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Newly Released Tapes Go Inside Nixon's White House During The Watergate Scandal


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. During the two impeachment proceedings against President Trump, there were some sources of information closed off to Congress and the public because Trump instructed top officials in the executive branch not to cooperate. By contrast, there's a rich historical record of the events surrounding the Watergate scandal that led to the impeachment effort and eventual resignation of President Richard Nixon. Besides Senate hearings and plenty of investigative reporting, there was the secret White House taping system that recorded hundreds of private conversations among the president and his top advisers. Many became public in the investigation, and more have been released to the public in the decades since.

Our guest, veteran journalist and historian Michael Dobbs, has a new book which mines that material for a riveting, intimate look at the Nixon White House during the first six months of 1973. It was a critical period that began with Nixon celebrating his landslide reelection victory and ended with his administration coming apart under the pressure of the Watergate investigation.

Michael Dobbs was born and educated in Britain. He's now an American citizen. He was a longtime reporter for The Washington Post, working as a foreign correspondent and launching the paper's fact-check column. He's also taught at Princeton, Georgetown and the University of Michigan. And he's the author of several books, three of them focusing on past American presidents in times of crisis. His new book is "King Richard: Nixon And Watergate - An American Tragedy."

Michael Dobbs, welcome to FRESH AIR.

MICHAEL DOBBS: Well, thank you so much for inviting me on.

DAVIES: So I have to congratulate you 'cause I think whether people know a lot or a little about Watergate, this is just a fascinating read. And you made this gripping story from some rich but, I think, pretty difficult primary source material, these hundreds of hours of White House tapes. And actually, yesterday, when I was prepping for this, I wanted to get a sense of what this was like listening to these tapes. So I went online - anybody can do it - and picked a random tape recording from April 1973, which is part of the time that you write about in the book when the White House guys were figuring out how to contain the investigation. And I want to play just a little bit of this. It's not very clear. And I wonder who the voices are. I have a guess. I bet you can tell me who they are. This is only 15 seconds or so. Let's listen. This is from a secret White House recording in April of 1973.


RICHARD NIXON: What's your view about his (ph) perjury?

JOHN EHRLICHMAN: I don't know.


EHRLICHMAN: I don't (ph) make the headlines.

BOB HALDEMAN: (Unintelligible). He goes to the Grand Jury Monday morning. That's why it's imperative you give him (ph) this information so he doesn't perjure himself.

NIXON: Right.

DAVIES: OK, Michael Dobbs, do you know who those voices were?

DOBBS: That certainly sounds like Nixon and his chief of staff Bob Haldeman, I'd say, though it's a little difficult to hear. And it's probably recorded in the Oval Office. I mean, you can hear the echoes there - or possibly across the street in the Executive Office Building where Nixon had a hideaway office. Actually, these tapes are more difficult to hear than the tapes that are recorded on the telephone system, which are really quite clear. So whenever I was able to listen to a tape that had been recorded on the telephone, it was kind of a relief for me and probably for anybody else trying to listen in.

DAVIES: In the book, I mean, there are some really gripping direct quotes from conversation between Nixon and, you know, aides who were - he didn't know whether they were betraying him or not. And those are in the Oval Office. What was it like listening to hundreds of hours of this? You must have wanted to pull your hair out at times.

DOBBS: Well, actually, I found that I had company because both Nixon himself and Haldeman tried to plow their way through these tapes. And there's a hilarious tape of Nixon listening to his own tapes and then complaining to Haldeman about how difficult it was. He said it was the hardest job he had ever had in his life, and after eight hours of listening to the tapes, he certainly needed a drink. So I can sympathize with him in that respect.

DAVIES: All right. I want to start by just talking a bit about Nixon, some of his habits as president. I mean, you write that he would often late in the evening, maybe after he was drinking a scotch, he would call Charles Colson, his special counsel. Tell us a little bit about Colson and what these conversations were like.

DOBBS: Right. Actually, the book begins with a conversation between Nixon, who's in his - what he called his den, or the Lincoln Sitting Room, on the second floor of the White House residence, calling Colson up at 1:30 in the morning. He's very excited. He can't get to sleep. This is the day of his second inauguration. And partly just, you know, to unwind, he calls his cronies. And the foremost among all these cronies was Chuck Colson, who was known as Nixon's hatchet man. So Nixon just liked to shoot the breeze with Colson. And they're talking late at night, just before Nixon's about to deliver his second inaugural address or a few hours before, and talking about how they're going to get back at all their enemies, including The Washington Post, where I used to work, in Nixon's second triumphant term.

DAVIES: Right. They're going to challenge the licenses of TV stations that the Post corporation runs. There's a fascinating story where in one of these conversation, Nixon actually passes out.

DOBBS: Yeah, that is actually - Colson tells the story. Actually, that is one of the very few tapes that has been held back from release by the National Archives on privacy grounds. But Colson talks about it in his own memoir. Colson was at home trying to call Nixon - or he was talking with Nixon, who was at Camp David. And suddenly, in the middle of the conversation, the president has obviously - he's just returned from Moscow, a summit meeting. He's taken sleeping pills. He's also had a few drinks. And in the middle of the conversation, he passes out. And Colson is very alarmed, tries to call Camp David back. He can't get through because the party at the other end, Nixon, hasn't hung up his end of the line. So Colson has to go out in the middle of the night, find another telephone. He eventually is able to connect with Manolo Sanchez, Nixon's valet, and asks what's happened to Nixon. And he's very relieved to be told that Nixon is now snoring peacefully.

DAVIES: Let's talk about the taping system. This is fascinating. You know, I didn't quite get the fact that he didn't institute this when he became president in 1969. It wasn't until 1971 he did - that he did this. What was his motivation?

DOBBS: Right. He actually ripped out President Johnson's taping system. Johnson used to tape his telephone calls. And Nixon, of course, didn't want to do anything that Johnson had done. And he suspected the taping system that Johnson had installed. So for a couple of years, Nixon didn't have any kind of taping system. They'd record meetings by talking to people after the event. Sometimes he would record a memo.

Eventually, he didn't find that very satisfactory. He had a great obsession with history. He admired Churchill, who said that history would be kind to him because he would write it himself. And Nixon intended to, you know, write his memoirs, write his version of history, and he wanted a reliable record that he could completely control to draw on.

So he then started thinking about a taping system. The difference between his taping system and the one that had been used by previous presidents was that it didn't have an on-off switch, and it was omnipresent. It was not just the telephones. It was also in the places like the Oval Office, the EOB hideaway, even Camp David. And Nixon was considered a bit of a klutz. He had difficulty operating machinery, so he didn't trust himself, and nobody trusted him to turn the machine on when he wanted, so they invented the system that would turn on by itself whenever Nixon entered the room. And that explains why we have, you know, many, many, many more times of hours of recording of Nixon than we do of any previous president.

DAVIES: How many people knew about this? Who ran it?

DOBBS: The Secret Service ran it, although the Secret Service, whose job is to protect the president, their job was really to, you know, find any illicit recording devices and propose countermeasures. But Nixon wanted complete discretion, so he, though his aide, Alexander Butterfield and Haldeman, He had the Secret Service install it. So only two or three members of the Secret Service were fully briefed and perhaps three or four of Nixon's closest aides, including Haldeman and Alexander Butterfield, Haldeman's deputy.

DAVIES: So this runs for 2 1/2 years. Do you think Nixon just forgot it was there a lot of the time?

DOBBS: Well, he knew it was there, but in practice, he forgot about it and didn't pay attention to it. So it's not as though he's performing for the - for his tape recording machines. I mean, there may be occasions when he's saying something for the benefit of the tape recorders, but for the most part, he's forgotten it's there, and this is just a stream of consciousness recording. That is, everything is being recorded - the good, the bad and the ugly and many profanities, as we later learned.

DAVIES: And he assumed, I guess, that this would always be his private property, not a public archive.

DOBBS: He did, yeah. And up until that time, I mean, not only was tapes considered to be the private property of the president, but nobody knew about their existence. So Nixon had every reason to believe that he could fully control the tapes. They would be his private property. Transcripts would only be made with his express permission. And he didn't imagine the kind of scenario that eventually took place, which is that the tapes would be used against him, including in courts.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Michael Dobbs. He's a veteran journalist and historian. His new book is "King Richard: Nixon And Watergate - An American Tragedy." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with journalist and historian Michael Dobbs. His new book takes a close look at the first six months of 1973 in President Richard Nixon's White House and the Watergate investigation as it was unfolding. The book is "King Richard: Nixon And Watergate - An American Tragedy."

So your story starts on Inauguration Day in 1973. Nixon has been reelected. Where did he stand then in his, you know, public stature and political power?

DOBBS: Well, he had just been reelected president by one of the largest vote margins in American history. In January of 1973, he still had a 67% approval rating. He had carried out what were widely applauded as extraordinary foreign policy initiatives, including the opening to China, detente with Russia. So he had really got some respect from a group that he really despised - the foreign policy crowd. And he was on the cusp of winding up the war in Vietnam, which had been going on for the last four years, and terribly arduous negotiations in Paris. His national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, was shuttling back between Washington and Paris. And they were about to wrap that all up and announce a peace agreement that would involve every American prisoner of war leaving - being freed by North Vietnam and all American combat troops leaving South Vietnam. So it was really a moment of triumph for Nixon.

DAVIES: Right. And we should just note, you said the Vietnam War had been going for the last four years. That's the four years of his first term, but long before that, under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

DOBBS: Exactly. Yeah.

DAVIES: What's interesting about this is that he is riding this huge wave of popularity more than six months after the break-in at the Watergate Hotel when these burglars were discovered burglarizing and bugging the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. And ties to the White House came out very soon. I mean, like, there was - one of them, James McCord, was chief of security for Nixon's reelection campaign. The burglars had the name of a White House aide, Howard Hunt, and his White House phone number with them. There was a fair amount of reporting. How had this not damaged Nixon by this point?

DOBBS: Well, he had succeeded in largely putting it behind him because he had cut the burglars off at the level of the people who actually went into the Watergate and the people who immediately controlled those burglars at the level of Howard Hunt, you mentioned, and this extraordinary character, Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent who devised the whole plan to go into the Watergate. They had been arrested. They were on trial. In fact, the trial had just started in Washington in January of 1973, but they weren't talking.

And for all the investigative work that had been done by The Washington Post and other reporters, they hadn't succeeded in tying the burglary to the highest levels of the White House, including Nixon himself. So they were actually running out of leads in January 1973. And the story didn't seem to be going anywhere very fast.

DAVIES: You know, if there's a real hero in this story, it's probably the trial judge in the case of the Watergate burglars, John Sirica. What was his role in this?

DOBBS: Well, I mentioned that the burglars were refusing to talk, but right at this moment, soon after Nixon's second inaugural, a man called Jeb Magruder, who was the No. 2 at the Committee to Re-elect the President, what was called CREEP, actually, at the time by the enemies of Nixon - Jeb Magruder appeared as a witness in the Watergate trial, and he committed perjury. He was asked direct questions about his own involvement in Watergate and whether he had authorized the break-in, and he said that he knew nothing about it and that anything that had been committed had been committed at a much lower level than him and it was basically cut off at the level of the burglars who were on trial.

Now, one of the people listening to Jeb Magruder lie on the witness stand was James McCord, who was in charge of the break-in team that evening...

DAVIES: He was arrested that night, yeah.

DOBBS: ...About to go to prison. And he wasn't willing to - you know, when he heard Jeb Magruder commit perjury on the stand and he read in the press flattering articles about Magruder, McCord begins to think, why should I go to prison when the people who really ordered the Watergate are free and still respected members of Washington society?

DAVIES: And the judge at one point when he's interviewing the - there were four Cuban operatives who had been involved in the break-in, and, you know, they had fresh, crisp hundred-dollar bills in their wallet. And when the judge asked them about where they'd come from, they said, oh, just it came in the mail. And he would just tell them, I don't believe you. Sirica really did a lot to kind of blow this open.

And, you know, one of the things I like about the book is it's a story about, you know, human beings. I mean, these people have all different kinds of shades of motivation. And you see as this story unfolds these flawed human beings who were, you know, driven by conflicting motives, trying to manage this crisis. You know, it's a crisis for the country, but it's also a crisis in their own personal lives. And one thing that really hit me was James McCord, the leader of the Watergate burglars, after he is convicted, you describe him being taken back to a Washington, D.C., jail and its effect on him. You want to just share that scene with us?

DOBBS: Right. Well, he's taken to jail. And this is an upstanding member of the community who's - you know, belongs to his local church, everybody regards him and he regards himself as a superpatriot. And he suddenly finds himself in the D.C. jail, which bad as it is these days was, you know, even more terrible in those days. Actually, there were several riots in the D.C. jail because the conditions were so appalling. And he's submitted to a strip search when he arrives at the D.C. jail, and they search in the most intimate parts of his body for, you know, hidden contraband. So, you know, this man, who regards himself as a patriot, he's been - received good conduct medals from the CIA. Suddenly, you know, he's being subjected to the most humiliating treatment imaginable. And he asked himself, you know, why should I have to go through all this?

DAVIES: Right. He eventually writes a letter to Judge Sirica, which he reads in open court, which says there has been perjury committed in this trial. He postpones McCord's sentencing to see what kind of cooperation he gives, and things begin to open up. It was really the need to keep the burglars quiet that really kind of led step by step to the unraveling of the presidency, didn't it?

DOBBS: Right. It's one step after another. I mean, it's not as though anybody planned this. And this is, you know, often how it happens in real life that you get into bigger and bigger trouble. One lie leads to a bigger lie. And it's interesting to, you know, trace this step by step. So, you know, having decided that they're not going to admit any real White House responsibility for the burglary, they find themselves gradually getting deeper and deeper into the cover-up. And Nixon actually understands what is happening because he's had experience of investigations in the past, and he keeps lecturing his aides that it's not the crime that's the problem; it's the cover-up. But despite that, he and his aides get dragged deeper and deeper into this conspiracy, which eventually forms the basis for the unraveling of the entire Nixon presidency and the fall of the president himself.

DAVIES: There are, in fact, conversation in which Nixon is discussing hush money - how much it would cost, where you would get it.

We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Michael Dobbs. His new book is "King Richard: Nixon And Watergate - An American Tragedy." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with journalist and historian Michael Dobbs. He's written several books about past American presidents in times of crisis. His new book draws extensively on secret recordings of President Richard Nixon's White House for a look at a critical six-month period in the Watergate scandal. The book is "King Richard: Nixon And Watergate - An American Tragedy."

John Dean was Nixon's White House counsel then. And, you know, he's probably one of the most remembered figures in Watergate and is remembered as the Nixon insider who came before the Senate select committee investigating this and calmly told all he knew about the White House secrets. It was devastating testimony for the White House. And he's, you know, since, I mean, in recent years been a voice of conscience on cable TV commenting on the Trump presidency. But it's interesting. Your book reminds me that, for a long time, he was a loyal Nixon soldier and did plenty and his service, didn't he?

DOBBS: Well, he was key to the cover-up. In fact, I think he describes himself as the desk officer of the cover-up. So he was, you know, the juggler who was managing all these people who were wandering off the reservation and trying to keep them back on the reservation. And at a certain point, I mean, he's probably savvier and quicker to understand the risk that he was exposing himself to than other Nixon aides. He realizes that he's getting in it too deep. And he's a lawyer himself. And he understands the legal consequences of perjury and obstruction of justice.

So at a certain point, he found himself caught between his loyalty to the president and a simple desire to save himself and blow the whistle. So, you know, with him, as with many whistleblowers, I guess, it's a mixture of personal motives, patriotic motives. In the end, people, at least in this book, in my experience, are shades of gray rather than, you know, black and white heroes and villains.

DAVIES: And it's interesting that Nixon and his top aides, you know, John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman, loved John Dean. This guy's great, right?

DOBBS: Well, yes. I mean, they relied on Dean to implement the cover-up on their behalf, and they thought that Dean was doing a great job. And in fact, long after Dean started along the road of betrayal, that he started talking to the prosecutors, Nixon and Haldeman still have confidence in Dean.

DAVIES: It's fascinating because there's this period where John Dean is talking to prosecutors about his own guilt and accumulating information that will be helpful to them in targeting others in the White House all the time he is working in the West Wing, in the White House and is trusted by Nixon and his top aides to be managing the cover-up. And there's a point where they decide they need to kind of show the public they're on top of this and give an explanation for whatever White House involvement there may have been. And so they send John Dean off to Camp David, right? What was he supposed to do?

DOBBS: Well, as you say, Dean was leading a double life. He was talking to the prosecutors at night and doing his White House job by day. Nixon wanted him to write a report that would essentially exonerate the White House. It would say, as Nixon later said, it would just go down the list and say, this one didn't do this, that one didn't do that. Everybody in the White House is in the clear. And this would have the imprimatur of the White House counsel. That was John Dean's official position.

But John Dean was too smart for this because he figured that if he wrote such a report, he would be putting himself directly in the line of fire and setting himself up as a possible scapegoat later if the whole story fell apart. So he went to Camp David with his wife actually and spent several days trying to write this report, suffering sort of agonies of conscience. And in the end, he decided he couldn't write it at all. And it was really that moment that marked his break with the Nixon White House.

DAVIES: Because the truth is that there was no innocent explanation for this, right?

DOBBS: Well, I mean, the truth is the truth, which is that higher people in the White House and the committee to reelect the president had been involved not only with the planning of the Watergate, but the planning of a whole series of other crimes. And Nixon himself had ordered a cover-up of Watergate and these other crimes very early on after the break-ins.

DAVIES: And it seems at many points they decided, well, we can get so-and-so to take responsibility for it, this lower person or this person who's halfway up the chain. Problem is that person says, what? I'm not going to do that. John Mitchell, for example, the former attorney general who had headed the reelection campaign, at one point, they were going to have him take responsibility. What was his reaction?

DOBBS: Well, his reaction was the same as everybody else's reaction was, why me? And so this is what makes this period so fascinating is that you see Nixon's aides turning on each other and then eventually turning on the president. Nixon put it more colorfully. He said, they're going to piss on each other and then they're going to piss on the president. And it's that process that I found fascinating and wanted to describe or tell the story because it really shows what was up until then a very disciplined White House.

Haldeman had, you know, whipped the place into shape as the model chief of staff. And within just a few months, it all unravels, and they're all accusing each other. I mean, sometimes you think of Nixon as the only one who was keeping tapes. Actually, toward the end, everybody was taping everybody else. Dean was taping. Ehrlichman was taping. Haldeman was taping. And those tapes have also come out in recent years. So it was an atmosphere of paranoia in what had up until that time been quite a harmonious administration.

DAVIES: You know, you mentioned Haldeman. That's Bob Haldeman, who was Nixon's chief of staff, who'd worked for him for many, many years, had a background in public relations. John Ehrlichman, a lawyer also, those two being the really intimate top aides to Nixon. It was striking to me that you said, as close as they had been, they weren't really friends. I mean, they - he'd had one dinner with Haldeman's family over the decades. And then when he finally fired Haldeman and they met at Camp David, Haldeman came in, Nixon shook his hand. It was the first time he'd ever offered that gesture?

DOBBS: That's what Haldeman recorded that evening in his own audio diary. So it surprised him. And this is not something he thought after the event. This is something he recorded at the time. Yeah, he was very much the loyal, selfless servant to Nixon. I mean, the president valued him greatly, but not as a personal friend, as somebody who implemented his wishes and who made sure that the place, you know, ran efficiently. But Nixon had very few personal friends and they didn't include members of his own staff. And possibly Chuck Colson is an exception there.

DAVIES: You know, one of the things that good leaders do is have people around him or her who are not afraid to challenge them, to say, hey, wait a minute, let's rethink this. What about Nixon?

DOBBS: For the most part - and I think this probably applies to other presidents to some extent - but the president is surrounded by flatterers, surrounded by people whose role in life is to please the president. And Nixon certainly fell into that category. So you have all these people trying to carry out the wishes of the president as best they could. And sometimes those wishes were, you know, not expressed in a direct way. They was expressed in an indirect way.

And Watergate, you know, I feel is a bit like the famous story of the English medieval king, Henry II, who's fed up with the archbishop of Canterbury and says to his aides, who will rid me of this turbulent priest? It wasn't an order to murder the priest, but it was a hint that somehow he wanted the archbishop out of the way. And the king's aides went off and murdered the archbishop without the king really intending that to happen.

And Watergate, you know, is a similar story. Nixon was preoccupied by, you know, political threats to himself. He wanted to gather political intelligence on his enemies. And he kept pushing for more and more intelligence. And those wishes sort of were translated into action that nobody really understood why this happened. You know, the president hadn't actually given an order to break into the Watergate. It was just a wish of his that his subordinates fulfilled.

DAVIES: Right. I mean, his impulse for these covert operations may have originated around with the Pentagon Papers, right? That's when he wanted actions to destroy Daniel Ellsberg, you know, the contractor who had leaked the Pentagon Papers.

DOBBS: Right. He made it clear that he wasn't opposed to break-ins. In fact, in the case of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, he actually orders a break-in in the offices of the Brookings Institution in Washington to try to track down some documents that he thinks could be embarrassing to him. And that break-in was actually never carried out. I mean, that one was stopped by people like Haldeman who thought he was going too far. So it's an irony of history that a break-in that Nixon never ordered, which is Watergate, was carried out, whereas a break-in that he did order didn't happen.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Michael Dobbs. His new book is "King Richard: Nixon And Watergate - An American Tragedy." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And our guest is Michael Dobbs. He's a journalist and historian. His new book about six months in the Watergate scandal is "King Richard: Nixon And Watergate - An American Tragedy."

As the cover-up continues and the investigation intensified and there are just countless conversations among Nixon and his advisers about what they're going to do about all this, did they ever talk about the fact that there were tape recorders running? Did they ever think maybe we shouldn't be doing this?

DOBBS: There are a couple of occasions on which Nixon wonders whether taping himself is a good idea. And he at one point orders Haldeman to take out the recording devices. And then he thinks a couple of days later, well, you know, I do want to write my memoirs. I can control these transcripts and these recordings. So perhaps I'll just keep a few of them. And then, you know, as often happened, he forgets about his initial order, and weeks go by, and it becomes too late to rip the recording system out before the existence of the recordings is revealed to Congress by the aide who helped put them in, Alexander Butterfield.

DAVIES: Right. That's quite a moment, because Butterfield decided - if they asked me, I'm not going to lie. And so it becomes public. And there's just a moment where he could destroy the tapes. He talks to General Al Haig, who was by then his chief of staff. What had Haig say about, you know, if - the suggestion that he destroy the tapes?

DOBBS: Well, this conversation occurs in the Bethesda Naval Hospital. Nixon is suffering from a bout of severe pneumonia. He's feeling pretty terrible. His mind is a bit cloudy, so he's not thinking clearly. And he's getting a conflicting sets of advice. Some of his advisers are saying keep the tapes. Others are saying destroy the tapes. And then he asks Al Haig, who's replaced Haldeman as his chief of staff, you know, whether perhaps Haig will destroy the tapes. And Haig draws the line at that. He's a Nixon loyalist, but he's not that loyal. He realizes the risk that might expose him to. And so they think - start thinking of somebody else who might destroy the tapes, perhaps Manolo. But in the end, Nixon decides to keep the tapes because he thinks, despite everything, the tapes can still be his ally, assuming that he can control them.

DAVIES: Yeah. You refer to Manolo. That was Nixon's valet. Yeah. He says those tapes are going to defend me. You know, as I read the book, I kept noticing differences and similarities, it seemed to me, between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. You know, Nixon faced impeachment, although he actually resigned before Congress voted on it. Trump, of course, faced impeachment twice. And there are some similarities and differences. One of them was the willingness, it seems to me, to politicize parts of the executive branch, particularly the FBI and the attorney general's office.

DOBBS: Yes. Well, the - actually, John Dean, who was the White House counsel, had a direct line into the attorney general's office, which was keeping him informed about the process of - progress of the Watergate investigation. He was receiving FBI reports, and that helped him coordinate the cover-up. It was as a result of those abuses that guardrails were put in place that were meant to prevent the White House from manipulating or controlling a FBI Justice Department investigation. And those guardrails pretty much remained intact until the Trump administration. These were the Nixon-era norms that resulted from the Watergate or the post-Nixon-era norms that Trump is widely considered to have violated.

DAVIES: You've studied presidential crises and written books about them, Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Franklin Roosevelt's handling of the Jewish refugee crisis that preceded the Holocaust. Those were cases in which world events presented pressing issues for a president. Watergate's a little different, isn't it? I mean, it really is pretty much wholly of Nixon's making, isn't it?

DOBBS: Yeah. I mean, Nixon wrote a book called "Six Crises." And really, Watergate was the seventh and final crisis. Yes, largely it was of his own making. He set in motion the forces that led to his own downfall. And he installed the tape machines, which became, you know, the key to his downfall. I don't think he would have been forced to resign as president had it not been for those recordings and their release on orders of the Supreme Court. So you can say with Nixon, he made himself - he owed his rise primarily to his own efforts and his incredible work ethic and the way he identified political divisions in America and tapped into, you know, these political movements.

But he also destroyed himself in the sense that he set in motion or allowed himself to be consumed by his hatreds and his resentments and even his thirst for detail turned against him. And he didn't separate himself from the management of the Watergate cover-up. He insisted in being involved in the Watergate cover up and being informed about the cover-up. Had he managed to put some distance between himself and the cover-up, he might well have survived, but he didn't. He insisted on micromanaging everything. So in many ways, you know, he was the author of his own downfall.

DAVIES: You know, I think the tapes reveal pretty clearly that Nixon is not - is a president who had little regard for the principles and norms of American democracy. And of course, there are a lot of people who would say that's certainly true of President Trump. You know, you were born in Northern Ireland. You're now an American citizen. You've been here for a long time. I'm just - if you can express an opinion, how strong or vulnerable is American Democracy now?

DOBBS: Well, I don't actually draw a distinction between Nixon and Trump because it's true that Nixon violated many of the norms of American democracy, and he certainly broke the law in the case of Watergate and other dirty tricks, break-ins. But he respected the basic ground rules. For example, the 1960 election, which he lost by a much closer margin than Donald Trump lost the last election. Nixon had some grounds for challenging the results of that election to John F. Kennedy, but he decided that he didn't want to be seen as a sore loser. So he accepted the results of the election. He never attempted to do anything like we've seen in the last election. So for all his faults and for all his crimes, I still see Nixon as within the mainstream of American presidents.

I think that Trump is outside the mainstream because he's challenged many of these basic rules of the game that Nixon in the end accepted. I mean, after all, you know, Nixon resigned as president. That showed the system worked. Nixon wasn't at all happy about that, but he did leave with a modicum of good grace. And Trump, you know, challenged his own election defeat. So I draw a big distinction there.

And to answer the second part of your question, yes, it is worrying. I've, you know, as a reporter, I was - witnessed the collapse of a society, the Soviet Union, Communism. I've seen political systems unravel. I know that they don't last forever. And I thought that, you know, something similar couldn't happen here. Well, it's now clear that it can happen here. And we have to be on our guard.

DAVIES: Well, Michael Dobbs, thanks so much for speaking with us.

DOBBS: You're welcome. It's been great to be with you.

DAVIES: Michael Dobbs' new book is "King Richard: Nixon And Watergate - An American Tragedy." Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reflects on the career of Conan O'Brien as he leaves his TBS late night show after 11 years. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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