FOR HISTORIANS, THIS WAS THE year of the tapes. A new history of the Cuban missile crisis, based on secretly recorded White House conversations, depicted John Kennedy as a thoughtful leader steering the nation through a potentially catastrophic nuclear confrontation. And at just about the same time, a new collection of Nixon tapes showed Tricky Dick as a vindictive schemer obsessed with getting even with his political enemies. Which got us wondering: what would have happened if the Soviets had installed missiles in Cuba on Richard Nixon's watch? Herewith, a fanciful reconstruction of the White House tapes from the great Cuban missile crisis of . . . 1972:
[Oct. 12: CIA Director Richard Helms is briefing the president in the Oval Office. He explains that Soviet missiles in Cuba could hit American cities as far away as Boston.]
Nixon: Well, if they're going to hit Boston, they should do it--
Haldeman: --before the election.
Haldeman: It's the one state the Democrats are gonna win--
Nixon: --and the Russians wipe it out! Serve Ellsberg right.
Haldeman: Try to do it when Teddy's home.
Ehrlichman: Have to be after the bars close.
Kissinger: Mr. President--
Nixon: I know, Henry, I know. We hold all of human civilization in our hands here. And the truth is, nobody gives more of a crap about civilization than I do. But that's not how it's going to read in the history books, because they're written by college professors. And they're against us. Always were. Still waiting for Bobby to come back and let them run the country. I don't mind. I don't care what they think of me. You can't be a hater in this office, Henry.
Kissinger: Mr. President, your acumen in this moment of crisis is an inspiration to the entire free world--
Nixon: And if the Russians hit Harvard, I want to make sure we audit every one of the bastards that survives.
Kissinger: Mr. President, your leadership illuminates like a beacon this dark chapter of human history. But suppose the Russians hit New York--
Nixon: Well, that's one thing, we wouldn't have The New York Times on our ass the whole second term.
Unidentified: [unintelligible] Jews.
Nixon: Right. It's all Democrat money over there. Wouldn't cost us a nickel. But, uh, I'd like to work something out with Brezhnev. Take certain cities off the table. Washington. Moscow. We pick six, he picks six. He'd crap in his pants for that deal, don't you think, Henry?
Kissinger: Mr. President, a thousand years from now your wisdom will live in--
Nixon: 'Cause, see, there's plenty of guys out there who've given us 25 or 50 grand but are good for a lot more, and we could say to them, we know who our friends are, and we'd hate for anything to happen to their cities.
Ehrlichman: Have them write their ZIP code on the check.
Nixon: I could give you some names. Guys in real estate, they'd be a natural.
[The meeting ends with no action being taken, but two days later the president brings the subject up again in a phone conversation with Kissinger.]
Nixon: I'm thinking, I ought to give a speech, tell the American people what we're up against. Don't want to look weak just before the election. I know the American people, Henry. A crisis brings out the best in them. This will be America's finest hour. Take everyone's mind off this Watergate crap for a while.
Kissinger: Mr. President, the speech you give will, I am sure, live on in the memory of free men everywhere long after Watergate is a ruin on the banks of the--
Nixon: Only, the next day, you'll pick up the Times and it'll say: NIXON ONCE TOOK A LEAK NEXT TO LIDDY, ALSO GIVES SPEECH. Did you see that crap they wrote about me this morning? Anthony Lewis--is that a Jewish name, Henry? Did you ever hear of a Jew named Anthony?
[Later the same day, a message arrives from Brezhnev and the president calls his advisers to the Oval Office.]
Nixon: He's playing hardball with us. Now, if it comes down to it, what are the consequences if we lose New York? Let's think about--how are people gonna react in the rest of the country? Most of 'em aren't even gonna notice, except that there's nothing on TV because the networks have all been blown up. But the media won't let up on us. They'll go right for our throats. I don't want to spend the next four years being blamed every time some kid gets born with 14 fingers. Plays right into the Democrats' hands. You have to look beyond the election. We're gonna carry New York, unless the Russians drop one on Chappaqua. But if the s.o.b.s take out Dallas, it could cost us Texas.
Haldeman: So we deal. What's his price?
Nixon: I don't know yet, but whatever it is--
Colson: --it has to be cash.
Nixon: We can get the cash.
Dean: So long as it can't be traced to us.
Haldeman: Right. We can't let a word of this into the media. Because those bastards will twist it and twist it--
Nixon: --and make us look like crooks.