Other segments from the episode on April 13, 2015
April 13, 2015
Guest: Bryan Burrough
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The American radical underground of the 1970s is the subject of my guest Bryan Burrough's new book, "Days Of Rage." He writes about the Weather Underground and other groups whose members he says, quote, "mistakenly believed the country was on the brink of a genuine, political revolution and thought that violence would speed the change," unquote. Some of the groups were fully committed to their political ideals.Others had vague and incoherent ideologies. In addition to the Weather Underground, Burrough writes about the Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Army, which is an offshoot of the Panthers, the Symbionese Liberation Army, which kidnapped Patty Hearst, the Family, which was co-founded by Tupac Shakur's stepfather and FALN, a Puerto Rican independence group. Burrough spoke to several members of these groups who had never spoken on the record before and offered new insights into how these groups operated. Burrough also spoke with retired FBI agents. Burrough was a special correspondent for Vanity Fair. He also wrote the best-seller "Barbarians At The Gate: The Fall Of RJR Nabisco."
Bryan Burrough, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So you're trying to take several of the radical groups from the '70s and late '60s and put them into context. So as part of doing that, you said that the number of bombings by radical groups in an 18-month period between 1971 and '72 - 2,500 bombings on U.S. soil during the 18-month period. But you also say that those bombings, although more widespread, were less lethal than attacks today. There weren't many casualties. So was that intentional?
BRYAN BURROUGH: Yes, by and large, it was. And that, of course, is the challenge for an author - is trying to explain to people today the incredible differences in the way the American public regarded all these bombings during the 1970s. These bombings were far more widespread and far less lethal. Less than 1 percent of them led to any type of serious injury, much less a fatality. Bombs, I write, basically functioned as exploding press releases at a time when there was no Internet or much way of, let's say, a radical getting his views out to the public. If you exploded a bomb and then taped a communique beneath a telephone booth or called it into a radio station, that was the way that these underground radicals got their message out.
GROSS: You write
(Reading) the challenge for me is to explain to people today why this all didn't seem as insane then as it does now.
Do you feel like you have a better understanding now for the reasons behind the actions of the radical armed groups?
BURROUGH: I do. Look, I'm not here to condone or to condemn them, merely to present things accurately. So the challenge is to explain to people today why radical bombings didn't seem like something, you know, a crazy person like the Unabomber would be doing. You have to explain the fact that the Nixon administration really was as corrupt as many of them believed, that the war was misguided...
GROSS: The war in Vietnam?
BURROUGH: ...That generations of African - yes - that generations of African-Americans had undergone, you know, hellish experiences. There were reasons - legitimate reasons - to have these grievances. What makes the 1970s so different, especially from today, is that there were all these militants that believed that the way to right these wrongs was to detonate bombs, was to assassinate policemen, was to engage in shootouts and kidnappings. It was a very different time from today.
GROSS: Well, there really was a belief that there was going to be a revolution. What's your understanding of some of the different concepts of that revolution that people were planning for?
BURROUGH: Well, across all these groups, they all read the same things. They had the same philosophers and the same philosophies. And I think, in general, the young people who went underground and declared this kind of war against America in the 1970s were mostly one-time protesters and student militants from the '60s who really were not able to escape the dream of 1968. And that is the dream that, in fact, a new world order was dawning, that governments were falling. The hardcore of the '60s protest movement really did believe that a second American Revolution was imminent. I quote one of the Weatherman memorably saying, I kind of thought it would be 1975, maybe the revolution would come in '77. But that they believed a revolution was imminent and that violence would speed the change as it had in China, in North Vietnam and in Cuba.
GROSS: Let's start with one of the most famous of the radical underground groups of the period - the Weather Underground, which was an offshoot of the radical student group SDS, Students for a Democratic Society. How would you describe the philosophy of the Weather Underground?
BURROUGH: The Weather Underground was the leadership of SDS. And they went underground essentially to join the war they imagined African-Americans were launching, the revolution that they believed the Black Panthers were launching. They went underground essentially - we show - I think we prove with on-the-record interviews in the book with an intention of attacking and attempting to kill policemen and military officers. This was a strategy that did not last long because their political prowess far exceeded their technical prowess and they had a bomb go off that killed three of their people. It was after that that they embarked on a very different strategy of largely symbolic protest bombings - bombings done late at night of empty buildings.
GROSS: A lot of the targets of the anger of radical groups in the '60s and '70s were corporations - the Pentagon corporations, in part for their perceived greed, but also for their participation in manufacturing things that were used in the war in Vietnam, like napalm. But the target early on for the Weather Underground, as you describe it, was police. Why police?
BURROUGH: There was a sense that it was really violent, black rhetoric - especially that emanating from the Black Panthers - that informed most of the people that initially went underground - the first group, the Weather Underground and the second, the Black Liberation Army. And African-American militants at that point had an array of complaints, but chief among them, first among them, was always police brutality, that policemen throughout America largely were able to kill black men, black Americans, with impunity. And, you know, we quote people from Weather saying look, we wanted to do what the Panthers wanted to and what the Black Liberation Army wanted to do later and that is kill policeman, to, quote, "fight back." It seems amazing now, but that's what they intended to do.
GROSS: Did the Weather Underground actually hurt or kill any people before changing their tactics?
BURROUGH: They hurt a policeman in Berkeley, Calif., in their first attack.
GROSS: Describe it for us.
BURROUGH: The early weeks of the Weather Underground have always been kind of cloaked in secrecy and now I understand why - because there were a series of attacks and plans for attacks on policemen, on military installations that were sharply different in strategy - you know, kind of a murderous strategy and very different from what they did later. This first attack is described in the book on the record by the young man, now in his 60s, who built the bomb and organized the attack. His name is Howard Machtinger. It was launched against the police station in Berkeley, Calif., late on a - I think it was a Thursday night in February 1970. There was a shift change at 11 p.m. The officers came out of the station into the parking lot, where the first device went off. There were many shattered windows. One officer's arm was mangled. He went through six hours of surgery to save it. Just as everyone was recovering from that bomb, a second one went off, which caused further injuries. This attack, which was, I believe, the first ever done by the Weather Underground, they took no credit for, and it has never been credited to them.
GROSS: One of the turning points in the history of the Weather Underground is the infamous story of a bomb that actually exploded in the townhouse where the bomb was being prepared. Three members of the Weather Underground were killed. Two of them escaped. And you spoke to the woman whose townhouse it was who escaped from that accidental bombing, Cathy Wilkerson. And just to refresh our memories, what was that bomb being prepared for - the one that accidentally exploded?
BURROUGH: This bomb was being prepared to be set. One of several bombs was going to be set at an officer's dance that night in Fort Dix, N.J. If in fact Weatherman had gone through with that, they would have been mass-murderers. That was what they were attempting to do. Talking to Cathy, talking to other members of the collective who were not in the building that day, there was not a lot of discussion about the morals of this.
One way to look at Weatherman is as a political cult. People had really all drank the Kool-Aid, and they were ready to do this, with one notable exception. I did interview the family of a young man who did kind of, in his words, wig out about it the night before and scream at the other members in the club to - what are we doing? We can't just kill people like this. And he was told, you need to calm down or we'll have to kill you (laughter). And I don't think they were joking.
This was considered deadly serious. People understood what they were doing. They were committed to the struggle, committed to a violent struggle. And the only reason that didn't happen was because the bomb builder - the head of the collective, Terry Robbins - didn't know nearly as much as he thought about dynamite. And it went off in his hands. He died along with two others, and Cathy Wilkerson, whose family townhouse it was, was one of two survivors who crawled from the rubble and went underground. I had many interviews with Cathy. I have deep respect for her. She went on to a long career as a teacher here in New York.
GROSS: After the disaster in the townhouse in New York when the bomb accidentally exploded and killed three members of the Weather Underground, Bernardine Dohrn, one of the leaders of the group, issued a new strategy for a form of, like, armed propaganda where instead of, like, targeting people, it was more going to be about symbolic bombings. So would you describe this change in strategy?
BURROUGH: You're exactly right. After the townhouse, Bernardine Dohrn and her partner at that time, Jeff Jones, more or less took control of Weatherman and said, you know, a strategy of murder just - we can't do. We need something much more life-affirming. We'll never rally America to the revolution we want by killing people.
And she ordained or she worked with the others to come up with a strategy that they called armed propaganda. Others dubbed it responsible terrorism, as one editorialist called it, in which the new strategy would be to bomb symbols of government power, typically late at night, with warnings phoned in so that people would not be killed. Once a young man named Ron Fliegelman in New York perfected a new, safer bomb design, they were able to do this. They initiated this new theater of operations by detonating a bomb out (laughter) in a restroom just down from the commissioner of the New York Police - his office in Police headquarters.
The bombings went on for five or six years. The most high-profile of them would include a bomb that the Weather set off at the U.S. Capitol in - I think it was February '71 - and a restroom at the Pentagon in May of 1972.
GROSS: Since you have described some of these bombings as basically exploding press releases, a way of calling attention very dramatically to the causes that the Weather Underground embraced, how did the statements read?
BURROUGH: That's funny. They start off in 1970 at a time where Weatherman, who were largely very serious, east coast student militants, were aware that the protest movement was kind of changing dramatically and rapidly in front of them in a kind of a flood of tie-dye and LSD, that hippies and the counterculture was taking over. So the early communiques are very rich and kind of hippie-dippie, almost comical jargon about, you know, Attorney General Mitchell, dog, look out, we're coming for you, dude - this type of stuff. And after a few months, that began to melt away and especially with the famous communique called New Morning in December 1970. Dohrn seems to have taken much more responsibility for the communiques. And they became, I think, much more mature in terms of their political message, certainly in the verbiage and the language. And they became much, much more sober documents that lasted on for most of the next six years. Every time they bombed something, there was a new communique.
GROSS: What were some of the causes that were mentioned in the so-called exploding press releases?
BURROUGH: (Laughter). They started off - Weather - very much in support of the black revolutionaries, such as the Black Panthers, that they believed were in open revolt against the U.S. government. Unfortunately, you know, after about a year into this, Weather came into conflict with their fellow travelers in the black underground who wanted to continue murderous violence, who wanted to continue killing cops. And as a result, Weather backed off from backing groups like the Black Liberation Army. And they began devoting their communiques increasingly to a broader version of revolution - that drugs could be revolutionary. And ultimately, as the '70s wore on, their communiques endorsed a variety of left-wing causes and notions, many of them popularized in mainstream today from feminism to environmentalism to the sins of American corporations and multinationals in the Third World.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bryan Burrough. He's the author of the new book "Days Of Rage: America's Radical Underground, The FBI, And The Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Bryan Burrough. He's the author of the new book "Days Of Rage: America's Radical Underground, The FBI, And The Forgotten Age Of Revolutionary Violence." And that age is in the 1960s and '70s. Bryan Burrough is also a special correspondent for Vanity Fair.
So your book begins with you meeting with Cathy Wilkerson. And again, she's the woman whose family owned the townhouse that accidentally exploded after a bomb accidentally went off, a bomb that her friends in the Weather Underground were making. So when you meet Cathy Wilkerson, she's 68. She's a grandmother. And you found out she was actually one of the bomb makers, as you were telling us. And she specialized in making bombs that were safer so that they wouldn't accidentally explode like the one in her family townhouse did. How did you find that out? This was information she hadn't divulged before.
BURROUGH: No. What I found in approaching the book and looking at the existing literature is there was an awful lot out there about the politics of the radical underground. There was not much on the actual - the logistics, how they did it. That type of thing just had rarely been discussed. People were concerned about being prosecuted. Well, now it's 40 years later, and I had been able to talk to many of her peers in the Weather Underground, many of them in their 60s and 70s. In this case, the man that she had been lovers with in the late 1970s, named Ron Fliegelman, who was kind of the lead bomb maker, if you will, of the Weather Underground, had told me not only was he the lead underground, but that Cathy was the only one out on the west coast who knew how to, quote, "build the thing." And so there was a moment that I start the book with because it was important to show people what these people had to go through to begin to share their stories with an author, someone like me who's not radical. And so I said to her, I think I know what your role was. And this was about our sixth meeting and she'd never gone near that. She'd never been willing to go toward the bombings or toward what she actually did underground. She said - and I remember because she had her 5-month-old grandson with her kind of rocking him in her lap - and I said, yeah, I've been told. You were the west coast bomb maker. And there was this long, kind of dramatic silence. And she just said I felt an obligation to make the design safe - the bomb design, she meant. You know, she felt she needed to help the group get back on track after the devastation and the deaths at the townhouse. And that type of kind of eureka moment, I experienced literally dozens of times with people in a variety of these groups - talking with people in the Black Liberation Army about police shootouts, with people like the great revolutionary Ray Levasseur about his group's bank robberies and the like. You know, it's hard for a lot of these people to realize that it's safe, that they won't be prosecuted now, in all likelihood, for talking about these things that happened back in the 1970s.
GROSS: So what were their tactics?
BURROUGH: The Black Liberation Army, by and large, did not go in for bombings. They went in for the assassination of policemen. There were several attempts to assassinate police in New York in 1971 that resulted in two deaths. In January 1972, a group of BLA soldiers engaged probably the most gruesome assassination of NYPD officers in the city's history, the deaths of Greg Foster and Rocco Laurie. Those killings have officially never been solved, and I tell the backstory, the untold backstory, of that in great detail in the book.
The BLA went on to continue attacking and occasionally killing police officers throughout 1973 when one by one, its soldiers and ultimately its leaders and ultimately its last leader, Joanne Chesimard, now better known as Assata Shakur, who's still in the news for being in Cuba when the last of them were hunted down, captured and killed in 1973.
GROSS: So you spoke with one of the leaders of the BLA, Dhoruba bin Wahad, whose birth name was Richard Moore, and he told you about their plans to attack police who had killed African-Americans. Why did he talk with you? How did you get him to talk with you?
BURROUGH: Dhoruba is 70 years old now. He served, I want to say, 15 years in prison for his alleged role in some of these killings. He feels essentially safe to talk about this now. But more than anything, Dhoruba, looking back 40 years later, realizes that the most important thing he ever did was to be one of the initial co-founders of the Black Liberation Army.
And yet, this group has never attained any type of historical credibility. Most people outside the BLA don't even believe it existed. And part of the reason that Dhoruba and several of his colleagues spoke to me for the first time was they wanted the world to know that there actually had been a BLA. Whatever you may think about what they tried to do, whatever you may think about the assassination - attempted assassination of police officers, they want history to remember them, and that's why they spoke for this book.
GROSS: Does he still stand behind the tactic of assassinating policemen?
BURROUGH: Dhoruba is a smart and canny gentleman who will take you right up to the moment a gun was pulled, and he won't tell you what happened to the bullet. He will not advocate, today, violence against policemen, but he's quite open about what they were attempting to do beginning in May 1971. One of the more memorable quotes of his from the book, and I'm not quoting this exactly word to word, but that the tactical mistake was shooting the cops in uniform. We should have shot their higher-ups. That would have been much more effective.
GROSS: The FBI and police were really trying to find the people behind these targeted killings of police. You know, whether the BLA existed as an organization or not, the FBI and police were trying to get behind the story. How successful were they, and what tactics did they use?
BURROUGH: It differs between the police and the FBI. The FBI, in large part in chasing all these groups, was fairly ineffective. They did ultimately close in and capture some of them. For instance, the Symbionese Liberation Army - the remnants there. By and large, they never caught any of the Weathermen, and they never prosecuted - and they only prosecuted a handful of them. Difficult to generalize overall about the tactics.
Most famously, the FBI engaged in a series of illegal break-ins, illegal opening of mail, illegal just-about-everything-you-can-imagine in an effort to learn the whereabouts of Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and the rest of the Weather leadership. I talked with FBI agents who engaged in these break-ins, some of whom, you know, had to speak to grand juries later in the decade.
And it's one reason these stories have gone untold for so long because many of the alumni of the Underground didn't want to discuss them because of the crimes they felt they might be prosecuted for. And many of the police officers and FBI agents involved didn't want to discuss them because they too had committed illegal acts. So it took many decades (laughter) to pass before we could get everybody to kind of open up and start talking.
GROSS: I want to ask you about a group called The Family. Again, this is not a group that was very well known, but it's, I think, of special interest now because it was cofounded by Tupac Shakur's stepfather, Mutulu Shakur, whose birth name was Jeral Williams. And he married a former Panther, Afeni Shakur, who was part of The Panther 21. Those were 21 Panthers who were accused of attacking several locations. They were acquitted. She is - was Tupac's mother. To tell us a little bit about this group, The Family - what its goals and tactics were.
BURROUGH: The Family was composed of a number of alumni and supporters from both the Black Liberation Army and the Weather Underground who came together late in the decade to begin robbing banks in the New York area. It was an interesting group in that while all of them called themselves revolutionaries, it does seem like an awful lot of the profits from these bank robberies did not go toward helping the black community as they were supposed to - as many of them thought was going to happen. But a lot of it just went to buy cocaine for the group's leaders. So there was a - what leftists sometimes call a corruption at the core of this group from the beginning.
Initially, it was a series of black revolutionaries, and after a couple of years they were able to rope in several white women who had been on the fringes of the Weather Underground who began giving them material support, driving their getaway cars and the like. And for the first time, we have a couple of the leaders of the group, Sylvia Barildini (ph) who's now in exile in Rome and Sekou Odinga who most memorably engineered the prison breakout of Joanne Chesimard in 1979. For the first time they actually are talking in detail about, really, some of the most incredible radical actions or crimes of the late 1970s.
GROSS: Give us an example of one of those things that Sekou Odinga or the other person you referred to told you about that you don't think were written about or recorded or publicly discussed before.
BURROUGH: One of the most outlandish political actions of the late 1970s by the Underground was the breakout from prison in New Jersey of Joanne Chesimard, who had been the BLA's last great leader. Both Sylvia Barildini and Sekou Odinga speak and describe their roles in the prison breakout, and Sylvia was a getaway driver, but it was Sekou who engineered it all - who actually took a - managed to get a .357 Magnum stuck into the - beneath his shirt into the prison, went in. He and Assata, JoAnne Chesimard, came out, and he memorably talks about how he was tapping his gun on the window of the elderly lady guard there at this women's prison, attempting to persuade her to let them out. And when she wouldn't, he took out his kind of - his backup device, which was a single stick of dynamite from his pants and put it on the ledge and said, in essence, to this matron, either you let us out, or none of us will ever get out. And Sekou then, along with Sylvia, managed to get Assata Shakur out to a safe house and ultimately to Cuba where she lives to this day even though Sylvia and Sekou both did, you know, in the order of 20 or 30 years for these and other political actions. Sekou was just paroled in November.
GROSS: So did you find The Family being like a coherent group with a coherent strategy, whether you agree with it or not, you know?
BURROUGH: No. No, in fact it's fascinating. At the beginning of the decade, these first underground groups were so together. They really had their act together. They seemed to move as one. And by the end of the decade when many of them could clearly see that no second revolution was imminent in America, a certain amount of what leftists call corruption crept into these groups. It became less clear sometimes that their crimes were being done for revolutionary purposes as perhaps that somebody was behind their rent or wanted some cocaine. That was the problem with The Family - is that about half of them were genuine political revolutionaries who thought they were doing this to further their war against the government, and the others - chiefly, Mutulu Shakur - parroted this line, but seemed mostly interested in the amount of cocaine that they could buy.
GROSS: So in addition to talking to a lot of people who were members of radical underground militant groups in the '60s and '70s, you talked to at least one person who was the child of somebody who was killed in an attack by one of the underground groups. Tell us who you talked to.
BURROUGH: I talked to Joe Connor whose father, Frank Connor, was 1 of 4 people killed in an attack on a Wall Street restaurant named Fraunces Tavern in January 1975. That attack was one of the first attacks by a Puerto Rican independence group called the FALN that was kind of ore or less in partnership with the Weather Underground, if you will. And I spoke to Mr. Connor for the epilogue of the book in which I tips - take stock of what, if anything, the radical underground of the 1970s could claim credit for.
On one hand, there are alumni of the underground that say that the most important thing about the underground is simply that it existed - that it shows the links to which committed left-wing people will go to oppose power in America - corrupt power as personified by the Nixon administration in the Vietnam War. On the other side is that - of that is Joe Connor who says look, I don't care what these people say about their altruistic motives. The fact is they took it on themselves to blow up restaurants occasionally and kill innocent people. And, you know, your motives don't matter. You're just murderers. And I quote him at the end saying, you know, these people want you to believe that they're somehow soft revolutionaries and just trying to bring out their complaints about their government. The fact is they were terrorists and murderers.
And I get asked a lot why I call them revolutionaries instead of terrorists because most people now consider any type of bombing a terrorist act. And for me, it was not an ideological decision, but really one of precision of language. To me, a terrorist is someone who kills indiscriminately. And whatever you may say about the Weather Underground, it didn't do that. In fact, very few of these groups launched attacks that killed indiscriminately. And so therefore, I just decided that terrorist was not - it didn't have the precision of the word that I wanted. I thought revolutionary was probably more appropriate.
GROSS: How was this man's father killed?
BURROUGH: Frank Connor was one of a - six men sitting at a table in Fraunces Tavern. He worked for J.P. Morgan. Three of the men were J.P. Morgan bankers. Three of them were clients, and they had had a long meeting, and they just were out trying to blow off some steam when a waiter noticed a young man with a head of unruly curls and a duffel bag come into the dining room there at Fraunces Tavern. When the waiter turned his head and he turned around, the man was gone. Five minutes later, someone saw a duffel bag laying behind the wall where Joe Connor's father, Frank Connor, was calling for the check. About another five minutes later that duffel bag exploded. There were, like, 50 sticks of dynamite inside. The wall behind the bag evaporated, killing three of the people at Mr. Connor's table, including MR. Connor. The fourth individual was killed when a nail from the floor shot up like a bullet through the roof and went through the bottom of a chair inhabited by an investment banker named Harold Sherburne on the second floor, killing him instantly.
GROSS: Are there traces of these radical groups and the politics that they espouse, the social programs that they advocated, the language that they used that you still see reverberating in American culture today?
BURROUGH: The DNA of these groups still is out there. There are still people who call themselves Black Panthers. You know, after Ferguson last year, you saw all the echoes of the old debated. You know, black lives don't matter, how do we react - well, these days it is amazing to see that most activists want to react inside the system. They believed - they believe that, you know, marches - that protests can bring change. In the early '70s coming in the wake of the '60s, there was not that belief, and so you saw these underground groups such as the Black Liberation Army go underground and begin trying to kill officers.
And when - I've been asked, well, gosh, what's the difference between the attitudes today and the attitudes then? And I think by and large it's because activists today can see those tactics did not work during the 1970s. I think that's why by and large no one is espousing open violence. It's also because in the wake of 9/11, frankly, I think that there's almost no one in America that is willing to lend political violence any credibility. I think that's likely to last for generations in this country.
GROSS: Thank you, Bryan Burrough, so much for talking with us.
BURROUGH: Thank you.
GROSS: Bryan Burrough it the author of the new book "Days Of Rage," and he's a special correspondent for Vanity Fair.
Don't forget that if you miss any of our interviews, they're available any time on our podcast. And if you subscribe to our podcast, you'll see our new logo, which we think is pretty great. You'll also see it on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page. The logo was designed by Matt Dorfman, who also designed the logo for the Serial Podcast and does illustrations for The New York Times. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember historian Stanley Kutler. He died Tuesday at the age of 80. Kutler helped uncover some of the dark secrets of the Nixon administration. Some of Nixon's secretly recorded White House tapes were released in April 1974. Nixon resigned that August.Nixon tried to prevent the release of the remaining tapes, but in 1992 Kutler and the advocacy group Public Citizen sued the National Archives which led to the 1996 release of about 200 more hours of Nixon White House tapes. Those recordings detail how the Nixon administration tried to destroy Daniel Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon papers and how the group of former CIA agents known as the Plumbers broke into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist looking for incriminating information. The Plumbers were later caught breaking into the Democratic headquarters of the Watergate hotel and office building leading to a massive cover-up which the tapes document.Cutler had the tapes transcribed them as the basis of his 1997 book "Abuse Of Power." I spoke to him when it was published. I asked him about one of the big questions surrounding the Watergate scandal. Why did Nixon try to cover it up instead of letting other people take the fall?
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
STANLEY KUTLER: I think I've got another dimension to it. I think that the standard answer that I and others have often given as for the institution of a cover-up is because there was a need to protect the president from any revelation of the so-called White House horrors of the first term - that is the existence of the Plumbers which engaged in illegal break-ins and the Houston Plan which also authorized illegal break-ins, the IRS abuses, the enemies list and so forth. Those are the standard reasons given for the cover-up.But here in these new tapes, Nixon on two occasions - one is when he's talking about the Plumbers break-in of Ellsberg's psychiatrist office and a second one, he's talking about the authorization of illegal break-ins under the so-called Houston Plan. He says, I cannot admit that the president of the United States authorized illegal acts. It was a kind of psychological moment. Here was the man who for 25 years had championed himself as the advocate of law and order - the man of high-toned moral principles is now going to go out and admit that he authorized second-story men to engage in illegal break-ins for his administration. It was really more than he could bear to face.
GROSS: What about Henry Kissinger? How does he come out looking in the tapes? I mean...
GROSS: ...Nixon thinks Kissinger is leaking to the press at some point.
KUTLER: Oh, yeah. You see this...
GROSS: So they have a quarrel between them about that. But what was Kissinger in on, and what did he actively participate in?
KUTLER: Yeah. Well, I - you know, there is an obvious tension between these two men. Nixon is very unhappy, you know, when Kissinger gets a Nobel Prize. Why not me? After all, didn't Kissinger take his orders from Nixon? He would resent if Kissinger became man of the year on Time Magazine cover. There was a rivalry there. Well, throughout these tapes, his reference to Kissinger asking for wiretaps of his key national security council aides to find out who's leaking to the media. And Kissinger is up to his ears in that. And Nixon keeps reminding him of it. There are conversations, though, that, in the eyes of many people today, don't serve Kissinger very well. He appears to be the ultimate tutee buttering up the president. There is a conversation on the night of April 30 after Nixon has fired Haldeman and Ehrlichman, his key aides, and Kissinger has this conversation with him and reminds - tells Nixon again how great he is and that Watergate doesn't mean anything. History's going to remember Nixon as the great man of peace and so forth. Yet in his own memoirs, at the same time - in his diary which appears in his memoirs, Kissinger says for the night of April 30 that he knew that Nixon was dead in the water at that point, that the administration was paralyzed and probably on the way out.
GROSS: The last tape that Nixon made in the White House - the last tape that you've transcribed for your...
KUTLER: Well, I think it's the last tape that he made in the White House - the last recording we have. It's on July 12, the day that Butterfield relieved - revealed the existence of the tapes.
GROSS: His final words - Nixon's final words in a conversation with Kissinger are keep fighting. What's the context of that conversation and the significance of Nixon's words?
KUTLER: Well, it's a conversation - he and Kissinger often engaged in these kind of mutual support conversations of each trying to buck up the spirits of the other. And the word - I find that conversation fascinating because the word fight runs through his memoirs like a red thread - battle, conflict - he was a combative man. He saw life as a constant struggle and a constant battle and a constant fight. I was struck by the fact that these are almost his last words in this last recorded conversation. Keep fighting. The fact is that the man, when you think about it - from May '73 on, Nixon realizes the consequences for him - that if any of this cover-up is ever revealed, uncovered, that he is in serious trouble. He will probably have to resign. Yet he fights. He fights desperately.
On the night of April 30 when he fires Haldeman and Ehrlichman there are all these very depressed, distraught conversations he has. If you look at the conversations on May 1 - if you listen to them, he's full of fight, full of energy. He's determined to fight on. And the fact is that he kept fighting from the time this taping system closed down, July '73, almost until the day he resigned. And finally then he realized how hopeless it was.
GROSS: Journalist Stanley Kutler recorded in 1997. He died Tuesday at the age of 80.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.