Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Treating Voters Like Big Babies

Mulling my Presidents Day post on Richard Nixon's tapes, temperament, and legacy, historian Maarja Krusten wonders how a balanced assessment of the left's one-time bete noir would be received by today's conservatives:
If a liberal scholar writes a balanced book about Nixon, what are the chances that right-wing talkmeisters will give him credit, given the comical way that Ronald Reagan has been built up into a mythical figure by the present day GOP? To hear them praise him is to think that he never raised taxes, which he did. Of course, Reagan governed in an age where politicians still treated the American people as if they were grown up and tough enough and unselfish enough to listen to debate about revenue imbalances in terms of options that ranged from cutting spending to raising taxes. Yes, really! There was a time when voters weren’t treated as big babies. That this no longer is the case is the responsibility of both the speakers and listeners, but more so of listeners. Too many have bought into a “make me feel good” culture.


J.C. Marrero said...

What a classy even-handed post by Ms. Krusten. I share her implied fear that we caricature our presidents into facile categories. Indeed, it will take a fine historian to bring out both sides of RN's records. Nixon needs a Caro. Despite the "warts and all " presentation, LBJ has been rescued from relative obscurity by Mr. Caro's monumental series. It will take something of that scale and class to get RN his full historical hearing. I cannot recall who it was, but a former Nixon staffer wrote a fine first volume on Nixon twenty years or so ago which ended with the 1952 campaign, but never followed up. Perhaps, sales were not robust.

I once met Stephen Ambrose at a neighborhood fair in New Orleans and told him how much I had enjoyed his RN trilogy. He told me that that was the first time anyone had come up to him to praise that effort. He said he had put his heart in the Nixon volumes like nothing else he had written. He seemed sad at the tepid reaction. Our conversation took place shortly before Mr. Ambrose's death.

Fr. John said...

What a poignant story about Ambrose. He made a considerable effort to be fair, but Nixon's mentality tended to be all or nothing, and it rubbed off on those of us around him. The emotional needs and reputations of his family and factotums also played into how Nixon books and movies were received, and they still do.

I must say, though, that Roger Stone always insisted to Nixon that Ambrose had done a pretty good job.

Given the current condition of Nixon scholarship, it's fair to say that he's currently stuck with one of his two choices, namely nothing. I expect Nixon's Caro will be a next-generation phenomenon, as Vietnam-Watergate passions fade among elites.

And I can't stress enough the difficult issue of the 4,000-hour gorilla. The Nixon tapes would take 20 years for a writer to listen to and another 50 to transcribe.

Fr. John said...

I'm looking at that "20 years" and realizing that I have, shall we say, exaggerated. Here's the question for former NARA tapes specialist Maarja, if she checks in: If a person were to sit down on a Monday morning with a yellow legal pad to listen to and absorb the essential content of the Nixon tapes, assuming a normal work week, how long would it take?

MK said...

Thank you so much for your kind words, Mr. Marrero! I appreciate your assessment. I worked with Steve Ambrose when he came into NARA to research volume 3 of his Nixon biography. I told him how much I had enjoyed the earlier work.

As to how long it would take to work through all the tapes, that's hard to say, John. We had a performance based employee rating system in place at NARA so I used to keep track of my rate of production in doing Phase III review. Phase II had been describing the tapes. Using master reference reels of about an hour each, I reviewed anywhere from 1 to 6 reels in an 8-hour work day. Rarely the latter -- that had to have one of those few instances where a manually operated Cabinet Room tape recorder had been left running and you got vacuum cleaner noise for a while. John Powers of NARA mentions such "room noise" in his article. My typical rate of production would have been 2 reels a day for review, 3 on a really good day.

Review meant I was listening to the conversations in order to decide if any segments required statutory restriction for national security, privacy, etc. I first had to determine if the conversation was governmental (related to actual or potential use of executive power) or purely personal. If the latter, the segment was edited out for return to Nixon. (I sometimes did the physical cutting, done with razor blades and splicing tape back then, myself. That was listed separately in my production.)

During review, I would stop and start as needed, either to re-listen to segments or to walk off into the stacks to study aides' meeting notes or some of the "color reports" filed for some meetings to see how names were spelled. Or pull the annotated "news summary" to see what RN was reacting to (he sometimes wrote his reactions in the margins of the summaries.) In that pre-Internet age in the 1980s, I used to use the published "Facts on File" to look up news stories or check obituaries. (In assessing privacy, you always had to first determine if the person being discussed or doing the talking still was alive.) We also kept a card catalog on people mentioned.

So it was a bit different than listening just to get a sense of who Nixon was and how he handled issues. You were working to make up or down, release or restrict, decisions.

A researcher would stop to re-listen to portions, to look at related documents, or to take notes. If you project a five day work week, with no vacation, 2 one hour reels a day comes to 10 reels a week or 520 hours a year. That's 7 years to listen to all the tapes. However, not all 3,700 hours will end up being open. I believe there are some portions that will remain restricted for national security or personal privacy longer than others. And I think as we did, NARA is deleting the occasional vacuum cleaner noise under the H (non-historical) category. The law requires opening material "of general historical significance."

Of course, you could study NARA's tape subject logs to see which tapes you wanted to listen to. Some historians could pick and choose as they would be doing topical research. A biographer would do well to listen to a number of tapes from the various stations (Oval, EOB, WHT, Cabinet Room, Camp David) for for very long stretches, if not all, to get a sense of how Nixon's workdays played out over a period of time. I'd recommend first reading the published Haldeman Diaries and looking through the president's schedule files ("The Daily Diary") at NARA to get a sense of what was going on.

So, John, you'd use a yellow legal pad like the P, and not an electronic device? I use both, depending on what I'm researching!

MK said...

John, I tried to post a detailed response (within the limit allowed by Blogger) with a thank you to Mr. Marrero for his very kind words and an exlanation of tapes review production for you. It appeared briefly, then was wiped out. I suspect it is in your spam queue. I sent it to you via email in case it is not!

Fr. John said...

Restored! Sorry about that, MK.