Thursday, November 12, 2015

Q&A with Ray Locker

Ray Locker is the author of the new book Nixon's Gamble: How a President's Own Secret Government Destroyed His Administration. He is the Washington enterprise editor at USA Today, and he previously worked for the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press, among other news organizations. He lives in Rockville, Maryland.

Q: You write, “Nixon’s secrecy helped him reach audacious goals that reshaped US foreign policy and created an enduring personal legacy. Reaching those goals, however, cost him the presidency.” Why do you think secrecy became so important to Richard Nixon?

A: I think Nixon learned early in life that he wasn't the kind of person who was going to get things he wanted because of his personal charisma. He had to work hard for whatever break he got and often had to take on people and interests more powerful than him. 

As he spent more time in government, he also believed that many entrenched interests, whether in the military, intelligence community or diplomatic corps, would not agree with what he wanted to do.

The military had fought the Chinese in Korea, and many would not like the idea of the United States reaching out to them. The same held true for the way he wanted to end the Vietnam War or reach a nuclear deal with the Soviet Union. So he believed he could only accomplish what he wanted through secrecy. 

He was also paranoid and distrustful of most people. That paranoia was exacerbated during the Alger Hiss case in the late 1940s, and he never lost that feeling. He talked about Hiss constantly, often in the context of hiding his own secrets.

Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Nixon?

A: I think the most common perception about Nixon is that he was a historical villain who let his paranoia and secrecy get the better of him. That's a valid perception in my opinion. 

The misperceptions are that he was a hardcore Cold Warrior, that he was influenced by Henry Kissinger to make many of his policy moves and that he was trying to expand the Vietnam War.

The record I uncovered for Nixon's Gamble shows Nixon's top priority was the outreach to China, hardly something that a hardliner would do, and that he was the architect of his foreign policy, not Kissinger, who was mostly a very effective servant.

On Vietnam, whatever Nixon did was to distract attention from his removal of troops from South Vietnam and whatever Kissinger was doing with the North Vietnamese in Paris. 

Q: How did you research this book, and what particularly surprised you in the course of your research?

A: I relied mostly on primary documents I found through the State Department, FBI, CIA, Nixon library and other sources. The State Department's Office of the Historian has an exhaustive collection of documents in its Foreign Relations of the United States series, and that is a road map through most of the major policy decisions of the Nixon administration.

I also got documents that were recently declassified by the National Archives, such as Nixon's 1975 grand jury testimony, which was the foundation for the book's prologue. I supplemented the primary documents with memoirs and some of the contemporary journalism of the period. 

I also tapped into some university library archives. That's where I found a lot of details about what former FBI official William Sullivan was telling the Senate Watergate Committee, and how it matched what the mysterious secret source Deep Throat was telling Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.

That's why I believe that in the case of a May 3, 1973 Post story in which some of the information is credited to Deep Throat, that Sullivan was Woodward's source and not Mark Felt, the former FBI official who claimed he was Deep Throat 10 years ago.

The documentary evidence points to Sullivan, not Felt, because Sullivan had a motive to mislead Woodward and the country about the FBI's involvement in the wiretapping of 17 government officials and journalists. Sullivan, Kissinger and Alexander Haig were all involved in the wiretaps, and they all lied to hide their involvement.

The role of Sullivan in keeping Nixon's secrets and then exposing them in order to save himself was the biggest surprise in my research. I think he's the biggest discovery in the book, and a historical character about whom too little is known.

Q: How was the book’s title selected, and what does it signify for you?

A: I picked the title because I thought it reflected Nixon's state of mind when he restructured the National Security Council and created his secret government to reach his policy goals. He was willing to risk his presidency to accomplish what he wanted, and while he succeeded, he ultimately lost because his means created too many enemies.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now, I'm trying to promote this book, but I have a couple of ideas simmering. One is a biography of Sullivan, who played a much bigger role in the events of post-World War II America than most people realize. The other looks at U.S. policy toward North Korea. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Nixon was an extremely consequential president, because he shifted U.S. foreign policy in ways that most Americans would not have anticipated when he was elected. The opening to China deserves to be his signature accomplishment.

But the means he used to get what he wanted meant he risked tarnishing everything he did. He deserves his place in the bottom tier of American presidents, despite his accomplishments, because he stripped Americans of their faith in government in ways that no president since Nixon has ever done. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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