Mr. Nixon always maintained that he didn't learn about the Ellsberg caper until the spring of 1973. If he'd known about it during the first days and weeks of the Watergate coverup, it would put his statements and actions in a much darker light.
Nixon critics have been understandably eager to find evidence that he knew in advance about either break-in as well as that he was was mindful of the Plumbers' illegal activity as the Watergate coverup got underway in June 1972. Rick Perlstein joined the counterfeit smoking gun club with 2008's Nixonland when he misconstrued the meaning of a secondary source to make the President look guilty of foreknowledge of an illegal burglary.
Kutler's sleight of hand occurs in his transcript of a July 19, 1972 conversation between the President and political aide Chuck Colson. In an editor's setup, Kutler wrote:
Colson is full of praise for his friend [E. Howard Hunt, arrested at the Watergate], knowing that he had broken into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office. "They weren't stealing anything,' Colson rationalized. 'They had broken and entered with an intent not to steal, [only] with an intent to obtain information."
President Nixon: You've got to say that's irrelevant in a criminal case.
Colson: It clearly will be irrelevant in the civil case, because it had nothing to do with the invasion of privacy. I'm not sure in a criminal case whether it is a sign that will be relevant or not. Of course, before a grand jury there's no relevance...
They weren't stealing anything. Really, they trespassed. They had broken and entered with an intent not to steal, with an intent to obtain information.
President Nixon: You've got to say that it's irrelevant in a criminal [unintelligible].
Colson: Clearly-- the civil case has to do with the invasion of privacy, for information. I'm not sure in the criminal case whether these assignments [for the Plumbers] will be criminal [Kutler has "relevant"; tape is unclear] or not. Of course, before a grand jury, those would be irrelevant. I wouldn't worry about it.
President Nixon: It's none of his [the prosecutor's] damn business.
Colson: He knows it has nothing to do with Watergate. [Pause] Magruder obviously would-- [12-second deletion for personal privacy]. They weren't stealing. Really, they trespassed.
This transcript of a small portion of a conversation reveals three things about Abuse of Power.
First, Kutler's transcripts are sloppy -- "it is a sign" instead of "these assignments," for instance. In the settlement we negotiated of his successful lawsuit against the National Archives to free up this cache of tapes, he won a few months of exclusive access to them. He brought in court reporters and rushed his book out, but he didn't have to do it that way. If he had taken his time and published accurate, complete transcripts, he might not be under fire today.
Second, it does appear that Kutler wanted his readers to conclude that when President Nixon was talking to Colson, he already knew about the illegal Fielding break-in in September 1971. One indication is his deletion of the reference to Jeb Magruder, who was centrally involved with the June 1972 break-in but had nothing to do with the Fielding adventure. Also questionable is Kutler's decision to skip a response by the President in order to elide two of Colson's comments.
Kutler himself lent credence to the appearance that he manipulated the record. When I first wrote about Abuse of Power in the March 1998 issue of the "American Spectator," a reporter from the Orange County Register, a seasoned pro named Ann Pepper, called Kutler and asked him what he thought about my charge that he was misleading readers about the timing of RN's knowledge of the Fielding job. Kutler couldn't have been more definitive in his own defense:
Richard Nixon knew, and the tapes I discuss in my book prove it. If (Taylor) wants to say Richard Nixon never said (expletive) or called the Jews (derogatory names), he's a liar. There is always a possibility for error, but I never changed the transcripts intentionally and I didn't do it at all as far as I know. At this point, to say that Richard Nixon didn't do these things is ludicrous.
Still, when the paperback edition of Abuse of Power came out, Kutler made a telling change in his setup of the July 19 conversation. It now reads,
"They weren't stealing anything," Colson rationalized the Watergate break-in [emphasis added by me; phrase added by Kutler]
[I]n a scarcely-noted review of my book in an obscure right-wing magazine, Taylor accused me of distorting and inventing tapes. For himself, he managed to find things in the tapes that just were not there, anxious as he was to fulfill Nixon’s constant refrain that the tapes would exonerate him.
All along, President Nixon's Watergate defense was based on national security, specifically his rock-ribbed belief that the Plumbers' legitimate work investigating Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg during wartime shouldn't be drawn into the investigation of the purely political Watergate break-in. Though he doesn't call special attention to them, Kutler's book contains many conversations from the second half of 1972 in which the President makes the national security vs. Watergate distinction and urges aides to own up about involvement in illegal political activity.
Fred Graboske and his team of tape reviewers at the Nixon Project at the National Archives deserve great credit for identifying tape segments that would help as well as hurt RN. Kutler deserves credit for including some of the helpful conversations in his book. Of course in another of Kutler's spin-zone editor's notes about another exculpatory conversation in which RN says, on October 16, 1972, that he doesn't want Dwight Chapin and others to lie about Watergate, Kutler just accuses President Nixon of speaking for the tape recorder to make himself look good later.
Since Sunday's article, it's been all about Kutler, his friends, and his detractors. Better when the tapes themselves speak. All hail young Luke Nichter at nixontapes.org, for going where no scholar or government agency has gone before in making these peerless records available to the public.