fury to aides, who convinced him that
the only option was to handle the matter quietly.
earlier attempts to keep the peace among the party’s factions, Nixon
was soon embroiled in a series of power struggles. Perhaps the most
important concerned the oil depletion allowance, as members of Congress
in 1969 launched new attempts to rein in the costly giveaway. Representative
George H. W. Bush was the industry’s Horatio at the bridge
or perhaps its George Wallace. “In an era when civil rights became
the great moral issue that galvanized liberals,” observed Bush biographer
Herbert S. Parmet, “the targeted oil depletion allowance was not
Poppy had barely
completed his first term in the House. But he had an urgent task.
President Nixon was under pressure to support a reduction in the
depletion allowance, and some signals were emerging from the administration
that he might do just that. Poppy, joined by Senator Tower, flew
to Nixon’s vacation home in California to help save the day. The
trip was apparently a success. Nixon affirmed his intention to block
the reform efforts. Bush later wrote Nixon’s treasury secretary,
David Kennedy, to thank him for reversing an earlier statement hinting
that the White House might cave in to popular pressure for reform,
adding: “I was also appreciative of your telling how I bled and
died for the oil industry.”
passed, but protecting the allowance remained uppermost in the minds
of independent oilmen and Nixon was not proving sufficiently
stalwart on the matter. The White House sent political operative
Jack Gleason out to West Texas to calm flaring tempers. “Harry [Dent]
sent me down to Midland, to the Midland Petroleum Club, to talk
to them about the depletion allowance,” Gleason told me in a 2008
interview. Gleason had trouble understanding the complex issue,
so he was not clear on precisely what the oilmen were mad about.
“Almost got lynched and run out of town . . . It was a very ugly
scene. Fortunately one guy . . . saved my ass, or otherwise I’d
still be buried somewhere at the Petroleum Club.”
A battle to
control the soul of the president, not unusual in any administration,
was under way. While the conservative, hawkish in de pen dent oilmen
thought he was insufficiently loyal to their cause, the Rockefeller
Republicans felt the same from their side. Writing in the Dallas
Morning News, Robert Baskin noted fears among the Eastern corporate
elite that Nixon was being dominated by the right wing. A few months
later Baskin further underlined the point in an article headlined
“Divisiveness Within GOP Rising.” In truth, Nixon’s reign was a
highly complicated one, far from doctrinaire, with issues handled
on a case- by-case basis. Thus, Attorney General John Mitchell could
say the administration was against busing but for desegregation.
Nixon himself could complain about people in his administration
being too tough on corporations, yet his Justice Department aggressively
pursued antitrust actions that angered industry. While waging the
Vietnam War, Nixon held secret peace talks with the North Vietnamese
Communists. He also produced a series of liberal-leaning reforms,
including creating the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational
Safety and Health Administration. And Nixon implemented the first
major affirmative action program. But some of his Supreme Court
nominees leaned far to the right, and Nixon and his attorney general
championed tough law-and-order tactics against political protesters
and dissidents. His presidency was a mixed bag, meaning no one was
entirely happy, and everyone perceived someone else as having the
Thus, the July
1969 Dallas Morning News article describing moderates as fearful
of the influence of a cabal of conservatives a cabal that
included such names as Tower, Morton, Dent, and Allison. What was
left unsaid was that all these people were in the Bush camp. If
nothing else, it was a testament to Poppy’s dexterity: the embodiment
of blue-blooded Wall Street interests had morphed into a champion
of the radical, upstart Southwest.
Run for the Money: The 1970 Campaign
As early as
the 1968 GOP convention, Nixon had tried to keep the Bush family
close but not too close. He assured Poppy that he would support
him in another Senate bid, and Poppy took that seriously. By January
1969, even before Nixon’s inauguration, Poppy’s administrative aide
Jimmy Allison was back in Houston to lay the groundwork for another
campaign. (After several months in Houston, Allison would return
to D.C. as deputy director of the Republican Party.) There was no
mistaking Poppy’s ultimate goal, though and “ultimate” in
Poppy’s mind did not mean that far in the future. As his brother
Jonathan commented, “It was a long shot but he wanted to get into
position to run for President.”
for Poppy’s Senate bid made sense strategically for the Republicans,
and besides, he had little choice. As congressman, Bush had supported
him unfailingly, backing even the president’s most unpopular policies,
from the continuation of the Vietnam War to the Supreme Court nomination
of Judge G. Harrold Carswell, a purported racist.
that in running for the Senate, Bush risked giving up a safe House
seat and his powerful position on the Ways and Means Committee,
which was so crucial to the oil industry. To sweeten the pot, Nixon
told Poppy that if he won, he’d be in the running for the VP slot
in 1972, replacing Agnew; if Bush lost, Nixon would try to find
him a desirable cabinet position.
seemed bright in 1970. His presumptive Democratic opponent, Senator
Ralph Yarborough, was an unreconstructed liberal populist in an
increasingly conservative, buttoned-down state. Then disaster struck.
Former congressman Lloyd Bentsen Jr. entered the Democratic primary
and he was even more conservative than Bush. In a summer
1970 newspaper column, Bush family friend William F. Buckley lamented
Bentsen’s entry, praised Bush as “genuinely talented on the platform
and in the ways of the world,” and quoted Rogers Morton that Poppy
was the only one of his generation of GOP figures who could “go
all the way to the top.”
enormous amounts of money and campaigned relentlessly. But for a
second time he fell short. This was particularly hard for the competitive
Poppy, whose father had become U.S. senator from Connecticut without
even bothering to run for the House. He was disconsolate and confessed
to his old friend Robert Mosbacher, “I feel like Custer.”
offered pro forma condolences. “I am sure . . . that you will not
allow this defeat to discourage you in your efforts to continue
to provide leadership for our party and the nation,” he wrote in
a cable on November 5, 1970, right after the election.
for a more tangible form of consolation, and then waited some more.
When a friend tipped him off that Treasury Secretary David Kennedy
was leaving, Bush called Nixon and made a modest pitch for a job
not of secretary but of undersecretary. Poppy knew
too little about finance to assume the top post. Besides, it was
the undersecretary who dealt specifically with issues of concern
to oil interests.
came as a shock. His new treasury secretary would be John Connally,
the Texas governor and conservative Democrat who had just helped
defeat Bush by throwing his weight behind Lloyd Bentsen. Connally
would most certainly not want Bush on his staff not that
Bush would have wanted to serve under him anyway. And even if Connally
had been willing, it was unlikely that Nixon would okay having two
Texans in top Treasury Department posts. For Nixon’s part, he wanted
at least one Democrat in his cabinet, to create a perception of
bipartisanship, and also help his Southern strategy in the 1972
campaign. He also greatly admired the confident, handsome Connally.
But the move must have raised suspicions in Bush’s mind about which
candidate Nixon really had wanted to win the Texas Senate race.
were on target. It would subsequently be shown that Nixon often
secretly backed conservative Democrats, especially Southern hard-liners
like Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, who would support his
policies while staying out of Republican internecine squabbling.
Now, with the
Connally business, Bush was livid. This is what he got for his loyalty
to Nixon? John Tower put it this way: “He was out of work, and he
wanted a job. As a defeated senatorial candidate, he hoped and fully
expected to get a major job in the Administration. Yet the Administrationseemed
to be paying more attention to the very Democrat who had put him
on the job market. What gives?”
It was the
kind of political snub that could not and perhaps would not
be easily forgotten. Nixon had already disappointed Poppy
by choosing Spiro Agnew over him as a running mate. Now this.
But Poppy was
nothing if not resilient. Once again, he suggested a job to Nixon:
ambassador to the United Nations. The case he made shows a keen
grasp of Nixon’s neurosis and class envy, and a willingness to exploit
it. There was a “dirth [sic] of Nixon advocacy in New York City,”
where the U.N. was based, Bush wrote the president, noting that
he was well suited to “fill that need in New York social circles.”
Parmet described the meeting where the matter was settled: Bush
did most of the talking. He told the president that he preferred
going to New York as ambassador to the United Nations… He
and Barbara could . . . become invaluable . . . Nothing in the
record of the session indicates any discussion of global factors,
or, for that matter, US relationships with that world body.
Poppy was again being offered something for which he was ill-prepared
an important diplomatic post at a time of global turmoil.
Among the hot-button issues on which he was expected to hold forth
were the China-Taiwan dispute, Vietnam, and the Middle East conflict.
Some of his closest friends were astonished. Congressman Lud Ashley,
an old chum from his Skull and Bones days, put it this way: “George,
what the fuck do you know about world affairs?” To which Poppy replied,
“You ask me that in ten days.”
neither Nixon nor his top adviser on foreign affairs, Henry Kissinger,
thought much of Bush’s capacities. On April 27, 1971, several months
after Poppy’s appointment, Nixon raised the possibility of sending
Poppy on a secret diplomatic mission to China.
NIXON: How about [UN Ambassador George H.W.] Bush?
Absolutely not, he is too soft and not sophisticated enough.
NIXON: I thought of that myself.
In a 1992 letter
to Herbert Parmet, Nixon claimed that he had made the U.N. appointment
because Bush “not only had the diplomatic skills to be an effective
ambassador, but also because it would be helpful to him in the future
to have this significant foreign-policy experience.” Although Bush
was an amiable fellow, it is a stretch to believe that either the
first or the second part of that statement fully conveyed Nixon’s
true motives. But one thing was clear: Nixon did not feel he could
leave Poppy entirely out in the cold.
Not only did
Nixon appoint Poppy to the U.N.; he also upgraded the post to that
of full ambassador, a title previously conferred only upon envoys
to foreign states. He even made Bush a member of his cabinet. This
was most unusual, but it put Bush in a unique position: although
he traveled to Washington regularly for cabinet meetings, he was
“a Washington outsider” by dint of his being based in New York.
Whatever Nixon’s ultimate purpose in continuing to mollify him,
these decisions clearly worked to Poppy’s advantage. When the Watergate
scandal erupted, nobody thought to include George H. W. Bush in
the circle of blame. He was literally out of sight, out of mind.
But not necessarily out of the loop.
To Be Continued
Baker is an award-winning investigative reporter. He has written
for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The Nation,
The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Village
Voice and Esquire and dozens of other major domestic and
foreign publications. He has also served as a contributing editor
to the Columbia Journalism Review. Baker received a 2005
Deadline Club award for his exclusive reporting on George W. Bush’s
military record. He is the author of Family
of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, the Powerful Forces That Put It in
the White House, and What Their Influence Means for America
(Bloomsbury Press, 2009); it was released in paperback as Family
of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, America’s Invisible Government and
the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years. For more information
on Russ’s work, see his sites, www.familyofsecrets.com
© 2012 WhoWhatWhy.com