WASHINGTON -- When the Watergate scandal grew into a full-bore crisis unraveling Richard Nixon's presidency, aides hatched a "game plan" to save him. The idea: Convince lawmakers 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 by the Nixon Presidential Library shed light on fateful moments of Nixon's second term, among them a peace deal with North Vietnam, sea changes in domestic and foreign policy and management of the Cold War.
Watergate was a gathering drumbeat through it all, eventually to consume his presidency, and the peril is palpable in memos that surface in the new collection.
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.
"Cox wanted to keep this an unending crisis of the body politic," Cole scribbled, laying out an argument for Nixon partisans that would be called talking points today.
"Cox threw down the gauntlet -- at a time when we don't need some 4th Branch of gov't telling P to go to hell."
In his shorthand, he called the president "P and Richardson "ELR." The memo was dated Oct. 21, 1973, the day after the notorious Saturday.
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.
They would be told Cox had a "pistol to the head of P -- he was extorted."
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."
He said of Richardson: "ELR wondered how he could be Cox's executioner."
Some 30,000 pages of documents were opened to the public at the National Archives in College Park, Md., and the Nixon library in Yorba Linda, Calif., part of a long unfolding release of papers and tapes from the Nixon years. The archives administers the library.
In addition, the library posted more than 150 hours of tape recordings online. The tapes cover January and February 1973, spanning Nixon's second inauguration, the peace deal with Hanoi and the trial and conviction of burglars whose break-in at Democratic headquarters at the Watergate complex precipitated the cover-up that wrecked Nixon's presidency. He resigned in August 1974 under threat of being forced out by Congress.
"Nixon had held off serious Watergate inquiries through the 1972 re-election, but he did not have a plan to circumvent them beginning in 1973," said Luke A. Nichter, a Nixon historian at Texas A&M University whose Web site www.nixontapes.org specializes in the tape recordings.
After the conviction of the burglars on Jan. 30, 1973, he said, "Watergate begins to take a small, but accelerating day-to-day role in policymaking at the White House, a role that reached crisis by April 1973."