WASHINGTON — The former deputy assistant to President Richard Nixon and the first member of the White House team to resign as the Watergate scandal unfolded told PJ Media on Saturday that he believes the IRS targeting of conservative groups is President Obama’s greatest current scandal.
But Dwight Chapin said he does not think any one of the scandals on its own is enough to bring down Obama’s presidency.
“It’s fascinating some of the similarities, you know; the talk about Nixon having an era of criminality or whatever it might be in the Nixon White House, and at the same time now we’re wondering about this aura of prejudice against the Tea Party people and so forth — and whether or not that rhetoric from the very top of our leadership led to the possible actions by the way of IRS agents. And it’s a very similar situation,” Chapin said in an interview at the National Archives, where he spoke at a screening of the upcoming CNN Films documentary Our Nixon.
The film features footage pulled from more than 500 Super 8 reels shot by home movie buffs Chapin, chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, and domestic affairs adviser John Ehrlichman — films that sat tucked away in the Archives after the Watergate investigation.
PJM ran through each of the Obama scandals with Chapin, who wasn’t yet 30 years old when he became President Nixon’s special assistant.
On Benghazi? “I guarantee you that on Benghazi had Richard Nixon been president he would have been down in that bomb shelter and working all night,” Chapin said.
On the seizing of AP phone records, he said “it’s not that they did it, it’s the size of the net.”
“They went after so much, and that’s versus if it were much more constricted it would have been more acceptable to the media and to the public,” said Chapin.
On the NSA wiretapping, Chapin cautiously said the jury is still out.
“I tend to favor whatever takes care of our national security and I do not have enough information to even make an intelligent, informed decision on that yet,” he said. “I think there’s so much more that we as the general public have to learn.”
Chapin called the IRS scandal “probably the most outrageous.”
“It’s entirely different than anything that Nixon was involved with with the IRS. Nobody went after anybody with the Nixon IRS. But in this one we know there was follow-through, we know that people — their programs were disrupted by the length of time it took to get approvals; some of them are still waiting for approvals from the IRS,” he said.
“It was an entirely different, much more devastating and much more corruptive of our elective process, in my opinion.”
And even though he quickly answered “no” when asked if any single scandal on its own was strong enough to take down the Obama White House, Chapin said so many scandals piling onto one another may have its own result.
“These things seem to be compounded by time — that’s what happened with Watergate,” he said. “This is the drip, drip, drip, drip. The biggest drip factor is probably the IRS thing.”
PJM also asked the onetime Nixon aide about Obama shuffling his second-term team to bring his confidantes into an even tighter circle around the Oval Office.
“I think that the drawing in of the loyalists is compounding the problem rather than solving the problem, that he needs to reach out, get some new thinking and to get broader thinking and to come up with more options and what he’s doing is constricting himself,” Chapin said. “And it’s not working.”
Referring to one part of the film showing the famous White House Easter egg roll, Chapin quipped in comments to the audience that “the head of the IRS was not there at that point” — in reference to former IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman telling a congressional committee that the annual event could have been a reason he was at the White House more than 150 times.
The Our Nixon screening Saturday, part of the AFI Docs Film Festival, precedes the film’s public debut on CNN Aug. 1. A DVD release will follow in December.
On a panel discussion moderated by CNN’s Jake Tapper after the National Archives premiere, Chapin said the film composed of the White House home movies, newsreel footage, and Nixon’s recordings of phone calls and meetings just represented a “little sliver” of those years.
“Whether that’s ‘our’ Nixon… is open to conjecture,” Chapin said on the panel that included the film’s director, Penny Lane.
“It doesn’t represent for me the whole presidency,” he continued, arguing it dismissed the contributions Nixon made to the country.
Nixon speechwriter Lee Huebner noted that “so often we want to make heroes or villains out of politicians.”
Lane said she was particularly interested in focusing on the Super 8 films of Chapin, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman to capture the “human toll” of Watergate.
The director, who was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” last year, vowed “we had honest to God zero agenda” in making the film, which was intended to be released for this year’s centennial of Nixon’s birth.
Chapin, though, disagreed with the filmmaker’s attempt to show two sides of Nixon through the archival footage.
“I really don’t know of two Nixons,” the former aide said. “…That does not represent to me the man that I knew.”
Chapin stepped down in 1973 after his college friend Donald Segretti was tied to the “dirty tricks” campaign. The following year, Chapin was convicted on charges that he lied to the grand jury and served nine months behind bars.
He described those years in the White House as fun with a presidential team that was constantly laughing about things — a spirit conveyed in their home movies included in Our Nixon.
As far as those secret audio recordings, “other presidents have the benefit of learning from Nixon,” Chapin said after the event. “They’re not gonna do it.”
“I liked it better today than the first time I saw it,” he added of the film. “Especially the music; ['Nixon Now'] was the best campaign song ever written.”