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Kissinger during watergate { May 26 2004 }

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Wednesday, May 26, 2004 Last updated 10:54 p.m. PT

Tapes show Kissinger during Watergate


WASHINGTON -- Henry Kissinger tried to be a rock as the Nixon presidency crumbled around him. But the final days of the "insanity," as he put it in a phone call with an ambassador, tested his statesman's cool.

He blasted an aide for turning in an "idiotic" piece of work. When someone asked him whether Richard Nixon was still "rational," he answered simply, "It's pretty rough." He confided to NBC President Herb Schlosser, "This is a damn nightmare."

More than 20,000 pages of transcripts of Kissinger's phone calls, released Wednesday by the National Archives, show the trusted adviser trying to manage world crises as the Watergate scandal increasingly consumed the president, finally driving him from office in August 1974.

Kissinger, who was Nixon's national security adviser and secretary of state, guarded the privacy of the phone records for three decades before agreeing to let them go to the Archives for public consumption. They had been held sealed at the Library of Congress.

Kissinger, now a foreign policy consultant, had secretaries tape the calls and make transcripts or listen and take shorthand. The calls spanned the monumental events of the time - the Vietnam War, the secret opening to China, superpower tensions, Middle East conflict and Nixon's downfall.

Nixon affectionately called Kissinger "old boy." But in the last months, the president pushed ideas Kissinger feared could start war, joked darkly about bombing Capitol Hill during impeachment hearings and drank to a point where he could not take an urgent call from the British prime minister during the Arab-Israeli war, the calls suggest.

All the while, Kissinger stoked his celebrity status, chatting with Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Warren Beatty and other Hollywood figures who were drawn to his power just as he was drawn to their star dust. John Wayne called to tell him he had an eye problem - one iris was opening faster than the other.

On the night of Oct. 11, 1973, just days into the Arab-Israeli war and with the United States and Soviet Union on a seeming collision course, British Prime Minister Edward Heath tried to reach Nixon by phone to discuss the crisis.

"Can we tell them 'No?'" Kissinger asked his assistant, Brent Scowcroft, who had told him of the request from 10 Downing St. "When I talked to the president, he was loaded."

"We could tell him the president is not available and perhaps he can call you," Scowcroft replied.

Kissinger said Nixon would be available in the morning.

In March 1974, a month after the House voted to press ahead with impeachment proceedings and five months before Nixon resigned, Kissinger fretted about the president's state of mind in a phone call with White House aide Alexander Haig.

"I am calling you about something the president said this morning which rather disturbed me," Kissinger said. "He was in a rather sour mood."

"Yes, that is conceivable," Haig said.

Kissinger went on to complain that Nixon was being too tough on Israeli allies and, "has been just waiting for an opportunity to lay into them. ... Now I tell you if he goes publicly after the Israelis, he might as well start a war."

Haig said Nixon was, "just unwinding," and mentioned that the president had told him to fetch the "football" - the briefcase with the codes to unleash nuclear weapons.

"For what?" Kissinger asked.

"He is going to drop it on the Hill," Haig said. "What I am saying is, don't take him too seriously."

Much closer to the end, Kissinger spoke to an aide about a certain proposal that had won Nixon's nod. "The president has approved this thing," Kissinger said, "although I am not quite sure he knew what he was approving."

Two days before Nixon resigned, Kissinger implored Israeli Ambassador Simcha Dinitz to keep developments in the Middle East as quiet as possible "because we are going through some final throes here and things are very difficult."

Dinitz gave him that assurance, but said he wanted Kissinger's help down the road in improving Israeli-Chinese relations.

"I want you to know I'm working on it," Kissinger said, "and I want to see you as soon as my immediate insanity stops here."

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