WASHINGTON – As his presidency unraveled, Richard Nixon was too "loaded" to take an urgent call during the Arab-Israeli war (search) and joked darkly about bombing Congress during impeachment hearings, according to transcripts of foreign policy chief Henry Kissinger's (search) phone calls.
With Watergate bearing down and resignation just months away, Nixon also pushed ideas that Kissinger feared could start a war, according to phone calls among more than 20,000 pages of transcripts released Wednesday by the National Archives (search).
Kissinger, who was Nixon's national security adviser and then secretary of state, guarded the privacy of the 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, crackling superpower tensions, Middle East conflict and Nixon's downfall.
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 (search), who had told him of the request from 10 Downing Street. "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 (search).
"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."
At the time, Kissinger was doubling as national security adviser and secretary of state, his dual titles testifying to his influence with Nixon.
But Nixon did not tell him everything. On Oct. 12, 1973, the day after Nixon's supposed night with the bottle, Kissinger knew Nixon was announcing a new vice president to replace Spiro Agnew (search), who had resigned. But Kissinger did not know whom Nixon had chosen.
On the phone with Haig, Kissinger said he could go along with Nelson Rockefeller -- "that gives me no pain" -- or anyone except former Texas Gov. John Connally -- "a no-no." Nixon picked Gerald Ford.
A window into detente, the transcripts also show the rapport Kissinger and Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin developed even in times of extreme tension and bitter public words.
The two men established a channel as early as 1969, often meeting without secretaries or interpreters.
Indeed, Kissinger was having lunch with Dobrynin when Democratic Sen. Hubert Humphrey called to complain about the Soviet's rearming Arabs faster than Washington was sending planes to Israel.
"How do we know the Russians aren't fooling us?" Humphrey demanded.
"If the Russians are fooling us, we know what we will have to do," Kissinger replied.
The records show his Soviet guest was in the dining room with him during this talk.
Although Kissinger's days were piled high with foreign crises, he found time for show biz stars, chatting with Frank Sinatra (search), Bob Hope (search), Warren Beatty (search) and other Hollywood figures. John Wayne (search) called to tell him he had an eye problem -- one iris was opening faster than the other.
"It's not just politics, but also in many respects about American culture," said Karl Weissenbach, who oversaw the opening of the records as director of the Nixon presidential materials staff at the Archives.
In 1973, Kissinger was helping Beatty pitch an idea to the Soviets and told him to send it in a letter to the Soviet Embassy, "and if you send me a copy, I can sort of keep an eye on it."
Records from the final months indicate the degree to which Nixon was distracted and his staff was glum.
"The president has approved this thing," Kissinger said of some unspecified proposal on Aug. 3, 1974, five days before Nixon's resignation. "Although I am not quite sure he knew what he was approving."
A few days later, another caller asked Kissinger if the president was "rational."
"It's pretty rough," Kissinger replied. He went on to say: "Some awful mistakes were made by the president but he doesn't deserve this."