THIS WEEK SAW the last act of late president Richard Nixon's last great fight played out with considerable irony. The United States Justice Department has agreed to pay US$18 million (about HK$140 million) to end a battle that had continued for at least two decades over ownership of Nixon's famous tapes, which give an insight into the intimate workings of the Oval Office under one of the most controversial presidents in US history.
The tapes comprise about 3,700 hours of recording on a vast personal bugging system controlled by Nixon himself, including tapes hidden under desks and microphones in the walls. The system was dismantled under the reign of president Gerald Ford, Nixon's vice-president who succeeded him. No other president has instituted anywhere near such an extensive system since.
About 445 hours of tape have recently been made public. As the conspiracy to cover up the level of involvement in the burglary of the Democrat national offices in the Watergate building in Washington swirled around Nixon in 1974, it took the release of just 45 hours to finish him. They proved crucial in securing criminal convictions against his top staff - including White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman and closest domestic adviser John Ehrlichman. And they led a Congressional committee to demand his impeachment for obstruction of justice, which effectively forced his resignation.
Nixon appeared to realise that the release of the tapes would skewer any future attempts at rehabilitation or revision of opinions of a leader described by one historian as touched by greatness but flawed by weakness. He was right. Each new release, available for US$18 in 30-minute slices at the National Archives in Maryland, serves to shock a new generation of Americans.
Utterly profane, they capture Nixon's cynicism, jealousies and pure hatreds as much as they capture any visions - all in the scratchy, low tones of a paranoid man under immense pressure. Far from pulling him back from the abyss to the grander heights of his presidency, his closest advisers emerge as sycophants during some of his more warped ramblings.
One, in 1971, captures Nixon venting a long stream-of-consciousness with Ehrlichman on the state of modern broadcasting. 'You know what happened to the Greeks! Homosexuality destroyed them,' Nixon tells his aide. 'Sure, Aristotle was a homo. We all know that. So was Socrates,' he adds. Ehrlichman is not to be outdone. 'But he never had the influence television had,' he interjects.
Then there is an instruction to Haldeman a few months later. 'Bob,' Nixon says, 'please get me the names of the Jews. You know, the big Jewish contributors of the Democrats. Could you please investigate some of the *****? . . . What about the rich Jews? The IRS [Internal Revenue Service] is full of Jews, so go after them like a son of a bitch.' It is quite clear he never believed the tapes would emerge. At one point, he speculates aloud about the need to keep some distance between the dirty doings of Watergate and another politically motivated break-in, and the White House. 'I believe somehow that I have to avoid having the president approve the break-in of a psychiatrist's office,' he ponders.
That is why he fought, but lost, a battle to keep the recordings. All his papers and tapes were seized by the Government under a law enacted by Congress, after his resignation, to stop any evidence about Watergate being destroyed. Nixon eventually demanded compensation, a fight he instructed his estate to continue after his death in 1994.
Hence the irony of this week's judgment, in which the Justice Department agreed to pay his estate US$18 million for the papers and tapes seized entirely lawfully. The estate had originally sought US$200 million.
The issue of such a payment had never come up previously because all presidents, starting with Herbert Hoover in 1933, had happily donated their papers to government-run presidential libraries. Nixon, however, feared for his legacy and created a private library instead.
Most of the payment is expected to go in lawyers' fees and taxes and an estimated US$6 million will remain for the library in California and the Nixon Centre think-tank in Washington. Nixon's relatives will receive about US$90,000.
A Justice Department official says, all things considered, the deal amounts to a 'fair resolution for the American taxpayer'. The Nixon estate describes the settlement as a 'reasonable compromise'.
Six years after his death, it is tempting to think Nixon himself might have uttered a typically profane expression of satisfaction at the result.
Greg Torode is the Post's Washington correspondent