Bush team denies Rumsfeld made disparaging comments on Nixon tapes
AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- A Bush spokesman said Saturday that comments made by defense secretary-designee Donald Rumsfeld nearly 30 years ago with then-President Richard Nixon in no way indicated he agreed with Nixon's derogatory comments about African-Americans that were recorded on tape.
"This is little ado about nothing," said Ari Fleischer, spokesman for the Bush-Cheney transition and incoming White House press secretary.
A partial transcript of the conversation appears in Sunday's Chicago Tribune in a column by the paper's Washington bureau chief, Jim Warren.
Fleischer said the July 22, 1971, conversation lasted about an hour and focused on Rumsfeld's future in the Nixon administration. At the time, the 39-year-old Rumsfeld was counselor to the president.
Tape available at Archives, library
Fleischer said he listened Friday to the entire conversation at the Bush-Cheney transition headquarters. He said copies of the tapes are available through the National Archives and the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California.
Fleischer said the Tribune's version of the Nixon-Rumsfeld conversation was "substantially correct" but contained one factual error and one noteworthy omission.
In recounting the conversation, Fleischer said it was near the end that Nixon criticized Vice President Spiro Agnew for having made disparaging comments about blacks during a drinking session with reporters. Fleischer said Nixon was recounting to Rumsfeld what Agnew had said about American blacks and Africans. Fleischer also said Nixon at a later point recounted to Rumsfeld what some Southerners at the time were saying of black Americans.
In the Tribune's account, comments by Agnew that African blacks are smarter than American blacks prompt Nixon to say to Rumsfeld: "It doesn't help. It hurts with the blacks, and it doesn't help with the rednecks because the rednecks don't think any Negroes are any good."
"Yes," Rumsfeld says, according to the Tribune.
As for Agnew's contention to reporters that "black Americans aren't as good as black Africans," Nixon said, according to the newspaper, "Most of them are basically out of the trees ... Now, my point is, if we say that, they [Nixon opponents] say, 'Well, by God.' Well, ah, even the Southerners say, 'Well, our n------ is [unintelligible].' Hell, that's the way they talk!"
"That's right," Rumsfeld said.
"I can hear 'em," Nixon said.
"I know," Rumsfeld said, according to the newspaper.
"It's like when our black athletes, I mean the Olympics, are running against the other black athletes, the Southerner may not like the black but he's for that black athlete," Nixon said.
"That's right," Rumsfeld said, according to the Tribune. "Right?" Nixon asks.
"That's for sure," Rumsfeld said, according to the Tribune.
Fleischer disputed this last set of quotes. Fleischer said Rumsfeld did not say, "That's right" after Nixon completed his discussion of Southerners and black American athletes.
And, according to Fleischer, Nixon finished his comments about black athletes with a question to Rumsfeld: "Is that right?" whereupon Rumsfeld said, "That's for sure."
As for the omission, Fleischer said that, at a later point in the conversation, Rumsfeld asked Nixon to do a personal favor for a black member of Rumsfeld's staff.
"So the only racial comment that comes out of Rumsfeld's mouth is asking the president to help an African-American," Fleischer said.
Fleischer also said that, before Nixon began to talk about Agnew and blacks, Rumsfeld was "very expressive in the conversation."
But when the subject turned to Agnew and blacks, Fleischer said Rumsfeld's "voice tightens noticeably."
Was he agreeing with Nixon?
Fleischer said Rumsfeld's comments did not indicate he was agreeing with Nixon, but merely agreeing that Nixon was repeating what Agnew said and that Nixon was accurately reflecting how some Southerners viewed blacks in America at that time.
Fleischer also said that, as a candidate for Congress in 1962, Rumsfeld ran on a campaign platform supporting the pending Civil Rights Act, which became law in 1964. Fleischer said he did this despite the editorial opposition of the Chicago Tribune, the most influential newspaper in Illinois, Rumsfeld's home state.