WASHINGTON — When the Watergate scandal grew into a full-bore crisis, Richard Nixon's aides hatched a plan to save his presidency: Convince lawmakers and the public that the Watergate prosecutor was a zealot holding a "pistol to the head" of the president.
It didn't work.
Memos and tape recordings released Tuesday give insights into a well-known characteristic of Nixon and his aides -- a hair-trigger sensitivity to political rivals and quick resort to machinations against them.
A 1972 meeting between Nixon and his chief of staff produced an informal directive to "destroy" the "pip-squeak" running for Democratic vice president, according to scribbled notes released in the new collection.
The materials show Nixon as sharp-witted, crude, manipulative and sometimes surprisingly liberal by comparison with mainstream Republicans today.
In one letter, he solidly endorses the Equal Rights Amendment, saying that for 20 years "I have not altered my belief that equal rights for women warrant a constitutional guarantee." The amendment failed.
Watergate was a gathering drumbeat through it all, eventually to consume Nixon's presidency. The peril is palpable in memos that surfaced Tuesday.
A nine-page handwritten note by Nixon domestic policy adviser Kenneth Cole reflects on the unfolding "Saturday night massacre," when Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox and lost the two top Justice Department officials in October 1973, bringing the nation to the brink of constitutional crisis.
Cox was pressing relentlessly for Nixon's White House tape recordings as he investigated the president's involvement in the Watergate cover-up. Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William D. Ruckelshaus, balked at Nixon's decision to fire Cox -- and were removed, too.
Cole recommended demonizing the investigator -- a tactic President Bill Clinton and his aides would try in his own impeachment drama years later, against prosecutor Kenneth Starr.
"Cox wanted to keep this an unending crisis of the body politic," Cole wrote, laying out an argument for Nixon partisans that would be called talking points today.
Under the headline Game Plan, Cole laid out a strategy for the beleaguered Republican president to reach out to conservative Southern Democrats as well as supportive GOP lawmakers to try to dampen sentiment for impeachment.
Nixon aides also would argue that inquiries would ultimately exonerate him and Congress should not do anything rash: "Wait til you see the product -- all will be revealed -- let's wait til then."