Transcript: Tom Brokaw Remembers Watergate

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, Tom Brokaw Remembers Watergate.
President Richard Nixon is interviewed by NBC's Tom Brokaw
Former President Richard Nixon is interviewed by NBC's Tom Brokaw at the The Richard Nixon Library & Museum in 1990 in Yorba Linda, Calif.Robert Lachman / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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Article II: Inside Impeachment

Tom Brokaw Remembers Watergate

Richard Nixon: The only network that paid any attention to it last night was NBC, who did a massive story on the Cuban thing.

Archival Recording: Article two, section two of the Constitution.

Tom Brokaw: There is a gap in another presidential tape in a conversation in March 1973 between President Nixon and John Ehrlichman.

Nixon: And just say, "Stay the hell out of this." America needs a full-time president and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time, with problems we face at home and abroad. Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow. (MUSIC)

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Saturday, November 16th, and we're bringing you a special bonus episode today. And this one really is special. Sometimes, you know, I will pick up a book, I'll read a few pages, I'll put it down, I'll tell myself I'm gonna get back to it later, and then of course I never end up doing that.

That actually happens with a lot of books I try to read or books that I tell myself I should be reading. But it is not what happened when I got a copy of the book whose author I am about to talk with. The Fall of Richard Nixon: A Reporter Remembers Watergate is, as you might guess from the title, the story of the final year of Richard Nixon's presidency. It's got a narrator that we all know very well.

Brokaw: Tom Brokaw, NBC News, Washington.

Kornacki: Watergate was the story that made him a household name to millions of Americans. Tom was a rising star at NBC in the early 1970s. And with the scandal heating up, he became NBC's White House correspondent in the summer of '73. So he was there for every twist and turn as Nixon fell from grace. And that experience adds a new dimension to this book.

It's not just a political history. It's also a personal history. And it's a cultural history. It's the story of what Washington was like back then, what the media world was like back then. Reading it, you realize not just how much everything has changed in the four decades since Watergate, but you realize how much Watergate itself was instrumental in that change.

And just a quick note. You're gonna hear Tom mention some names you probably haven't heard in a while, folks like John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman. If you need a refresher on who these key players are, check out our show notes. We've got a key written up for you. You can find those notes in the Article II feed. That's wherever you get your podcast.

But without any further ado, let's get to this conversation. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed this one. I hope you enjoy it, too. NBC Senior Correspondent, longtime anchor of the NBC Nightly News, and author of The Fall of Richard Nixon: A Reporter Remembers Watergate, Tom Brokaw. Tom, welcome and thanks for sitting down with me.

Brokaw: Good to be here.

Kornacki: One impeachment saga playing out now. Here's a book about the most famous impeachment saga. Your beginnings as a White House correspondent synced up with the Watergate scandal. You came in to be NBC News White House correspondent just as this scandal was exploding.

Brokaw: I had immodestly a pretty big reputation in the company as a political reporter assigned to the West Coast. I was doing something we don't do anymore. I did the 11:00 news out there. But I also did a lot of our principal political reporting. So they kept saying, "You gotta come east, Tom."

And I had a house on the beach in California. You know, the summertime was great. The wintertime was better because I never wore a tie when I was not on the air. And it was exciting because California was moving into this new era. Watergate starts, and then I knew that I had to go east. And so I did.

Kornacki: The whole timeline here, it's fascinating. You go from 1972, Richard Nixon is reelected in one of the most massive landslides in American history.

Archival Recording: Four more years. Four more years.

Kornacki: Forty-nine states to one for George McGovern, more than 60% of the vote. Less than two years later, he leaves office facing impeachment. He chooses to resign. The Watergate break-in took place in June of '72, during the campaign. Obviously did not keep Nixon from winning that landslide. When did you first have a realization that, "Wow, this is a big thing, Watergate"?

Brokaw: I actually looked at the copy of the day of the break-in. Garrick Utley was our Saturday night anchor. And he said, "There's an odd story," or something like that, "out of Washington tonight. Burglars were caught trying to break into the Democratic Party headquarters. That's all we know." That was the first thing that was ever on the air on NBC. And then it began to unravel more and more as two young reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, began to peel away like great, great police blotter reporters.

Archival Recording: Five men were arrested early Saturday while trying to install eavesdropping equipment at the Democratic National Committee. And it turns out that one of them has an office in the headquarters of the Committee for the Reelection of the President.

Brokaw: And the White House was in a freefall of panic.

Archival Recording: The President's press secretary said of this incident, "I'm not going to comment from the White House on a third-rate burglary attempt. Obviously," he said, "we don't condone that kind of second-rate activity."

Brokaw: They were not all in on it at the beginning. The President, I am convinced, did not know what they were gonna try to do. But he kind of gave, if you will, the go sign to anything counts at this point. So it was starting to unravel all that summer and after the election. And by the midsummer 1973 we had the hearings.

And the hearings were devastating. And that was when Haldeman, and Ehrlichman, and John Mitchell, and all the principal people were lying, and getting caught at it, and were headed off to jail. By the time I got to Washington in August of 1973, the question was: What was Nixon's role? That was the big question. And he made a national address to the country, saying--

Nixon: I had no prior knowledge of the Watergate break-in.

Brokaw: --"I didn't know about it."

Nixon: I neither took part in nor knew about any of the subsequent cover-up activities.

Brokaw: "Feel terrible about what's happened. I'll take responsibility. But trust me, I was not personally involved in all that."

Nixon: I neither authorized nor encouraged subordinates to engage in illegal or improper campaign tactics. That was and that is the simple truth.

Brokaw: I moved into Washington as the new kid on the block. And then it was off to the races.

Kornacki: You mentioned the Senate Watergate hearings. So these play out basically May to October of 1973. I hear a lot of people these days drawing parallels with the hearings that are taking place now for Trump and Ukraine. And they look back to the Senate Watergate hearings, and they say, "Wow, the Senate Watergate hearings really moved public opinion."

Brokaw: Well, they were bipartisan for one thing. Howard Baker was checking in with the White House, we found out later, at the end of the day.

Howard Baker: What did the President know and when did he know it?

Brokaw: That was his recurring question. And then the Democrats and the Republicans found a way to work through it in some fashion. And the whole country was watching late afternoon. We didn't have MSNBC. We didn't have full-time television. Three networks. This was highly unusual, to see these kinds of hearings. And the cast of characters were frankly right out of Hollywood.

Archival Recording: To speak the truth and to live the truth.

Archival Recording: And you need a clearer picture than you've had so far of what was really going on at the White House in June 1972 and the following months.

H.r. Haldeman: He obviously didn't report to me everything he did. No, sir.

Sam Ervin: He reported everything he found out.

Haldeman: I don't believe he did that. At the time, I thought he was reporting--

Ervin: Well, anyway.

Haldeman: --in general everything--

Ervin: Mr. Haldeman.

Haldeman: He did not report any details to me, Mr. Chairman.

Daniel Inouye: You indicated that the election of the President was so important that you did not wish to advise the President of the White House horror stories because he might blow the lid off and thereby endanger the election.

John Mitchell: I think that is a reasonable summary of--

Brokaw: High drama at every turn. And then at the end of the day, you would have a kind of clear idea of where we were going and how we were gonna get there. By the end of that summer, it was clear that Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and all the principal advisors to the President were as guilty as hell and they were headed for jail.

Kornacki: What you're describing, Americans turning on their televisions, flipping to one of those three or four channels they got, watching these hearings, hearing about a taping system in the White House or what have you, was it shocking for Americans back then to hear these sorts of things?

Brokaw: I don't think "shocking" is the right word. I mean, "Politics ain't beanbags," Mr. Dooley said in Chicago, and everybody kind of knew that. There was an awareness that this is a tough business. And then how it played out was so dramatic and so compelling that people were absorbed in it as they might have been absorbed in a great crime novel of some kind. They couldn't wait to turn the page.

I remember friends of mine saying that they went to the gym every afternoon and got on a rowing machine just to watch Watergate hearings that were going on. The country came to a stop when those hearings started again. And then the characters were what they were. Some of them obviously, like the people who worked for Nixon, were bright, polished young men mostly who didn't have a clue about what they were doing when they were doing it.

I knew Haldeman before he was Haldeman, and he was a straight-arrow guy. And the idea that he would lie as openly as he did. Ehrlichman, who had been an Eagle Scout and had a distinguished career in Seattle, Washington. It didn't make sense, but they did it. You know, you can't make this stuff up. It was this larger portrait of what could go wrong in American politics.

Kornacki: And the big issue that was hovering over all of this in '73 into '74 was whether the tapes, the White House tapes, would be made available to the public.

Brokaw: Yes. And Pat Buchanan said, "Mr. President, take 'em out on the lawn, burn 'em, and then tell the country you have burned 'em, and they won't know what was on 'em." But he was pushed back by Al Haig and by other legal people who were saying, "No, that's destroying evidence." But it's pretty clear that what that 18-minute gap that was very clumsily exorcised, the President was not very good with anything that was small and mechanical. It was pretty clear that he went in and erased a very damaging part of those tapes.

But the idea of having the tapes and once it got out keeping the tapes, because they were not under any legal obligation to keep 'em. And he could've maybe, maybe he could have busted out and said, "Those were my tapes. I burned 'em 'cause I don't think there's any use for them in the country. You either trust the president or not and tough it out." Once the tapes were there and the indictments of the people were there, the conversations that you heard in the Oval Office, then it was over for him. It was just a matter of how long it would take for them to play out.

Kornacki: You mentioned months of Watergate hearings in 1973, the public opinion changing.

Archival Recording: Half of those polled think Watergate is a very serious matter. Three quarters of those polled think the President was involved to some extent. And while the number of people who said in June that the President should be impeached and removed from office was 18%, this month, July, that number has risen to 24%, one out of every four adults polled.

Kornacki: It still isn't until August of '74 when everything finally comes to a head. The House Judiciary Committee convened hearings June and July of '74. This is where they draw up articles of impeachment and they start to vote on them. Talk a little bit about that process, the actual articles of impeachment being drawn up.

Brokaw: Well, it was not just a political process that was at work here. There were personal decisions being made by members of that committee. We now have Republicans in kind of a solid file supporting President Trump. At that point, Republicans at the beginning said that they were for the President. Then as the information came out, they began to back away from their very firm position.

But they wouldn't come out quite and say, "I'm shocked by what I'm seeing," until the tapes came out. I had been talking to a lot of Republicans at that point, and that was the turning point. Once they read what were on those tapes, the vulgarities and the attitude about Jews, for example, or about people who were Harvard graduates, or, "Goddamn it. Whatever it takes to get this done, we're gonna get it done." And so that neutralized to a great degree what support he had on the Hill from his own party. And then people began to back away from him.

Kornacki: The next thing that happens though before Nixon resigns is the smoking gun tape.

Haldeman: Stay the hell out of this. This business here we don't want you to go any further on it. That's not an unusual development.

Kornacki: Absent the smoking gun tape, did Nixon still have a chance?

Brokaw: No. There were too many other episodes where he plainly had a deep involvement in it. By then, John Dean was talking. The thing you have to remember is that he kept saying, "Executive privilege."

Nixon: The law has long recognized that there are kinds of conversations that are entitled to be kept confidential, even at the cost of doing without critical evidence an illegal proceeding. This rule applies, for example, to conversations between a lawyer and a client, between a priest and a penitent, and between a husband and wife. In each case, it is thought so important that the parties be able to talk freely to each other that for hundreds of years the law has said these conversations are privileged and that their disclosure cannot be compelled in a court.

Brokaw: I had a really terrific researcher working with me. And I said, "We have to find out whether executive privilege has application during an impeachment proceeding." So she went and talked to a number of experts in the field, including conservative legal professors at Yale.

And they said, "Doesn't have application if it's an impeachment proceeding. If it's an impeachment proceeding, then presidential protection is gone. People have a right to know what is happening here." That came in an exchange I had with the President in the last news conference he actually had. It was in Houston at a big broadcasters convention. And I had worked hard on this question.

Nixon: Yes, sir.

Brokaw: Mr. President, Tom Brokaw of NBC News. Following on my colleague Mr. Rather's question, you have referred here again tonight, as you have in the past, about what you call the precedence of past presidents in withholding White House material from the House Judiciary Committee. So, Mr. President, my question is this: Aren't your statements to that matter historically inaccurate or at least misleading?

Brokaw: And asked him about it, and he said, "Mr. Brokaw--"

Nixon: Mr. Brokaw.

Brokaw: --"I know that you believe you've got," something to the effect that, "you've got the right thing, but I believe executive privilege will prevail."

Nixon: And I'm not going to give up to any demand that I believe would weaken the presidency of the United States. I will not participate in the destruction of the office of the president of the United States while I am in this office.

Brokaw: And that's what the court ruled on. Court ruled that it did not prevail and that we had a right to see the tapes. You knew at that point it was over, although we later learned from Woodward and Bernstein there was a big debate in the family and also in the White House about whether he should try to go to the public, go to Congress, and say, "I have a right here to protect executive privilege in the White House." But it was over.

Kornacki: Can you remember the moment when you found out he was resigning?

Brokaw: I had been working with a couple of Republicans on the Hill trying to keep pace with what was going on. And one of 'em called me and he said, "Mr. Brokaw, you've been very patient with me. You should know that Barry Goldwater and Congressman Rhodes from Oklahoma are on their way to the White House to tell the President the time is up."

And this is how crazy it was. So this is a huge story. Very important Republican. I called the NBC Nightly News desk, said, "I've got it." And they said, "You need a second source." I said, "Are you nuts? This is the number two guy in the Senate Republican leadership." They said, "You need a second source."

I was furious.I hung up the phone, thought of something. Barry Goldwater Jr. was a congressman from California that I knew. And I picked up the phone and called him, and I said, "Barry, how you doin'?" He said, "Great." I said, "Boy, this is something about your father coming to the White House tonight." "Yeah, boy, isn't that something?" "Thank you very much." Hung up the phone, called the White House.

Kornacki: There it is.

Brokaw: Called NBC Nightly News. "I got a second source. It's Barry Goldwater Jr."

Kornacki: What was that day like? This is the only time in American history that this has happened, a president resigning and leaving office. What was that day like in Washington?

Brokaw: It was a relief on the part of people who worked for Nixon who suspected that he was guilty, that it was finally coming to a conclusion. The anti-Nixon crowd, especially who had been drawn from the antiwar movement, came pouring into Washington, and went to Lafayette Square, and were gathered there. And they were not hostile. There were not big ugly signs of any kind.

People understood the gravity of what we were going through. "A president of the United States is resigning for the first time. Where do we go from here?" The processes worked. The rule of law has prevailed. And I was very impressed by that. I was out there that night, and this is the night that Nixon made his farewell speech.

Nixon: Good evening. This is the 37th time I have spoken to you from this office. I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as president at that hour in this office.

Brokaw: When it was over, I was quite critical of the tone of his speech and the content of it because he never really owned up. He really never said, "I was wrong, I betrayed you, I misled the country, and I will carry that to my grave," or something to that effect.

Nixon: Throughout the long and difficult period of Watergate, I have felt it was my duty to persevere, to make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me.

Brokaw: What he said was, you know, "I was trying to do the right thing by ending the war," a lot of other stuff, but he never stepped up to it.

Nixon: In leaving it, I do so with this prayer. May God's grace be with you in all the days ahead.

Brokaw: The next morning, he was going to appear in the East Room of the White House. And I wanted to be in that room.

Archival Recording: (IN PROGRESS) --with the President. And Tom Brokaw has that story.

Archival Recording: As president, Richard Nixon has drawn crowds to the vast Ellipse south of the White House before, but those were triumphs. This was not.

Brokaw: And it was a melancholy gathering in the East Room of the White House.

Archival Recording: Mr. and Mrs. Nixon and their daughters made their final appearance as the first family in the White House East Room.

Brokaw: President came out, made that very maudlin speech about his mother being a saint, which in fact she was.

Nixon: Now, however, we look to the future. Sure, we've done some things wrong in this administration. And the top man always takes the responsibility, and I've never ducked it.

Brokaw: And then he talked, as he often did, about money.

Nixon: I only wish that I were a wealthy man.

Brokaw: He was consumed by money. And he said, "I'm not a wealthy man. But if I had a lot of wealth, I would make sure that all of you would share in it." And it was quite open. And it's so typical of him at that point.

Nixon: Present time, I've gotta find a way to pay my taxes.

Brokaw: And then it was over. Then he came out and he walked to the helicopter to go to Air Force One to fly back to California.

Archival Recording: And then the transition took on a human form as the Fords and the Nixons walked out of the White House together. General Alexander Haig, Mr. Nixon's chief of staff, with a final salute of encouragement to his commander-in-chief.

Brokaw: Got on, did that famous V-for-victory sign, and then got into the helicopter.

Archival Recording: The final helicopter flight as president away from the White House.

Brokaw: And flew to California.

Archival Recording: When he landed in California, Richard Nixon was a private citizen, but he drew thousands of cheering supporters to El Toro Marine Air Base. From there, he went to San Clemente, near where he grew up and where as a boy, he has written, he listened to train whistles in the night and dreamed of far-off places. Tom Brokaw, NBC News, Washington.

Kornacki: When Gerald Ford becomes president, I always find it interesting to look at the Gallup polling from his presidency. The first month he's president, August to early September '74, sky-high popularity. People seem to really like him. And then he makes that decision to pardon Richard Nixon, deeply unpopular at the time. How does that pardon look in history to you now?

Brokaw: I think it was the right call. I didn't at the time, but it would have been a torture for the country and for the system to have gone through a hearing and a trial of Richard Nixon.

Gerald Ford: Finally, I feel that Richard Nixon and his loved ones have suffered enough and will continue to suffer no matter what I do.

Brokaw: Nixon was not gonna recover from his disgrace, and there was no penalty that would exceed the fact that he was forced out of the office. And then Ford went on to become president. And one of the reasons that he survived is that he had such decency.

Ford: A full, free, and absolute pardon onto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed.

Brokaw: And he was popular on the Hill. That also helped him. There were not people out to kneecap Jerry Ford because they liked him and they thought it was in our best interest as a country to move forward in some fashion. I have one vivid memory of the fall of that year and the congressional elections.

I went out to Iowa to see how they were taking it. And there was a farmer there, about a 1948 Farmall, picking corn. He had his corn picker behind him. And I signaled him to come over. And I said, "I'm just curious about what you think of what's going on in Washington and the pardon of the President." He said, "Buddy, corn is $4.25 a bushel. I don't care about anything else except that," and got back on the tractor and went about. And I thought, "That kinda puts it all in context."

Kornacki: In the early 1990s I would say, I started following politics as a kid. And one of the things I remember from that period, he was on Sunday shows. He had books coming out every year. He was treated as an elder statesman. And I remember my father explaining to me that about 15 years earlier this whole Watergate thing had happened. It seems there was a period there while he was still around where Nixon was able to sort of reenter public life in a respected way.

Brokaw: He was never, ever gonna be giving up in the public arena. Whatever happened to him, he would not give up. If you go back and read the early days of Richard Nixon, his childhood, Evan Thomas has written a wonderful book about that, he was always a guy who was kind of a dorky, uncoordinated, but brilliant mind who was trying to carve out a place for himself in the big arena. And he never, ever gave that up.

Kornacki: He was always gonna have Watergate as the major part of his legacy. But to add more context to the legacy, foreign policy mind, that sort of thing, did he succeed in complicating his legacy at all in those last 20 years?

Brokaw: I think it depends on what you thought about him before all that. I saw somebody a year ago who was an advance man for him in the campaigns. He's still besotted by Richard Nixon. We had a pretty sharp exchange about who Nixon really was. And at the end, he looked at me. He said, "Tom, he was a great man." I said, "He was not a great man. He would not have allowed that to happen. Great men don't do that and lie to the country."

He was a confused man, I always felt, about who he was and what he needed to do to get to where he wanted to get to. But he was not a great man. He did some great things, you know, in that first term. But in the end, he betrayed his family, his party, his country, and most of all himself.

Kornacki: I want to bring it to Trump and to parallels or lack of parallels. One thing you said earlier jumped out at me, that what became clear during the Watergate hearings in 1973 and into '74 was the contrast between the Nixon behind the scenes and the public Nixon. And that was a very jarring contrast for people to sort of absorb.

Does the fact with Donald Trump that when we see a transcript of the call with the president of Ukraine, when we see little glimpses of what's happening behind the scenes, the fact that it really does seem like the same Trump we see in public, does that insulate him politically in a way that Nixon wasn't?

Brokaw: No, I think what we see with Donald Trump 24/7 is the guy that we know. I mean, you can look at the transcript of the conversation, but listen to those rallies, how he talks to people and how he abuses not just the office but decency. And I just find it, I'm not quite sure how I can characterize it.

I find it outrageous that so many people cheer that on. And I know some of them personally. They say, "It's about time we talked that way." I don't think it is. Republican or Democrat, I think the presidency represents a higher calling and a higher order for this country.

And he has abused that office and abused that legacy of presidents who are tough guys. There's no question about it. We've not yet had a woman. But they're tough. They have to be tough. But at the same time, there is a standard that is expected of a national leader, and he walks all over it 24/7 because he is a maniacal, self-absorbed guy who believes that if he says it, it's got to be right. And so I don't think we've ever seen anybody quite like him in the Oval Office. It's a real test to the country. And, by the way, I think that the country's up to it.

Kornacki: What do you think Nixon would have made of Trump?

Brokaw: He would have despised him. He wouldn't have said so publicly, but he would have mocked him behind the scenes. Nixon, whatever else we thought about him, was a keen student of international affairs and of the political process. From his earliest years on, paid attention to it.

And he was willing to challenge the system. He was willing to cut corners. But to go to the degree that this president has was just not in who he was. At the end obviously, he betrayed himself and the country. But Trump is unique, quite honestly. And, look, it's up to the country to decide what kind of a president they want.

I don't know what's gonna happen in this next race. I don't think anybody does at this point. If you look at it in conventional terms, it should be a layup for the Democrats. But the Democrats now seem not to be able to get a kind of cohesive, coherent approach to what they want to do about him. So we're in for a test. (MUSIC)

Kornacki: I also don't know what's gonna happen next year, but I'm eagerly looking forward to covering it and hearing from you throughout the campaign. But, Tom Brokaw, author of The Fall of Richard Nixon: A Reporter Remembers Watergate, thanks for joining us.

Brokaw: Always my pleasure.

Kornacki: Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Claire Tighe, Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Allison Bailey, Adam Noboa, Aaron Dalton, and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll be back on Monday.