The following is an excerpt from an interview with former
President Nixon conducted by David Frost. It aired on television on May
Frost: The wave of dissent, occasionally violent,
which followed in the wake of the Cambodian incursion, prompted
President Nixon to demand better intelligence about the people who were
opposing him. To this end, the Deputy White House Counsel, Tom Huston,
arranged a series of meetings with representatives of the CIA, the FBI,
and other police and intelligence agencies.
These meetings produced a plan, the Huston Plan, which advocated the
systematic use of wiretappings, burglaries, or so-called black bag jobs,
mail openings and infiltration against antiwar groups and others. Some
of these activities, as Huston emphasized to Nixon, were clearly
illegal. Nevertheless, the president approved the plan. Five days later,
after opposition from J. Edgar Hoover, the plan was withdrawn, but the
president's approval was later to be listed in the Articles of
Impeachment as an alleged abuse of presidential power.
So what in a sense, you're saying is that there are certain
situations, and the Huston Plan or that part of it was one of them,
where the president can decide that it's in the best interests of the
nation or something, and do something illegal.
Nixon: Well, when the president does it that means that it is not illegal.
Frost: By definition.
Nixon: Exactly. Exactly. If the president, for
example, approves something because of the national security, or in this
case because of a threat to internal peace and order of significant
magnitude, then the president's decision in that instance is one that
enables those who carry it out, to carry it out without violating a law.
Otherwise they're in an impossible position.
Frost: So, that in other words, really you were
saying in that answer, really, between the burglary and murder, again,
there's no subtle way to say that there was murder of a dissenter in
this country because I don't know any evidence to that effect at all.
But, the point is: just the dividing line, is that in fact, the dividing
line is the president's judgment?
Nixon: Yes, and the dividing line and, just so that
one does not get the impression, that a president can run amok in this
country and get away with it, we have to have in mind that a president
has to come up before the electorate. We also have to have in mind, that
a president has to get appropriations from the Congress. We have to
have in mind, for example, that as far as the CIA's covert operations
are concerned, as far as the FBI's covert operations are concerned,
through the years, they have been disclosed on a very, very limited
basis to trusted members of Congress. I don't know whether it can be
done today or not.
Frost: Pulling some of our discussions together, as
it were; speaking of the Presidency and in an interrogatory filed with
the Church Committee, you stated, quote, "It's quite obvious that there
are certain inherently government activities, which, if undertaken by
the sovereign in protection of the interests of the nation's security
are lawful, but which if undertaken by private persons, are not." What,
at root, did you have in mind there?
Nixon: Well, what I, at root I had in mind I think
was perhaps much better stated by Lincoln during the War between the
States. Lincoln said, and I think I can remember the quote almost
exactly, he said, "Actions which otherwise would be unconstitutional,
could become lawful if undertaken for the purpose of preserving the
Constitution and the Nation."
Now that's the kind of action I'm referring to. Of course in
Lincoln's case it was the survival of the Union in wartime, it's the
defense of the nation and, who knows, perhaps the survival of the
Frost: But there was no comparison was there, between the situation you faced and the situation Lincoln faced, for instance?
Nixon:This nation was torn apart in an ideological
way by the war in Vietnam, as much as the Civil War tore apart the
nation when Lincoln was president. Now it's true that we didn't have the
North and the South—
Frost: But when you said, as you said when we were
talking about the Huston Plan, you know, "If the president orders it,
that makes it legal", as it were: Is the president in that sense—is
there anything in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights that suggests
the president is that far of a sovereign, that far above the law?
Nixon: No, there isn't. There's nothing specific
that the Constitution contemplates in that respect. I haven't read every
word, every jot and every title, but I do know this: That it has been,
however, argued that as far as a president is concerned, that in war
time, a president does have certain extraordinary powers which would
make acts that would otherwise be unlawful, lawful if undertaken for the
purpose of preserving the nation and the Constitution, which is
essential for the rights we're all talking about.
© 1977 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission.
From the third Nixon-Frost interview, The New York Times, May 20, 1977, p. A16.
Questions to Consider
Article II of the Articles of Impeachment against President Nixon
stated that the president "repeatedly engaged in conduct violating the
constitutional rights of citizens". If the president took action against
antiwar groups, which constitutional rights did he likely violate?
In this interview, how does President Nixon justify these alleged violations of constitutional rights?
It has often been said that in the United States we have the rule of
law, not men. What do you think this means? Does President Nixon's
statement that "when the president does it [something illegal], that
means that it is not illegal" support the idea that the United States
has the rule of law, not men? Why or why not?
President Nixon states that there are other ways of containing a
president's power besides the rule of law. What, according to Nixon,
keeps a president in check? Do you think these checks are enough to
prevent the abuse of power by a president?
President Nixon compares the situation he faced as president during
the Vietnam War with the situation that Lincoln faced during the Civil
War. He uses that comparison to support the idea that presidents may
have to take extraordinary, even illegal, actions to hold the nation
together and preserve its security. Does Nixon's comparison stand up? In
other words, from your understanding of the historical period and
President Nixon's actions, was he justified?