Kathy Olmsted has a fine list of standout moments in the clinical history of Richard Nixon’s presidency. Though we could toss a dart at the White House transcripts or select random audio excerpts and strike paydirt, it occurred to me that a few of Nixon’s recorded conversations take place with people who are considerably more insane than he is and who, against all possible odds, make Nixon appear grounded by comparison.
For example, there’s this exchange with Ronald Reagan from October 26, 1971, the day after the United Nations General Assembly had voted to admit and seat the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate representative of the Chinese nation. Before the vote, Nixon had badgered George H.W. Bush — the US ambassador to the UN — to make sure the US position prevailed, but he’d fallen a handful of votes shy of denying the PRC’s admission. At the time, of course, Nixon was laying the groundwork for an eventual visit to China, and so while he complained to Kissinger that “the United States is getting kicked around by a bunch of goddamned Africans and cannibals and such,” he was also wary of the pressure he was receiving from the conservative right to make aggressive use of the issue against both China and the UN itself. A few hours after the vote, Nixon’s wariness was rewarded as he received a call from Gov. Reagan that caused him some audible discomfort.
REAGAN: I know it is not easy to give a suggestion or advice to the president of the United States, but I just feel that — I feel so strongly that we can’t — and in view of ’72 we can’t just sit and take this and continue as if nothing had happened, and I had a suggestion for an action that I’d like to be so presumptuous as to suggest. My every instinct says get the hell out of that kangaroo court, and let it, uh…
NIXON: [Laughs] Yeah.
REAGAN: …sink. But I know that’s very, that would be extremely difficult, and not the thing to do. But it has occurred to me that the United States — I just, the people, I just know are — first of all, they don’t like the UN to begin with. It seems to me, if you brought Mr. Bush back to Washington, to let them sweat for about 24 hours, as to what you were thinking of, and then if you went on television to the people of the United States and said that Mr. Bush was going back to the UN, to participate in debate and express our views and so forth, but he would not participate in any votes — that the United States would not vote and would not be bound by the votes of the UN, because it is a debating society. You don’t have to say that, but it is a debating society, and — and so we’d be there, our presence would be there. But we would just not participate in their votes. I think it would put those bums in the perspective they belong.
NIXON: [pauses, laughs] It sure would! Uh….
REAGAN: I think it would make a hell of a campaign issue. Because I am positive that the people of the United States are thoroughly disgusted, and I think that this would put any candidate from the other side — the constant question to him would come, in the midst of the campaign, “What would you do now?” And if he was stupid enough to open his mouth and say, “Oh, hell, you know — we’d go back to operating just as usual,” I think he’d be hung out to dry.
The audio of that conversation is interesting and certainly worth a listen if you happen to be a connoisseur of such things. Nixon is clearly not impressed by the advice, and spends a good bit of time trying to change the subject, as if he’s perhaps speaking with an unhinged missionary or a jabbering incontinent on a Greyhound bus; at the same time, though he recognizes Reagan’s ascendant wingnuttery and encourages him to complain publicly about the UN’s “moral bankruptcy” and its diminishing support among Americans. He also tries to reassure Reagan that he hates the United Nations as much as anyone and that he wouldn’t be attending any of the dinners being given in recognition of UN Week. Reagan, for his part, vows to find out if UN Week is still going on and — if so — withdraw the proclamation he’d signed to create it.
Three weeks later, Nixon described Reagan as “shallow” in a long and hilarious conversation with Kissinger.