After Richard Nixon’s death in April 1994, his family and the friends responsible for his estate dared to hope that a better place in history could be secured by the same fragile loops of coated plastic that had strangled his Presidency. Historians concurred that the Nixon White House tapes, when cross-referenced with the documentary record of the Nixon years, would offer extraordinary insights into the dynamics of Presidential decision-making. Nearly a half-century of partisan score-settling that has typified commentary about Mr. Nixon ever since the Alger Hiss case would finally give way to a flood of theses, dissertations, and biographies by students and scholars less possessed than their forebears by the ideological passions of the Cold War and Vietnam eras.
We did not think it would happen overnight. We assumed that working journalists would first cull the tapes for profanity and racial and ethnic references by the President and his aides, all of them uttered during private conversations. At least that assumption proved correct. Yet we trusted that the tapes would be eventually used to illuminate his deft policy-making in Vietnam, foreign affairs, and domestic policy and also to provide new perspectives on the scandal that destroyed his Presidency.
In retrospect, we proved to be especially naïve when it came to Watergate. Journalists and prosecutors had pushed hard for the release of the tapes during 1973-74 so we could see what they revealed about Watergate. What we never anticipated was that a generation later, journalists and scriptwriters would ignore the tapes when what they revealed about Watergate proved to be inconsistent with the conventional wisdom.
For instance, in July PBS broadcast a documentary featuring a charge by former campaign aide Jeb Stuart Magruder that President Nixon had personally approved the Watergate break-in in a phone call on March 30, 1972. Since the President was in the White House that day, such a conversation would have been caught on tape. The tapes show that no such conversation took place. Mr. Magruder’s statement was contradicted by other evidence as well, including his own conflicting statements over the years. In their rush to promote and amplify Mr. Magruder’s explosive charge, the producers revealed none of the contradictory evidence.
President Nixon would not have been surprised. Yet for a little while, we had dared hope it would be otherwise. The former President had long resisted the release of his tapes on the grounds that the National Archives had not fulfilled its court-mandated obligation to return to him tapes of personal and family conversations. Two weeks after his death, President Nixon’s son-in-law Edward Cox reached out to executors and attorneys for the Nixon estate. The accolades recently heaped on the late President by his eulogists and even by some in the media suggested that the era of harsh anti-Nixon commentary was over, Mr. Cox said, which meant that the expensive court battles should end as well. He said while the President had been right to fight to protect his and his family’s privacy, it was time for his executors to cut a deal.
Mr. Cox’s suggestion was a relief to many on the late President’s battle-scarred legal team as well as to those of us working on his staff and at his library. It was tantalizing to think that an era was dawning when discerning scholars would patiently comb the files and tapes and write balanced accounts of the Nixon years. In July 1995, we reached an agreement with the National Archives setting a timetable for opening the thousands of hours of tape recordings. Eight years later, over half the tapes have been opened to scholars at the Nixon Project in College Park, Maryland. The archivists themselves control the pace of the openings. Their painstaking work is sometimes slowed by new declassification rules and other factors. The Nixon estate has not formally objected to the opening of a single second of tape. A few years ago we even agreed to permit the archivists to sell copies of the tapes to the public earlier than the July 1995 agreement had stipulated.
Yet the reading room at College Park is not clogged with listeners. Officials say about five people a week come in to listen to the tapes. Even for dedicated students of Presidential decision-making, taped conversations are sometimes too much of a good thing. Listening to and transcribing tapes is expensive and laborious. All 4,000 hours of Nixon tapes would fill about 480 500-page volumes, and that’s without any annotations. Our best source for accurate, thoughtfully annotated transcripts of important taped conversations from Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon White Houses is the project underway at University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Still, it will take experts many years to complete transcripts of relatively few selected conversations.
Yet even when transcripts are available, journalists with an interest in Watergate tend to overlook them unless they bolster the conventional wisdom. Our first disappointment came in 1997 with press coverage of the first book containing extensive transcripts of the newly-released Watergate tapes, Abuse of Power by Stanley Kutler of the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Kutler published selected transcripts that actually confirm President Nixon’s own account of his actions during Watergate. In suggestive, sometimes misleading annotations, Dr. Kutler tried his best to explain away his transcripts’ exculpatory flavor. The transcripts themselves ultimately received little if any notice from reporters and reviewers in spite of the insights they offered into the state of mind of a President overseeing a war in Vietnam, peace negotiations in Paris, and a political campaign at home.
To paraphrase Sen. Howard Baker’s famous question, the keys to understanding Watergate are what the President thought and when he thought it. Though critics ridiculed his assertion that he acquiesced in a limit on the Watergate investigation because of national security, the tapes show he was telling the truth. Some of the burglars had also worked on a team, called the Plumbers, that had investigated Daniel Ellsberg after he stole top-secret Vietnam files, the Pentagon Papers, and gave them to the newspapers. Mr. Nixon was dismayed to learn in the spring of 1973 that the team had performed a 1971 break-in at the office of Dr. Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, Louis Fielding. But in June 1972, when the Watergate break-in occurred, he was still operating on the assumption that the Ellsberg investigation had been above board. He thought Dr. Ellsberg had put American fighting men at risk, and he considered his right to investigate him inviolable, as well as unrelated to Watergate. So he blithely approved his White House counsel John Dean’s plan to limit the investigation – only to revoke the order two weeks later after the FBI complained.
The tapes for the rest of 1972 reveal that he thought the burglars should be accountable for Watergate but not for investigating Ellsberg – exactly the distinction he said he had kept in his mind all along. Again and again he counseled his aides to avoid a Watergate cover-up. On June 30, he said, “I think the best thing to do is cut your losses in such things, get the damn thing out.” On July 19, he said, “You know, I’d like to see this thing work out, but I’ve been through these. The worst thing a guy can do, the worst thing – there are two things and each is bad. One is to lie and the other one is to cover up.” On September 18, he said, “The cover-up is what hurts you, not the issue. It’s the cover-up that hurts.” On October 16, he tells chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, “I just want to know whether [Appointments Secretary Dwight] Chapin or you guys were involved in Watergate….I don’t want anybody to lie about Watergate, do you know what I mean?…If we are, we’ve got to admit it, you know what I mean, because I have said it and I’m out on a limb.” As for his mentality about national security, when Haldeman reminds him on June 30 that the same crew had done earlier work for the White House, the President barks, “You mean in the Pentagon Papers? What the hell is the matter with that?”
Yet upon the publication of these transcripts, no paper carried the headline, “Tapes Show Nixon Pressed Aides To Avoid Cover-up.” Instead, Dr. Kutler claimed that the tapes showed that Mr. Nixon had actually known about the Fielding break-in at the time it occurred. In fact, the tapes Dr. Kutler himself transcribed and published strongly support Mr. Nixon’s contention that he had not learned about it until the spring of 1973. These dates are vitally important – perhaps the most important in the whole Watergate saga. If in June 1972, the President had known the Plumbers had an earlier break-in under their belt, then his acquiescence in Mr. Dean’s suggestion to limit the investigation indeed seems questionable. But if he was not yet aware of the Fielding job, the tapes make abundantly clear that he was making a careful distinction between Watergate, which he considered wrong and fair game for prosecutors, and the Plumbers’ Ellsberg work, which he considered his legitimate purview as a wartime commander-in-chief. Perhaps that’s why so many of his critics persist in claiming or implying that he “must have known about Fielding” and so had to order the Watergate cover-up in order to cover up the White House role in the earlier burglary as well.
Equally elusive has been any evidence that Mr. Nixon knew in advance about the June 1972 Watergate break-in — until Mr. Magruder’s star turn on the July 30 PBS documentary, Watergate Plus 30: Shadow of History. Mr. Magruder said that during a meeting in Key Biscayne, Florida with the late John Mitchell, then Mr. Nixon’s campaign manager, he had heard Mr. Nixon’s voice, coming over a telephone held by Mr. Mitchell and approving a plan by G. Gordon Liddy for a break-in at the Watergate. In making the charge, Mr. Magruder contradicted statements he had made in his 1974 memoir and in taped interviews with scholars in 1988 and 1990. When we asked the program’s publicist, Colby Kelly, about the discrepancy with the Magruder memoir, she wrote back that he had freely admitted the contradiction and “explained that it was written before he went to prison and he was hoping for a pardon.” Yet the interviews in which he also contradicted his new charge were given long after Mr. Nixon had lost his pardon power. Indeed fingering the boss would have enhanced his chances for a pardon from subsequent Presidents. Asked about the contradiction in July, Mr. Magruder didn’t mention pardons but said that he had never been asked a direct question about Mr. Nixon’s involvement, which is also untrue.
When a source appears this conflicted, changing his story and wrapping inconsistencies in more inconsistencies, responsible journalists back off. Mr. Magruder, a retired Presbyterian pastor, may still be seeking expiation. Such speculation increased in mid-August when he was arrested, booked, and jailed near his home in Columbus, Ohio after police said he was lying drunk on a sidewalk and refused an officer’s request to get up, a charge his attorney denies.
Mr. Magruder’s arrest did not attract the same nationwide publicity as his accusation against President Nixon, which the PBS program’s promoters released in advance to selected reporters to bolster viewership. It is hard to avoid the impression that PBS and the show’s London-based producer, Carlton Productions, did not want to try too hard to test their source’s shaky memory. They did not report, for instance, that John Mitchell’s friend and aide, Fred LaRue, had attended the March 30, 1972 meeting during which Mr. Magruder now says he heard the President’s order. Mr. LaRue says that the telephone call never took place. Ms. Kelly, the publicist, did not respond to two e-mails asking if producers had reached out to Mr. LaRue, whose number is in the phone book. Mr. LaRue says he was never contacted.
In response to a Nixon library statement noting that Mr. Magruder’s statement was also contradicted by the White House tapes, Ms. Kelly wrote, “I know the producer investigated this and felt that the issue was more complicated than your statement allows.” But when we asked her when the producer had consulted the White House records, she didn’t reply. National Archives records show that no one associated with PBS, Carlton, or the documentary had visited. In the script for the program, the producers failed to point out that White House tapes and logs make clear that the Mr. Nixon said nothing all day about the Key Biscayne meeting and participated in no telephone calls with Key Biscayne or anyone in the meeting.
A PBS spokesperson, Carrie Johnson, also declined to respond to questions about whether Mr. LaRue or the tapes had been consulted.
Washington Post Watergate reporter Bob Woodward likes to call Mr. Nixon’s tapes “the gift that keeps on giving.” But it’s unfortunate that when the tapes could help President Nixon, his critics withhold the gift of the benefit of the doubt. Ironically, the Post lent its name to the PBS/Carlton production. During Watergate, the Post said that it always insisted on two sources before printing a Watergate accusation. The rule must no longer apply. Offered a chance to double-check Mr. Magruder’s charge, the Post’s documentary team excused its source’s obvious confusion, overlooked Mr. LaRue, and ignored the tapes. Was pinning the momentous burglary on President Nixon just too hard to resist? Whatever PBS’s motives, its program demonstrates that the real story of Watergate, the scandal sparked by our nation’s argument with itself over Vietnam, remains to be told. Whenever the true inquirers are ready to role up their sleeves, the tapes are waiting.