Monday, August 4 at 9 PM

Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words

Interview With Peter Kunhardt

HBO

Where did the idea for the film come from?

Peter Kunhardt

We were working on another HBO doc, ‘Teddy Kennedy: In His Own Words’, and discovered there was a section of Nixon’s tapes where he talked about spying on Teddy Kennedy, in an attempt to hurt his presidential chances. It was so gripping we made a mental note to go back and listen to more and see if there was a Nixon narrative that we could put together based entirely on those tapes.

HBO

How much Nixon audio do you estimate you listened to?

Peter Kunhardt

The government estimates that there are about thirty-seven hundred hours of audio. I can't guess how many hours we listened to. But it was many hundreds of hours, and we compiled 200 notebooks that were chronologically organized with transcripts of his tapes. So, we were kind of overwhelmed with paper throughout production.

HBO

What was your process like, in terms of creating a narrative out of the material?

Peter Kunhardt

The taping system was in place for two years, ’71 through ’73. The key for us was to figure out the context of the times, when the tapes were recorded. We began comparing what Nixon was saying on the tapes with what news reporters were saying on TV or in newspapers. We would hear Nixon making his secret plans, describing how he wanted to spin a subject. Then we’d hear his public words, followed by news coverage documenting how the press interpreted it. Then we’d hear Nixon back behind closed doors responding angrily to how the press reported it. To hear a story play out from all sides was very insightful and often revealed Nixon's hypocrisy. And so that became our concept: to give context to the tapes both in terms of the chronology of what was going on in the world, but also what the press was actually reporting. The press offered a key insight into understanding how Nixon operated.

HBO

What’s astonishing is he orders the taping to be done, because he say they’ll be an important historical document. And then he attacks - often using foul language and racial slurs - anyone he perceives as a threat.

Peter Kunhardt

He is such a combination of opposites. He was obsessed with secrecy. And yet, behind closed doors, he would say almost anything. He knew those tapes were running, and in some cases I think he thinly veiled his responses so that he recorded what he wanted to have recorded. In other cases he semed to have fogotten about the taping system entirely and just let his hair hang out. He would be very tough with one person, and very soft with another. So, the different sides of Nixon come out depending on who he’s talking to.

"He didn't change his behavior. It’s just that once Watergate broke, it became labeled as ‘Watergate behavior’. But it was really Nixon behavior that had taken shape throughout a long, hard political career." -- Peter Kunhardt
HBO

He comes off almost gangster-ish when he talks about how much money it’ll take to “fix” something.

Peter Kunhardt

You're absolutely right. John Dean says to him at one point, we don’t know how to do this kind of stuff. This is the kind of thing that the Mafia does. And Nixon, to the listeners' and viewers’ surprise, doesn't say, yeah, you're right, we shouldn't do these things. He says, how much is it going to cost to keep people quiet?

Nixon was paranoid that everyone hated him and was out to get him. He wanted to be seen as a tough guy, but he was thin-skinned and a dirty fighter. He liked to attack before anyone could go after him first. And he thrived on crisis.

HBO

And as the “cancer” – Watergate - starts to eat his presidency up, it’s fascinating to listen to his denial of it. He gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar, but he never cops to it.

Peter Kunhardt

He believed to the core of his soul that he knew what was best for America. He thought America should be tough and have the values that he believed in. And the end justified the means. So, even though he knew that he had taken some dark twists and turns along the way, that wasn’t what was important. When he sat down for an interview with someone like Dan Rather or Barbara Walters, he would say, I'm a President who gets results. My achievements and my record will be measured by results. So, getting results was what he was all about, and in his mind it didn't matter how you he got those results. He could lie, cheat, or steal as long as the end result achieved what he wanted it to be.

Watergate is what people think of when they think of his presidency: the dirty tricks. But what I think the film shows is that he was behaving in the same way all along, whether it was when he was picking a Supreme Court judge, or plotting against individual press members, or going after Daniel Ellsberg for leaking the Pentagon Papers. He didn't change his behavior. It’s just that once Watergate broke, it became labeled as ‘Watergate behavior’. But it was really Nixon behavior that had taken shape throughout a long, hard political career.